Everyone likes free money. It’s my favorite kind, personally. I’m talking about the $20 bill lying on the ground. The birthday check from Great Aunt Winifred for $5. The extra 30 minutes someone overpaid on the parking meter that you get to use when you park there. It’s all good.
So why would you pass up free money? The problem is, there are plenty of opportunities, even in this day and age, to get money for nothing. Of course there is a price – you may have to fill out a form, or walk to a bank, or call an 800 number. But in practical terms, we’re talking about nothing. So where do you get this free money? Who is crazy enough to give it away? Your employer, the federal government, banks, credit card companies, airlines, supermarkets? The answer: all of them!
1. Not taking advantage of employer match in your 401(k). This is a biggie. If your employer offers a matching program for your 401(k), what they are telling you is for every $1 you put towards your retirement – up to a certain level – they will give you $1. You don’t have to stay later, or hang with the boss under the mistletoe at the holiday party. They’ll just put it in your 401(k) and walk away. It may take a year or two to vest fully, but it’s your decision to stay or leave. Don’t pass up this unless you feel that you don’t really deserve any more of your company’s money than they graciously give you in salary.
2. Not using a cash back rewards card. Credit card companies are not our buddies. They are not in business to make our lives more convenient – they are in business to trick us into running up big balances. What easier way than telling you that every time you spend $100 they’ll give you four shiny new quarters? The trick here is to turn the tables on them. Put all of your expenses on a cash-back credit card each month, then pay off the balance in full. They’ll probably be muttering and complaining in their plush credit card executive offices, but they’ll give you the money. I get cash back on my donations to charity because I do this. Think about that – I give money to charity but I use a cash-back card that pays me 1% back. If that isn’t free money, I don’t know what is.
3. Failing to join your supermarket ‘frequent shopper program’. Most big supermarkets have a “card” price on their store brands. If you use your ‘frequent shopper card’ they give you big discounts. All they ask in return is the ability to measure your buying patterns for marketing purposes. That may be a little creepy knowing that all that data’s being compiled about you, but hey! I’m not about to pay $1 for something I could pay $.50 for just by giving out information to Winn-Dixie that they probably can track in other ways, anyway. I may regret getting a flyer in the mail but most of these supermarkets let you opt-out of mailings.
4. Withholding too much. The federal government is a pesky creditor. Imagine if you went to a nice restaurant and while you were eating the waiter came by every 10 minutes to ask for another 1/6th of your bill. Annoying, isn’t it? Well, Uncle Sam can’t wait until April 15th to get your tax payment – he needs it now and he needs it bad. But he also lets you decide just exactly how much should be withheld from your paycheck every month.
Imagine you’re back at the crazy restaurant. The waiter comes by and wants $10 every 10 minutes. Would you give him $15 each time and tell him to give you the change back after dinner? Why would you want him holding your money for you? Why do you want the government holding your money that could be in a high-yield savings account? Reducing your withholding can put some money in your pocket NOW instead of later.
5. Not joining airline/hotel/etc. frequent flyer programs. I know the value of a frequent flyer mile isn’t what it used to be, but if you fly they don’t charge you anything extra to put the miles in an account. I’ve paid for enough flights and hotel rooms over the years using points that I think it’s worth it. I would have paid for those flights and rooms otherwise. Using points is a hassle, I know, but it’s still something for nothing. The “something” is a little bit less every year, but it’s still there.