The battered economy has taken the stigma out of bargain-hunting. Some might even say that saving a few bucks is in style.
We’re not talking about buying nine cups of coffee and getting the 10th free–we’re talking about free entertainment, financial advice, health care, technology and more.
Look hard enough and you can find a bevy of 100% discounts, especially online. “Facebook is a great source of freebies right now, as so many brands try to attract fans and establish themselves,” says Julia Scott, who runs the popular blog BargainBabe.com.
A word of warning, adds Scott: “There are probably more scams out there than there are legit offers, so it is important to be careful.” Her advice: When you see a deal that looks too good to be true, always look for customer service e-mail, telephone number and a promised delivery date. Also look for eligibility requirements (by age or residence) or other exclusions; their absence lends a whiff of impropriety.
Among the legitimate goods you can get gratis:
Financial Services: Tax Preparation
If you’re American, every year the Internal Revenue Service gathers an army of volunteers to dispense free tax advice and preparation services to the elderly, military personnel and their families, and households making below $49,000 a year. (For more, click here.) Another option: E-mail a question to Turbo Tax before the Jan. 31, 2011, and one of its tax experts will call you back with an answer–free. You only get one question, so make it a good one!
Financial Services: Credit Monitoring
The first step to improving your finances is figuring out where you stand. Get free credit reports once a year from AnnualCreditReport.com. For more consistent checkups, keep daily tabs on your status with Credit Karma.
Health Care: Antibiotics
There is still no cure for the common cold, but for bacterial afflictions, like ear infections, strep throat and severe acne, there are some economically painless remedies. Many pharmacies around the country, including Stop & Shop, Publix and ShopRite, offer free generic antibiotics to anyone with a prescription. Giving away relatively cheap, short-term medicines in hopes of hooking customers on higher-margin items can be good business. Of course, be careful to follow your doctor’s directions: Using antibiotics for viral infections, or not taking the whole dose, promotes the development of drug-resistant bacteria.
Culture and Entertainment: College Courses
If you don’t care much about getting formal credit for your efforts, some of the best universities–like M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and UC Berkeley–will let you download lectures for free. Check out Academic Earth for a great collection. You won’t walk out with a degree, but you will sound a lot smarter at your next dinner party.
Culture and Entertainment: Travel Lodging
People around the world are willing to let you stay in their homes for free. CouchSurfing.org connects weary travelers with open couches. Just decide where you want to go, find some hosts, read their profiles and reviews from people who’ve stayed with them before, and get in touch. The site forbids any formal commercial transactions, but cooking dinner for your host or cleaning the living room is generally polite and appreciated.
Myxer offers a wide range of cellphone ringtone downloads–many free–from top artists like Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne and The Temptations. It also has non-music from comedians like Katt Williams, NFL team chants and bird calls. Not happy with prepackaged selections? You can use the software to upload your own songs (and digital wallpaper, for that matter).
Technology: Wi-Fi Access
Keeping up (and killing time) requires more than a good smartphone these days. That’s why a growing number of retailers, including Starbucks, now offer free wireless access over wi-fi networks. For a map of wi-fi hot spots in your neighborhood, check out Wi-Fi-FreeSpot.
Honorable Mention: Discount Sites
No list of cheap goods would be complete without mentioning Groupon, the group-discount Web site that has grown so fast (see our cover story that there are now businesses springing up to feed off it. Yipit.com collects deals from Groupon and its competitors and makes recommendations based on preferences you set. Miss a deal the first time around? CoupRecoup.com provides a second-chance marketplace. Scoutmob.com offers deals via daily e-mails or texts. Unlike Groupon, Scoutmob offers half-off coupons for free. We’re not talking 100% discounts here, but with a little work and some common sense, these sites can save a ton of money on things you would buy anyway.