Why Buy A Cow When You Can Get Milk For Free?: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
July 21, 2023

Have you ever heard the phrase, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" Maybe your parents or grandparents have used it before. The idiom means there is no need to commit to something when you can get what you want for free.  People commonly use the phrase in discussions about relationships and business decisions.

In short:

  • This saying asks if it's worth making a big promise or spending a lot when you can enjoy the good parts without doing so.
  • It's about thinking if it's better to keep things easy and free, especially when you're already getting what you want without any conditions.

What Does "Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk for Free?" Mean?

"Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" is an old idiom that suggests one shouldn't pay or commit to something when they can get the benefits without doing so. It often implies an examination of a commitment or investment, comparing it to the benefit that can be received without any obligation.

Let's dig deeper into its core meanings and usage:

  • The phrase is frequently used in discussions about relationships. In such contexts, it means why commit to a relationship when you can enjoy its benefits without any commitment? However, it can apply to any situation where there's an opportunity to get something for free that someone else might pay for.
  • The phrase is a metaphor, using the idea of buying a cow for milk (a large investment for a steady supply) versus getting milk for free (enjoying the benefits without the associated costs).
  • Similar idioms include "Why buy the whole pig just to get a little sausage?" and "Why buy the orchard when you can get the apples for free?"

Where Does "Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk for Free?" Come From?

The earliest recorded use of this phrase, or a version of it, dates back to 1659. It was included in a collection of proverbs compiled by James Howell, a prominent historian and writer of the 17th century. The original wording was slightly different, but the underlying sentiment was the same.

Historical Examples

"Why buy a cow when milk is so cheap?"

- James Howell, Proverbs, 1659

"Who would keep a cow of their own, that can have a quart of milk for a penny?"

- John Bunyan, Mr Bodman, 1680

The phrase was primarily used as a metaphorical way of questioning the necessity of marriage. The "cow" in the phrase represented a wife, and the "milk" represented the benefits of a relationship, such as companionship, sexual relations, and domestic support. The implication was that these benefits could be obtained without the commitment and financial obligations of marriage, hence the question, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?"

10 Examples of "Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk for Free?" in Sentences

To help you fully grasp the usage of this idiom, let's see it in action across a variety of contexts:

  • As words to live by, consider this: "why buy a cow when you can get milk for free."
  • Real talk, the saying "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free" does make a lot of sense in some situations.
  • Many students ponder, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" when they can use library resources instead of buying expensive textbooks.
  • When their company offered remote work options, several employees began to think, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" reconsidering their costly city apartments.
  • I'm head over heels in love with this dime piece. But my friend said, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?"
  • The venture capitalist challenged the startup's business model with a simple question: "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?".
  • Many digital nomads follow the philosophy of "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" opting for co-working spaces instead of setting up personal offices.
  • In the age of music streaming, many people wonder, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" when thinking about purchasing physical albums.
  • Here's a pro tip for aspiring entrepreneurs: remember the saying, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free."
  • Here's some food for thought: Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?

Examples of "Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk for Free?" in Pop Culture

The phrase "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" has appeared in various pop culture contexts, often to illustrate debates around commitments and investments.

Here are a few examples:

  • In Steven Gordon's book "The Future of the Music Business" (2005), the phrase is used to discuss the strategy of offering only brief music samples online instead of providing full access. "The whole idea of why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free relates to offering only a very brief sample of your music online. I have intellectual property, and I treat that intellectual property very seriously as an artist."
  • Elina Furman, in her book "Kiss and Run" (2007), mentions the common mentality of some men who question the need to commit to a relationship when they can enjoy the benefits without a serious commitment. "In the past, women who wanted to move in with a boyfriend would get a strict talking-to about a common male mentality: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
  • Inge Auerbacher, in her book "Highway To New York: A Lady Truck Driver Adventure" (2008), includes the phrase as an expression used by a character to justify not committing to a relationship. "I can get plenty of dames, so why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free...ya know what I mean?"

Other/Different Ways to Say "Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk for Free?"

There are numerous expressions that capture a similar sentiment to "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?"

Here are some examples:

  • Why invest when you can reap benefits for free?
  • Why pay for the cow when the milk is free?
  • Why buy the orchard when you can get the apples for free?
  • Why purchase the entire book when you can read the chapter you need online?
  • Why commit when you can enjoy without strings attached?
  • Why buy the hen when you can get the eggs for free?
  • Why buy the whole pig just to get a little sausage?

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk for Free?"

  • What does the idiom "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" mean?

This idiom is used to question why one would make an unnecessary commitment or investment to obtain something that can be acquired without that commitment or at a lesser cost.

  • How can I use "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" in a sentence?

You can use this idiom to discuss decisions involving potential overinvestment. For example: "I don't see why we should buy a new printer for the office when we can use the one in the building's business center. Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?"

  • Where does the idiom "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" come from?

The exact origin of this idiom is unclear. However, it is believed to have originated from farming communities where the reality of owning a cow (and the costs associated) versus the benefits of the milk produced were everyday considerations.

  • Is the phrase rude or offensive?

This phrase isn't generally offensive, but the context in which it's used can potentially be. For instance, it can be seen as degrading or offensive if used to refer to personal relationships, particularly romantic or marital ones, where it could imply a transactional view of the relationship.

  • Is "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" a popular idiom?

While not the most commonly used idiom, it is well-known in English-speaking cultures, particularly among older generations. Its usage may depend on regional factors and personal language preferences.

  • Can you use the phrase in formal settings?

While it's not inappropriate for formal settings, the phrase's colloquial and somewhat humorous tone may not suit all formal contexts. It is more commonly used in casual conversations or in written language that aims for a more conversational tone.

  • What's the significance of the idiom in decision-making?

This phrase can serve as a reminder to evaluate options carefully before committing to a decision, particularly those involving investment or resources. It emphasizes the importance of avoiding unnecessary commitments when there are less costly or more efficient alternatives available.

  • Can it mean advocating for exploiting resources without investing?

While the idiom could be interpreted in this way, it is usually used to emphasize the value of thinking critically about investments and making efficient choices rather than encouraging exploitation.

  • Are there other idioms similar to "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?"

Yes, other idioms carry a similar meaning, such as "Why buy the orchard when you can get the apples for free?" or "Why purchase the entire book when you can read the chapter you need online?" These expressions all convey the idea of avoiding unnecessary investments or commitments.

  • Is "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" a universal concept?

Yes, while the phrase is English, the concept of making efficient decisions and avoiding unnecessary investments is a universal one, with similar idioms existing in different cultures and languages.

Final Thoughts About "Why Buy a Cow When You Can Get Milk for Free?"

The idiom "Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?" is a colloquial expression emphasizing the need to make efficient decisions. It cautions against making unnecessary commitments or investments when there are simpler or less costly alternatives available.

Here's a quick recap:

  • This phrase prompts us to consider the value of our investments and commitments.
  • People frequently use this proverb when talking about maintaining frugality and making judicious decisions.
  • Some people may find it offensive when used in the context of avoiding a serious relationship or marriage.
  • While the idiom has agricultural origins, it's applicable to many modern scenarios, such as business investments, technology use, and personal decisions.

Whether you use it in a positive or negative way, it's important to be mindful of how others might perceive it.

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