The “Free” Pen Problem

Recently, my family and I attended the Iowa State Fair, as is something of an annual tradition for us. We go for a lot of reasons: the flood of presidential candidates that speak at the Fair every year, the interesting demonstrations, the free concerts (of which there seem to be three or four going on at all times somewhere on the fairgrounds), the art shows, the horticulture displays, and many other odds and ends.

One large building on the fairgrounds, the Varied Industries building, is absolutely chock full of booths of various kinds. Some of them promote businesses, but many of them are reserved for state universities and various state agencies. There’s a booth for the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa. There are booths for seemingly endless state offices and functions. There’s a booth for Iowa Public Television. There’s a booth for the Iowa Democratic Party and the Iowa Republican Party. You get the idea.

Many of these booths have various items you can pick up as you walk by, and one of the most common booth freebies is a pen that’s usually emblazoned with the contact information of the organization involved.

As we went through the building and walked by tons of booths, my son made the astute observation that I wasn’t picking up many of the free pens. It’s not exactly a secret that I love writing down my thoughts by hand and that I love finding a bargain, so why wasn’t I grabbing all of these free pens?

The answer is pretty simple. Most free pens don’t do their job very well. They’re usually really poorly made and often won’t write when you try to get them to write. You have to shake them or scribble a bunch to get the ink flowing. Furthermore, a lot of cheap pens will have “ink explosions” if you keep them in your pocket, as I like to do. I’ve had pants just ruined by explosions of black ink in the pocket.

That’s the catch: free isn’t always free.

Those “free” pens come with a number of costs. For starters, they eat up time that a good pen wouldn’t. Often, when I use a cheap pen, I have to invest time just to get the ink flowing, by scribbling or shaking the pen. Sometimes, that first attempt at writing will result in a big ink blotch on the page, which often adds more time and difficulty to the situation.

Also, cheap freebie pens are much more likely to leak at a moment when you don’t want them to leak, and that adds up to another time cost and often a money cost. As I noted, I’ve had clothes ruined by cheap pens leaking unexpectedly. I’ve had huge ink blotches appear on documents that I had to re-print or spend time to replace.

A good, reliable pen doesn’t have any of those additional costs. It writes when you need it to, saving time. It doesn’t bleed all over documents, saving more time. It doesn’t ruin clothing or paper, saving money. It just does the job, and does it well.

Thus, I don’t even bother with a free pen or a super cheap pen. The additional costs that come along with it – the time lost to making it work right and cleaning up the messes, the money lost to ink leaks – drastically exceed, at least for me, the cost of buying a $1 pen that won’t have any of those problems, like a Pilot G-2 or a Uniball Signo 207. I’m not even talking about a higher end fancy pen, just a great bang-for-the-buck low end pen.

Sure, I picked up a few freebie pens, the ones that seemed like they were of reasonable quality and wrote as soon as I clicked them. However, I don’t use them for everyday use. I keep those in a drawer and give them to guests at home if they’re needed and I usually just tell them to keep them. I might toss one or two in a game box so that there’s a pen available to add up the score at the end.

This brings me to another factor: everyday use. If I used a pen maybe once a week, didn’t carry one in my pocket, and didn’t rely on them multiple times a day, then I probably wouldn’t care as much. Scribbling to get the ink flowing once a week is forgettable; scribbling like that ten times a day is frustrating. Having a pen leak on a document once a year isn’t a big deal; having a pen leak in your notebook once a week is a problem, and having it ever leak in your pocket is a big problem.

Here’s the big picture: “free” isn’t always the best bargain if it comes with hidden costs. A free pen clearly has some hidden costs, and thus if you use pens all the time, you’re better off paying a reasonable amount for a good pen and avoiding those hidden costs than using the “free” pen and paying those hidden costs.

A big part of frugality is figuring out those hidden costs. A trash bag that you can only fill up halfway has a hidden cost. A trash bag that leaks all over the floor has a hidden cost. Bars of soap that basically disintegrate on the soap shelf have a hidden cost. Cheap deodorant that doesn’t keep your arm pits dry has a hidden cost – you’re going to be applying lots of it and you still might stink. An early failure of an item, particularly one you rely on, is definitely a hidden cost.

You have to take into account those hidden costs when finding the true best value when buying an item. Often, it is not the item with the absolute lowest price that ends up being the true best value, because it’s often the item with the absolute lowest price that comes with a lot of hidden costs, while something a little more expensive avoids those hidden costs.

That’s the story with the free pens at the state fair. If you want a pen, you’re not going to get any cheaper than “free.” The problem is that they come with hidden costs, and if those hidden costs add up to a dollar’s worth of frustration or lost time or damaged documents or ink on your pants, then it wasn’t worth it. “Free” is too much to pay for a pen that has more than a dollar’s worth of hidden costs on average, and a cheap pen usually does, particularly if you’re a frequent and heavy pen user.

This is why I won’t buy a no-name paring knife at the dollar store, for example. It might have the lowest sticker price, but I feel pretty confident that such a paring knife is going to be packing a lot of hidden costs. It’s probably not going to keep any sort of sharpness over time; it might even be dull coming out of the package. The handle is probably poorly made, bordering on dangerous (I’ve had a blade come out of the handle of a super cheap knife before). It’s going to add up to a lot of extra time with any job you’re doing with it, particularly after several uses, and there’s a higher risk of injury, too. That’s a steep hidden cost; sure, I’m not paying as much for the knife, but if I actually use it, I’m going to be paying that extra cost. I’m simply better off doing the research and finding a good “bang for the buck” knife that doesn’t have those hidden costs.

Obviously, this means that you’re probably paying a little more up front when buying things. You’re not using the free pens from the state fair; you’re actually buying them. You’re not using the dollar store paring knife; you’re buying a somewhat more expensive one (like this $8 one) that doesn’t have the hidden costs of frustration and time and potential injury.

Buying the cheapest solution for a problem is often like going into debt. You’re not paying nearly as much up front, but you’re kicking the actual costs down the road. You’ll pay for that decision every time you use it, whether it’s scribbling trying to get ink to flow or cutting yourself due to the cheap blade or smelling atrocious because of the cheap deodorant.

The lesson of the free pen is this: do your homework, know the hidden costs, and find the actual best “bang for the buck” item instead of the one with the lowest sticker price. Sometimes, the one with the lowest sticker price will be the best “bang for the buck” item, but that’s far from a guarantee; in fact, it happens seldom enough that you shouldn’t rely on that happening and you’re better off doing a little homework.

How do you do the “homework” and figure out what’s worthwhile? I read reviews from trusted sources about everything. I rely on Consumer Reports for a lot of things and on specialty sources like The Pen Addict when looking at specific niche items. I tend to rely only on sources where people are putting their reputation on the line; Consumer Reports gets egg on their face if they botch a review, and The Pen Addict loses significant reputation if their recommendations are out of whack.

I usually look for their “bang for the buck” or “entry level” recommendations when I’m not sure what to get. If I really know the ins and outs of an item, I can narrow that down a little more, but I mostly save that for daily use items.

In the end, I’ve learned the hard way that “free” is usually not a bargain and you’re better off paying a little more for the good “bang for the buck” item than just grabbing the cheapest one. Those hidden costs will get you every time. That’s the true lesson of the free pens from the state fair.

Good luck.