How to Shop for Free

How to Shop for Free

By Erin Huffstetler | 01/17/2017 | 2 Comments
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If you’ve ever wondered how I manage to get so many freebies, I’m here to let you in on my secrets. These are the rewards programs and strategies that I use to get free Christmas presents, food, toiletries, office supplies and more from big-name stores and restaurants.

Kmart/Sears

Many of you were amazed at all the awesome freebies that I got from Kmart and Sears over the holiday season, things like hiking boots, a cast iron dutch oven, tools and clothing. Frankly, I was too. Both of these companies participate in the Shop Your Way rewards program, which is a free program that gives you a percentage of your purchases back as rewards. Lately, Sears and Kmart have been offering 100% back in rewards when you buy certain items, or categories of items. That’s how I got all of my freebies. I’d buy a $60 pair of boots, for example, and then, they’d apply $60 of rewards to my account. Pretty awesome, but I’m not sure how long it’s going to last. I think this is probably a last-ditch effort to revitalize their dying stores. If you want to take advantage of all the great deals while you can, I recommend following a deal site that posts Kmart and Sears deals. Two good bets: Hip2Save.com and Cuckoo for Coupon Deals. Both sites do an excellent job of staying on top of the latest deals and walking you through how they work.
Things You Need to Know About Shop Your Way Rewards:

  • Kmart and Sears award Surprise Points from time to time. These are free rewards that you don’t have to do anything to earn. Log into your account regularly, so you don’t miss out on any of these
  • Check the bottom of your receipts (and your account) for special coupons that you can apply to future purchases
  • Shop Your Way Rewards and Surprise Points expire. Stay on top of those expiration dates, so none of your rewards go to waste
  • If you use Shop Your Way Rewards to pay for a purchase, you won’t earn rewards on that purchase. So, don’t use rewards to pay for an item that is offering 100% back in rewards. You won’t earn your freebie, if you do
  • Most items ship free with a $49 purchase. When my order falls under this amount, I have it shipped to the store for free. You can ship Sears items to Kmart and Kmart items to Sears. Our local Kmart closed, so if there’s a Kmart deal that I want to take advantage of, I just ship it to our Sears store

Staples and Office Depot/Office Max

Both of these office supply stores have excellent rewards programs. Check their sales circulars weekly for items that are free after rewards. It’s an easy way to score free computer paper and pens. During the back-to-school season, they offer lots of penny items (glue sticks, eraser caps, etc.), and during the holidays they run free battery promotions. I buy a year’s worth of batteries then, to avoid having to pay for them later.

Both stores have ink recycling programs. Turn in your empty ink or toner cartridges, and you’ll earn rewards to spend in store. At Staples, you have to have spent $30 on ink in the last 180 days to be eligible for the program. Then, you get $2 in rewards for each cartridge that you recycle, up to 10 each month. If you’re a Plus or Premiere rewards member (I am), you can recycle up to 20 cartridges each month, for a total of $40 back in rewards. At Office Depot, you can recycle 10 cartridges per month, with a qualifying $10 purchase (which does not include items that you paid for with rewards). Because of this spending requirement, we prefer the Staples program. We use our ink recycling rewards to buy toilet paper and other household essentials. Sometimes I use them to buy gifts.

Staples and Office Depot both have price match policies. When we need to buy ink or toner for one of our printers, we print out Amazon’s price, and bring it to the store with us. This saves us a TON of money on ink.

Learn More:
Sign Up for Staples Rewards
Sign Up for Office Depot/Office Max Rewards
Staples Ink Recycling Program
Office Depot Ink Recycling Program
Staples Price Match Policy
Office Depot Price Match Policy

Amazon

We do a fair amount of shopping on Amazon, so I’m all about earning free Amazon gift cards. Fortunately lots of rewards programs allow you to cash your points in for Amazon gift cards. Some worth checking out: Dealspotr, Microsoft Rewards (formerly known as Bing Rewards), Swagbucks, MyPoints, ibotta and Shopkick. Many survey sites also allow you to cash in your points for Amazon gift cards.

If you always pay your credit card off each month, using a rewards credit card can be another way to earn Amazon gift cards. These days, most rewards card offer the option of cashing out for Amazon gift cards. Since we shop on Amazon regularly, we have a Chase Amazon card. It earns us a higher percent back on our Amazon purchases, and it’s integrated with our Amazon account. When I check out, I can see how many points we have available to spend.

CVS and Walgreens

Pretty much every drug store has its own rewards program. At CVS, it’s called ExtraCare; at Walgreens, it’s called Balance Rewards. Definitely sign up for these programs, if you haven’t already. Those little rewards cards are your key to lots of freebies. Just scan the Sunday sales ad each week to see if there are any items that are listed as free after rewards. Then, if you see something you want, have the cashier scan your rewards card when you buy the item. This will trigger your rewards to print. At CVS they print on the bottom of your receipt (they’re referred to as Extra Care Bucks, ECBs for short). At Walgreens they print out separately (and are referred to as Register Rewards). These rewards can be used to buy almost anything in the store. But they do expire, so pay attention to those expiration dates. By taking advantage of these programs, I almost never have to buy toothpaste or toothbrushes, and I often get to try new products for free. CVS and Walgreens both offer tons of free-after-rewards items on Black Friday. We always pick those up.

Restaurants

We don’t eat out often because of the cost, but when we do, we use freebies to stretch our budget. Here’s how we save at two restaurants that we like to frequent:

HoneyBaked
If you go by menu prices, HoneyBaked is more expensive than most sandwich shops. Don’t let this fool you. They have several programs that make it easy to rack up free sandwiches. Ask for a Sandwich Club card when you go in. It’s a stamp card, and you earn a stamp with each sandwich that you buy. Rack up 10 stamps, and your 11th sandwich is free! For our family of four, that’s a free sandwich every third visit. Our local store does Double-Stamp Tuesday, so we try to go on Tuesdays. That simple habit earns us a free sandwich every other visit.

We also take the time to do the survey on the receipt when we get home. It currently earns you a buy-one-get-one-free sandwich code. Pair that with the stamp card, and it’s not uncommon for us to get a couple free sandwiches on each trip.

And my husband and I are both signed up for HoneyBaked Rewards. You get a coupon for a free Ham Classic at sign up, and another free meal on your birthday. Since my husband is a veteran, he also receives a free meal on Veteran’s Day. In addition to all of these freebies, we also receive e-mails with coupons and special promotions throughout the year. All of this adds up to a pretty affordable way to eat out.

Papa John’s

Pizza is a Friday night tradition in our house. Usually my husband makes a pizza from scratch, but sometimes we order one from Papa John’s. When we do, we have a host of tricks to keep the cost down. First, we never place an order without doing a quick search for a promo code. On our last order, we combined a buy-one-get-one-free promo code with another deal that earned us a free large pizza. We paid for one pizza, and got three. Nice!

We place all of our orders online, so we can take advantage of Papa Rewards. You earn one point for every $5 that you spend. 20 points is enough for a free two-topping pizza. You also earn 10 bonus points on your birthday.

Instead of having our pizza delivered, we always choose the carryout option. That’s because our local store has a carryout stamp card. Every 10 visits earns you a free large one-topping pizza.

Around the holidays, there’s usually a promotion where you get a free large pizza with each $25 gift card purchase. Since we know we’re going to spend money there anyway, it just makes sense to take advantage of this deal.

Freebies from Other Restaurants

Many of the same strategies that we use to earn freebies at HoneyBaked and Papa John’s can be used at other restaurants. Take a few minutes to sign up for the rewards programs and newsletters for your favorite restaurants; make sure you understand how they work; then, take advantage of them. Lots of restaurants offer birthday freebies; and just as many offer gift card bonuses around the holidays. Also be on the look out for food freebies tied to specific holidays and dates (Election Day, the first day of summer, National Dress Like a Pirate Day, etc.)

Learn More:
Eat Free on Your Birthday (my article on thebalance.com)

Grocery Stores

I do most of my grocery shopping at an Amish salvage store. What I’m not able to buy there, I buy at Kroger. For the past couple years, they’ve been offering a Friday Freebie. Last week it was a can of refried beans. This week it’s a box of organic macaroni and cheese. You just load the digital coupon to your card on Friday, and then you have three weeks to pick up the item. This is an easy way to snag 52 free items each year. If it’s a staple item that we’ll use, I add it to my pantry or stockpile. If it’s a candy or snack item, I usually add it to our vacation stash or save it for a stocking stuffer. If it’s something that we just plain won’t use, I pick it up, and we donate it. No Kroger in your area? There’s a good chance you have one of their sister stores nearby. If so, you can get in on the action.

Kroger also does a lot of instant win games on their website. I try to play those daily when they do because it’s an easy way to win free products. The rules for the current game say you can win 17 times per household. That’s quite a bit of free food.

Lots of grocery stores offer these types of freebies and instant win games, so spend a few minutes exploring your local grocery store websites to see what you turn up.

Want to score coupons for free, full-size products? Find a deal blogger to follow. I stop by Hip2Save.com throughout the day to see if she’s posted any good freebies. It just takes a few seconds to fill out a request form for a coupon or free sample.

Department Stores

I’m not much of a mall shopper, so if you see me in a mall, you can bet I have a coupon for a freebie. My favorite are those $10 off $10 department store coupons that occasionally shop up in my mailbox. I like to use those to buy socks, undies or a Christmas gift. Every once in a blue moon, we’ll get in on one of those “first 50 customers get a free gift card” promotions, but we’re not morning people, so we usually leave those to someone else.

Thrift Stores

Did you know that you can get freebies at thrift stores, too? Yep, sure can. Find out if any of your local stores offers stamp cards. The Goodwill stores in our area currently have one. You get a stamp for every $10 that you spend, and after the 10th stamp, you get $10 off a $20 purchase. It’s a given that we’re going to spend $100 at Goodwill over the course of the year, so taking the time to have our card stamped is a no-brainer.

We’ve also found that it pays to check thrift store websites from time to time. A thrift store chain in our area has a buy-one-get-one-free clothing coupon on their site at the moment. I used it to buy two sweaters for my youngest daughter.

Curb Shopping

If you’ve been hanging around this site for long, you know that my family loves to curb shop. It’s a really fun way to get the things that we need for free, and over the years, we’ve found some pretty amazing stuff. If your town has a large trash collection day, I definitely recommend giving it a try.

Questions?

Have any questions about any of the rewards programs or savings strategies that I mentioned? Just ask. I’m happy to share what I know.

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