One of the easiest ways to stretch your budget: free stuff! A surprising array of items are waiting out there in the universe, free for the asking, bargaining or registration:
*Free e-books. Read anything you like on a variety of subjects, thanks to free e-books that are there for the asking. Some websites, like Moneysaving Mom, have weekly lists to choose from — or go to Amazon and do a search. Some books are classics; others cover home and family living, including cookbooks, gardening and budgeting. Selections can change without notice, so grab them when you see them. (No Kindle? Set up Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader — also for free — and read them just as easily as if you owned one.)
*BOGOs — or money back when you buy more than one item. Grocery stores like King Soopers and Safeway are famous for ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ specials — a careful eye out can restock your pantry at half the price you’d normally pay. These chains also offer group specials: buy a combination of 5 or 6 items, from the selections given, and you’ll get $2-6 back on your bill. (Watch while you’re checking out; sometimes the items weren’t entered properly. In the case of King Soopers, you then get that item for free!)
*Swagbucks. Every time you do a search on the Internet, you’re eligible for Swagbucks — and those add up to rewards, including music downloads, jewelry, gift cards and more. Do your online shopping after signing up, and you’ll earn SBs, too. An average month equals enough points for one or two $5 Amazon gift cards. How do I know? Because I‘ve earned at least $100 yearly in giftcards this way. If others sign up through your site, you earn even more.
*Craigslist. If you haven’t taken advantage of this international clearinghouse, you’ve misssed out on a lot: jobs (temporary and permanent), merchandise for sale, spots for finding romance, and discussion forums for people with similar interests. There’s even an entire category of free items. (Look under ‘For Sale.’) Bargaining is encouraged, and everything from vacation cabins to couches to Corvettes can be found for reduced prices. Even post your own ads — no charge.
*Birthday goodies – and reward clubs. A host of free food and drinks can mark your natal celebration, including a burger from Red Robin, a free drink from Starbucks and a free entree from On the Border. A list of birthday freebies are listed here. Many restaurant chains will ask you to join their reward clubs to get the birthday item…but they’ll also give you free appetizers, drinks and more just for signing up.
*Swap your labor — or items you already own. Need a new suit, or pair of boots? Your friend may have the perfect item in their closet, gathering dust. Swap something you have — that they want. Or trade a few hours of filing, cleaning, babysitting or dogwalking to a friend or neighbor for something you need. We’ve traded eggs from our chickens, piano lessons — and swapped items for needed services. My favorite swap: a queen-sized quilt for Husband’s crown — a dental crown, that is. (The dentist’s wife was delighted with her hand-stitched quilt for Christmas.)
*Complaining letters. Poor customer service or inedible restaurant food? You’ll get back the money you spent on that less-than desirable experience…if you can write an effective letter, detailing what happened, and asking for a refund. This is also effective for stale or too-quick-to-spoil groceries — you’ll often get coupons or credit for free items, as well as more coupons. (Stop by customer service, or call the toll-free number on the package back.) Recent harvests: $20 and $50 in gift certificates (from two less-than-good restaurant visits) — and a free bag (plus extra coupons) for Hershey’s candy.
*Groupons and other coupon sites. Spend a little money ahead of time at Groupon, and you’ll get coupons for items and services — at much less than you’d normally pay. Or use a rewards site like Ebates to rack up points you can redeem for cash or discounts.
*Buying something, anyways? Get extras, for the same price. Sometimes stores do this automatically — Target is famous for adding $5 gift cards to various combinations of household and office products, or adding a free item if you buy a tv, computer or large appliance. (Check their weekly sales inserts for the latest.) This should be a given, whenever you’re spending more than a few hundred dollars — or go elsewhere.
Sometimes you need to bring the subject up yourself: “Would you be willing to throw in… ?” A new washer or dryer could include a month’s worth of detergent; a chainsaw or sander could include replacement chains or belts. It’s not a large ‘extra’ to the retailer, but little items like this really help minimize your long-term expenses.
Try this method especially when you’re buying more expensive items at garage sales, thrift shops, or on Craigslist, and watch the savings add up. For example: we got our ‘new’ car (a 2011 Subaru Outback) with custom leather heated seats and a special defrosting package — at less than the standard vehicle Bluebook price! Haggling is a virtue, when done with tact and patience.
*Finally, pay large-ticket items off gradually — with no interest. Computers and other large purchases can often be paid over a year, provided you’re willing and able to make regular payments in a timely manner. Sometimes these come in the form of a credit card or store account you‘re required to open. Another way to pay ‘on time’ is via Paypal’s Bill-It-Later program, which charges no interest, provided you make minimum payments, and cover the whole within six months. (Go here for more.) Warning: don’t pay on time, and you will be paying interest and penalties.