If you can't afford it, then get it for free

Maybe there is no such thing as a free lunch. Or trip. Or skin cream.

But there often isn't very much expected of you from retailers and other companies that offer stuff for free, which can be all the more enticing in these trying economic times. The trick is knowing where to find free stuff and what to watch out for.

From free samples to swap parties to Freecycle.org, opportunities abound. Free can truly be a four-letter word in retail, but it's often an alluring one to both givers and takers. It can successfully launch a product — or artist, as free music downloads have proved — but can also cut deeply into companies' profits if it becomes the norm. And consumers, of course, need to monitor how much they're spending (especially on stuff they truly don't need) to get the freebie.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, calls the trend "freeconomics."

"Once a marketing gimmick, free has emerged as a full-fledged economy," says Anderson, whose book Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business, comes out next spring. "The psychology of 'free' is powerful indeed, as any marketer will tell you."

No industries give away more free stuff to drive sales than those selling cosmetics and other personal-care products. Estée Lauder and other companies regularly offer free gifts with certain minimum purchases.

And stores will sometimes throw in free gifts of their own, as Neiman Marcus does for purchases of $100 or more during its twice-yearly "Beauty Event" (which starts today, offering free "crocodile-embossed tote in cranberry with nine treats"). Anderson notes that King Gillette helped launch the razor business in the early 1900s by selling bulk razors to companies to give away for free, although recipients still had to buy the blades.

Mike Essex, author of the book Blagman: Don't Buy It, Blag It!, has filled an apartment with stuff he's gotten for free by offering to review the products, which he does on his "Blagman" blog. He recommends the tactic, which he honed while reviewing video games for a living, to anyone looking for free stuff.

The U.K.-based writer says he was once set for eight months with hair gel and has gotten countless goodies, including, literally, a kitchen sink for free this way. Though he can't imagine living a completely no-cost life, he tries to get everything he can without paying.

"It's so much easier and a bit more fun, as well," Essex says.

Essex recommends that those looking for freebies from companies come up with a "unique offer," which doesn't have to be reviewing but can simply be offering to alert your friends on Facebook about a new product, such as a pizza that you got for no charge. Or you could offer to put a product poster in the window of your apartment, he says.

"Anything's possible, and the more original your idea, the more likely you are to succeed," Essex says.

That's far more work than Emily Ryan is willing to do for her freebies. She's furnished her Manhattan apartment largely with furniture she found on the streets of her Upper West Side neighborhood, where her often-upscale neighbors tend to throw out some pretty valuable stuff. She's gotten a full-length mirror, desk, desk chair, huge TV, filing cabinet, couch and color printer. She just has to be careful: Ryan has tried to walk off with furniture only to realize that the owners were waiting for a moving van — not trashing their furniture.

"I won't do anything for it," Ryan says of her finds, which she chronicles on her "NoTrustFund" blog. "I feel like it should be free." Ryan also peruses Craigslist's free section regularly and once found a ticket to a White Stripes concert, where she sat near the front of Madison Square Garden with a complete stranger. She passed up a Neil Diamond ticket once so that someone who is a bigger fan could go.

One does need to set limits, even when an item is free, and especially when your apartment is only 300 square feet, as Ryan's is. "Otherwise, you just take everything, and you're overwhelmed," says Ryan, who is getting a master's degree for free at New York University (well, in return for working at the NYU Medical Center).

Along with trash days across the USA, no-strings-attached freebies include items on Freecycle's website — though you'll need to pick up or have most of the stuff delivered — and "free" DVD rentals at many libraries.

Additionally, there are always the samples that stores from Whole Foods (especially on Wednesday nights, Ryan reports) to Wal-Mart are willing to hand out in hopes of hooking you on certain foods or cosmetics. And it's unlikely the freebies — with or without caveats — are going away anytime soon.

"Each year, retailers have to up the offer and increasingly add more value," says retail brand expert Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA. "It's like a drug, and it can be hard for them to pull out the needle."