9 best ways to get free stuff
Everybody loves free stuff but few people want to spend time looking for it. Here's how to find great freebies with little effort.
I routinely snag all the free stuff I can use, a habit that's been ingrained in me since I started college in 2003. Often it's a bite to eat or branded office supplies, but sometimes it's cooler stuff -- like a sturdy 8-foot bookshelf, a four-drawer filing cabinet, some old-school Nintendo games, or free tickets to a feature-length IMAX film (complete with free popcorn, soda, and parking).
I could probably do a lot better if I tried. But my philosophy is: If I have to work harder than simply picking stuff up, it's not really "free." So I don't clip box tops or scour the Internet night and day. My computer does most of the work for me. I'll explain that after a video by Stacy Johnson on some great freebie strategies.
I got the free furniture and games through the second suggestion, Craigslist. But these are all great ideas (most have scored me goodies), so let's recap and expand on them:
Freecycle. The name makes it clear, right? Reuse is better than recycle, and free is better than not. This site helps organize freebie-loving communities around the world. Look up your city to join a local email list of people looking to find or give away stuff, no strings attached. Prospective goodies present themselves without any effort on your part, and the site's policies keep it a family-friendly environment.
Craigslist. Like Freecycle, this site offers listings of freebies by locality. But you'll have to browse them yourself in a "free" section of the "for sale" category on a much broader classifieds-like page, including traditional job and housing listings, and less traditional personal ads. In other words, you may find more than you bargained for (so to speak) and the broader popularity of this site requires more caution in dealing with potential scams. Don't let that scare you away, though. There really are lots of good finds.
HouseParty. If you're the type that likes to plan events, this site could lead to freebies for you and all your friends. Apply to host a party sponsored by big-name companies like Sony, Ford, or McDonald's, and they might grant you goodies in exchange for the publicity. Applying costs you nothing, and past freebies have included branded clothing, kitchenware, health and beauty products, and lots of food.
Swap.com. Is it free if you have to trade something? Sure, if your bargaining chip no longer has much resale value. This site lets you create "have" and "want" lists for games, books, movies and music, and then matches you up with others. You do have to pay shipping. However, the site makes it easy, handling the logistics with printable labels and providing delivery confirmation so nobody gets ripped off.
If you want to do it the old-fashioned way, there is a local trading section too, but the range of stuff you can get is more limited. An upcoming Swap.com Market section sounds like a barter version of eBay, with a much wider range of tradable goods. For now, though, you can trade at least your wardrobe on SwapStyle.com (run by a different group) and there are lots of other item-specific swapping outlets like PaperbackSwap.com.
Free samples. There are a lot of ways to find fun-size freebies, like signing up for endless email newsletters from your favorite brands. But wouldn't it be nicer if somebody found these goodies for you? The best place I know of that does this is the RetailMeNot.com community. While the main site is a resource for coupon codes to most online shopping outlets, the RetailMeNot forum has a very active freebies section. They also post ways to get things like free retail rewards points. Some other places to try: TotallyFreeStuff.com, AbsurdlyCool.com, and HeyItsFree.net.
Free after rebate. These deals are always a little dicey, since mail-in rebates can get lost in the mail, expire, or come with tricky conditions. Most are more effort than I'm willing to put in, but I look for rebate offers if they're for things I'm buying anyway.
These items are usually a grade or two above free samples, probably because you actually pay for them up front. One of the best places to look is the FatWallet.com forums. Browse around (keep an eye out for "FAR") or try a search for "rebate." They also have a message thread specifically for company contact info and methods for winning those inevitable rebate battles. Another great place to check is SlickDeals.net.
Card rewards. Getting freebies with what you buy is always nice. While the financial crisis has put the squeeze on great credit card perks, some still exist. You can search for credit cards with the best rewards and interest rates with our credit card search.
Many customer loyalty cards rack up reward points for freebies or discounts too. These often accumulate slowly, but if you're already spending there you'll eventually benefit. Some cards give perks without points. It seems like I get a free pastry or drink every other time I'm at Panera (for free Wi-Fi, of course).
Social media freebies. You may already know that brands on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and services like Foursquare give away stuff (including coupons, freebies, and exclusive previews) in exchange for promoting their name and parroting their message. But maybe you're embarrassed that your friends might see you take advantage. There's an easy solution: Adjust your privacy settings or create an alternate account so you get freebies without providing free PR.
On Facebook, there are three settings to change on the "Account" menu in the upper right. This will sound like a lot, but it takes 30 seconds:
- Under "Account Settings," go to the "Facebook Ads" tab, and under "Ads and Friends" click "Edit social ads setting." Setting it to "No one" means your friends won't see your name attached to ads from brands you like.
- Under "Privacy Preferences," view the settings of "Connecting on Facebook." Here you have the option to hide your "likes, activities, and other connections" from everyone by selecting "only me."
- Back on "Privacy Preferences," under "Sharing on Facebook," click "Customize Settings" and you can change "Places I check in to" to a custom level of "only me."
On Twitter, there's no getting around what's required for freebies: rebroadcasting brand messages through "retweets." But what you can do is create an alternate account where your retweeted message will bounce around an empty virtual room. And on Foursquare, you can check in "off the grid." The Foursquare FAQ explains that and other privacy settings.
Aggregated freebie search. What's better than a bunch of websites that list great deals and free stuff? Having a custom, searchable database of them all in one place. You can make your own using a free RSS feed aggregator -- a tech tool that collects lists of information using Really Simple Syndication. I use Google Reader.
Once you sign up there, you can search for freebie feeds or paste in URLs to follow. It takes a little work to set up and get used to but, from one freeloader to another, the payoff is worth it. To help my fellow lazy deal-seekers get started, here's a link to my own bundled deals feed, which includes some of the sites I mentioned above.
Free advice. Free stuff is everywhere. It all comes down to how much time you want to invest in getting the goodies. Regardless of your approach, here are a few last safety and convenience pointers:
- Always be careful when meeting up with strangers for freebies or any other transaction.
- Never trust an offer that's too good to be true. It probably is.
- Consider using an alternate email address to sign up for deals, just to keep spam down.
- Don't overspend to rack up reward points, or waste a ton of gas on what would be cheaper to buy than get "free."
- Avoid plugging generic terms like "free music" or "free stuff" into a search engine. The top results are often websites containing viruses or software that places annoying advertisements all over your computer and slows it down. Some also ask you for personal information or want you to sign up for "free offers" that may end up costing you.
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