Like freebies? Find 'em online
A few strategic clicks and you can eat, drink and be merry without paying. You might even score a computer or an airline ticket.
If you like free stuff, look for it on Facebook and Twitter. Gift cards, jewelry, purses, sample- or full-size beauty products, computers, baby items, music downloads, cameras, airline tickets, food items, electronics and other gratis goodies are handed out every day.
Why social media? Because that's where the consumers are. And since the Internet is jammed with companies trying to get your money, the best way for a company to stand out is to give things away.
Are these "freebies" really free, though? What's the catch?
Yes, you really can get a ton of free stuff. And yes, sometimes there's a catch: You end up knee-deep in e-mail and tweets. (There are ways around those hassles, though. More on that in a minute.)
Sometimes the process is pretty simple: "Like" a product or service on Facebook and you get something in return. For example, a few years back I clicked on IHOP's "Pancake Revolution." Now I get an annual free breakfast coupon.
Try without a buy
Many giveaways are actually contests that you enter by tweeting a certain phrase or leaving a Facebook comment. For the bigger-ticket items you might need to do more work: answering trivia questions, writing a mini-essay, making a short video.
Focus on goods and services you use most often and follow those companies on Twitter and Facebook, then check in once a day to look for giveaways. If possible, check in several times daily since some promotions specify "while supplies last."
Curious about a new product? Follow that company, too, since giveaways let you try without a buy. That's not to say every new product is introduced with a freebie or even a coupon, but you won't know unless you check.
Is this worth your time? If saving money is important (or necessary), then sure. Get enough of these free products and you'll notice a difference in your budget. Or suppose that deodorant sample gives you hives, or a new salad dressing isn't all that tasty? Think of the money you saved by not paying for products you can't use.
A big-deal prize can have a much bigger impact. For example, a quick look at Facebook revealed giveaways for items like a 3-D television, an engagement ring, a tablet computer and a trip for four to Paris. Imagine a life-changing journey with three friends or the ring you wanted to give to your fiancée versus the one you could afford.
Set some boundaries
Prospecting for freebies is a huge potential time drain, however. You might want to set a timer for the amount of minutes you want to spend. Or set some kind of rule, such as looking only while you're on hold or during your kid's nap, or while watching TV.
Before you start, create a new email account. Deal alerts, monthly newsletters and other communiqués from companies you follow could be a big distraction in your regular e-mail inbox. You might want to start a second Twitter account for tweeting contests, too.
A few more tips:
- Look for local businesses. Fewer people enter their giveaways so your chances are better.
- Franchisees of national businesses might stage their own promotions.
- Do hashtag searches -- #giveaway or #freebie – on Twitter.
- Use the Facebook application "Wildfire" for a list of current contests.
- Some goodies -- toiletries, makeup, granola bars -- are perfect for Christmas stockings. Fancy pens, T-shirts, mugs, sports bags and other small items make good pick-me-up gifts.
- Shelters always need sample-sized toothpaste, shampoo and other toiletries.
- Don't be a spammer. Not all your friends will tolerate a steady stream of tweets or Facebook forwards.
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Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.
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