By Anna Davies
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but by being creative, you can turn up plenty of ways to get a meal (and gym membership, theater tickets or groceries) without opening your wallet. “Not only have people become more savvy about finding bargains, but businesses have realized the value of their relationships with their customers, who can act like an informal marketing department,” explains Clare Levison, author of Frugal Isn’t Cheap: Spend Less, Save More, and Live Better. Try these real reader strategies to score—and save—big.
"Like" a Great Service
Following a business you love on Facebook or Twitter can be an excellent way to get insider info on special sales. But for even more deals, ask the company how you can help. Gina Lincicum, 41, a mom of three in Washington, DC, became a mystery shopper for a local restaurant chain. “I earn a free meal, plus $10 or so for filling out a questionnaire about my experience that usually takes 10 minutes to complete. I keep track of my mileage to and from the restaurant for my taxes, so I get a little money back that way too.”
Think beyond trading carpooling for babysitting duties: Bartering can also be used to score major discounts on dental appointments, music lessons and other small-business services. Hope Hunt, 39, from Williamsburg, Virginia, saves $674 a month on tae kwon do and gymnastics lessons for her four children. “I work in technology, so I offer website design, blog setup and networking support in exchange for lessons,” Hunt explains. Not sure what you can offer? Look around and see what’s not available.
Tickets to museums, aquariums and theater performances can be scored for nada by giving your time, explains Laura Wallis, a mother of two and creator of the money-saving site Momsgonnafindout.com. “Check local attractions,” she suggests. “Usually nonprofits will be happy for an extra pair of hands.” Often you’ll have to attend a training session and make a specific time commitment, so this is a great strategy if you’re truly passionate about an organization. Bonus: If your teen has a volunteer-hour quota at school, joining you helps her while giving you two a chance to hang out.
Join a Focus Group
Offering your opinions on brands can be valuable if you’re savvy about sifting through opportunities, explains Wallis. “Some pay people in product, but others offer $20 to $150 an hour for your time.” Sign up at paidfocusgroup.net. Once you’re approved, you may be inundated with responses, so create a secondary email address and alternate phone number (such as a free Google Voice number that directs to voice mail). “Some focus groups are conducted via email or telephone, so you may not need to live in the area to participate,” says Wallis.
Complain the Right Way
It’s tempting to fire off an angry email—or unleash a few all-caps Tweets—when you’re confronted with subpar service. But taking a few deep breaths before eloquently explaining why you were disappointed helps you and the company in the long run, says Adi Bittan, CEO of OwnerListens, which offers an app that lets customers send private, anonymous feedback to business owners. “When consumers are legitimately dissatisfied, they will frequently get money back, gift certificates, samples or replacement products.” However, Bittan cautions that vague complaints aren’t likely to go far—even if you have a large following on social media. “Companies want to make things right, but they’re also wise about people using their social networking platform only for freebies,” Bittan says. “They can easily tell, based on a person’s social media history, when someone is making up a problem in order to save money.”