Which of these is the better deal? “Buy one, get one 50% off” or “25% off if you buy two”?

Circulars and newspaper ads practically shout at the consumer to “buy one, get one 50% off.” The “50% off” type is usually much larger than the preceding words.

“Hey, that’s a good deal,” some might say. “Fifty percent off is a darned good savings.”

Not exactly.

For you’re not getting 50% off. You are getting 25% off, with the stipulation that you have to buy two of whatever it is to get this 25% discount.

“Fifty percent off everything” would mean you get 50% off. For example, you could buy a $100 lamp for $50.

But “buy one, get one 50% off” means that first lamp still costs you $100, but if you buy a second at the same time, that second lamp will be reduced to $50. So you’re paying $100 for the first lamp and $50 for the second.

That’s $150 for two lamps. Or $75 per lamp. Except if you buy just one, it’s more than $75; it’s $100. And if you buy a third, it will be at the full $100 (though a fourth would be a mere $50).

If the stores really wanted you to save 50%, they’d slash their prices in half. But they’re not doing that. Instead, they’re giving you 25% off (with a minimum purchase of two units).

They also do this with “buy one, get one free.” But you’re not getting anything for free. There is no free lunch, and nearly every free giveaway has strings attached. “Buy one, get one free” means “buy two, and we’ll give you 50% off.”

So if you buy one lamp for a full $100, you can get a second one for “free.” Or two lamps for $100. Which is $50 a lamp. 

Solely to get the word “free” into the ad, they say “buy one, get one free.” And magnify the word “free.”

Would you respond to the ad if it stated clearly what it really means: “Buy one at our usual (possibly high) price, and we’ll give you a second identical item for no additional cost”?

Now, that still might be a good deal. But don’t delude yourself into thinking the merchandise is free.

This sort of sneaky advertising creates problems. What if the store only has one such lamp left in stock? Will they charge you full price or half price or something in between?

There are times when you would be better off with a “50% off all merchandise” discount or a “25% off all merchandise” sale, without any “free” enticements attached.

Suppose the item is very, very expensive — a top-of-the-line tuxedo, for instance. You rarely would use one; what need do you have of two? Why would you want to buy one at full price solely to receive a discount on a second identical item that you’ll never use?

Some items, such as a gallon of milk, are perishable. Someone who uses very little milk is better off buying one quart at full price rather than “buy one gallon, get one gallon 50% off,” because the first gallon is more than you need, and both gallons will turn sour before you can use up either.

A wise consumer pays attention to the advertisements. A wise consumer studies the advertisements. But a wise consumer tempers their enthusiasm for phrases such as “50% off!” or “get one free!”

Remember, “buy one, get one 50% off” is identical to “buy two, get 25% off.”

And “buy one, get one free” is identical to “buy two, get both at half price.”


Arthur Vidro worked for a decade in the stock industry. Before and after, he wrote newspaper articles and edited a few books. He has served as treasurer of theater and library organizations. He’s been cautious with money ever since a dollar was worth a dollar.

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