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Better than the lottery: Winning contests

I’ve been entering contests for decades, and I've won everything from appliances to ski lessons. Here's how.

By Stacy Johnson Sep 18, 2012 7:01PM

This post comes from Peggy Schwartz at partner site Money Talks News.

Logo Money Talks News on MSN MoneyI don't waste money on gambling, but I do like winning.  So far this year, I've won free ski lessons, gift cards, movie passes, dinner out on the town, and a nice new set of cookware. How? I enter contests. Every legitimate one I can find.

Happy Man (© Steve McAlister/Brand X Pictures/PictureQuest)In the past, I’ve won trips, cash, even appliances. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

More effort equals better odds

Entries that require a little more effort on your part -- post a comment, write an essay, create a recipe, video, slogan, etc. -- mean fewer people will enter. That increases your chances of winning.


Follow the rules

If the rules state that you can enter only once, enter only once. Being greedy can disqualify you. And again, if there are a lot of rules to follow, don't look at that as a hassle; it just means fewer people will slog through them all, and you're more likely to win.

Make it a family affair

My kids are always on the lookout for new contests, and they enter as many as possible. When my son was in middle school, he won $5,000 for his essay on recycling. Another son won a year’s supply of bagels from the local bagel shop. My daughter won a $1,000 shopping spree at the local supermarket. My kids have won bikes, a treasure chest of games and baseball equipment, as well as movies and CDs.

Enter everywhere

Two common places to win: in-store promotions and radio stations.

In-store promotions include grand openings, special events, and seasonal sales. Supermarkets, banks, car dealerships, mattress stores and many other retailers offer you an opportunity to sign up for great prizes as a way to lure you into their establishments. Sign up and show up -- but don't buy anything you don't need. Prchasing something is rarely a requirement.

As for radio stations, you've heard of contests for being the correct caller, but many stations also have online contests as well. These are a favorite of mine, because few folks realize they can win on a radio station's website. It's how I won the aforementioned appliances and ski lessons -- as well as gift cards and concert tickets.

There are tons of other opportunities to win online. Start by checking out the websites of your favorite brands or television shows -- here's one from HGTV. Also, more and more companies are offering contests when you “like” them on Facebook.

Finally, don't forget those "specially marked packages." If you're already going to buy a brand of an item, check the shelf to see if there's a specially marked package. From this method, I've won cash as well as a bike and coupons for free products.

Enter carefully

Winning isn't easy. You have to be vigilant.

Be careful when filling out forms. In addition to making sure you fulfill all the requirements, you also want to make sure you don't make an unintended purchase. I recently ended up with an unwanted magazine subscription because I didn't scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and uncheck the box for a one-year subscription before I hit submit. Rookie mistake.

If you're entering one of those cellphone contests that require you to text, make sure you understand your phone’s texting plan, because regular texting charges will apply. If your plan doesn't charge extra for texting, take advantage of those “text such-and-such to a certain number to win” opportunities.

Then, of course, there are the outright scams. Here's how to recognize them...

  • Does it require a purchase? Most contests include the words “no purchase necessary.” If it doesn't, it's not a true contest.
  • Is it a legitimate source?  Just because the “contest” offers a gift card to a well-known retailer doesn't mean that retailer is the sponsor. Check for the name of the sponsor. Contests are a marketing tool used for name recognition and to beef up company mailing and email lists. Without a sponsor's name prominently announced, don’t enter.
  • Does the contest require a payment or credit card information? No legitimate contest requires you to pay an upfront fee (shipping, handling, taxes, etc.) to claim your prize. However, if the prize is large enough, you will have to claim it on your taxes.
  • Does the contest ask for a Social Security number? This is never a requirement to enter a legit contest.
  • Does it have official rules? All real contests have rules. Some standard requirements deal with age, residency and not having a family member who works for the sponsor. If there are no rules, then it's not done right.

Good luck!

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