We've all seen the ads.
“Free Pandora ring!”
“Bonus 40,000 miles!”
But are they really free? Now, look at those examples above and look past the bold headline to the small asterisk and even smaller print.
“Free Pandora ring!”* (when you buy jewelry over $100)
“Bonus 40,000 miles!”* (when you spend $3000 in 3 months)
“Free poster!”* (when you pre-order the newest and most expensive game)
“Free Wi-Fi!”* (when you order expensive coffee from our shop)
If someone says they want to give you something for free, they're either a close friend or using you for something. Does that sound a bit cynical? Oh well.
If you've ever been to a convention before, free stuff gets handed out like hotcakes there. Pens, pads of paper, frisbees, t-shirts, coffee mugs- the list goes on. How can those companies afford to give away all that junk? The answer is, You! By using their stuff, you're advertising their stuff to the world, and reinforcing that brand on yourself. Or, that free thing you got at the beginning more than paid for itself with getting you to start an account with them so they could charge you for fees and use your money to collect interest for themselves for the next 30 years.
So, keep that in the back of your mind. Nothing is really ever free.
That being said……
You can leverage the perks of “free stuff” the smart way.
In my 24 years of vast knowledge and experience, I've discovered some fun ways to get free things.
In my article How to Find Housing, I wrote about exploring a new area to find a new place to live. I had an option between a slightly cheaper apartment, or a nice one with tons of bells and whistles. I ultimately chose the slightly pricier one because of the perks they offer. I have access to free coffee, free fruit and the free on-site fitness center. Now, free is free. They don't charge anything extra on top of what I'm already paying them, which is fortunate because I give them A LOT of money each month to live there. “Free” in this instance usually isn't the best quality or always available. The coffee is a Keurig pod, and the fruit isn't always there. They usually have bananas, and sometimes they look a bit brown. But that's when I make lemonade out of lemons, or in this case banana bread out of squishy bananas.
I stumbled into work this Monday morning a tired, sleepy-eyed wreck. I forgot my phone and had to be in early for a call with our team mates halfway around the world. Not the greatest start to the day or work week by any means.
But then a savior appeared.
No, not the second coming.
I had my choice of free coffee, hot chocolate, or tea. I don't really drink coffee, but after a late night at the softball fields, I needed a pick me up. I made a very crude mocha by dumping hot chocolate mix into coffee, and it actually didn't taste too bad. All of this for the low, low price of zero dollars.
In this case, free really is kinda free. I switched divisions and this one is much nicer in every way. Nicer building, bigger and better cafeteria, honest to god granite countertops in the bathrooms, free coffee…. it's nice. But, like the other “free” things, there's a motive behind it. The office here needed to be nicer and have more perks to be attractive to prospective employees that may transfer in from other companies.
Other Work Perks
This building also has a staffed onsite fitness center with fitness classes! Right there, I'm saving $30 a month which does add up over time. I paid $30/mo for the last year, so that's an extra $360 I have to spend on something else this year (like all the pet fees I've been accruing!).
My employer also almost completely paid for my move. I received a moving allowance before the whole process started, and then some of my expenses were reimbursable. All in all, a move that should've costed me over $2000 cost me about $245. Next time, I'll let them pay for a moving company instead of doing a self-move!
I have yet to experience this next perk for myself, but I know of several coworkers who've done this. Say your company wants to send you overseas for a business trip. Schedule a vacation at that location directly after your business trip concludes, and you'll only have to pay for one flight back instead of a round trip ticket. Not to mention, put the expenses of the business trip on your personal credit card. You get the reward points and then the company reimburses you later! “Free” points!
Sometimes, companies will pay for other daily expenses. You might get a work phone or a company discount on your personal bill. (Mine gets a 20% discount which will be nice when I no longer qualify for my military discount!). Depending on your role with the company, they might even give you a car to drive around town. I have a friend who pays $150 a month to his employer. In return, he gets a new car every two years, gas on the company car and insurance paid for. I'd jump at that chance in a heart beat! And finally, some companies have been known to pay for housing. It can go one of two ways- either you live with a roommate in a small place, or you're high enough in the hierarchy to get a penthouse suite with a housekeeper.
Credit Card Churning
I'm not really sure if this qualifies as free, since some of it requires a bit of work. I promise I'll do a more in depth post on how I churn my credit cards in the future. For now, I'll stick to saying you get points for every dollar you spend. Sometimes 2 pts, sometimes 1 pt or if they have special categories you can get more during that quarter. These points can be used to reimburse travel costs (how I paid $250 for my round trip ticket to Ecuador!), can be used against current bills, or you can get stuff from their marketplace. You had to spend money to get those points, but at least you don't have to pay extra for them!
Remember this next time you see some advertisement screaming FREE at you. Chances are pretty high there's a catch for someone, and that someone is probably you!
What “free” things have you run across lately? Any free stuff that I missed?