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TODAY contributor

Explainer: The free lunch lives! Our guide to fab freebies

  • Image: Feebies
    featurepics.com
    As we slowly recover from the economic crisis, why not score freebies where we can? There are plenty of places where people can eat, drink, play and find treasures without paying a dime.

    In some instances you'll have to show your ID to prove that it's your birthday. In other instances you'll have to share some personal information to get the freebies mentioned here. Think hard about how much information you want to give away to companies over the Internet, and keep these tips in mind:

    --Don't share your phone number;

    --Create a separate, free e-mail account to share with companies so you don't get overwhelmed with spam at your primary personal account;

    --Never share your credit-card number, Social Security number or other highly sensitive information with a business to score anything free. If a company is asking for that kind of information from you, it's probably a scam!

    Without further ado, here are some places across the United States where you really can enjoy a free lunch. Just click on the "next" button at left, or click on "Show more items" and keep scrolling.

  • Free wi-fi

    Image: Woman using free wi-fi at coffee shop
    Getty Images

    So many places — from public libraries to coffee houses to airports — offer free high-speed wireless Internet access these days that you shouldn't have to pay for it. If you'll be visiting an unfamiliar area and you want to do a little bit of planning ahead about where to stay connected free of charge, visit this Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory website. Here you can find regularly updated lists of free wi-fi spots all over North America and around the world.

    To meet customer demand, more and more big-name businesses are jumping on the free wi-fi bandwagon. McDonald's recently announced that it would offer free wi-fi at more than 11,500 restaurants. Not to be outdone, Starbucks just began offering goodies above and beyond free wi-fi. While sipping coffee and kicking back at a Starbucks, customers will be given free access to movies, e-books, music and websites such as The Wall Street Journal that normally cost money. Slllluuuuurrrrpppp! Free tastes good.

  • Free college education

    Image: Students outside at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    William B. Plowman  /  Getty Images

    OK, to be clear, you won't get college credit for this, but learning for learning's sake can be pretty darn fun — especially when it's completely gratis. More and more universities — from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Tufts University to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — are making lectures and course materials available free of charge online. The offerings are rather staggering — and they're all free!

    Another fun place to check out is Apple's iTunes U. Here you'll find more than 350,000 free lectures, videos and other resources from more than 600 participating universities all over the world. Again, brace yourself for impressive offerings: Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Oxford are among the universities involved.

  • Free credit report and credit score

    Image: AnnualCreditReport.com website
    annualcreditreport.com

    It's important to know what's happening with your credit report and your credit score because they have such an impact on the interest rates you get whenever you borrow money. They also can affect your life — positively or negatively — when you attempt to qualify for credit, insurance, employment or rental housing.

    Plenty of businesses advertise — loudly — on television with offers of allegedly "free" credit reports. Most of them aren't free at all, however! The best place for consumers to go for truly free credit reports is AnnualCreditReport.com. Through this one site, you can order free reports from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) once a year without any strings attached.

    You also can get a good sense of your credit score — not your official FICO score, but a reasonable facsimile — free of charge from Quizzle.com and CreditKarma.com.  

  • Free tax filing and tax-prep software

    Image: 1040 tax form
    Tim Boyle  /  Getty Images

    Depending on your income, you may be eligible for the Internal Revenue Service's Free File program, which makes it possible for you to file your tax return online completely free of charge with the help of free tax-preparation software. The limit for 2009 returns was an adjusted gross income of $57,000. Considering that the median household income in the United States was $49,777 in 2009, that means most families don't need to be forking over precious dollars to tax preparers and software companies when tax time rolls around. To learn more about the IRS Free File program, click here.

  • Free kids' meals, year-round

    Image: Denny's breakfasts
    Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images

    If you play your cards right, you could eat out almost every day of the week and not spend a dime on your kids' food.

    To name just a few examples: Kids can eat free at many Denny's restaurants on Tuesday and Saturday nights and at many Perkins and IHOP restaurants on multiple nights of the week. (Just call your local restaurant ahead of time to learn what's available and when.)

    Local family restaurants in your area also may offer similar deals, so be sure to ask.

    To peruse an eye-popping list of restaurants around the country where children eat free, check out CouponDivas.com. (Click on "hide sidebar" to see all the information on the page clearly. The list truly is impressive. Just be sure to double-check with those restaurants in your area before you go to make sure the specials will be offered on those days where you live.)

  • Free grub on your birthday

    Image: Happy Burger-day
    www.redrobin.com
    You were wise to click here, grasshopper. Based on the information you will behold here, you will quickly see that you should never, ever pay for food, desserts or drinks on your birthday. Some examples:

    Free birthday burgers at Red Robin for Red Robin eClub members.

    Free birthday spaghetti entrees and desserts at Spaghetti Warehouse for Spaghetti Warehouse club members. Click here

    Free birthday desserts at Applebee's and Romano's Macaroni Grill.

    Free birthday ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery and Baskin-Robbins for birthday club members.

    To see a list of birthday freebies that will blow your mind, check out this 'Be Centsible And Save' blog post. Again, be sure to call these businesses in your area to make sure the birthday deals are available where you live.

  • Free ice cream

    Image: Free Cone Day!
    Nothing tastes better than free ice cream, and here are some deals you simply can't pass up:

    Friendly’s Free Ice Cream Day usually happens each year on a sunny day in June, and on that day you can enjoy a free single-scoop cone or dish of ice cream. (The last Friendly's Free Ice Cream day was June 5, 2010. Check this link closer to June 2011 for the next one.)

    Ben & Jerry's offers Free Cone Day each spring. The last Free Cone Day happened on March 23, 2010; to keep tabs on the next one, check this link as spring 2011 approaches.

    Carvel offers free ice-cream treats twice a year in the April/May time frame and again in September. Check the company's website closer to those months to find out the exact dates for the promotions. Also, you can buy one sundae and get one sundae free every Wednesday at Carvel.

    Get a free ice-cream creation on your birthday at Cold Stone Creamery if you're a birthday club member.

    Enjoy a free 2.5-ounce scoop of ice cream on your birthday at Baskin-Robbins if you're a birthday club member.

  • Free pancakes on Fat Tuesday

    Image: Free pancakes from IHOP
    Scott Olson  /  Getty Images
    Each year on Mardi Gras ’ also known as Fat Tuesday — you can gobble up a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes at an IHOP restaurant near you.

    The deal has no strings attached, but the restaurant will invite you to make a donation to the Children's Miracle Network or to another local charity. If you've got a hankering to mark your calendar, the next Fat Tuesday will fall on March 8, 2011.

    For more information about this promotion, click here.

  • Free Italian ice in spring

    Image: Rita's Italian ice
    www.ritasice.com
    It's an annual tradition: On the official first day of spring, you can slurp up a free, regular-size Italian ice at a Rita's location near you. Yum!

    The last free-Italian-ice fest happened on March 20, 2010. For details about the next one, click here as spring 2011 approaches.

  • Free doughnuts

    Image: Krispy Kreme doughnuts
    Chuck Burton  /  AP

    Sugar rush! National Doughnut Day typically arrives in June. (The last one happened on June 4, 2010.)

    It's a happy day because you can usually score a free doughnut (no purchase necessary) at your nearest Krispy Kreme store, or a free doughnut with any beverage purchase at Dunkin' Donuts.

  • Free Slurpee on July 11

    Image: Free Slurpee
    7-11
    In the heat of summer, why not enjoy a free Slurpee at 7-Eleven? You can do just that next summer on the chain’s birthday — Monday, July 11, 2011. (Get it? 7/11?)

    For planning purposes, your Slurpee will be 7.11 ounces in size.

  • Free goodies for travelers

    Image: Car on a road
    Drobzhev Evgeny  /  featurepics.com
    On your next road trip — or any kind of trip, for that matter — don't forget to swing by the visitors' center if the community you're visiting has one.

    You can score oodles of free samples and fun stuff at visitors' centers, including snacks, toothpaste, shampoo and other gems.

    You also can nab all sorts of great coupons and buy-one-get-one-free deals.

  • Free admission

    Image: The Met
    Chris Hondros  /  Getty Images
    Most museums offer free admission one day of the week or month. Many art galleries also offer free receptions that feature wine, cheese and other snacks.

    Also, don't forget the power of the Internet. A quick online search for the name of your city along with the words "free activities" or "free kids' activities" can do wonders.

    Some Web sites are dedicated to highlighting free or dirt-cheap activities for parents in certain cities; Red Tricycle, for instance, provides lists of such options in the Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego areas.

  • Free car washes

    Jax Kar Washes in Michigan offer free car washes on customers' birthdays, as long as they show their IDs to an attendant.

    Local car washes in your area may offer similar deals, so be sure to ask. Rub-a-dub-dub!

  • Free toys, clothes, furniture

    Image: Freecycle Network
    In economic times like these, it's important to remember to tap into resources such as the Freecycle Network. Such sites allow you to give stuff away and obtain stuff free of charge from folks who live in your area.

    You also can find free items through classified ads, secondhand stores, yard sales and these Web sites: Craigslist, Sharing Is Giving, ReUseIt Network and FreeSharing.org

    When using such resources, though, always have an eye toward giving, not just receiving. For your first posting, consider offering to give something away rather than announcing what you want. It's the polite thing to do!

  • Free samples

    Image: Costco
    AFP - Getty Images
    Warehouse clubs, such as Costco and Sam's Club, offer oodles of free food samples as you roll your cart up and down the aisles. Time it correctly and you can score the equivalent of a full meal.

    Trader Joe's and other specialty grocery stores also offer exceptionally yummy free samples. Eat up!

  • Free bath and beauty samples

    Image: Victoria's Secret makeup counter
    Chad Buchanan
    With a little bit of planning, you may never pay for toothpaste, razors or skin-care products again. How's that? By scoring free samples!

    In many cases you may have to sacrifice some of your personal information online to get the samples, but if you don't mind doing that, you can have all sorts of free stuff show up at your home.

    Here are sites where the getting's good:

    Walmart.com;

    HeyItsFree.net;

    MySavings.com;

    MaryKay.com.

    Also remember that you're likely to be given a stash of free samples to try at home if you get a free makeover at a department store. Even if you don't get a makeover, you can often reap big rewards by politely asking for free product samples at department stores, cosmetology schools, beauty-supply stores and even drug stores. And you don't have to give away any of your personal information to do this!

  • Free prescription drugs

    Image: Bottle of pills
    William Thomas Cain  /  Getty Images
    Considering how many people are grappling with high prescription drug costs, it's important to remember to find deals wherever and whenever you can. Try these tricks:

    —Ask your doctor for help. Many people never ask their doctors about how they could save on medicines. Your doctor may have plenty of ideas — and he or she also may have access to free samples.

    —Ask your pharmacist for help. A frank discussion with your local pharmacist also could work wonders for you. Inquire about free samples or less expensive alternatives that will be effective for your situation.

    —Investigate helpful programs. To determine your eligibility for reduced-cost or cost-free drug programs, visit the website of Partnership for Prescription Assistance.

    Another site that can point you to drug manufacturers’ assistance programs is NeedyMeds.org. Pfizer also offers assistance programs for people who need help paying for prescription drugs. For details, click here.

  • Free books, movies, music, Internet

    Image: New York library
    Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
    Get thee to the nearest public library! You'll find free movies, music, magazines, books, Internet access and more. Be sure to check out the free readings, free kids' activities and other fun, free stuff that you can add to your calendar.

    If you haven't been to the library in a while, just go. You'll get hooked!

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