On Not Buying Things, Even When they are Free

I don’t think I’m alone here in being someone who likes free stuff, and I’m surprisingly good at finding it.

I’ll walk a few blocks out of my way for a buy one get one free drink special, download an app for a free turmeric latte at the bougie new Australian coffee chain, or, most recently, stop by Dunkin Donuts before work to get a free Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich. I also love a good stack of giveaway books on someone’s stoop, free day at the Botanical Gardens, and I’ve been known to drive through a snowstorm for some gently used free furniture before it goes in the trash on the 1st of the month.

Behold the spoils of a good day on Freecycle!

But as I reflect on changes that have happened as my FI journey continues, I’ve noticed that I actually just want less stuff, no matter how free it is.

Earlier in this process, when tightening the purse strings was still something new and a bit more difficult, I’d gone down the couponing rabbit holes and did a deep dive into the “Deals” section of sites like Doctor of Credit. Since not getting coffee or food out as much still was a change, having a free treat here and there was satisfying and gave me the feeling that I was getting away with something. I’d do some market research or write a review to get a gift card to a random place like IHOP that I would never normally go, just so I could “spend money” recklessly and not worry about it. I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I even had the 7/11 app, just because I liked knowing that in a pinch on a road trip I’d have enough points for a couple of free coffees at a gas station, but I also would get free weird plasticky food from them sometimes because for some reason it was “free” with the coffee. And I would eat them and I would feel gross.

My free stuff obsession became a joke and my coworker started offloading the Applebee’s gift cards his grandma sent him a few times a year on me because, well, Applebee’s kinda sucks and he had no desire to go there. But he knew I’d use it, and I found myself there drinking syrupy cocktails and eating fried pockets of…whatever they put in there…or grading papers while eating lunch by myself just because I felt like I had to cash it in.

I like gamifying things, and I am pretty competitive, even when I’m competing against myself. I had many long nights in my youth trying to beat the previous night’s Tetris score, endless turns at online off brand Scrabble trying to come up with the word with the highest points, and more recently played Doge until my eyes hurt. So it really wasn’t a stretch to see how much less money I could spend every month or how many purchases I could get covered by some new app, or measure my ability to whittle a few dollars out of my budget by logging every dollar not spent in the Digit app (when it was still free, of course).

After a while, though, I felt like I was losing in the free stuff game.

The first time I went to Applebee’s it was a novelty because I hadn’t ever been to one and, hey, their happy hour lasted from 12pm to 11pm so what could go wrong? But after that, it was kind of a bore. I felt pressured to spend $25 bucks on beers I don’t really like and food that makes me feel unhealthy. After the novelty wore off, I couldn’t really convince anyone to go with me, no matter how many Blue Moons they could drink even though they don’t like Blue Moon.

The apps where I got free stuff started feeling a lot like clutter, mentally and physically, and I got tired of keeping track of which deals I’d used and hadn’t. I didn’t feel good about the empty carbs I consumed and the junk food stopped feeling like a treat. And even when it wasn’t money out of my pocket I felt kind of guilty walking past mom and pop shops, taking my business to faceless restaurant chains. I started wondering if I was saving money with all my $5 Amazon gift cards when it could encourage $20 purchases.

I also became more conscious of the waste I was creating.

Living in a big city it seems there is no shortage of new “Lunch Apps” that let you subscribe to get discounts on restaurants near work, and there also seems to be no shortage of venture capital funding free food if you refer your friends. These have a certain amount of utility, especially if you have a Player 2 and similarly freakishly frugal friends who are willing to try out some new restaurants for next to nothing.

However, I also found that the free finds are rarely the sustainable choice. I really liked a service called MealPal for a while, until I realized that it was impossible to request less packaging or no plastic bag, because when you order from a third party app you have no contact with the restaurant itself. A few times I found food delivery services that were free or cheap to try, but that someone was driving a car to my office to deliver a $7 salad that only filled me up for about 5 minutes. I also found that I was eating more meat, more sugar, and more greasy food than I normally would because I had no control over how things were prepared and couldn’t really make any special requests like “dressing on the side,” and when I could I would just have more and more little plastic containers that I don’t trust always get recycled. (Not that you shouldn’t try, but the best thing to do is not get them at all.)

No one should drive across town to deliver 5 calories worth of stuff wrapped in 2 layers of plastic.

Another problem was that I found myself getting things that came up on Freecyle “in case I needed it,” and then finding myself putting the same item up for grabs a month later when I got tired of stepping over it at my house. (I’m looking at you, super cute and totally not functional apothecary cabinet!)

So, have I stopped seeking out free stuff? Not at all, but I do go about it much more consciously now. I don’t go on Freecycle anymore to see if I need something, but instead to see if I can find the thing I need. I don’t download apps to get free shit that I wouldn’t consume for any other reason. I try not to get “rewarded” with Amazon gift cards because they encourage purchases I might not normally make and I don’t really like supporting Amazon, and I really try not to get food delivery at all, because it is so hard to justify the environmental expense.

What I do still do is collect the apps and points that pay out in fancy juices and lattes that I really do like to indulge in occasionally, and where I can use a reusable container. I am willing to wait to find most things on Freecycle, but I don’t go shopping there (as much!) anymore. I take the $5 in gift card cash I’m sometimes offered by Raise to buy something I’ll actually use, like my guilty pleasure breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin Donuts, or Starbucks coffee when I am pressed for time or better choices. Since I’d actually be spending money there anyway once in a while, I am actually saving money if I can get these things for free.

Otherwise, these things are cluttering up my phone, my house, and my brain.

Overall, I have noticed that, in general, since being on this financial path, I am ok with less. I have been so lucky to have had so many great dinners, saw so much great music, and have access to so many experiences, that I am content with thinking about why I want things before I pay for them and judicious about how often and for what or whom I blow some cash. But I don’t feel deprived of much by living frugally and I don’t need to manufacture opportunities to indulge because I’m totally capable of indulging whenever I want to. I’m just making a choice not to on most days.

I have also found that what indulging looks like has changed. I mean, sure, I loved every single one of the 12 hours I spent at Spa Castle with one of my BFFs when we celebrated this summer, but an indulgence can also mean making a special recipe or buying someone a gift or spending time in what might not be the most productive way.

I am a sucker for a tiny pepper and a spicy chili and a really complicated recipe.

This is all to say that pursuing FI has encouraged me to consume less and simplify my life out of an authentic desire for that simplicity, rather than a feeling that I have to save or I can’t spend money. I still have lots of financial goals to meet, and that drives a lot of my choices, but I think that different phases of FI come with different feelings about money and stuff. I’m happy to be in a phase where I’m trimming the fat not just in my budget but also in my basement and my junk drawers and my brain.

I’m also a sucker for a baby squash.

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