Ten things that aren't free - but should be (and how to get them for free anyway)
I hate paying for anything that should be free. Online banking, while now free everywhere, was one of those things that I thought should be free because it saved the company money instead of having me deal with a bank teller or paying with checks.
No one pays for online banking, at least not anymore, and here are 10 more things that people pay for too often but can be found for free:
1. Checking account
Free checking was once offered free by many banks as a way to keep customers. That's changing, with many big banks offering the service only if customers maintain a high balance, bank through self-service channels such as an ATM, or frequently use the bank's debit or credit card. These days, banks need new ways to make money, and giving away free checking accounts wasn't paying off for them.
How to get yourself free checking? Go to a small bank. Or switch to your local credit union. Or find one of the large banks that still offer this perk, including Chase, and Wachovia.
Restaurants make a lot of money selling wine, and having every customer come in with their own bottle of wine instead of buying it at the restaurant could force some businesses to close their doors. No one wants that. But no one wants to be charged a corkage fee for the simple task of opening a wine bottle, either.
How to get it free? Cheap or free corkage restaurants can be found on such websites as Yelp, where it's pointed out that such restaurants may not have a liquor license and that they could start charging for corkage in the future when they do. Call ahead to see if it's still free.
3. Information calls
Calling 411, or directory assistance, is one of the many small charges that phone companies have to throw at customers. You might not notice it on your phone bill, but keep an eye out for "directory assistance" or "other" charges.
How to get it free? Google offers all kinds of free services, but this is one of the best. Instead of paying your cell phone company to call 411, use Google's 411 information service for free. For only the price of a call or text message, you can find a business and be connected to it. It will give you the phone number and connect you to the business for free by calling 1-800-GOOG-411 from any phone. You then state your location and type of business you're looking for, and are connected to the business for free.
The same thing can be done by texting your query to "Google," or 466453, via the Google SMS on your mobile phone. For example, type in "local pizza" and your ZIP code, and a list of pizza restaurants will be texted back to you. It's free from Google, although your phone carrier will charge you text message rates.
4. Driving cross country
A cross-country road trip is part of the American dream. But at 2,143 miles from California to New York, it's an expensive trip that could put a lot of mileage on your car, not to mention your wallet, unless you're planning on camping every night.
How to get it for free? Drive somebody else's car across the country. How? People who are moving, for example, don't want to drive their car, so they go to companies like Auto Driveaway to either have it delivered on a truck or driven there by a safe driver such as yourself. Drivers must be at least 23-years-old with a clean driving record, pay a $350 refundable security deposit, and will get a full tank of gas, a certain number of days and appropriate amount of miles to complete the trip.
There are other car delivery companies, so check around if one in your area doesn't have cars going where you want to go. When you want to go back home, either buy a one-way plane ticket home or find another car to deliver.
The average cable TV bill is $75 a month, which cable companies attribute to franchise fees to ESPN and other stations. Cable companies also sell stations in bundles, requiring customers to pay for several small channels they might not want so they can get big channels. Cable companies say that a la carte pricing would raise, and not lower, customers' prices because less popular channels would have to lower their advertising rates. The difference would be made up with higher subscription fees.
How to get it for free? Drop your cable TV bill to zero with an antenna, including HDTV. Make sure your HDTV has a built-in "HDTV tuner," which is also called an "integrated HDTV." Without it, you'll have to buy a separate HDTV tuner to connect your HDTV to an antenna. Find the best antenna for your home and find out online which direction the strongest signal is.
6. Movie rentals
If you're getting free TV, you might as well get free movie rentals from all of the coupons offered by Redbox. Blockbuster, Redbox and Netflix are the major players in the DVD rental business, and they're competing for your entertainment dollar.
How to get it for free? Redbox is going after customers with coupon codes to get them to try its rental kiosks. It has free promo codes each week, which the company e-mails to registered users. The free codes can also be found at sites such as Inside Redbox, which lets people share the most recent codes. The site Redbox Codes requires registration to see the free codes, which seems silly since they're free elsewhere. And there's always the local library to rent movies from for free.
7. College tuition
The average student loan debt for college graduates is $23,200, which makes buying a used car look like a bargain. College isn't free, and student loans can follow a graduate for years.
How to get it for free? Students who are going into teaching, nursing, law, the ministry or have economic hardships can have their student loans forgiven under certain circumstances. New teachers, for example, would have to work at a low income public school in critical subjects such as math or science.
Working at a nonprofit for 10 years will also erase the debt. Even for students not in those fields, there is some relief. The Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 caps student loan repayment at 10% of monthly discretionary income starting in July 2014 on new loans.
Amazon and other booksellers didn't become big businesses by giving away books. The average price of a new hardcover book is $26, and e-books can be half that price. Hardcover books cost so much because so many people are getting a piece of the pie. According to a New York Times story, for a $26 book, the bookseller will pay the publisher $13. Of that, the publisher pays about $3.25 to print, store and ship the book. About 80 cents is paid for cover design, typesetting and copy editing, marketing costs $1, the author gets a 15% royalty per book, or $3.90 in this case, leaving the publisher with $4.05 after write-offs to pay for overhead. Think of that next time you go to a bookstore.
How to get it for free? Many e-books are free to listen to, mostly public domain books where you won't see the latest bestsellers. But if you want to hold a book in your hand and not have to buy it, go to your local public library. They're everywhere and most have the latest bestsellers to check out (you might have to put your name on the waiting list, but it'll get to you) -- along with events such as sleepovers for teddy bears. Or an even simpler idea: query your Facebook friends about whether any of them have the title you're looking for. Chances are somebody will. And a "friend" is more likely to send it off to you for free. If you ask nicely.
Toothbrushes are usually cheap, a few bucks at most stores, although a rechargeable electric toothbrush can be more costly.
How to get it for free? If you have dental insurance, be sure to get a free toothbrush and dental floss every time you visit your dentist. Most offer it, but if they don't, ask. If that doesn't work, there are online sites that give away toothbrushes, especially for kids, in exchange for registering and getting on a mailing list.
10. Online games
Since the idea that the Internet is supposed to be free is still alive for the time being (it may be the death of newspapers, but most news sites are still free), you might as well take advantage of it and play online for free. Some people pay to clothe their avatars, for example, and virtual currency has been found to be legally exchanged for actual cash in the real world.
How to get it for free? There are lots of free places to play games online. Just look. They're practically everywhere. They might not be as fun as all of those iPhone apps you're paying for, but they're free and free is fun.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.