A Golden Age for Cheapskates

Ryan Eubanks, 26 and of Frederick County, has a Web site to share his finds. He says businesses hurting from a drop in sales are offering more freebies.
Ryan Eubanks, 26 and of Frederick County, has a Web site to share his finds. He says businesses hurting from a drop in sales are offering more freebies. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jill Berry is always on the lookout for free things.

Last fall, the Woodbine, Md., mother of three figured out a great way to get some: online giveaways. She has entered about 40 so far. She has won T-shirts, cleaning products, a small portable vacuum, olive oil, beef jerky and -- best of all -- a Nintendo DS on Web sites such as http://MeTime.com, http://TheMotherhood.com and http://5minutesformom.com.

"The lure of free stuff is quite appealing," she said. "I never considered myself a winner. I don't think I ever won bingo. My name was never drawn from a hat. However, I've been extraordinarily successful at the giveaways."

The recession has emboldened a certain kind of consumer: The mooch. With dwindling retirement savings, a higher cost of living and wobbly job market, they don't just want discounts on items they used to pay full price for without a second thought. They want freebies -- meals, magazine subscriptions, toiletries, you name it. They scour the Internet, make clever use of coupons or simply take advantage of struggling shops and restaurants that are increasingly giving away free things to lure customers.

"One of the things that makes us feel smart is getting something for free," said Matt Wallaert, a behavioral psychologist at JustThrive.com, a free online personal financial advisory service for people in their 20s and 30s. "During a recession, frugal is not a bad word. It's a good word. This is something that people are supposed to be doing. So people think, 'I've got to get on board.' They're searching for free more than ever because it's a symbol of financial savviness."

Businesses are heeding the call. For instance, in February, all McDonald's in the Washington area gave away medium-sized hot or iced coffee from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. -- with no purchase necessary. As tough times force people to make tough choices, restaurants know customers are weighing options more carefully.

"Consumers are quite quick to vote with their feet, so consequently it makes perfect sense that [restaurant operators] offer very targeted enticements to make sure that traffic continues," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.

At Reston-based Wirefly, an online retailer of cellphones and wireless service plans, demand for the free cellphones that often come with plans versus upgraded phones that customers have to pay for is up 105 percent in April from April 2008, said Andy Zeinfeld, chief executive of the company.

Another sign that consumers are increasingly searching for free items is the growing popularity of coupons. Coupon redemption on consumer packaged goods increased 16.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 from the same quarter a year earlier, according to Valassis, a media and marketing services company. Savvy shoppers know that using coupons on days when stores have double or triple coupon promotions can lead to free goods.

Rather than pay for goods, people are also bartering for them. Craigslist has reported a 100 percent increase in traffic on its bartering boards. There are plenty of other Web sites devoted to bartering. On http://Swaptree.com, people trade books, DVDs and CDs and only pay for shipping. http://Textswap.comlets college students trade textbooks. You can swap pretty much anything on http://U-Exchange.com.

Nancy Parode, a Millersville, Md., mom and freelance writer, found another unique way to get freebies. She participates in online surveys at Web sites such as http://e-Rewards.com for free magazine subscriptions. The surveys range in topic and typically do not take more than 15 minutes. She gets a certain amount for each survey, sometimes $2.50 or $5, or a credit toward a prize. She accumulates that money or credit until she has enough for a subscription.

"I'm a complete magazine addict, but I hate spending money on magazines," she said.

Ryan Eubanks, 26 and a Frederick County resident, became so good at spotting freebies that he created http://HeyItsFree.net to share his finds. Lately, he's gotten busier because businesses, hurting from a drop in sales, are offering more freebies. Marketing experts and behavioral psychologists said giveaways are more effective than discounts at drawing customers in and persuading them to try a product.

Many of Eubanks' finds are toiletries such as shampoo, lotion and toothpaste. He also has coffee, snack bars, candy and other food items. Each day, he posts four or five free items. He said he vets the offers to make sure they are legitimate. If he's suspicious, he checks the company's domain name.

He offered other tips on weeding out bad offers. Don't believe a company giving away high-end items because high-end freebies don't exist. Don't trust a company that wants you to refer friends. Don't submit credit card or other information beyond an e-mail or mailing address to which the company can send the freebie. Watch for expiration dates, because many companies are not good at pulling outdated offers from their Web sites. And if you have to do anything more than fill out a simple survey for that freebie, think twice.

"If they're making you jump through hoops to get the item, that's a red flag," he said.

Berry, who writes about raising three children, ages 6, 10 and 13, at http://www.writingmylifeoneblogatatime.blogspot.com, has even found a way to get free things while traveling. Last summer, she and her family drove to Skyline Drive in Virginia and booked two rooms at a hotel that gave them one gas card, two tickets to the Luray Caverns and two breakfasts a day for each room.

They also got a deal when they went with friends to the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament. There were 13 of them. Three with birthdays in April got in for free. "Made the trip more budget friendly for us," she said.

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