No such thing as a free lunch

15 June 2018
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“Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing,” said Albert Einstein, and he knew a thing or two.

Take the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook debacle. We can poke people we’ve never met, post 2,000 selfies and watch pandas sneeze all day for nothing, but it turns out we pay for it with, oh, small things, such as the future of our democracy. Nothing major.

But have we learnt from it? Have we heck.

We’re still gagging for a freebie, however dodgy and, frankly, fraudulent it turns out to be.

I’ll admit that I have, in my past, been particularly partial to a juicy freebie wherever I saw one. My motto: “If it’s free, grab an armful.”

I’ve blagged my way into lunches, launches and weekend getaways. I even got a free breast massage session (yes, that really is a thing) by reviewing it for a national newspaper.

Even now, I’m keen on free experiences. For example, I swap homes with people abroad to get (nearly) free holidays.

But that’s what I would call a genuine freebie – essentially swapping goods or services so there’s a give with the take. A type of bartering. You scratch my back, I’ll unclog your guttering. That kind of transaction.

“Our ‘free’ bank accounts come with hidden charges”

But the freebies we’re enticed with now, particularly online, are darker, sneakier and altogether far more expensive than the old-fashioned ones.

Most internet businesses work on the ‘freemium’ model. According to online encyclopedia Wikipedia (which should know, as it operates this method itself), freemium is “a pricing strategy by which a product or service (typically a digital offering or an application such as software, media, games or web services) is provided free of charge, but money (premium) is charged for additional features, services, or virtual goods”.

Sound familiar?

It should do, because it’s what our high street banks have already been doing for decades. And that’s ended so well hasn’t it? Our ‘free’ bank accounts come with hidden charges and aggressive marketing strategies to cross-sell to us. We (and the UK economy) are the ones who pay in the end.

Then you’ve got the free delivery we expect with every order and then wonder why the courier has tipped our new 24-piece dining set into next door’s bins.

We want the free financial ‘advice’ we used to have, even though it often made us lose big-time on poor pensions and investments.

We complain about adverts on free radio stations and online music services but begrudge the BBC £150.50 a year for advertless 24-hour local, national and international TV, radio and online output 365 days of the year.

But then we jump at the chance of getting a fabulous and FREE Parker pen, because it’s so worth having in return for grossly overpriced and underperforming life insurance.

Can you see the time when you decide to actually pay for information that you could get for free? “Marjory,” you’d say to your wife, even though her name is Glenda, “I’m going to put my hand in my pocket and pay £1 a week to make sure I get some actual facts when I read articles in my chosen online paper, as opposed to the made-up news we get from Trumpton.”

Not many of us are doing it. I’m just as guilty. It has taken me a whole year to get around to ‘donating’ a fiver a month to support journalism in my favourite daily newspaper… and I’m a journalist. You’d think I’d see the value.

Admittedly there are some freebies that really are free. Free stuff is all around us. Free museums, local council events, free books at libraries and free parks and gardens. We need to use ’em or we’ll lose ’em.

Another freebie is PickMyPostcode.com, a free competition site where you just put your email address and postcode in and then win up to £800 if yours is the winning code that day. It’s the traffic generated by us checking the site each day that pays for the prizes.

But for most things in life, we have to pay. The question is, do we want to pay with money or with our future? Just a small question. Nothing major. Now go and look at videos of puppies playing with babies for free to make yourself feel better.

JASMINE BIRTLES is a financial journalist and founder of MoneyMagpie.com. Email her at columnists@moneywise.co.uk