The Hidden Cost of Free Stuff for Your Calling


I used to work with a youth pastor who had an “Aww shucks” way about him that hid a shrewdness that I’d associate with an oil tycoon or high stakes finance big wig. His office was littered with broken computers, sports equipment, and the literally “important” pile of stuff was always on the floor in front of his door. He looked like a classic youth pastor.

Those who thought they could boss him around quickly learned otherwise. He always had the right policy in place to keep the kids safe, each event had been carefully considered with the big picture in mind, and he always knew how to handle money.

Perhaps that last one about money impressed me the most because handling money has always been a mystery—at least, once you get past the part where I spend it on hockey tickets or a cheeseburger. Earning it and saving it have largely eluded me.

Whenever the youth pastor collected registration forms for any event or trip, he always asked for a modest deposit, typically between $10 and $20.

“The kids won’t flake out and the parents won’t forget if there’s a little money on the line,” he shared with me.

This, of course, is a pretty standard trick to prompt people to make a commitment. It was just the first time I saw how things worked behind the scenes at a church and an important lesson in the ways money changes behavior.

As I’ve taken one step after another toward my calling/vocation/career as a writer, I’m starting to see how the wealth of free writing and promotion tools has been a major set back in terms of my mindset and commitment level. In the past year I’ve started paying for more tools, and there’s an advantage in paying for tools, services, books, and even training.

While I love the democratic, accessible, free to join nature of so many internet tools, it does come with the very real risk of creating a culture of dabbling where creators fail to take themselves and their work seriously. Do we sign up for a bunch of free tools, play at writing, and then condemn ourselves to an eternal purgatory as a wannabe writer, photographer, or creator because we fear losing money or making a commitment?

Free stuff is great. Trying stuff for free is great. Freemiums are a super way to test out something without any financial risk. Free eBooks are really nice when you want the content in them. Free blogging tools, free social media services, and free management and marketing software are all wonderful for writers trying to get started on a tight budget. However, the inherent risk of setting up a free website, sending email newsletters for free, contacting fans for free through social media, and being able to set up eBooks for free by simply loading a Word file means that the point of entry is so low and accessible that we may never actually set worthy goals or take leaps of faith that actually require… faith.


In 2016 I wanted to finally take myself a little more seriously as a professional author, and one of the steps I needed to take was finally paying up for professional social media tools like Buffer, purchasing and learning Scrivener for writing and compiling eBooks, managing my invoices and expenses with Freshbooks (seriously, give it a spin and integrate PayPal for Business, it’s great!), and paying for the next level up in MailChimp (while giving ConvertKit a long look). It was time to graduate from all of the freemiums and to start using professional tools at a higher level just like any professional business venture.

Once I started paying a bit more each month for all of my tools, I started to think differently of myself and my work.

Were there ways I could improve my writing?

Could I write more books?

Are there ways to make myself more efficient?

Can I do a better job of planning my schedule each week?

I never thought of myself as puttering around or acting like an amateur, but the truth is that I hadn’t taken myself as seriously as I should have. I’d paid to attend writing conferences, but that didn’t translate into professional changes in my day to day operation. When I stopped trying to squeeze by with free, cheap stuff, I clicked into a mindset where I’d better make the most of the tools I’m paying to use.

The truth is that I run the risk of turning into a dabbler every day. I can switch from a person with a vision and calling into a person who just plays around with all of the free, cheap stuff and tries to just get by.

When I practice my Examen each evening, I try to look at whether I’ve stretched myself at some point throughout the day. The questions look something like this:

Did I step out in faith in some way?

Did I reach out to others vulnerably and honestly?

Did I need God or fall back on God in the course of my day?

Before you answer any of these questions or head off to guilt trip central with me, I want to suggest something very important. God is merciful and loving. God wants to restore us and when we are faithless, God is faithful. For every time that I’ve lost sight of the fact that God keeps calling me back to my writing work and the calling to write seriously, there is ample mercy and forgiveness that carry me back so that I can get my act together.

Dabbling isn’t an act of faith. I don’t need God’s help in order to play around in the fringes.

It’s not that spending money automatically means you’re living by faith. It’s not a magic trick. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up where you need to be any more than a $20 deposit guaranteed that the high school students will show up for the youth group event. Life happens. Distractions come up. Nothing is certain.

But perhaps you’ve been on the fence, aimless, or discouraged. Maybe you’re terrified of failure. Maybe you want to just play it safe. I know that feeling well. Man, I love playing it safe. There’s nothing better than home base. Who wants to try something new, risk failure, and then have to learn from a bunch of mistakes?


But I have some money on the line now. I’m taking little steps of faith. I’ve paid my deposit to keep pursuing my calling. I’m trying to avoid being an aimless dabbler. I’m trying to live by faith and to try things that require faith in God and, more importantly, God’s provision.

If I end up playing it safe today, I can fall back on God’s mercy and kindness. There’s always tomorrow. As my friend Ray Hollenbach says, “New morning, new mercies.”

Perhaps you can end your day by asking, “Where can I move toward living by faith tomorrow?” This isn’t about RESULTS or charts with gold stars or earned favor.

We’re learning to hear and then respond to a gentle whisper from God that sometimes calls us to take some big risks. We’re learning to put something real and tangible and risky on the line, trusting that God will go with us as we step out into the unknown, hoping that paying that deposit for the trip was worth it.





6 thoughts on “The Hidden Cost of Free Stuff for Your Calling

  1. I have found that some free webinars that are supposed to attract me to buy the product are mostly hot air and waste my time. What you say about paying for stuff makes me feel better about what I’ve spent on my website etc. I gulped when we did our taxes this year, but our accountant said there are a lot of things I could be doing, that didn’t try to lead to an income. Though I’m not sure how to get from here to making some income. I take great comfort in the whole idea of being faithful and leaving success in God’s hands, because I can keep working and offering what I have to people like the loaves and fishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that point in the process is the hardest. I feel like I’ve just started to turn the corner a little bit, but it’s still really hard to see that money going out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I would imagine, especially with a family. I’m retired so it’s okay-ish but I was pretty demoralized by having to pay for my novel’s publication and the expenses of publicizing it etc at first. But I was so not ready to self publish. It was one of those decisions that either way you turned would have regret. Godspeed with your work.


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