Thursday, March 20, 2008

Free is Such a Lovely (and Dangerous) Word

In the current issue of "Money" magazine (Yes, I subscribe. I paid $30 for a three-year subscription on Ebay.) economist Dan Ariely explains why we're all suckers for "free" offers. I'd provide a link to the article, but there isn't one. That's too bad, because we are all at risk for the faulty thinking that leads us to overvalue "free" in almost any context.

Ariely gives several examples, but the funniest was one Halloween when he handed out two Hershey kisses to each trick-or-treater, then offered either a free fun-size Snickers bar or a full-size Snickers bar for the price of one Hershey kiss. No one "bought" the full-size bar, in spite of the fact that it was clearly the better financial and gustatory choice.

I confess that I, too, am a sucker for free stuff. But it pays to read the offers carefully and figure out the actual cost of the "free" items. If it leads me to pay more in the long run, it's not so "free" after all.

On the other hand, I am unapologetic in my love for free samples--a whole other catagory of "free." So long as the sample is something my family can really use and there are absolutely no costs (shipping, subscriptions that have to be cancelled, etc.), count me in. I'm especially fond of Wal-Mart's freebies. Just today, I sent away for lotion and laundry detergent samples, both of which will get good use.

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