Free is one of my favorite words. In a time when everything seems to cost just a bit more than you think, it's refreshing to find meals, beauty products, entertainment options and services that won't cost you a cent. Whether it's tacos or tire pressure checks, there's something for nothing — for everyone.
Getting free stuff isn't difficult, but there is a trade-off. In most but not all cases, you may have to join a loyalty program or download an app to your smartphone. That gives companies access to your phone number, birth date, and shopping or dining habits.
My advice: To preserve your personal info and keep your inbox from spiraling out of control, create a dedicated email account for online loyalty programs and e-clubs. Don't be afraid to fudge your birth date or year. Some cautious consumers even use a fake name. That way, if a company's data is compromised, bad guys don't get all the pieces to your personal identity.
Here are some of my favorite freebies with no gotchas attached. Consider them a blueprint for finding similar offers in your community.
Food and drink
Join loyalty programs at these popular chains and they'll give you an entree or starter in return - before you've earned any points. Sign up for CPK Rewards to get a small plate item of your choice at California Pizza Kitchen. Become a Raving Fan at Del Taco and take home your choice of taco. Sign on to IHOP's MyHop for a stack of pancakes.
Newk's Roundtable Club welcomes members with a free slice of strawberry cake. Penn Station East Coast Subs offers you the choice of a free small fresh-cut fry, chocolate chunk cookie or fresh-squeeze lemonade as a reward. On the Border's Club Cantina revs up your appetite with a free bowl of signature queso or sopaipillas. Join Waffle House Regulars for - what else? - a waffle.
In addition to giveaways based on loyalty points, you can collect birthday freebies. Among the most valuable rewards: Red Robin gives you any burger with bottomless fries. Enjoy lunch or dinner on the house at Sweet Tomatoes. Denny's dishes up a "Build Your Own Grand Slam" breakfast. Firehouse Subs and Jersey Mike's both gift you a sub sandwich; the latter includes a 22-ounce fountain drink.
Moe's Southwest Grill serves you a birthday burrito; A&W Mug Club a root beer float. Download the honeygrow app for a free honeybar. Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh offers an entree of your choice.
Beauty and makeup stores such as BareMinerals, Sephora and the Body Shop are eager for you to test their products, so much so that most will give you three to four days worth of almost anything in stock - foundation, blush, bronzer, lipstick, lotion and perfume. BareMinerals even tosses in a mini-brush or applicator.
Share your email with Bath & Body Works in exchange for occasional vouchers for body wash, lotions, candles, hand soap and other goodies you can pick up in store. Stop into any Origins store for a complimentary 20-minute mini-facial.
Something else worth celebrating? Members of Sephora Beauty Insider, BareMinerals Friends and Benefits (FAB) and Ulta's Ultamate Rewards receive cosmetics or skin-care products. Sally Beauty gifts a $5 birthday reward to spend online or in-store.
Drop in to any LensCrafters or Visionworks (and most other eyewear retailers), and they'll clean and/or adjust your eyeglasses free.
Drive into the designated bay at Discount Tire and Big O Tires and technicians will check and adjust the air pressure if necessary. Make a pit stop at Pep Boys for a free tire rotation, windshield wiper replacement (even if you bought them somewhere else), brake check and tire pressure check. The last two require you to be a member of Pep Boys Carlife Rewards, but joining is free.
Check online with CVS for updates on hundreds of free Project Health screening events planned for this year. Tests vary but usually include blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose and body mass index.
Classes and workshops
Hone your adventure skills through cost-free clinics in archery, fly-fishing, hunting, bike maintenance, camp cooking, snowshoeing and more at Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's and REI.
Get the skills to handle any household repair or project with Home Depot's free do-it-yourself workshops. Find a schedule in store or online at HomeDepot.com.
Need to entertain kids on the cheap? Children can learn to safely wield a hammer and other tools at Home Depot Kids DIY workshops. Lakeshore Learning stores host free crafting sessions every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Thinking about taking up a stringed instrument? Try it out with a free group guitar class at the Guitar Center. Check NaturalGrocers.com for a list of free in-store cooking demos, as well as nutrition seminars on subjects such as reading food labels and healthy food alternatives.
Participate in a complimentary boot camp or yoga class at an Athleta location; check stores.athleta.net to find a 45- to 60-minute workout. Lululemon stores host yoga classes; find times and locations at shop.lululemon.com/community. In fact, yoga is so popular that you can do an online search for "free yoga class" to pull up a list of some near you.
Stumped by Ctrl-Alt-Delete? Microsoft Store and the Apple Store offer free workshops on how to use all their products and devices, plus software. And don't forget the library for free classes on creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
You can even attend an elite university without paying tuition. Take a free online class taught by professors at MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown and others. Try EDX.org or do a search for MOOC (massive open online courses) to find one that suits your interests and schedule.
Ask your library if it has passes you can check out for free admission to local attractions and museums. Many do, and the passes usually admit up to four people.
Gain free entry to more than 225 museums, aquariums, nature preserves and historical sites across the country on the first full weekend of every month by flashing your credit or debit card (and a photo ID) from Bank of America, Merrill Lynch or U.S. Trust. Search for a partner near you with the Museums on Us location finder.
Enter a drawing to score tickets to movies before they are officially released, or download and print tickets on the spot by registering at Gofobo.com, FoxSearchlightScreenings.com, SeeItFirst.net or WBTickets.com.
If you have a card with one of the more than 6,000 libraries using Hoopla Digital, you can check out movies, TV shows, music and audiobooks on your smartphone, tablet or PC. More than 620,000 options include classic and new content; movies are added weekly and Hoopla releases music often the same day it hits stores and is released digitally. Check whether your library participates at HooplaDigital.com.