Using a freebie: Get what you need or what you want?
We all love freebies. They make our little frugal hearts beat a little faster. At least, that's the effect they have on me.
But not all free stuff is equal. Most of us would work a lot harder to get a free shirt of our choosing than we would for some random promotional t-shirt. Similarly, sometimes you can choose what it is you get for free. That's when the real quandary can present itself: What's the best use of a freebie?
Here's a good example -- and one that I have yet to decide:
I saw an ad offering first-time customers a free waxing service. At first, I thought it would be a great way to save money. My eyebrows need doing, and this will keep me from spending money on it. Seems perfect, right?
Except that, at a beauty school, that service will only be $8. Don't get me wrong: Saving any money is always great. But I feel like you should make the most of this kind of open-ended freebie. To me, that means a service over $10.
Leg waxing, for example, isn't cheap -- even at beauty schools. Knees-down is $25. And there are always more -- ahem -- private areas of the body that can be depilated. That kind of thing is never cheap, at least by my standards.
By the way, yes, I realize that this is an utterly shallow, immaterial situation. Nevertheless, it highlights the personal finance question of how to make the best use of freebies.
When considering the question, you have one of two options: You can get what you need -- thereby saving money on expenses -- or you can get what you want -- letting you indulge yourself without spending.
The first option is a classic example of saving money. You are lowering your expenses, which frees up money to go against debt or into savings. For example, if I use my rewards points to get a grocery store gift card, I'm lowering the amount I usually spend on food. At the end of the week or month, there will be a small surplus that I can use to better my financial situation.
The second option is frugal, but not in such a straightforward way. It's frugal, because you're going out or getting something without spending money. But that does not mean you're actually saving money. Perhaps I use that grocery gift card to buy an expensive treat for myself. This means I won't have a surplus at the end of the week/month. Still, I haven't exceeded my budget, either.
Or I could skip the grocery store altogether. Instead, I could choose a restaurant or department store gift card. Again, I get something without spending money, but I don't have extra money lying around at the end of the transaction, either.
Even so, getting what you want can be better than what you need. If you live very carefully, avoiding spending on unnecessary things, you can start to feel deprived. This can lead to spending sprees, if you get to a point where you just can't take it anymore. By getting a few indulgences for free, you can feel less deprived and are, therefore, less likely to become the financial equivalent of "stir crazy." Sometimes that saves more money than avoiding a direct expense.
So what should we choose?
For the most part, I use freebies to keep us from feeling deprived. This can be integral when you're married to a spender -- even a reformed one. There are a lot of ways to indulge frugally. Sometimes I mystery shop to allow us a meal out; I save up rewards to allow for nicer holiday gifts; I try to find specials and promotions for the occasional night out at a bar; Coke Rewards means free movie tickets. There are a plethora of ways to work in frugal fun, but the point is that some indulgence here and there can keep you on the straight and narrow the rest of the time. (Or, at least, the majority of the time -- we are human, after all.)
But there are times when you have to bite the bullet and apply freebies to a direct expense. I need some new bras, so I cashed in some rewards to get Macy's gift cards. They will be boring and utilitarian, but they'll also be free. Given our relatively short time frame to make a dent in our debt, it's the best use of that freebie right now.
Similarly, Tim's Body Shop products are so expensive that the rewards program primarily helps us stretch our dollar. The $15- and $25 rewards mean an extra product for free. That can be huge -- especially back in Washington, when Tim was going through a $20 jar of body butter in a week or less.
I suppose this mixed-use of freebies is a viable third option. Many rewards programs offer gift cards with several possible applications. Amazon.com or Wal-Mart cards, for example, can buy gifts, household necessities, groceries or some personal indulgence. And more programs are offering Visa gift cards, which allow for all sorts of purchases -- necessities or luxuries.
No matter what, it's important not to lose sight of a few key facts:
- A freebie is only free if you avoid spending money. Sound simple? It's not. Getting a free haircut is great -- unless you get talked into a $70 color. A $25 gift card to Nordstrom's means you'll almost certainly walk out poorer. (Unless you stick to one or two makeup items, or find a really fabulous sale on some shoes.)
- Your priorities aren't necessarily other people's. Maybe you use that Safeway gift card for groceries, but your neighbor might use that same card to get a different gift card. (Love those ubiquitous GC stands in stores these days!) So long as she's not skipping meals for lack of groceries, she is perfectly justified in having different priorities than you.
- If it's free, you already won. You got something for nothing. C'mon, how great is that?! Pretty great. So try to enjoy your freebie, no matter how you end up applying it. So long as you use it to enjoy life a little more -- decreasing stress by decreasing expenses or getting to indulge yourself without spending a dime -- then you've used it correctly.
When you get to choose, do you use freebies for things you need or for things you want? Why does that work best for you?
And -- far more importantly -- do you have an answer for my waxing conundrum?!
(Okay, you don't actually have to answer that last bit. I just wanted an excuse to use the words "waxing conundrum.")