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It Isn’t Really For Free

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We use the words for free a lot in our society. Probably more than we should.

Restaurants give out free refills. Online stores offer free shipping. Churches offer free counseling. Free samples. Free delivery. Interest free for 12 months! There’s a free toy in every box!

Phew.

And I could also mention the roads we drive on, the schools we send our kids to, and all the other services that our local, state and federal governments provide to us for free.

But then I’d be in for it.

Many of you would quickly and vigorously explain to me that people do pay for those things. Taxes and fees are collected that are spent on those so-called free services.

I would humbly agree with you, but then I’d gently explain that that’s true of everything we think of as being for free.

Nothing is provided without a cost. Somebody always pays.

I think we fool ourselves into believing it’s not us. When our government provides something for free, we tell ourselves that they’re taxing those who can afford it. When a business does it, we might convince ourselves that they’re absorbing those costs as an incentive to get us to buy more. When a church gives things away for free…I don’t know, maybe we think God’s paying for it?

Still, the uncomfortable truths are that, when it comes to free stuff:

  1. We’re paying for more of it than we’d like to believe.
  2. In the rare case that we are able to get something without any cost, we’ve forced somebody else to pay. (Some of us don’t find that thought as uncomfortable, but we should. More on that in a second.)

That first point is really self-evident when you stop to think about it. Consider your local furniture store for a second. Doesn’t it seem like they’re having some sort of sale every weekend? The truth is that, even on sale, furniture has one of the highest margins in retail. The delivery costs are easily covered by the margin, and so is the cost of “No Interest for 12 Months”

(And, of course, if you fail to make a payment, or pay off on time, all that interest gets applied retroactively – which is a big bonus for the store).

The furniture stores aren’t alone. Almost every area where a business offers a free product or service, you will discover a tremendous margin involved, and you’re always the one who’ll be paying that initial cost.

I could go on similarly regarding free government services. I won’t, because I think this thought should suffice: If our government taxes those people that can afford it so they can provide services, but all of us pay taxes, who’s getting those services for free?

Enough of that, let’s get to the second point.

I know the word force can make people defensive, so let me get a disclaimer out of the way.

I’m not talking about charity. I’m not saying that people can’t be generous with their resources, and I’m not saying that we should never accept a gift when it’s offered. I’m certainly not saying that people who give are always doing so out of duty or that people who receive should feel guilty. None of that would be my point.

The second point above is really addressing entitlement.

Have you ever been in a restaurant that doesn’t provide free drink refills? They’re rare these days, but there are a few still out there. Maybe they don’t mark their drinks up as high, or they’ve decided to pour each drink from a fresh can or bottle. Whatever the reason, if you’re used to free refills, not getting one can irritate the crap out of you.

I mean, this is America. We get free refills here, dammit.

And if you raise a big enough stink, you might just force them to give you one.

They’ll pay the cost of one soda to make a customer happy. So what? That’s their choice.

It is, but it’s not about them. It’s about us.

Back when restaurants first started offering free drink refills, it was a big deal. Right or wrong, we were grateful for their apparent generosity. Today, though, that tune has changed. How long did that take? Maybe five years, if that.

A thing offered “for free” for too long quickly loses it’s value. The real cost of what’s been given becomes invisible to us. As a result, we begin to abuse that thing or service, and we start to believe that it’s our right to do so. Suddenly, we’re entitled to it.

(No, I’m not just talking about drink refills anymore.)

(No, I’m not going to name names.)

It gets worse. We’ve begun to develop an almost Pavlovian response to the word free. So, we might not even bother to learn the cost of a service, however generously offered, before we involuntarily start devaluing it in our minds.

For example, churches and ministries seldom want cost to be a barrier for people who need counseling. Several churches I know, and one I work with, offer financial counseling for free. One pastor I know provides marriage counseling and performs ceremonies without establishing a cost. You can guess how each of those cases can turn out, and more often than they should.

So, free stuff often isn’t, and too much free stuff is a bad thing. What can you do? How do you respond to a it in a healthy way? You should:

  1. Identify the actual cost of what’s being offered for free.
  2. Ask yourself (and them) how they can give that away. Who’s paying for it?
  3. Figure out what the value of what’s being offered is to you. How much do you gain by accepting it?
  4. Check your gratitude.

Question: Do you think churches should stop offering counseling for free? Even if they eventually waive the costs, should they be up front about what is necessary to provide these benefits?

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February 27, 2012 - Posted by | Christ and Church, Politics and Other Insects, Work and Money | , , , , ,

4 Comments

  1. […] few weeks back I blogged about how deceiving it is when something is offered “for free.” This week, Dan Miller posted about why he doesn’t ever, and will never, offer […]

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