HOW MUCH?! The free stuff you’ll have to pay for, sooner or later.

by Paul Michael on 28 November 2007 24 comments

I flew to New York for business over the weekend. As I looked at the list of $8 pay-per-view movies and $5 snacks available, my mind went back in time to a few years ago, when free beers flowed, meals were complimentary and in-flight movies were standard. Then I looked around at other free services that have gone bye-bye, including free air for your tires, free doggie bones at the butchers, extra cheese on pizzas, school supplies, national parks and the good old 411 operator assistance, and I wondered…what else will soon cost you?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, or even a correct one. It’s just speculation, based on the trends I have noticed and free services that have already started to disappear in certain states or other countries.

1: Shopping Carts.
In England, decades ago now, grocery stores began to charge for carts. You would get your coin back though, it was simply intended as a way to ensure you returned you cart to the store or the cart bay in the parking lot. However, many airports (including DIA in my state) now charge a mainly non-refundable fee for luggage carts and I see the same thing happening in grocery stores. Would it really bother you too much to put 25 cents into a cart to ease your burden? Probably not. But the stores would make millions from this little venture. There would be a small initial investment to retro-fit the carts with the money-collecting devices, but they’d soon make that money back. After that, it’s all pure profit.

2: Tax on Internet purchases.
Right now you only pay for tax on a purchase that originates in your state, but I can see that changing very soon. There’s just too much money to be made, the Internet is always going to be cheaper regardless of tax, and most states need the money more than Quasimodo needs back surgery. Look for taxes to be paid on everything in the next few years. It’s going to happen; it’s just a case of when.

3: Condiments.
Last year, I found myself in a fast-food burger chain. I’m not proud of it but I was hungry and short of cash. Anyway, when I asked for honey mustard dipping sauce I was charged 25 cents. Yep. 25 cents for a small container of MSG and sugar. I challenged this and they let me have it free, but most people aren’t as annoying as I am. It wasn’t the money; it was the principle of the thing. But I can soon see every fast food chain, and even the cheaper restaurants, charging extra for your ketchup, mustard and BBQ sauce.

4: Using cups, plates and cutlery.
Don’t think it could happen? Think again. A friend in the UK recently told me that he saw a small charge on his bill for cutlery usage. It was explained to him that this small charge went towards excellent cleaning services and polishing for the cutlery! It will no doubt take a while to filter into every eatery, but next time you ask for a paper cup or plastic knife and fork at a fast food chain, don’t be surprised if a charge comes with your request.

5: Answering the call of nature.
Many restrooms already carry a small fee, it’s where the term “to spend a penny” comes from. But I see this becoming standard across the US as companies and states struggle to keep the bathrooms in tip-top condition on their own dime. Don’t worry though, in this electronic age you won’t need to carry a bunch of loose change. You’ll just have to swipe your card to get into the bathroom. But $1 per “donation” will soon add up. (I wonder if it will be tax-deductible on business trips?)

6: Drink refills.
This is already beginning to phase out. My local Subway charges 25 cents for refills, and many other smaller chains and family-owned restaurants have a sign saying “no free refills.” It’s ironic, because as a UK native I’ve never had free refills. I spent my whole life savoring my one soda, ensuring it would last through the whole meal. Now, having been in the states, I’m slurping through an average of two when I eat out. Looks like I’ll have to get used to paying for that refill again.

7: Roads.
I sometimes use a toll-road to get to work, usually when I’m late for a meeting or just want to avoid the rush hour traffic. But at $2.50 each way, it can really add up during the working week. Now, I know we already technically pay for our roads with taxes. But with budgets for bridge and road repair already stretched way beyond their limits, I can see roads requiring more and more money from you in the form of extra taxation on gasoline and other travel-related purchases, or conversions to toll-roads in some areas.

8: Clean Air.
Am I entering into the realm of the ridiculous? Well, ask someone 40 years ago if they would pay more for a gallon of water than they would for a gallon of gas and they’d laugh in your face. But bottled water is now a billion-dollar business. With pollution still an issue in most states, I can see a time coming when you’d pay extra to breathe purified air, or scented air, or nutrient-fortified air. Ok, ok, probably not likely anytime soon. But Soylent Green’s dirty, dry, pollution-filled air may be surrounding you sooner than you think. How much would you then pay to fill your lungs with fresh, crisp air? For an interesting take on this, check out a play by Ben Elton called Gasping. It tackles the very subject of privatised air.

Gasping

Ben Elton Plays: Gasping

9: Network TV shows.
So, technically most of us already pay a little for network TV via our cable or satellite company. But, if you’re really old fashioned you can pick up the broadcast on a pair of rabbit ears for nothing. I don’t expect that network TV as a whole will become a pay-per-view service like HBO or Starz, but here’s what I do predict. In time, certain shows will become pay-per-view, just like boxing matches or other sports events. Shows like Survivor and Lost get huge ratings, and I have already heard rumblings in the industry of adding a price to these shows. Nothing major, maybe $2 per episode (something they’ve been testing with iTunes) but enough to rake in a whole bunch of extra dough. And just because you’re paying, don’t think it will be ad free.

10: Library rentals.
This one I don’t mind so much because I’ll happily support my library. As I’ve said in the past, libraries are a great resource for DVDs and CDs as well as books. But sadly, libraries are lacking adequate funding and I am sure prices will soon be added to certain higher-end rentals, like new releases and multi-media. It may not be much, perhaps 25 cents for each item, but it would make a whole lot of extra cash for the poor library services. Expect to see this one really soon, it’s already happened in many parts of London.

If you can think of other “free” services or products that will soon go bye-bye, I’d love to hear about them. Now, go and enjoy your free ketchup packets and complimentary shopping carts while you still can.

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rstlne's picture
rstlne

Restaurants charge for drink refills at their own peril. There are already a number of restaurants I stopped going to because they decided they could try to charge for refills. Even if I do go, I may opt to not buy a drink at all. I usually have drinking water in the car.

Guest's picture
Rebecca

#8. They do have canned oxygen: http://www.failedsuccess.com/index.php?/weblog/comments/canned_oxygen_fl...

#10. Our library charges $1 per item on new release movies, books, and audio books. SOME books, I should say. They have a couple free ones, but if they're checked out and you want to read it; you must pay. Same town as Philip Brewer. woot! =D

Guest's picture
Tony

Pay toilets used to be very common many years ago, but in the 1970s laws were passed in many states to ban them. I don't think any politician in any state would be willing to put much effort into reversing that law.

Guest's picture
Cameron

Technically, a tax on things purchased over the Internet would be unconstitutional (interstate trade and all that). So, even if they did pass a tax (I do think that some states have tried), it would likely get shot down in court. However, technically (and legally), there is tax on all of those goods. Look for an item on your state income tax returns that asks about goods purchased out of state for which no tax was paid (Vermont has this, and I'm sure a lot of other states do also). Vermont's returns have had this for a long time (well before the Internet was common place, or possibly even around) because we're right next to tax-free New Hampshire and a lot of people go over the state line to buy just about everything.

I don't think anyone actually pays this tax, and in Vermont I've never heard of them going after someone for not paying, but I guess legally they could.

Guest's picture
Guest

unfortunately, i kind of have to agree with 3, 4, 6, 10. as for the food related items, i can't tell you how many times i've seen people in a fast food restaurant grab handfuls of napkins or 10 ketchups to share between 1 or 2 people. there's a weird psychology there, where people suddenly feel the need to have 30 napkins to eat a burger and fries or 8 sugar packets for a tea, simply because they are free. i know i will upset many frugal people on this site because, let's face it, most of the stuff ends up in their purses/ pockets to take home to use. people think of this as a frugal trick "oh, i can always use these. i can take some for my desk at work. keep them in the glove compartment for trips." or whatever.(we all know someone, or are that someone, that when you go to his or her home to eat, the napkins say mcdonalds or they give you salt and pepper in a packet to season your food) well, they weren't free, the payment was just delayed. and the time is now.

also fast food restaurants ordering guidelines are very limiting. honey mustard is an excellent example- they are only allowed to order as much honey mustard or barbeque sauce in appropriate proportion to items like chicken fingers or whatever, so if they give honeymustard to ever tom, dick, and harry that likes the condiment on his fries or his big mac or in his shake or whatever, they will quickly run out for the actual item it goes with. and believe me, i've worked in fast food. you would think that crack is in those little packets, becuase people get irate when they run out. it's just not cool from the restaurant's side of things to have 3 boxes of chicken fingers in the freeze, but only half a box of sauce left, and two weeks before you are allowed to order again. even 10 years ago i went to wendy's and ordered a small fry and asked for ranch dressing. i was charged 25 cents, which i thought was fair considering they order salad dressing in direct proportion to their salads. it's just enough that it's not negligible, and makes you stop to think "is it really that serious, or can i just do without," but not so much that it's obnoxious.

free refills contribute to the mindless eating problem to we have in this country. if you have a sixteen ounce cup of soda or tea at a fast food place why would you need seconds or thirds? could you imagine free refills on wine? i only have two glasses max when i am out(not even filled to the top), and i manage to make it work, making them last throughout the meal. i do have one drink related pet peeve though, and that's when i order water and they automatically bring me bottled.

Guest's picture
Guest

About anyone who has worked in a restaurant probably has the knowledge that the pop companies charge practically nothing for the pop syrup, at least for the big-chain restaurants - the cost is in the cups. Charging for refills would be be pure profit for them. (Dining in with washable cups? pretty much already is...).
With how watered down with ice most places make it those 16 ounces (as another poster said) isn't really that much, and once you've already paid for the cup, I'd be upset at paying for paying for a refill.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Rebecca:

Happily, the libraries here have a great on-line system to reserve books. Find the book you want in their catalog, put a hold on it. They'll put you in line for the next copy (or grab a copy off the shelf, even if it's at another library). Once they have it waiting for you, they'll send you a piece of email.

I see an interesting division among these things:

Some are companies taking advantage of a situation where you have no other choices (such as on an airplane). People sometimes feel bitter and ill-used by this, but accept it as the way things are.

Others are just nickle-and-diming you for stuff that used to be lumped in. This may become more common for cheap places, but I think it will stay as a division between "upscale" and "downmarket" places, so I don't think it will become universal. There will always be places trying to have an upscale image resisting the trend to charge for each packet of ketchup. (There's also a cost factor here. It can easily cost as much to keep track of, charge for, and make change for this sort of thing as it costs to provide the items for free.)

The interesting ones, I think, are the ones (such as the library) where companies are charging you to save time and trouble and the ones where they're charging for things that traditionally were free. Customers generally don't mind these, as long as there's still a free option. There's no problem with the library having some rental books, as long as they also have some copies available for traditional borrowing, just like there's no problem with selling bottled water as long as there's still a water tap. Likewise, no one would object to a pay toilet, as long as there's a free toilet as well--even if there's a line at the free toilet and it's got air-driers instead of paper towels. Customers tend to get outraged, though, when traditionally free stuff is no longer free.

Guest's picture

I think you're looking at it all wrong. Free isn't necessarily good. You may think you were getting it for free before, but you weren't -- you were paying for it all along in the form of higher prices, whether its the free snack on the air plane or the free drink refills. The idea of it being "free" was merely a form of marketing aimed at influencing your mental accounting. Companies stop offering things for free when people shop primarily based on cost and low-cost competitors are available.

I remember in the 70s and 80s when gas prices shot up and a bunch of new, independent competitors appeared. At first, the gasoline companies tried desperately to convince people that their gas was somehow 'special' (some companies still do, showing engine deposits and stuff). In general, however, at that time the public came accept that gasoline was gasoline and aggressively shopped for the cheapest gas. All the gas companies began looking for free things they could stop and began charging extra -- like $0.03/gallon -- for using a credit card. When gas prices fell (after price controls were lifted and supply got sorted out), I think they've mostly quit this practice because gas became so cheap that most people didn't bother shopping at one station versus another based on price.

In the end, by making stuff "not free" it means that you're actually paying for what you want. Otherwise, by giving free stuff away to some people, the company charging higher prices in order to subsidize the activity. Recently, I saw a grocery stores that charges customers $0.03 for each grocery bag they need. If your grocery store isn't charging you for bags, then you're paying for all the bags the store gives away, even if you personally bring reusable bags to the store.

Guest's picture
also British

Well I hope you're wrong about the shopping cart fees, refills, cutlery (for crying out loud!)...

I'm also from the UK originally, and love the spirit of free enterprise here in the USA. Business competition is kept in check by fledgling companies trying to get their ventures off the ground, and I'll definitely choose a free buggy, glass of water, napkins, etc., over the complacent business with an established clientele suddenly charging for stupid stuff.

Thinking about it though, if the buggies are not free, but the hand-baskets are, and I live close to the grocery store, I don't have a problem just buying what I can carry in the basket, rather than heaping too much into a shopping cart.

Julie Rains's picture

I remember when there were entry fees to bathroom stalls (usually ten cents or a quarter) though they stood beside free stalls. I also remember when ATMs were free; now, there are charges for cancelled checks -- which used to be free until fairly recently.

My grocery store gives paper bags and plastic bags away for free (though I do remember my mom shopping at a place -- Two Guys? years ago and you had to bring your own bags); but the store has a place for recycling plastic bags and gives you 4 cents for bringing back paper bags. Last week, I picked up a canvas-like, reusable grocery bag -- I paid a $1 but will get greenpoints every time I use it. I like the way they are collaborating with customers to save money and reduce waste!

Guest's picture
jess

the comment about upscale places is wrong. Cava (a restaurant in santa barbara) charges full price for each 8 oz soda (ice filled) you want! Ice tea has refills though. while i was very impressed with the food, the full price for sodas made me mad enough to deter me from eating there...when entrees easily cost $30-$50 a plate, the soda refills should be FREE.

Guest's picture

Several years ago, while on vacation in London, my friend and I had dinner an "Italian" restaurant in the theatre district. The waiter brought us a basket of bread while we looked at our menus.

At the end of the meal, we saw we'd been charged for the bread on our check. "But we didn't ask for the bread!" I protested. To which the waiter pointed out the fine print on the menu stating that you'd be charged for the bread if you ate any of it.

So what do they do with the bread that isn't eaten? Give it to someone else or throw it away? What a sneaky scam and also a waste of bread (rather than wise bread?) if they do discard it.

Of course, the restaurants in the states that bring bread automatically (as well as water and any other automatic offering) are wasting as well since they'll throw away anything that doesn't get eaten. So I guess I wish restaurants would make it a policy to ask diners if they want bread or water or whatever before bringing it.

I agree with the commenter who talked about people grabbing way more than they need when things are free. I have no problem paying for things if I know what the cost will be up front. Charging a few cents for condiments or soda or even bread makes people stop to consider whether they really need the item or not and hopefully cuts down on waste.

Guest's picture
Heidi

I agree with the food service comments - fewer things are free these days. And don't get me starting on parking.

But the inverse is true for some things. For example, 10 years ago it was customary to pay your bank a monthly fee just because you had an account there, and you could forget about recieving interest on your DDA balances. Now (at least in the US), every bank offers some form of free checking, with benefits like debit cards and online billpay - and these free accounts often pay interest.

Guest's picture
Jon A

Here in New Zealand, there are charges for many things we got for free in the US:

1. Condiments at take out/away restaurants. Everything carries an extra charge, from ketchup (or tomato sauce) to wasabi at the sushi place.

2. Bags at the grocery store. This is just beginning here, and not all stores do it yet, because of the push to eliminate plastic bags from the waste stream. On the flipside, reusable bags are easily found.

3. The kiddie carts at the grocery store. If the little ones want to ride in the cart with the plastic car, it'll cost you $2 at the checkout.

4. Best Sellers at the library. Here in Chch, we pay $5 per week or $10 per fortnight if we want to borrow a best seller. CD's and DVD's also carry a $1 fee, which isn't bad considering that DVD rentals run between $5 and $8 per night for most movies.

5. Soda refills. I guess NZ is like the UK in that respect. Many places don't even have fountains; they sell bottles of soda or water.

On the other hand, I don't have to pay to go to public places like parks. Oh, and the luggage carts at the airports were free too ... which is a nice welcome to the country!

Guest's picture
Sue_Doc

Plastic bags at our local IKEA (I'm not sure about nationwide) are now 5 cents each. I know it's nothing compared to what I spend on items, but it makes me cranky because I already have to bag my own items and assemble them myself. I never remember to bring my own bag so I just make sure to limit what I buy to what I can stuff in my purse and arms and balance on the flat IKEA cart, which I guess will eventually cost a few bucks. I guess I shouldn't complain, since it's actually making me spend *less* money.

Guest's picture
Gina

I'm an American living in Germany and I've had to get used to some differences that I've grown to respect and consider sensible. We have to use a coin to "rent" a shopping cart in most stores. We get our coin back, so there's no actual charge, but carts are always returned to their corrals and there are no loose carts rolling about in the parking lots, causing damage to cars or people. At McDonald's, we get one ketchup packet per complete meal. If we want more or order only french fries, we have to pay 11-14 cents for the packet (almost twice the size of a U.S. packet). Free refills are VERY uncommon (only available at Subway) and most soda drinks are already only half the size found in America. Additionally, non-alcoholic drinks in a restaurant can easily cost more than your meal. It helps keep me from unthinkingly gulping down scads of empty calories. I honestly wouldn't change a thing about it except to have restaurants provide free water.

Guest's picture
LoriAnn

1. I really don't see the "mega-marts" charging for shopping carts considering how much more stuff people buy when they push around a big, ole buggy. I find myself throwing in things mindlessly when I have a cart, but considering my purchases more wisely if I have an armload to carry. Since I now have a 1 year old in tow most of the time, I almost always use a cart.

2. Louisiana wants people to list internet purchases on their income tax form....like most people are going to keep up with that!

6. My husband swears that they are going to start charging me for my iced water too! He cringes because I will order water with lemon when we are out, but who needs all that sugar!

Guest's picture
Ginny

Right about the grocery stores providing free carts so you'll buy more. At some of the big stores it's hard to track down a handbasket, because they want you to use a Big cart that will give you room to throw in one more impulse buy. If they start charging for carts, I'll be carrying my groceries in my hands and will never buy anything on impulse.

Guest's picture
Guest

I work at a steakhouse in Wyoming and our boss recently implemented a strange change to the menu. If somene asks for A1 or Heinz 57 or any condiment except for ketchup, we fill a one ounce plastic cup and charge them fifty cents for it. She had just gotten fed up with the people who dump an entire 12 ounce bottle on their plate and then proceed to delicately dip each bite into the wasted lake of sauce.

Lemons for water are also now a charge due to those lovely people who make lemondaide at their table* - I'm frugal as well but come on, asking for a cup of lemons and a handful of sugar packets so to avoid the $2 drink charge? Classy. So do I support the lemon charge.

The styrofoam takeout boxes will incur a charge as well. There is nothing more annoying than having someone ask for "the biggest box you have" .... for a quarter of a baked potato and two bites of steak, and then they decide they don't want it anyways. Not only did we just waste a box, styrofoam is not recycled here nor does our supplier offer decent cardboard alternatives.

Resturants are a place where people don't seem to care about waste or manners. I've seen people empty the entire lot of sugar packets into their purse, share refill drinks (which we don't mind, except we hate refilling the cup every 2 minutes), and on the extreme end, slip bottles of sauce, salt and pepper shakers and anything not nailed down into their pockets.

* We do have a couple that come in and he orders a steak sandwhich with extra lettuce and tomatoes (free), a side of mayo (.50),and bacon for his sandwhich (.50). Then she makes little BLT's out of the it all with the free rolls which she washes down with her "free" lemonaide. These are the people who increase costs for everyone.

Guest's picture
Guest

Back in the early to mid 90s in a Chicago suburb, one of the big grocery stores charged a quarter for cart rental. I'm not sure if they still do it today. While I was caught off guard (and without a quarter) the first time, I wasn't the least bit annoyed because I got my quarter back a little later. I even saw kids returing stray carts just to get the money.

Guest's picture
Guest

I worked in a small pizza place. The owner would say over and over to us...
I would give away pizza if people would buy pop.

Guest's picture
Brian

Having living in Germany for 12 years, I can already attest to some of these things already happening such as numbers 2, 3, 5, and 6. There is one thing though, I will NOT pay for the use of a shopping cart. I don't mind putting $.25 or even $.50 to borrow a cart so long as I get my money back, but I will not shop at a store that does not offer free carts.

As for the airports, I just scour the airport until I find a free cart. I believe that most people are of the opinion that, if they already paid $3 for the cart, they aren't going to bother returning it for a measly $.50.

Guest's picture
Celia

This reminds me of an ad I just saw on Amazon.com for their new digital book hardware. It's a little book-sized piece of electronics that costs $400 initial investment. THEN, each book costs $10 to download. I'm sorry? It's in digital format and it's not costing you any paper or distribution costs, and you're still charging $10?

I like the idea of an electronic reader, but... what will happen to used books? Could people re-sell their electronic copy for $5? That would be fair.

Guest's picture
Paul

Hey everyone, just wanted to point out that there are still some things you can get for free – like directory assistance using 1-800-Free411. Just listen to a short ad (most are around 15 seconds), and then you have access to both business and residential listings. The information is accurate, because they use the same real-time data as the phone companies. Just give it a try – there are no hidden fees or charges. If you’re using a cell phone, you may get charged for your minutes, but that’s all. Considering that most cell carriers are now charging up to $2 per 411 call, the savings could really add up!