The Unbearable Weight of an Overstuffed Gmail

When you run out of free Gmail space, either clean up or shell out

Buried under email

 Getty Images

I estimate that I throw out 80 to 90 percent of all my physical mail, a figure that’s almost in equal and opposite proportion to the amount of digital email I discard.

Leaving aside the junk and spam mail that I never read and delete every few months (with only a handful of exceptions), whatever makes it into my Gmail inbox stays put.

In the digital world, and especially with most of our storage in the cloud (meaning outside your home or office and on a server probably hundreds or thousands of miles away), we don’t usually think of storage space as a physical thing. It’s not until someone forces us to pay attention that we realize we’re running out of space.

You Don’t Have Enough Space

For the last six months, I’ve been getting regular Google notifications warning me that I’m running out of Gmail storage. Contrary to popular belief, the free email platform Gmail does not offer an endless supply of storage. Instead, you get a rather paltry—at least in the world of modern local storage—15GB. More problematically, the more you use Google services, the more that space is sliced up between Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Photos. 

Gmail Storage Warning
Here's my real-life Gmail storage warning. Yes, I have a problem.

Gmail still accounts for my largest storage footprint, eating 13GB of my 15GB allocation. Photos take up just under half a gigabyte and documents in Drive (that’s Google Docs, Google Slides, and Google Sheets) eat up a little over 1.5GB.

Along with Google’s warnings is a pitch. Instead of telling me to clear out my old garbage, something my wife tells me in the real world every single day, Google says I should simply buy 100GB for $1.99 a month or pay $2.99 for 200GB a month. I try to imagine my wife saying, "What if you just built another storage room?"

If I really want to stop worrying, I could fork over almost $9.99 a month to Google for 2TB (similar to what I have with Apple’s iCloud) or go storage crazy and buy as much as 30TB for $299.99 a month.

Gmail Storage options
Storage isn't free anywhere. You just have to choose your subscription poison.

First, can tech companies do us all a favor and start charging rounded numbers for storage? This aping of real-world retail prices for an ephemeral product is just stupid. I get why they do it, to fool us into thinking we’re not actually paying basically $10 a month for 2TB. One: We’re not fooled! Two: Google doesn’t have to manage our checkbook and do the math that would be so much freaking easier of they just added the stinking penny. Heck donate all those pennies to charity and I’m sure we’d all pay it.

But I digress.

You Thought it Was Free, Right?

I’m also against paying for more Gmail storage because I cannot stop thinking of Gmail as a free service. It’s why I signed up for it 15 years ago, and why I have 15 years of email trapped in it. I’m still, as I noted earlier this year, using email as a sort of gross filing system. My trash and spam purges do little to help reduce my overall Gmail storage nut.

There are some easy ways to find all the attachments that might be over-stuffing your box. Try typing “Larger:10M” into your Gmail search bar and you’ll see all the messages with giant attachments. If you want, you can delete all those emails right there, or you could be like me and worry about losing something important and then starting the laborious project of culling just the useless stuff, until you realize there's a Twitter thread you’d rather be reading.

I hesitate to call what Google has done with Gmail a bait and switch. I’m sure information about the 15GB limit was somewhere in the signup or system in 2004, but they certainly didn’t make it a highlight. On the other hand, back in 2004 I would’ve laughed if you said my email inbox could ever eat up 15 GB of space.

Staring at my over-stuffed Gmail, I began to wonder what it would look like if I had taken all my physical mail since 2004 and, say, piled it into a closet. There’d been no digital message that I was running out of space. But as I inched open the door to slide in just one more piece of marketing mail from my local politician, the hinges would creak and then buckle, burying me under a massive missive history.

At least this Gmail glut can’t collapse and kill me. On the other hand, if I don’t do something about my storage problem, Gmail warned me that I might not be able to send or receive any more email.

And this is bad thing because?