I couldn’t pass it up, and I mean that literally. Someone had dumped it right in the middle of my shortcut through the back of a neighborhood shopping center. I had two choices: Hit it head-on or stop to investigate.

Closer examination revealed a unique piece of furniture. It was a child-sized, solid wood, combination five-drawer-dresser-wardrobe. I dragged it to the side of the road and found it to be fairly intact. It would need a little work, but it had definite possibilities. Even in its needy condition, it was FREE!

Had this item appeared in the classified ads or at a garage sale with a price tag, would I have been so eager? Not likely. It wasn’t on my list of needs, or even my wants. But FREE? That’s different. I’ll take it!

Haven’t we always believed that FREE means we get something for nothing? That, if it’s free, it’s good? That there’s no obligation, no strings attached? Well, we shouldn’t believe that.

Rarely does anything really come for FREE. Before you accept anything that seems to be FREE, you should look for the hidden price tag.

Price Tag: A Purchase. FREE with purchase only represents something free to you if you would have made the purchase anyway. If the freebie is what closed the sale, you didn’t get anything for free at all. You only paid less than you would have otherwise.

Price Tag: Privacy. The concept is you get something free, like e-mail or Internet access, in exchange for your private information, which the giver turns around and sells for a profit. Or, you get a chance to win a car in exchange for filling out a form that similarly collects your private information. So, what’s wrong with that? Nothing, provided you are fully aware of what’s going on and are willing to pay the price.

Price Tag: Maintenance. If you’ve ever been taken in by a FREE puppy, you know about this price tag. Even pets  from the animal shelter are anything but free. First, there are medical exams and shots, neutering and licensing. It can cost $100 or more to rescue a dog or cat from the pound. Considering all the years that follow, a free pet is not free.

Price Tag: Repair. Remember my FREE dresser-wardrobe? Turns out it wasn’t free after all. I spent about $20 on new drawer pulls, $16 on stain and hours on repairs. I still need to do something about the wardrobe door. I suppose by the time it’s presentable, I will have spent at least $50, not counting my time. All things considered, it is still a fabulous bargain and a piece that I adore because it has a story. But it was anything but free.

The next time FREE grabs you and starts to reel you in, stop and pay attention. Think this through. Don’t fall for it before you take a close look at the real price tag. If you find it’s too expensive, walk away. On the other hand, if it’s something reasonable, you might just want to load it up and drive it home.

Does a FREE item grab your attention? I’m sure you have great stories about how FREE drew you in. Please share them in the comments below!

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