Freecycle: Is Free Stuff Worth the Fuss?

Photo (cc) by Jemal

A few months ago I got tired of hearing about “freecycling” and decided to try it myself. So I joined The Freecycle Network.

Also known as simply Freecycle, this nonprofit runs a network of almost 5,000 localized online marketplaces referred to as “groups.” But instead of being sold or traded, everything is freecycled. Basically, Freecycle connects people who want to get rid of stuff with nearby people who might want to take it off their hands.

Freecycling is the environmentally friendly act of giving away your unwanted belongings rather than throwing them away. It’s also a way for the frugal, the broke, and the pack rat to score freebies of all sorts: clothing, furniture, toys, electronics, you name it.

Despite maintaining Money Talks News’ ever-growing list of freebies, I’m not a big fan of Freecycle. Free stuff is great in theory, but in reality, I believe it usually ends up clutter. So I joined Freecycle to test it: I wanted to know if I could find something that was free and that I actually needed.

Getting free stuff

I learned two lessons from trying to accomplish this…

1. You have to be fast. Almost every time that a member of one of my Freecycle groups offered something up, another member grabbed it almost immediately. I quickly realized that the only way to get a useful freebie via Freecycle was to sit in front of my inbox all day long – which is why I gave up after a week or two.

If you work at your computer all day, set your phone to alert you to every new email, or have a lot of free time, you may have better luck with Freecycle freebies. But if you keep a busy schedule, don’t get your hopes up.

2. Digest emails don’t work. I signed up for two Freecycle groups, the one for the city I live in and the one for the city I work in. For one, I signed up for individual emails sent in real-time [screenshot]. For the other group, I requested to receive group emails in digest mode [screenshot], meaning that I received one email a day, which contained a summary of all the emails sent by group members the previous day [sample].

The individual emails cluttered my inbox up a lot faster, but they’re the better way to snag free offers. As Money Talks News writer Brandon Ballenger put it (he too tried to find Freecycle freebies with little luck), digest emails are “pretty much a list of everything that’s already been taken.”

Getting rid of stuff

I didn’t have any clutter to get rid of – and if I did, I’d sell it or donate it to charity – so I’ve not tested Freecycle as a means of getting rid of stuff. But based on my research, Freecycle does work better for people who want to get rid of property than people who want to acquire it – with one exception. Some Freecyclers report no-show claimants. In other words, sometimes a group member accepts their offer but never actually shows up for it.

But there’s an easy solution: Give your unwanted belongings to charity instead of John Doe across town. For one, charities won’t stand you up. For two, you stand to get a tax write-off out of it. If you’re willing to itemize your donation and get a receipt, you’ll spare your local landfill while also supporting a good cause and saving yourself money at tax time.

I help my pack-rat mother do this almost every year, and she’s always happy to hand a little less back to Uncle Sam. I suggest Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Both are reputable national charities that will either pick up your donation from your doorstep or direct you to a nearby drop-off location, and both publish donation value guides, which make itemization a breeze.

For more info, check out IRS Publication 526: Charitable Contributions. (It’s 23 pages long, but you can search the PDF for whatever type of item you’re donating.)

Alternatively, if you have a large quantity to donate or have neighbors who are also trying to get rid of some clutter, consider having a yard sale. We have 13 Tips for a Super Yard Sale. Other options include selling that clutter on a website like Half.com or eBay. If your clutter is good-condition vintage, it may fetch more money on Etsy, which is an online marketplace for all things handmade and vintage (I’m a big fan).

Other opinions

Freecycle works well for many – they do have more than 8 million members – but I plan to unsubscribe from my groups as soon as I finish this article.

Then again, my Freecycle experience isn’t representative because I’m a minimalist with no need for such a service to begin with. I tried it out of curiosity. So I wanted you to have a second opinion. Here’s what some of your fellow readers had to say about Freecycle when I asked about their experiences through Facebook

  • “I used it for a while but didn’t get anything of real value out of it. Mostly I ended up with out of date cast offs.” –Alexa H. via Facebook
  • “I was on freecycle for a year or so several years ago and unsubscribed, because most members were only asking for things – and certain things – only Disney DVDs, DVD players when they were new, mp3 players when they were still new – things that I myself didn’t have – and I worked! Then when I’d offer things, many times people wouldn’t show up to pick them up & also wouldn’t call to tell me.” –Janie M. via Facebook
  • “I have received some nice items and tried to get some great things that went very quickly. I feel there are some very generous people in my area!” –Terri F. via Facebook
  • “Got a microwave from Freecycle San Diego. It broke less than a year later.” –Marcy N. via Facebook
  • “I’ve been doing this for 6 years. It has worked very well for me. I lived in the Dallas Fort Worth area and was a member of several Freecycle groups. Received lots of good stuff and gave lots of good stuff. I am in the Philly area now and things are pretty good with these groups, too. I have had more ‘no shows’ when giving away here.” –Cindy R. via Facebook and email
  • “I gave away a queen size bed within a matter of hours, and a sofa/chair set the next day.” –Doug C. via Facebook
  • “Signing up for Freecycle turned into an endless Mobius strip. I would sign up on their page, get transferred to Yahoo!, which I absolutely loathe and refuse to use. So there was an option to use my Google sign-in, which I did, got sent back to Freecycle to sign up, then back to Yahoo!…on and on ad nauseum. When I posted my frustration to Google+ and Facebook, I got SWAMPED with replies saying that they had had the same issue…and like me, they just quit. Out of all my friends and ‘friends’, only one claims to use it.” –Jim C. via a website comment

And perhaps the most helpful comment I received – I recommend Wendy’s rules:

  • “I’ve been using Freecycle for about four years, both to give away items and to find items. Like almost anything, I’ve had both good and bad experiences. As I’ve learned more about Freecycle, and the specific groups to which I belong, I’ve drafted my own set of rules about posting items and replying to those who want the items I’ve posted.

Rule 1: If it’s a book, movie, or music CD that I can sell on half.com, I list it there. While I may have to hold on to the item for a while until it sells, I’d rather make a little extra money. Those profits go directly to a savings account.
Rule 2: If the response to an offer is rude, I delete it. If you expect me to load it into your vehicle for you, if you don’t use please, thank you, or if you simply say, “I’ll be there at 2 PM. Address please?” or otherwise assume that you are going to receive it, I delete your email.
Rule 3: If your email response includes, “Sent from my iPhone, Droid, or other expensive smartphone,” your email moves to the back of the list of those interested. I figure that if you can afford the cell package, data plan, and price of the phone, you can probably afford my little $3 item that I don’t want. If no one else is interested, then I’ll give it to you.
Rule 4: If you are polite, and give a good reason for why you want an item, I’m more likely to consider your request.” –Wendy L. via email

Karla Bowsher runs the Deals page; writes “Daily Deals” posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and shares consumer wisdom every Thursday. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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