The Ethics of Free: Is it Wrong to Get Free Stuff?

Photo: antwerpenR

I love to get free stuff. Don't you?

The problem with free is that it doesn't mean something is really free. It just means that someone else has paid for the product or service instead of you.

Recently, I was surfing around the Wise Bread archives, and I came across a post on how to get movie rentals for free. Well, that sounds interesting, right? As I read through the comments, I found that some readers were really appreciative for the tip while others thought taking advantage of the coupon codes was either cheap, an assault on capitalism, or downright immoral.

Then the same discussion came up again. While dealing with the topic of student loan debt forgiveness for people who work for non-profit organizations, it was clear that some individuals are concerned that free to you means I get to pay (through tax dollars) for that item — in this case, student loans.

Should we take advantage of free offers?

In order to answer that question, we would first need to evaluate why some products are offered free.

  1. A free item might be free because the cost is included in your purchase price. So, for example, when you buy French fries at McDonald's, you can get ketchup free because the cost is already included in the price of the fries. These free items are not intended to replace your personal supply of ketchup. Thus, it would be inappropriate to get ketchup at McDonald's if you are not a paying customer.
  2. A free item might be an incentive to try to get you to try and ultimately purchase a paid product. When you sign up for a new service, they might give you a 'free trial.' Many of the products I've purchased had an initial free trial. In each of these cases, they want you to enjoy the free product because if you like it, you'll remain a paying customer. In these cases, the free offer is limited in length or functionality in order to give you a taste of the product.
  3. A product might be free as a part of a rewards or thank you promotion. Some restaurants give you a dessert or meal for free on your birthday. On other occasions, if you buy four nights, you get one free. In each of these cases, free is a reward for extra spending or simply a way to say thank you.
  4. A free item might mean that someone else has paid the cost of the product. At times, I get free books to preview. That just means the publisher has covered the cost of the book. When we receive gifts, they are free to us, but the price was paid by another.

A cautionary note: When you are dealing with a company, it is best to assume that something is free in order to generate revenue. There still is no such thing as a free lunch.

A few weeks ago, my wife was told about a company that is offering free cloth diapers to missionaries. Since we are missionaries who use cloth diapers, my wife and I had several discussions about the ethics of getting free diapers.

Here's how our conversations went:

Wife: Did you know we can get free cloth diapers?

Me: Do we need free diapers?

The next hour of conversation revolved around the question, "Is it right to get free diapers when you are able to afford to buy them?"

The issues that seemed to complicate the discussion is that when we bought our home school curriculum last month, we applied for a 20 percent discount offered to missionaries. That, so I said, was different than getting free diapers from a company. But, is it? Should you apply for a discount when you really don't need it? We both wondered: What is the difference between getting something free and getting something at a discount?

Ethical approaches to free

Essentially, this discussion rests on the question of responsibility.

  • Is the company who sets the terms and conditions responsible for changing their policies if there is an obvious loophole?
  • Is the individual responsible for recognizing that his conduct obviously isn't what the organization or person intended by the promotion?

At times I've used both approaches. When I went to graduate school and college, I applied for as many scholarships as possible. I never asked if I could afford it. I just thought if someone was giving away something and I was eligible, I would accept. On other occasions, I've decided that I have had my reasonable access to a free product, and even though I could keep getting free services, it would only be right to pay for the product.

Personally, I've found the Golden Rule to be a helpful guide — do to others what you would want done to you.

Is the person who offers something free ultimately responsible for making the right criteria, or is the person who applies for something free responsible?

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Guest's picture

Thanks for this article! I have often wondered about this myself. To me, when a company is giving me something free in order to generate revenue... sign me up! The problem arises when people take advantage of the loopholes, for instance by creating multiple email adresses in order to receive multiples of the free item. I don't think it is ethical to do this.
The other concern I have with freebies is the absolutely HUGE increase in junk mail and packaging that I end up with. A sample may be free to me, but if I look at it from an environmentally friendly standpoint the costs far outweigh the benefit.
When I first learned about freebies I signed up for literally everything I could get. Now, after seeing the sheer ammount of trash it produces I try to stop and think if I really need it, or if I'm just getting it because it's free. More often than not, I don't bother with it.

Guest's picture

There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting free products/services. Maybe the free diapers are a way for that company to serve God. Claiming you are a missionary when you are not to get free diapers is wrong. Certainly BOGO offers are to generate more revenue but that doesn't mean you can't participate. Think about all the stores (warehouse, grocery stores) that give away free food. They want you to then buy some but you are not required it is just a form of advertising.

Guest's picture

I frequently pass on the many free offers I find on the internet. Clearly, the companies offering free items are hoping for business. If I know in advance that I won't buy from that company, then it seems to me that I am simply taking advantage of them by taking them up on their offer of a free item.

As a small business owner, I understand that free to the customer really means costly to the business owner. It's not really free at all. By taking their free offer when I know that I won't patronize their business, I'm really aiding in their demise rather than helping them to succeed. I just don't feel good about that.

I think everyone should at some time run a small business. It would change how many people view 'free' items.

Guest's picture

I've heard of instances in which people have applied for financial aid for graduate school, and beforehand, spent thousands of dollars of their savings on ANYTHING just to appear that they had less money so they could be eligible to receive more aid. That is clearly unethical and it really sickens me when someone does that -- someone I know of casually mentioned considering doing this despite each of her parents pulling in close to or more than six figures (although this is purely conjecture based on her parents' occupations and their amount of work experience). This is a fundamental flaw of the graduate school need-based financial aid process, because many people applying for graduate school are old enough to be deemed "independent" and don't have to report how much money their parents have.

Philip Brewer's picture

You left out an important category of free stuff: Things that are free because they're not owned (either they were never owned, or they've been abandoned).

Two important subcategories:

1) Things gathered from the wild (dandelion greens, wild grapes, berries, edible mushrooms).

2) Things that other people are throwing away (stuff scavenged from dumpsters, things offered on freecycle).

Both of those have issues. You'd better know your mushrooms before you eat any that you gather. Some places have laws against scavenging from dumpsters. But the fact is, in any rich country there are vast amounts of perfectly good stuff on its way to landfills because no one wants it.

Some people try to match stuff that the owner has no use for with people who need it—salvage shops, food pantries, etc. They sometimes charge a small amount for the service of matching the item with a new owner, but you're not really paying for the item.

Guest's picture

Most of these examples apply to businesses. I have no problem if a company offers a freebie, and will take it even though I won't buy anything else from them. If these promotions were not profitable, the company would quickly withdraw it. Coupons are out there because companies know they make more money if they offer them.

I recently pondered an ethical dilemma when applying for government funding. Our state has a program that offers rebates if you upgrade the energy efficiency of your home. This is handy since I just bought a house knowing it needed more attic insulation. Unfortunately the building inspector missed that the furnace had a cracked heat exchanger, and it is essentially a dead furnace. I can also get a rebate for replacing this furnace. The rebate covers up to 50% of the cost of the improvements up to a certain dollar ceiling.

In the process of doing research I learned that our state also has a program for low income families, which might do most of this work free, and maybe even pay for fuel. I "qualify" since my husband and I make less than 200% of the poverty level. Hey, I pay taxes, my parents pay taxes, why not?

But here's the thing. I specifically chose a low paying career (childcare) because it is a field I love. I chose this job even though banks in my area were looking to hire tellers for much higher pay. I chose to marry a man who doesn't make much money. I chose to have a baby before I bought this house.... he is five months old. Before I bought this house, my parents had allowed us to live with them room and board free, while we saved money... and the truth is we didn't save as much as we could have. Further, I had reasons to believe the furnace had been abused, and should have insisted it be better inspected. Everything about my current situation is the result of my choosing. I have enough money for the furnace, and possibly enough for the needed insulation. But if I couldn't afford the insulation it could wait until next year. Why should the tax payers pay my way when I am in a situation I chose?

I will take advantage of the rebates for energy improvements because that is offered to the general population and is not income-based. It is offered because the government has decided it is in the best interest of the public if our nation is less dependent on foreign oil. I will not take advantage of the low-income energy program, even though I technically qualify, because it is a needs-based program and implies I am "poor," even though my situation is entirely the result of my own choices.

Andrea Karim's picture

Thank you for sharing that perspective. That is definitely food for thought.

Guest's picture
Kathy J

The article The Ethics of Free: Is it Wrong to Get Free Stuff? did not include the question; do we know an agency or a family that we could donate the free items to who would benefit from them.

Guest's picture

There is nothing ethically wrong with getting free stuff IF you are "doing it in the spirit in which it was intended". In other words, take "the few extra ketchup and napkins" that you "pulled out too much of" at the restaurant WHILE you were there buying their product. But don't walk in off the street, use their restroom (i.e. water and electricity) and then on your way out SteaL a bunch of napkins, straws, ketchup or whatever. Same with free promo items businesses give to "hope to build sales". If you are "halfway open" that is, you MIGHT could be persuaded to buy, sure, go ahead and get the freebie. Don't feel bad about it even if you never buy from them. But, I believe, most people "have a conscience" that will tell them "are my motives good or bad". If your conscience is nagging at you, you should listen. As a Presbyterian, our guide is MODERATION. Be reasonable. You will know if you are taking advantage and ultimately costing everybody AND the environment "too much". There is no free lunch. Somebody always pays. So make your decisions responsibly, as best you can.

Guest's picture
just mike

Do unto others... it's that simple. If it's free and you are not knowingly taking advantage of someone or some group, then go for it. If you feel even somewhat bad about it, then simply don't do it. You can only act on what you know, and the more you know the more you are responsible for knowing. Have a great day.

Guest's picture

Well I didn't think of this word much until I read this. I don't know if I will be able to enjoy free perks anymore knowing that I might be enjoying it over the expense of someone else.

Guest's picture

But we all get free stuff everyday. Think about it...

We buy something from the store and we get it delivered for free. However, free delivery isn't free really because it will cost the store money to pay for staff, transport, fuel, etc but it is dressed up as free to encourage us to buy. It isn't wrong, it is just an incentive that helps both buyers and sellers.

Andrea Karim's picture

That is already addressed in the article. The issue Craig is talking about isn't free stuff where the "free" cost is essentially paid for by the cost of the product purchase, but cases in which people might technically qualify for discounts or freebies, but don't feel quite right about claiming them because they could technically afford the items anyway.

Guest's picture

where did you find the scholarships to apply for? I am not looking to get something for free, but looking to get legitimate sites to apply to. Thanks for your help!

Guest's picture

I don't think it's wrong to get free stuff. Taking advantage of freebies has helped my budget and allowed me to pass on stuff to family, friends and food pantries. Companies like giving away free products, hoping to entice people to get hooked on the product and buy it in the future.

Guest's picture

In my opinion, it is dangerous to get used to free things. One loses value of things. Valuable things do cost and someone pays for them. On the other hand 'free cheese is only in a mousetrap'. I suppose getting something free is good if there is mutual respect and understanding between giver and taker. Both of them have to be on the same level. They should change these roles from time to time. If one only gives and another only takes, relationship between the two becomes unhealthy.
Thanks for the article.

Guest's picture

In the discussion of free things just for being a missionary, a point has been overlooked. The companies that offer free products to missionaries, undoubtedly, make known to potential customers that they give free product to missionaries. I imagine 99% of those customers understand that the cost for those is supported by the price they pay. Many of them chose to purchase from company A over company B because they know part of what they pay helps missionaries. Now, if missionaries don't take advantage of the freebe, isn't it the paying customer who is let down? They have paid a premium to help missionaries, yet the help never reaches the missionaries, because they have turned it down.

You see, by accepting the free cloth diapers, you are benefitting yourself, the company, AND the paying customer's social concience.

If you DON'T accept the free diapers, the company still gets good PR for simply offering them. The paying customer THINKS s/he is helping missionaries, but really isn't. And you then pay for the diapers.

I think that should clear up any ethics questions regarding free things for missionaries.

Guest's picture
Seo Guru

There is nothing getting a free stuff that is offered to you by way of purchasing an item or a service. The cost of the free stuff was already computed and in way can cause harm to the business or to anyone else. But getting a free stuff that you really don’t need gives you the option of giving it to somebody else. Might as well get the free stuff and you yourself give it to someone in need.

Guest's picture

Taking something that is available for general consumption but not for the intended purpose is stealing. Toilet paper at the bank is free unless you want to take the roll home. Napkins are free at McDonalds unless you want to stock your home pantry with them for free. Eating a free sample is great as long as one does not take the whole pack the samples are being served from. I think the INTENDED PURPOSE clause should answer the question in most cases. Am I planning on buying something that I taste a sample of at the grocery store? Usuall no, but if I MIGHT buy it if it surprises me and is good, I am happy to sample it. Would it be okay to hit the grocery store sample section instead of lunch. Probably not, because the INTENDED PURPOSE of the offer is not food but sample. Will I test drive a Mustang convertible that I cannot afford. Perhaps, because I just might like it enough to try to get one. Will I test drive a Farrari? Nope.

Then again, some people make a living based on the number of people they get to try something, regardless of whether or not they will make a purchase. Time shares make amazing offers with little to no connection between the vast majority of those who participate in the offer and those who make a purchase of the offer. If only those who had decided ahead of time to make a purchase participated in these offers, the sales people would be out of a job, and those potential but unsuspecting clients might miss out on an actual good deal.

I think the solution does not get much better than an understanding of INTENDED PURPOSE of free.

Guest's picture
Chris Eaker

I agree with the "intended purpose" idea. I've seen people take the FREE water at a restaurant, add FREE sugar and juice from FREE lemons, and make their own lemonade when the restaurant normally charges for lemonade. They said they don't have a problem with it, since all three of the ingredients are free. I say it is dishonest because the intent of giving away free water, sugar, and lemons is not for you to make your own lemonade.