Can You Complain When It’s Free?

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I used to work in marketing and had to attend trade shows.  For those who don’t know about trades hows, they are actually a lot of fun.  Industry people gather in one place to show off their products or services.  They talk with each other and salespeople have a hey day trying to score more leads.  It was the one part of my marketing job which I enjoyed.  If you can’t tell by my enthusiasm, I am not in marketing anymore.

WooHoo! Free Stuff…

One aspect which everyone loved was how you could get a ton of free swag.  That really just means stuff.  You would get a free bag from one vendor, then collect a bunch of free stuff all day long.  Some of the big trade shows had iPad giveaways and other cool trinkets. You could really score some loot when you attended these trade shows.

Since I was one of the people manning the booth, I had to give out some of this free swag. You could tell in less than two seconds who was there for the swag and who was genuinely interested in what you were selling.  There was one time when we were handing out light up bouncy balls to the attendees.  They were all over the tradeshow floor lighting up and it turned out to be a great marketing tactic developed by yours truly.  I remember one gentleman who got a ball and then left the booth and started playing with it.  That was until it broke.

This gentleman then proceeded to get upset with me over his bouncy ball breaking.  I don’t think I have ever seen someone get so uptight about a bouncy ball, yet this man did.  As I just sat there and let him vent his frustrations over the shoddily-made bouncy ball we just gave him, one other attendee jumped in with:

Stop complaining! It was free!

That attendee was spot on.  Why was this man complaining over a little toy ball that was given to him for free. He didn’t have to give us his name or business card.  We just handed it over.  You are getting upset over a free item.  Which brings me to my question for the post – are we allowed to complain about something we get for free?

Stop Complaining About Free Stuff

I have been able to score some free services on my home before.  Beyond the home, I have scored some free deals for many other things. When I get these “free” services, I don’t expect much.  When something is given to me for free, how can I expect much?  It was free and it cost me nothing.  If something happens with my service or I don’t feel it was that good of a job, I don’t complain.  There is no reason to. The person or company providing the service didn’t charge you.

When I pay for a service or item, then I expect a certain level from said service/item.  When it breaks or the service isn’t what I expected, then I will be sure to tell someone what I think. When we transfer our hard-earned money to someone else for something, then we get a underlying, non-spoken right to get what we paid for.  You don’t get that ability when you get something for free.

Expect Something When It’s Free

Have you seen how many services out there give away something for free?  There are hundreds of thousands.  Why do they do it?  It usually isn’t because they are just really nice. They typically make their money in some other way.  When you sign up for a cash back site, the company is showing you all the sites that offer cash back. They get a commission on everything you purchase and then give you some.  They are getting paid for you to shop.

The same goes with many of the credit score sites.  They pull you in with a free account, then roll your eyes with ads and offers. They do this because that is how they make money. I have had many people complain to me when I recommend trying this site or that.  Why would you recommend a free site that is monetized with ads and offers?  Simple, the service you get is still free.  You can’t beat free, but you do have to play their game.  You also can’t complain about it because it is free.

A popular example is Pandora, the music streaming service. Their free service allows you to stream music, but there are many ads mixed in between songs.  If you don’t like the ads, then you can upgrade to their paid service.  There you get no ads, but you are paying a yearly price.  So, you have to ask yourself if you can handle the ads or need to pay to get rid of them.  You still can’t complain about the ads, because you aren’t paying them for their service.

All I ask is if you are getting something for free, then take it with a grain of salt. It is free for a reason, but that still doesn’t give you a right to complain about said free item/service.  If it costs you nothing, then just let it go!


Do you think you can complain when you get something for free? Have you ever risen a stink over something you received for free? What do you expect from a company or person who offers you a free product/service?



Photo courtesy of: St_A_Sh

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Grayson is the owner of Debt Roundup and Empowered Shopper. He also co-owns Sprout Wealth and Eyes on the Dollar. After going to battle and winning against consumer debt, he decided it was time to learn how to use credit wisely and grow his wealth. He discusses all things personal finance and is not afraid of being controversial. He also is a freelance writer and blog manager.

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  • NZ Muse says:

    Prime example: how people (normal users and people using it for brands) complain about Facebook changing for the worse. Nothing comes for free.

  • I tend to get upset and then quickly realize, hey it was free, so no big loss.

    As for the free services you mentioned, I use many of these. I find that yes, there are ads, but it’s usually done in a way that I can easily ignore them and focus on what the service is really giving me.

  • I used to organize Trade Shows for my former job in Marketing. The free stuff was pretty cool. 🙂 I agree that you shouldn’t complain if something is free. ‘Free’ is better than nothing after all!

    I hate to admit though that I’ve grumbled about free stuff that I’ve received when it doesn’t work properly in the past. This is a good reminder to step back and put free things into perspective!

  • debt debs says:

    I prefer to think of free stuff as ‘gently used’. I’m being ‘gently used’ by participating in whatever is expected of me to get the free stuff. ha ha

  • I totally agree that you shouldn’t complain if something is free. That’s why I don’t understand when people complain about a blog post not being that great…’s free content!

  • This never even crossed my mind! So, no, I have not complained about something free before. And I had no idea other people do that! haha.

  • I always look at free stuff as kind of a gift, and it’s never appropriate to complain about a gift. My only exception would be in the case of something like “Free filtering system with the purchase of a pool”, and then the filtering system broke. If it was meant as a gift with purchase that was needed for the purchase to function, so to speak, then, free or not, I want a decent one. In a case like that, it’s better to not give anything at all than to give an accessory to the purchase that’s crappy quality.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      I hear you there Laurie. While you expect it to work, they typically give away these “free” items because they are lesser quality than the stuff they would sell. People love free, so they give those items away with purchase because they are junk.

  • Dave LaLonde says:

    I agree, every free item or service has it’s toll. I can’t complain about it, though!….unless it conflicts with my privacy and security.

  • Hmm. I think it depends. Companies that give out free stuff aren’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, and money isn’t the only way we pay for things. If I traded time and effort to get a free thing, I think it’s okay to complain when it doesn’t meet expectations. Complaining about free swag at a trade show is kind of tacky, though, and I would never, ever, complain about something that a friend or relative gave me.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      I understand your point, but you are choosing to use your time and effort to get the free thing. You don’t have to do it. While I value my time as money, I still don’t care if a free item doesn’t work. I caulk it up as a loss and move on.

  • No never complained over something that was free. This reminds me though of the hidden cash thing that went on this past weekend where I live. Some generous guy decided to do a cool thing and hid money in pez dispensers then tweet about it and people could go find it. You should have seen how some people behaved, like it was their rent money or something. People, it’s free money and its supposed to be fun and in good spirit!

  • First of all, I laughed my a$$ off through this whole thing because I too used to work the booths at conferences in my previous job and I would crack up and how much people cared about the crap that we were handing out. Or they would ask for extras for their kids or nieces and nephews and I would just feel bad for those poor kids who got stress balls with a bank logo on the side of them. And I agree with you, you get what you pay for and if you pay nothing you really have no room to complain.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      Oh yes, those people always asking for their kids made me laugh. I would typically oblige, but when they would take 10, I would have to ask how many kids they had.

  • Hey Grayson,

    I loved this post! I would never raise a stink over something free, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that would…like the guy with the light up bouncy ball! Anyway, thanks for the great read…see ya around!

  • Michelle says:

    I don’t think I have ever complained about something that was free. Makes no sense to me to do that!

  • You make an important distinction with the Pandora example, sometimes free isn’t really free, and so yes, I do expect something from it.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      What do you expect from a free service? Yes, they use ads, but what would be your expectation? While it isn’t truly free based on what they might be doing, it is free to you in a money sense. You spent no money for the service, so you really don’t have much to complain about. If you don’t like it, you can move on. Complaining just wouldn’t work.

  • Lauren says:

    When sites like Facebook and Instagram change something up, people always complain. It’s so silly to me, since the service that they are providing is free of charge.

  • I don’t think you should complain when something is free. I find it funny when people get upset about how you need to do things for giveaways such as following an account on Twitter or whatnot. Obviously the person giving away something wants to receive something in return.

  • Nick Loper says:

    I think about this in a scary way whenever Gmail goes down. How much would it suck to lose 9 years worth of personal and business correspondence? But that’s the risk we take because it’s a normally very reliable free service.

  • E.M. says:

    The bouncy balls do sound like they were a great marketing tactic, but it’s hilarious some guy actually wanted to complain about his breaking. Beyond the fact it was free, it’s just a little ball! How much is it really worth anyway? I’ve never complained about a free product or service. I didn’t pay anything for it, why should I (unless someone is asking for feedback)?

  • I don’t think complaining about something that is free makes sense. If you didn’t invest anything then you didn’t lose anything!

  • People that complain about something that is free are ridiculous!!

    Nothing is actually “free” in this life, we should all expect that there are always strings attached. For example, every time you enter a competition nowdays, expect a phonecall/spam email from the competition provider. It’s simply the cost of “doing business”.

    • Grayson Bell says:

      You are correct there. If you think it is really free, then you need to pull your head out of the sand. You still can’t complain as that is what you get with “free”

  • There will always be someone who complains about something they get for free. Depending on the circumstances for the most part… it was free. If you don’t like it, move on.

  • I remember manning a booth one time where we were giving out free tshirts and It was crazy how people were fighting each other and with us just to get a free tshirt! Ridiculous!

    I love using pandora on my roku box. I can’t complain about the ads. Sometimes they don’t even have that many or you don’t even notice. I don’t think it’s worth paying for the service. I’m ok with the occasional ad while I get free music. And if you don’t like the ads just move on.

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