Writer’s Workshop: Free

Let’s talk about “free.” Not as in “liberty,” not as in “without” (e.g. “sugar-free”), but as in “free stuff!”

I’m a Starbucks Gold member. One of the advantages of being a Gold member is that you get “freebies.” Every time you spend a dollar at Starbucks, you get two points. When you accumulate 125 points, you get any food or drink item for free. I usually use them for a venti Frappuccino, which can run into some major money, like almost $7.

Did I say it was “free”? Because, when you think about it, it’s not. 125 points, at 2 points for each dollar spent, means you spend $62.50 to get the number of points. So, they get $62.50 minus the $7 that the Frappuccino costs. That means they net $55.50. Okay, sometimes they run incentives where you get points. One incentive was they’d give me 200 points for refilling my card using Chase Pay. They have special “double star” days where you get 4 points for every dollar spent.

Likewise with the airlines. They had reward programs where you accumulated miles every time you flew somewhere, and at different numbers of miles you got a free upgrade, money off on a coach seat, all the way up to some magnificent free trip around the world. Except you had to buy tickets on other flights to get the free miles. That wasn’t a problem for me; I was gone all the time, and my company let us keep the miles we accumulated when traveling on business. But still, you got the rewards for paying for tickets. Ditto the hotel and car rental rewards, as well as the American Express points. You could get free stuff for a certain number of points, but it wasn’t exactly “free.”

Back in the days of the Wild and Wooly West, saloons would offer a “free lunch.” The idea was to get you in the bar and spent a few bucks for a beer or “three fingers o’ red eye!” (as my Dad used to say). Of course, if you partook of the free lunch, they fully expected you to spend a few bucks at the bar. If you didn’t, they usually made it clear that you were no longer welcome there, unless you planned on spending money there. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman coined a term, TANSTAAFL (pronounced “tan-staffel”), which was an acronym for “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

“Free,” in almost every instance, means “included in the cost.” We lavished gifts on clients attending training classes, because those clients were spending $1500 a day to come to class. The freebies didn’t cost much, but they bought us goodwill. One of the more popular freebies was tape flags, little pieces of tape with a colored tab at the end. If you found an important thing in your training manual, you flagged the page by sticking one on the page with the flag sticking out, so you could find it later. Clients loved those, and so did we trainers.

Well, someone got the idea that we could save a couple of hundred dollars a week by not giving them tape flags. Needless to say, the clients were pissed about this. I mean, a package of them (about 50 in a dispenser) was about $1.50, less if you bought in the quantities we did. I finally decided to buy a bunch and turn the cost in on an expense report.

Naturally, when the boss got the report, she’s on the phone with me. “What’s this $30 for?”

“Tape flags.”

“Why’d you buy all these tape flags?”

“Because you won’t, and clients are upset that they aren’t getting them.”

“Well, we decided not to buy them.”

“I know. And I think it’s stupid. If it were up to me, I’d find a way to print the company logo on each flag.”

I didn’t get my $30 back, but the tape flags were back the next week. They didn’t print the company logo on each, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, you buy a lot of goodwill with stuff that’s free.

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Author: John Holton

I'm a writer and blogger who writes and blogs about things that interest me.

21 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Free”

  1. You have a great post here because the term “free” is usually not free as you showed with Starbucks. I have a whole set of dishes, that I call my good dishes, that my dad received from gas stations when he filled up his car. Each time he filled up he got points or whatever they said back in the 60’s. I wish that would be brought back actually. I collect points at Zehrs and these points I can use at the grocery store for nothing in there including gift cards which is great at Christmas. Of course, they give points for other things to buy calling it a deal but you have to watch for this.

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    1. Laundry detergent companies put all kinds of stuff in the boxes: towels, glasses, flatware, etc. And cereal companies were always running a promotion where they would put a free toy in the box or put an actual record on the back of the box. Remember those? Sometimes they’d even play. The classic, though, were trading stamps, especially S&H Green Stamps. You’d get a stamp for every dollar you spent, which you’d then paste into a book. When you filled up a certain number of books, you got “free” stuff. You had to try and shop at retailers where you got the stamps, though. Mom bought a washer and dryer from Polk Brothers in Chicago and got around $700 worth of Green Stamps, and got my brother a guitar (which I eventually laid claim to – I had a collection of cheap guitars at one time). There was a record store in Atlanta, Turtles, that went with the trading stamp thing (fill up a card and you got a free record, tape or CD). On Wednesdays, they gave double stamps, so you’d always try and buy your records on Wednesday…

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  2. When companies start killing off the tape flags, it means the accountants have landed and are working their way up from the beach.

    Hotel and airline rewards are a way to help you decide where to fly/stay. When I travel, I have to stay somewhere. Often, the hotels I choose are cheaper than “event” hotels. So my employer saves money, I get points and basic needs are met.

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    1. A lot of us got into the Marriott program. There were two of them: one for Marriott and one for Courtyard, which eventually merged. I didn’t generally go to cities that had actual Marriotts, but a lot of smaller ones had Courtyards, so that worked out well.

      The company I worked for (MSA) didn’t do the tape flag thing, but M&D, with whom we were merged, did, so we started giving them out in our classes, too. Both of us were owned by Dun & Bradstreet, and I think it was their bean counters that realized we could save a thousand or so every year by eliminating tape flags. They told my management, who chose to get rid of them, along with a bunch of other perks that didn’t cost much but made the clients happy. These were people who sat in offices removed from the training centers, who typically never spent time in front of a class…

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      1. I focused on the Marriott program. It has worked out pretty well for me. I don’t fly enough with any one airline to make a difference. I’m in Delta, but that’s mainly because I like the airline.

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        1. I was in United and American and a host of other programs, many for airlines that no longer exist (Republic, Ozark, Midway, TWA, Pan Am etc.) when I lived in Chicago, but since I moved to Atlanta I did nearly all my travel on Delta, unless I was going to Newark or Houston, when I’d take Continental, which was nice enough to take my Eastern points after they went out of business. I managed to get a few tickets out of Delta, which was useful when we had to go to Chicago for a wedding.

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  3. Making clients happy is the goal. That’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately, some companies seem to have no-brainer people operating them. 🙂

    I know Starbucks’ program means you pay and then you get a freebie, but I look at it this way: I was going to buy it anyway. Why not get something back for free? And I’m all over that double-star day, stocking up on tea, etc. 🙂 I also use one of my credit cards this way: I buy things I’m going to buy anyway (gas, food, etc.) and then I get cash back. Free money for money I was going to spend anyway (then pay the card off each month, of course). I wouldn’t do it just to get the freebie, which isn’t free, though.

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    1. Going to Starbucks and out to eat is really the only entertainment we have, so we’d spend the money, anyway, so it doesn’t bother me. We were supposed to go today, but the heavens are rumbling and sending sheets of rain down, which doesn’t sound so bad except I have bad knees and have to slide down the front stairs to go out. We have two credit cards we use all the time: an Amazon Prime Rewards card and a Capital One Quicksilver card. The Amazon card gives us 5% of our purchases there, and the Quicksilver card gives us 1.5% cash back on everything. My father-in-law, who with my mother-in-law were two of the greatest people God ever put on earth, had an expression, “Ya gotta work the angles,” and man, could he.

      You wouldn’t think tape flags or gourmet coffee and snacks could buy so much happiness, would you? But they do…

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  4. LOl – Our daughter works for Starbucks and she actually does get something free each week so by extension, we get a free pound of coffee. Really…free…well, she lives with us and we buy all the groceries and pay the electric, gas and water bill so maybe not so free? I’m not sure if they are still good anywhere but I still have a bunch of blue chip stamps we used to get when bowling. Those are the types of things my husband won’t let me get rid of because of “historical” value. Happy Thursday, John!

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  5. Box of s & h moved again with us…wish could use! I get free bing rewards Amazon gift cards….how I got my Kindle…. Five bus a month or so vegging at library lol!

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    1. Their Wikipedia page says that someone has bought out S&H and plans on starting it up again “soon.” Whether you’ll be able to use the old stamps or trade them in for the new ones is anyone’s guess…

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  6. It baffles my mind how a company will destroy good will among customers/clients just to save a few pennies. They establish the expectations, then fail to meet them, not realizing that disappointment can take on a half-life, spreading via word of mouth.

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    1. I remember a client was furious because we served peanuts instead of cookies at break one day. He vented his spleen at anyone who would listen. And the funny thing is, the cookies would probably have cost less than the peanuts. With the tape flags, I said to my manager, “why are we being so cheap?”

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  7. I love those tape flags!! I used to use them all the time when I was reading and wanted to save a page with a certain quote on it. My husband has that Gold Starbucks card. Sometimes he goes to Starbucks JUST to get the freebie. ….the freebie that he paid for. 😉

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