What's the English idiom for wanting something without the necessary effort to get it? In German, we say "wash me but don't get me wet."

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    Welcome to ELU. I think I know what you're trying to express. But can you include context where the German idiom would be used. Please read the linked question Any equivalent to this Persian proverb “The yellow dog is the jackal's brother”?. You don't need to write that long, but at least you need to explain to us when it is used. – user140086 Jul 8 '16 at 18:11
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    @Alexander Schmidt: To me, the German saying you mention is closer to "wanting two mutually exclusive things at the same time", not "having something for free" - which one are you interested in? – Gerhard Jul 9 '16 at 9:44

"You can't have your cake and eat it, too."

"You can't have your cake and eat it, too" is a saying that describes the dilemma faced when you want one thing very much, but you are not willing to give up other things in order to have it. (Source: wordreference.com)

Wikipedia also lists Wasch mir den Pelz, aber mach mich nicht nasswash my fur but don't get me wet as the German equivalent to "you can't have your cake and eat it, too."

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    I don't think this saying is close to what he is looking for. – ScottF Jul 9 '16 at 4:06
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    This idiom always struck me as inexplicable. What good is cake if you can't eat it? Taking a cake and eating it makes a lot of sense. Washing oneself without getting wet doesn't. (I'm not questioning your answer, as indeed this idiom is used in this way in english. It's just weird that it's an idiom :-P ) – Ant Jul 9 '16 at 14:25
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    I am just making a note here, because this one seems to get the most votes, and I would dissuade that. – ScottF Jul 9 '16 at 14:41
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    @Ant You have a very common confusion and I think it's because of the word have. I interpret the idiom as being better worded, "you can't keep your cake and eat it, too". As in, once you've eaten it, it's gone. Or maybe it would be clearer with money: "you can't have/keep your money and spend it, too". Some people like to have a lot of money in the bank. They might also like to spend money. So they want to have it and spend it, but they can't. Modern people probably feel less security from having a cake in the cake safe than people did when this idiom was coined. – Todd Wilcox Jul 9 '16 at 17:15

That freeloader wants _____ to be handed to him [on a plate].

give/hand something to somebody on a plate : to let someone get something very easily, without having to work for it

You can't expect everything to be handed to you on a plate - you've got to make a bit of effort.thefreedictionary.com

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    I also like the "on a silver platter" variant of this. "The Internet provides huge quantities of information on a silver platter" – jkhan Jul 8 '16 at 20:58

Three idioms come to mind:

You can't have your cake and eat it too

Incidently, the wikipedia page on this phrase lists "wash my fur but don't get me wet" as the German equivalent.

Less abstract, but most precise:

Wanting something for nothing

Cambridge dictionary - something for nothing

Also applicable, but less specific:

Wanting the best of both worlds

Cambridge dictionary - best of both worlds

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There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Although this is more of a response to wanting something for nothing, rather than meaning to want something for nothing

from wikipedia:

"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (alternatively, "There is no such thing as a free lunch" or other variants) is a popular adage communicating the idea that it is impossible to get something for nothing.


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Another related idiom is "free ride"

an opportunity or advantage that someone gets without having done anything to deserve it

Cambridge Dictionary , used for example in "He wants a free ride to success".

"Free ride" has similar connotations to "free lunch" and "something for nothing" mentioned in other answers.

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"No pain, no gain" comes to mind...

I had to deliberate about this one since your description points toward the desire of wanting to do something without effort and still earn a reward. However, if "You can't have your cake and eat it, too" is acceptable, then I believe idioms that correspond to the relationship of work and reward also apply.

The expression refers to the fact that some kind of sacrifice must occur before one can receive something of value in return. Whether that sacrifice be time, energy, or funds is up to the discretion of the reader.

from Wikipedia:

Rabbi Ben Hei Hei says, "According to the pain is the gain." — Pirkei Avot 5:21 (aka The Ethics of Fathers)

NO PAINS, NO GAINS. If little labour, little are our gains: Man's fate is according to his pains. — Hesperides by Robert Herrick

Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains... — as reprinted in his The Way to Wealth (1758) by Benjamin Franklin

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Two phrases come to mind, they are really versions of the same phrase, although the first one can be used literally as well

... not willing to pay the price

... won't pay the piper

but neither of these match exactly (imho) the German idiom quoted.

Also, I can envision circumstances where I would use

your mouth is writing cheques that your body can't cash,

but still not an exact match.


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Not an idiom as such, but a single word that describes "wanting something for nothing" almost perfectly is "coveting".

From Wiktionary:


  1. (transitive) To wish for with eagerness; to desire possession of, often enviously.
  2. (transitive) To long for inordinately or unlawfully; to hanker after (something forbidden).
  3. (intransitive) To yearn, have or indulge inordinate desire, notably for another's possession.
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