Image: Mailbox © Corbis

Who doesn't love a freebie? Ah, the mailbox as piñata, spilling out free candy, breakfast cereal, cold medication, shampoo, toothpaste, body wash and other gratis goodies.

What's not so much fun is the spamming and scamming associated with many "free" Internet offers. That's why it's best to let reputable deal bloggers filter out the dross.

"I weed through things and help them find the good stuff," says Heather Hernandez, who writes a blog called Freebies4Mom.

What kind of stuff? Just about any kind you can imagine: pet food, heartburn and allergy medicines, chai tea, protein bars, feminine hygiene products, caramel apple dip, T-shirts, movie tickets, soy butter, disinfectant wipes, fabric softener, vitamins, lipstick, energy drinks, movie rentals, garden seeds, American Girl doll dress patterns and much more. Sometimes the free goodies are a lot more valuable, like electronics or vacations.

You can even get a free condom by mail. Or, if you decide not to, you can sign up for free diaper and formula samples nine months from now.

Where freebies come from

Why would a company give away a product? Because it hopes you'll pay for the next one.

"Companies are looking to put their products in potential consumers' hands. They wouldn't do it if it didn't work," says Brandt Held, a co-founder of MySavings.com.

This lets consumers try a product without a cash commitment. Ever plunk down $8.99 for laundry detergent that gave you hives or buy a shampoo that made your hair as flat and oily as a latke?

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

Some people prefer to focus on social-media giveaways. Facebook and Twitter feature a never-ending stream of swag -- and not just bumper stickers and buy-one-get-one sandwiches. We're talking iPads, cameras, vacations, gift cards, tickets to sporting events and fully loaded laptops and tablets.

Local and national businesses are eager to cement brand loyalty, promote new products and woo additional customers. That's why social-media sites have become "a real mecca for free stuff," says Shama Kabani, the author of "The Zen of Social Media Marketing."

Yes, the latest electronics are given away. So are video rentals and audiobooks, fast food and fine dining, designer coffee and sugar-free lemonade, hummus and burritos, jewelry and purses, gift cards and housewares, diapers and training pants, cosmetics and face creams, novels and music downloads, shampoo, hair color and even head-lice solution.

The lazy way to get free stuff

A steady stream of freebies makes it fun to pick up the mail. Harry Martin, a dedicated couponer and deal seeker, never knows what to expect. Because it usually takes a few weeks to receive the offers, he's usually forgotten what he ordered by the time the package arrives.

Sometimes he gets so many toiletries, snacks and cleaning products that he gives them to friends or donates them. Coffee samples go into the freezer until needed.

Martin is a Southern California real-estate agent who saw his income plummet right along with the economy. That's a big part of the reason he turned to coupons and began following the deal sites For the Mommas and This Frugal Life.

"They flag (offers) for me. It's the lazy man's way to get free stuff," Martin says.

Some rewards are sample-sized: single diapers, deodorants, a week's worth of vitamins, a single Kashi bar. Some of them make good stocking stuffers. They're also great for military care packages and are always needed at shelters.

Naturally, those little body washes and toothpastes are perfect for traveling. So are detergent samples. Ever see what they charge for soap at a self-service laundry? But on a three-week trip, you've got to wash your socks.

And how about road food? Erin Huffstetler, who writes the Frugal Living Guide for About.com, saves free samples for family car trips: "I'll have a big gallon bag full of snacks. Everybody thinks it's fun to try things they haven't (eaten) before."

Three more reasons free samples rock:

  • They save the day when you run out of something. "Who wants to run to the store late at night to buy toothpaste?" says Jasmine Idley, who blogs at Dealicious Finds.
  • They tide you over until your favorite products go on sale again. Only amateurs pay retail.
  • They boost your budget. How much did you spend on toiletries last year? What about snacks, cleaning supplies or stocking stuffers?

Beyond those teeny-tiny toothpastes

These days, you're likely to get a fair number of full-size products along with things like little shampoos. Deal bloggers say that these freebies are often accompanied by high-value coupons.

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Companies often require an exchange of fandom for freebies. For example, I once got a full breakfast by clicking "like" on IHOP's "Pancake Revolution" offer on Facebook. The next year, I used the "happy anniversary" coupon that IHOP sent and got another free meal.

Other promotions are actually contests. Some are simple to enter: Click "like" or re-tweet an offer. Some require a little work: Answer a trivia question, write a short essay, maybe even make a video. As noted previously, the prizes can be worth it: You can win vacation packages, electronics, gift cards worth hundreds (or thousands) of dollars.

Then again, plenty of people think that even a free ice cream treat or video rental is worth it: Dairy Queen has more than 4.2 million Facebook fans, and Redbox has more than 4 million.

Incidentally, free stuff can also be found on nonfreebie pages. Shopping sites such as CouponMom.com and Hot Coupon World, and the forums at deal-seeking sites like FatWallet.com, Sunshine Rewards and SlickDeals, all have sections devoted to cost-free goodies.