But that used to be free!

Sandra decides whether there's room in her budget for the formerly free stuff she now has to pay for.

Photo: jhorrocks/iStockphoto.com

Yesterday, I paid 16 cents for an empty cup.

In my rush to leave the house for my office gig (it’s so strange working in an office space where you don’t have your usual conveniences — lip balm, packets of salt, hand cream), I forgot a refillable water bottle. But I am loath to buy bottled water (because I’m cheap) — and since the office has a free-for-everyone filtered-water dispenser, all I really needed was a vessel to fill up.

So I popped into the building’s cafeteria, which is managed by an outside company, and wiggled a paper coffee cup off the tower. I also realized that I forgot to pack a morning snack from home, so I picked up a bagel as well, and took both to the cash. The clerk punched in the code for the bagel. Then she punched in the code for “hot water” (that’s what came up on the digital screen). “Just curious,” I said, “how much was the cup?” She replied, “16 cents.”

Though I was a bit taken aback, I paid my money — after all, the cup was cheaper and more environmentally-friendly (I think?) than a pre-filled bottle of water.

When I mentioned the incident to friends, however, most were shocked the cup wasn’t free, since I’d purchased another item, too.

I wasn’t so shocked. After all, this was the latest example of an everyday thing that used to be free, but isn’t anymore. For instance, totally no-charge newspaper websites are going down like dominoes. It started in 2011 with The New York Times, which at first allowed users 20 free articles a month before asking them to sign up for a paid subscription; this year, the Times decreased the number of freebies to 10, to encourage more people to pay for the online content. Canadian newspapers have followed, most notably The Globe and Mail in October. Now the Toronto Star — the country’s largest paper — and The National Post have announced plans to do the same in 2013.

As a journalist for the past two decades, I feel as though it’s my duty to support these media outlets. But my reptilian brain keeps shouting, “Online content used to be free — why should you pay now? And, besides, you’ll still get to read 10 articles for free every month. Hello, ever heard the term ‘workaround?'”

As somewhat of an economics geek, I understand that need, not greed, is the motivation for the change. Advertising sales, which are the bread-and-butter of any media outlet’s revenue, are down, and online ad sales aren’t covering costs, either. The new paywalls are meant to help news media keep covering the news and sharing it with us.

And with the economy still tight all around us, I won’t be surprised (even if I am mildly peeved) to find that other previously free stuff is no longer free. But will I pay for it, or go without? The jury inside my reptilian brain is still out.

What about you: Will you go without the things you previously enjoyed for free, or are you willing to pay the new fees?

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