Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top 5 Things You Should Never Pay For

The title was provocative, and so I clicked on the video link to watch it. The tagline claimed that these five things were free, and that we should never pay for them. Really? Cool! Sign me up!

But as I listened to their list, I realized that their claims of these things being "free" was, at best, misleading.

1. Water.

Free? Really? Perhaps, if I run out back and scoop it out of the brook, it's free, but in most places, the luxury of having water in our houses means it's definitely not "free". Even those with a well, pay for the eletricity to have it pumped into their homes. The point of this particular portion of the article was to discourage the practice of buying bottled water, and with that, I do not disagree. We shouldn't pay for bottled water, but with very few exceptions, we are paying and will continue to pay for water.

2. Cellphones.

Wow! Really? I perked up my ears on this one, because over at Homegrown Evolution they had a debate about whether or not to get a cellphone, and for me, the real issue is paying extra for a service I'm already getting elsewhere.

Saying that cellphones are free is like saying that my landline is "free." What they mean is that one can get a "free" phone headset IF one pays for a cellphone plan, but the fact is, without the plan, the cellphone is kind of useless. So, free cellphone? That's little more than a sneaky, little lie.

3. Credit report/credit counseling.

We are all entitled to one free report from each of the three credit reporting agencies per year. But seriously? Is this something that really has any significant value? The fact is that the only reason to be worried about credit scores is the hope of getting financing, but if one is living within one's means and saving up for the things one needs, then, there isn't any need to worry about this one. It's free, true, but it's not like ... it's a free cellphone or anything.

At this point, I know that this particular "news" article is just a bunch of useless fluff, but I might as well continue watching.

4. Grocery Staples.

I'm thinking Score! I love to save money on groceries, but very quickly I realized that their suggestion was exactly what everyone else suggests, and it's really ... well, it's not really getting anything for "free". Like all of the others there's that caveat.

Groceries can be free IF one has a coupon, it's a really good coupon, the store is offering double coupons, AND the manufacturer has a cash back rebate. In the perfect storm of bargain shopping, grocery staples could be free, but seriously, how likely is this to happen? The average coupon user saves a few dollars, at best, and more often ends up spending a lot of money on things that would never have been purchased were it not for the coupon. In my opinion and experience, coupons are just one more manipulative tactic used to get my money out of my hand for stuff I don't really want or need.

5. Boxes.

This is, perhaps, the only really free item on the list, and this one I actually liked, but by the time they offered this little tidbit, it was like they were really stretching to find "free" stuff. Buying boxes to move is silly given that people are often throwing them away, and the idea of reusing boxes from the local convenience store speaks to the eco-star in me ;).

Overall, I think the article is a fail. Of the five items, only two were really free. There was no really useful or new information in the article, and it was a little like what I've come to expect from the mass-media, which is superficial ideas that really do nothing to enlighten us or help us to live better.

So, I made my own list of 5 Things That You Shouldn't Pay For:

1. New furniture.

Between Freecycle, free signs on the side of the road, junk yards, yard sales, estate sales, salvation operations, and thrift stores, there's enough furniture still in usable shape to furnish every home across the world.

Besides, much of the new stuff, even in higher end stores, is poorly built particle board that will disintegrate after only a few years. Some (not all) of the older stuff is sturdier, but even if what's found is the more modern poorer quality stuff, we can, at least, be comforted by the fact that we really did get what we paid for rather than paying big $$ for something that's not worth the gasoline it cost us to visit the store.

2. Commercial cleaning supplies.

Simple is often better. For years we tried to find something to clean the shower. I tried dozens of caustic cleaners that didn't do the job and were, potentially, harmful to our septic system. After replacing the system once, I resolved to be much more careful about what went in. For cleaning, I, finally, struck on the perfect combination: a stiff scrub brush and baking soda. Our shower has never been cleaner. Baking soda and vinegar are simply the best cleaning products around, and they're wicked cheap.

We no longer purchase commercial cleaners, and we've even stopped buy laundry detergent and make our own, instead.

3. Deodorant/antiperspirant.

Our society is obsessed with eliminating odors, and as a result we've developed this willingness to smear all sorts of chemical concoctions on our bodies in an attempt to eliminate them. The key problem with antiperspirants, though, is not that they are toxic chemicals masquerading as flowers, but what they do. Humans are supposed to sweat, which is why we have sweat glands. Our sweating enables us to cool our bodies so that we don't suffer from things like heat stroke. Why, then, would we want to use a product that takes away that functionality? And for what? So that we don't smell bad to other people? Phew! Talk about trying to be a people pleaser. We're willing to risk our health so that we don't offend someone else's olfactory senses. Dude. Get a grip ... and put a hanky over your nose, if you don't like Essence de Wendy.

The irony here is that our bodies emit odors that are unconsciously pleasing to the opposite sex, and we cover up those natural odors with perfumes ... to make ourselves pleasing to members of the opposite sex. People are so odd.

Of course, if one just really wants to not have an aroma, there are some things that work just as well as chemical deodorants to eliminate odors without the toxic side effects. The best is probably baking soda and corn starch, which most people have in their kitchens. Equal parts of each mixed with an anti-fungal essential oil (tea tree, lavendar, patchouli ... to name a few) and dusted in the armpit area takes the place of deodorant (and smells just as nice, and infinitely more natural). If it's also blended with just enough coconut oil to make a paste, it can be used as a deodorant stick. You'll still sweat, but is that a bad thing?

4. Out of season foods.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized all produce has a "season" and even those things that don't grow in Maine have a season. Meat has a season, too. Buying out of season for one's area results in a significant cost increase over buying in season and stocking up. For instance, we purchase a couple of bushels of apples in the fall, when they are fresh, and make applesauce. If we had cold storage, we'd put them in the storage to keep until they started to get mealy, and then, we'd make them into sauce. Because we buy at the height of the season, we're not subjected to those price fluctuations. Overall, we pay a much lower price than we would if we bought apples all year long just when we wanted them.

Not enough convincing?

Okay. How about this?

During the "season" (from April to October), we spend, an average of $280/week on food, between the grocery store, the Farmer's Market, the meat we raise, and buying quarter portions of large, hoofed animals (beef and pork). During the off-season, after we've spent six months stocking up, we spend an average of $50/week on food (including eating out). In terms of both money and time saved, buying food in-season and stocking up is way more frugal than using coupons.

5. Heat.

I can hear the backlash now, because we all do, so, need our electric space heaters and our oil-burning furnaces. We so need our 3000 sq foot homes to be 70° throughout the structure, because, because ... well, we might not be comfortable.

The other day, I was talking to my son, who lives in Kentucky. It's been unseasonably cold in Kentucky for the past few weeks with the average day-time temperature being around 40°, and he was telling me that he didn't really feel too cold. Those around him, knowing that he lived in Maine, tell him it's because he's acclimated to Maine weather. Nevermind that he was born in Kentucky, lived until he was eleven years old south of the Mason Dixon line with a not insignificant number of years in southern Texas, and hasn't lived in Maine since 2006. He scoffs when people tell him he's not bothered by the cold because of his association with Maine, and he tells me, it's because he knows how to dress - in layers.

It's important, because knowing how to dress for the weather can be life-saving, and realizing that one doesn't have to keep one's house warm enough for summer wear in the heart of winter can significantly reduce the cost of heating one's house. During the winter, I'm always wearing wool socks, and I usually wear a sweater or a sweatshirt in the house.

There are some places in the country (even with the weird weather we're having) where one could live without whole-house heat. I won't rehash all of the past heating advice I (and others) have given, but I will say that it can be free by first changing our attitudes toward the amount of heat we think we need and second by making some changes in our housing infrastructures, which isn't free, but could result in not needing to heat.

  • Install a heating system that uses a renewable resource, like a woodstove, or a biomass generator. In her book Possum Living, Dolly Freed talks about heating her suburban home with pallets and cardboard boxes, but they weren't trying to heat the whole house. Rather, they moved into the main room of the house and spent the winter near the woodstove, and closed off the rest of the house. Sounds just awful, doesn't it? Spending time with one's family members. So unAmerican!

  • Insulate, and when you think you have enough, if there's room for more, add more. The best dwelling is earth-bermed with south-facing opening, because the earth provides natural insulation. Most of us don't have the option of earthberming our homes, but we can insulate and close off the north-facing sides of our homes to take advantage of solar passive heating.

  • Allow yourself to become acclimated to the changing weather by living with it, instead of working against it.

Some things actually are free without having to spend money to get them. Some things are free, after we've invested money in them.

The real question is not what we can get for nothing, but what we're willing to invest so that those things we need or want become free, and that's where the article and I differ entirely. I'm not willing to spend four or five hours per week looking through coupons in the hopes that I can get a good deal, and maybe walk away with a free bottle of hair conditioner. I'm not interested in paying $100/month for two years so that I can get a free cellphone.

But I am willing to spend extra money and time canning summer produce so that I can eat (mostly) free all winter. I am willing to purchase a woodstove and spend the summer gathering and collecting wood so that my heat is free.

And in the end, these "free" things improve the quality of my life. I'm not sure that coupons can be said to do the same thing ;).


  1. Some very good points there. I was given a track suit last week, and (after going through the wash because it smelled musty) I've been wearing it the last couple of days. When I went outside to get some snow pix, I threw a pair of jeans over the pants and forgot to take them off after coming inside… and I've been toasty-warm even in the bedroom away from the firebox.

    I was using aluminum-free deodorant until recently, when it started giving me a rash. I use baby powder or nothing at all and it hasn't been too bad. Of course, come summer I'll probably change my tune.

    Oh hey… got a recipe for the laundry detergent?

    1. Laundry soap recipe - belatedly ;):

      Equal parts: borax, washing soda powder, and baking soda mixed with one bar of grated soap and a few drops of essential oil (if desired). I don't really measure things very carefully.

      It can be used just like that, as a powdered laundry detergent, or using the same ingredients, you can make a liquid by dissolving everything in boiling water.

      This looked like a good recipe for liquid laundry detergent.

  2. It is a beautiful post with good description of the great topic.Thanks for this info.

  3. Staying warm in the farm office?(where I'm in and out, and Ralph never takes off his jacket, because he's in and out) I've started wearing alpaca knit wrist warmers - keeps my hands warm, and I can keep the thermostat at 10 degrees (Celcius ;).
    I do not buy any strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches or pears...or canned tomatoes, pickles, beets....through the winter - we have our own in my neatly organized pantry. Yes, I would pay $50-75 upfront at the upick or farmer's market, but we enjoy local home-preserved fruit all winter and spring ;D

    Nothing is for free...except for the feelings of pride and satisfaction you have when you know you have been able to provide for yourself and your family in a way that is foreign to most these days - and it's healthier (even if my nose gets cold occasionally in the office ;)

    Good article...again!

  4. Oh, forgot to mention a great aluminum-free alternative to deodorant - rock salt deodorant stick. My husband uses it (moisten and apply), and he works hard physically, plays hockey, etc...he sweats, but doesn't give off a rank odor :) I use a paste that's aluminum free, as well, and lasts for about 4 days...

  5. Hey, FARf. Deus Ex Machina has never used deodorant or antiperspirant since I've known him. He never smells bad. I'm developing a theory about our odor and how the use of these chemicals over time alter our body chemistry ... kind of like using shampoo makes our hair greasier, but if we stop using it, then, eventually, our bodies adjust.
    Anyway, it's just a theory ;).

    Thanks, Party Store. I hope you found something useful.

    Julie - I'll pay, what seem like, exorbitant prices in the middle of summer for large quantities of fresh (local) produce, too, and then snicker behind my hand when I see the price for either in January. Thanks for the recommendation. I've heard of a deodorant crystal kind of thing. Is it the same?

  6. Coupons for staple items? I've never seen them. All I see are coupons for is the worst types of processed foods. Man I'd love to find a coupon for bulk pasta or rice.

    Your list is far superior.

  7. There are many times of salt deodorant sticks, some with "crystal" in the name/description. Something I came across was Himalayan rock salt deodorant sticks at www.himalayansalt.com/deodorant-salt.php. Great website, we ordered some salt lamps for our office and living spaces, as well as bath salts and cooking salt.

  8. Some of this I agree with you completely. Some not so much.

    Curbside furniture carries too much risk of bedbugs. All it takes is one infestation to never ever want to risk them. (And for us, we didn't personally have them but someone in our building did, twice in one year - and we ALL had to get exterminated both times.)

    Wood heat is no more or less free than water is. If you're paying for someone to cut the wood and deliver it, it's the same as paying water fees. I'm confused about "gathering and collecting" wood during the summer. My father always told me that every year you buy/cut next year's wood. Other than that, how in the world do you gather and collect two or more cord of wood?

    3000' house? LOL

  9. Doomer - good point about curbside furniture, especially if the item is plushie, like a couch, but, perhaps, things like wooden chairs and tables don't carry the same risk?

    Re: firewood, I agree with you, but in our case, we do not have someone cut and deliver wood for us. We burn, mostly, pine, which needs about four months to cure, and most of what we burn comes from trees that people are having removed or that have blown down during storms. So, our heat is free - at least at the moment. This past summer, our neighbor cut down a couple of hardwood trees, which are curing right now, and should be ready for us to burn next winter. Your father is right, *if* the wood you're burning is hardwood, it needs at least a year before it's ready to burn, but pine, being a softer, less dense wood, dries faster.

    There's also the option of gleaning standing dry wood from the forest, if one knows what to look for, and that can be harvested and burned at any time.

  10. Question about your laundry soap... I have been making mine for a few years and love it, but apparently it isn't safe for wool. (it's pure soap, washing soda and borax)

    I knit a lot of socks and would love to be able to throw them in the machine. Do you know of a wool-safe recipe?

  11. Irma - I don't know a lot about washing wool, but from what I understand, regular soap is too akaline (something to do with the scaliness of wool fibers or something and how they "capture" the soap, and then soap doesn't want to let go, and rubbing and twisting wool to get the soap out ... well, it's just a mess). What I've seen suggested is Dawn dishwashing liquid, which doesn't help much for DIY.

    The other suggestion I've seen is soap nuts, which are a product that has natural saponins, but they aren't local to my region, which is why (as cool as they sound), I haven't tried it.

    I guess, if I were looking for something that could be DIY and locally, readily available, I would find some soapwort, which is a plant native to most of the US (probably Canada, too, I'd think). According to what I've read, soapwort is safe for washing wool.

    For more information on using soapwort, check out this article.

  12. Okay, that makes more sense about the pine.

    We've actually dumpster dove for plastic high chairs, wooden desks and a variety of things that could be scrubbed and fully cleansed. When you said furniture, I assumed you meant sofas and mattresses.