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18 (supposedly) free things

You've been told that you never have to pay for these things, but let's examine the bottom line.

By Karen Datko Aug 13, 2010 9:04AM

This guest post comes from Len Penzo at Len Penzo dot Com.


Who doesn't love a free lunch? I know I've never turned one down.


If you believe everything you read on the Internet (as well you should), then there are a lot of products and services out there you should never pay for.


I know because I read about it here. And here. Oh, and here too.


The problem is, "never" is such a strong word, isn't it?


Compounding the matter, "free" is also a bit of a dicey term. And, while I've never turned down a free lunch, I also realize that, in reality, there's no such thing as a free, er, lunch.


So, with that in mind, here is my take on some of the products and services we've been told we should never ever pay a single penny for (post continues after video):


  • The Conventional Wisdom: Why pay a pet store or a breeder big bucks when you can go to a shelter and adopt one? For free!
  • Free Lunch Meter: That dog don't hunt.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: Most shelters require you to pay pet adoption fees to cover their cost of doing business.
  • The Bottom Line: Pet adoption can still be up to two orders of magnitude cheaper than buying a pet from a reputable breeder.

Cell phones:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: Everybody knows you can get a free cell phone by signing a contract with your carrier.
  • Free Lunch Meter: Zero (bars).
  • (Reality) Check, Please: Many companies that offer plans that include "free" cell phones charge a monthly premium over contracts that don't.
  • The Bottom Line: Assuming you get a plan with a $10 monthly premium over the life of a two-year contract, you'll end up paying $240 for that "free" phone.


  • The Conventional Wisdom: You can get all the exercise you need without ponying up for expensive gym memberships.
  • Free Lunch Meter: Atlas shrugged.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: That depends on a lot of factors, including if you have the room at home for equipment and/or whether you can take advantage of the outdoors all year long.
  • The Bottom Line: Good arguments on both sides. It really depends on the type of training you prefer to keep yourself in shape.


  • The Conventional Wisdom: On a cost-per-gallon basis, tap water is essentially free. You can also collect and store rainwater.
  • Free Lunch Meter: Well, it makes sense to me.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: It really depends on where you live. In my town I pay less than 1 cent for every 20 gallons of tap water I use. In other words -- it's free. Then again, if you live in the middle of the Sahara, you're going to pay.
  • The Bottom Line: If you don't like the taste of your local tap water, buy a filter and put it on your tap. It's still much cheaper than buying the bottled stuff.


  • The Conventional Wisdom: Newspapers publish the same content in their paper as they do on the Internet.
  • Free Lunch Meter: So this is news?
  • (Reality) Check, Please: While some newspapers charge for some or all of their online content, many do not.
  • The Bottom Line: If you're concerned about missing out on the coupons, you can save money by subscribing only to the Sunday edition.
Credit reports:
  • The Conventional Wisdom: Don't pay for an annual credit report when there is a website that offers them for free. (You big dummy.)
  • Free Lunch Meter: 800  (On a scale from 300 to 850.)
  • (Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
  • The Bottom Line: You can get a free update every four months by rotating your report requests among the three major reporting agencies.

Home selling (real-estate commissions):

Doula services:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: You can save money by using an unlicensed doula-in-training. For free! (Or at least for a small donation.)
  • Free Lunch Meter: What is a doula?
  • (Reality) Check, Please: From what I can tell, a doula is basically a midwife.
  • The Bottom Line: You're on your own on this one, folks. But when it comes to matters of life or death, I'd refuse to use an unlicensed anything.

Baby formula:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: Why use baby formula when you can get breast milk for free?
  • Free Lunch Meter: It's an uplifting thought, to be sure.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: Some women are unable or unwilling to breastfeed.
  • The Bottom Line: In case you forgot, Captain Obvious reminds everyone that until Congress figures out a way to tax it, breast milk is still free.


  • The Conventional Wisdom: By teaching your baby something called elimination communication, you can avoid paying for diapers.
  • Free Lunch Meter: Um, OK.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: Are there any doulas out there who could give us the real poop on this? (Just make sure you have a license, OK?)
  • The Bottom Line: Sounds great in theory, but woe to the parent who has a baby who happens to be a slow learner. And white carpet.


  • The Conventional Wisdom: If you live relatively close to a library you can always check out your favorite books there.
  • Free Lunch Meter: Word up.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: Unless your hometown library is the Library of Congress, there's no guarantee you'll be able to find what you're looking for.
  • The Bottom Line: Assuming you can find what you're looking for -- and don't like to own your own books -- borrowing them for free is infinitely cheaper than buying them (that is, assuming you can avoid paying late fees).

Credit-counseling services:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: The first stop for anybody looking for credit-counseling services should be the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
  • Free Lunch Meter: That's definitely good advice.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
  • The Bottom Line: The NFCC provides free financial advice at more than 850 offices located across the United States.

Tax preparation fees:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: Most taxpayers qualify for free e-filling and/or have taxes simple enough to do themselves.
  • Free Lunch Meter: It depends. You'll need to audit your particular situation.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: In 2010, 70% of all taxpayers were eligible to use the IRS Free File option.
  • The Bottom Line: For people with complicated tax returns, the cost of using a tax professional can often be offset by the additional savings they uncover.

Banking services:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: Why would anybody ever pay for a checking account when there are plenty of places offering free ones?
  • Free Lunch Meter: Take it to the bank.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
  • The Bottom Line: Just be sure that you maintain any minimum balance requirements to avoid penalties.

Credit cards:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: Unless you're completely clueless, there is no reason to ever get a credit card that charges an annual fee.
  • Free Lunch Meter: Sorry, but that charge has been declined.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: Some rewards cards charge an annual fee in exchange for extended rewards and special benefits.
  • The Bottom Line: Believe it or not, some people who pay for cards with annual fees actually end up better off than if they had a fee-free card.

Microsoft Office:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: Why pay for Microsoft Office when there is the open source alternative, OpenOffice?
  • Free Lunch Meter: An unexpected error has occurred. (OK.)
  • (Reality) Check, Please: Yeah, it sounds great in theory but, as this head-to-head comparison shows, it really depends on a lot of variables.
  • The Bottom Line: While OpenOffice is free, it does lack some features that certain users may find essential.

Moving boxes:

  • The Conventional Wisdom: You can almost always pick up free cardboard boxes on Craigslist, and at many other places.
  • Free Lunch Meter: Sometimes you really can get a free lunch.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
  • The Bottom Line: For those who want to put in a little effort, there will always be a ready supply of cardboard boxes to tap.


  • The Conventional Wisdom: Why pay for shipping when there are websites like out there?
  • Free Lunch Meter: Doesn't deserve a complete stamp of approval.
  • (Reality) Check, Please: There are just too many places to count that refuse to give discounts on shipping.
  • The Bottom Line: Now if they can only figure out a way to get rid of those mysterious handling charges., anyone?

More from Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:

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