As much as I love the word, I have to admit it makes me suspicious. Just this week I won a “free” vacation, but the fine print says I need to send in a cashier’s check to claim my prize. Sadly, “free” is usually a sneaky way to clean out my wallet.
But every now and then an exception comes along that’s truly free-no strings attached, no hidden agendas. Here are my favorites, and all you really need is an Internet connection to go online.
Finally, all the information you need in one place. Famundo.com is an online calendar, address book and message board. The site merges each individual’s schedule into one calendar, which you can access with a personal code from any computer. Very cool.
Why’s it free? The basic free version is ad-supported but not in an in-your-face way. Famundo wouldn’t be upset if you upgraded to the “Plus” version for about $10 a month, but it’s not required, nor will you be hounded.
This is going to have you scratching your head. The Silver Jewelry Club (silverjewelryclub.com) offers high-quality jewelry including silver rings, earrings, pendants and bracelets (most of them with genuine gemstones). It really is free, provided you pay the modest shipping charge of $5.99. We’re not talking junk here. As a consumer, your humble columnist, who is allergic to nickel silver, can attest to the remarkable quality of these pieces.
Why’s it free? Giving away jewelry is SJC’s way of introducing their products-they also sell their jewelry through wholesalers and stores. I have never received a single solicitation from the company.
Online checking account
Hang on, this is huge. We’re not talking savings account, but an online checking account that is completely free, with no monthly fee attached. Electric Orange, through ING Direct (ingdirect.com), is a paperless checking account (no checks or checkbook!) that pays you up to 3.4 percent interest on your balance (as of presstime). You can do everything-deposit your paycheck, pay bills, send a paper or electronic check, transfer money-securely online. (Of course, you’ll pay a fee if you send paper checks, drop your overdraft line of credit balance below zero or require a stop payment.)
Why’s it free? ING is looking to add new customers. And because they use no paper and have no branches, costs are low.
Pandora.com is like your own personal radio service. You type in an artist, and the service plays songs by that artist and others with a similar style. You can’t download music, but you can listen and manage your own “stations.”
Why’s it free? The site offers a free ad-supported service as well as a paid option where you don’t see ads.
Create an up-to-the-minute to-do list complete with reminders via instant message or e-mail through RememberTheMilk.com. Upload Remember The Milk to your cell phone and you’ll always have your grocery list with you. And when someone at home adds to the list while you’re walking into the store, you’ll be sent an update.
Why’s it free? The majority of the site’s features are free, but a subscription ($25 for the year) gives you access to some additional premium features.
Wi-Fi hot spots
Would you like to know which restaurants and coffee shops in your neighborhood offer free wireless Internet access? Get a directory at wififreespot.com.
Why’s it free? The company probably wants to build traffic to its site and derives financial support through advertising.
Want arrangements of classical pieces for free download? MutopiaProject.org has 1,272 pieces available based on editions in the public domain, including works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Mozart and many others for piano, guitar, cello, voice and more.
Why’s it free? This is a labor of love by a team of volunteers who are involved in typesetting the music for electronic distribution. High-quality copies are available for a cost, but you’re not pressured to buy them.
VistaPrint is an online printing company known for its amazing offer of 250 free business cards. They’re good-quality, too. Visit vistaprint.com, create your card and all you have to pay is about five bucks for shipping.
Why’s it free? VistaPrint would like you to join their 12 million customers who buy printing online, so they offer this enticement. Just know that once you get your business cards, you may hear from them a lot.
Expert computer help
If you’ve ever had a computer problem and wanted to pull out your hair in frustration, this is for you. Need to solve a hardware glitch? Want to learn how to use HTML? Submit your question at protonic.com and you’ll get a pretty prompt answer e-mailed to you from a volunteer expert.
Why’s it free? It’s no secret that many computer manufacturers provide mediocre support for their own products and charge good money for it. The folks at Protonic are tired of this sort of treatment, and believe it or not, their service is free because they enjoy helping people.
Say so long to all those annoying solicitations that clog your e-mail. Spamato, an add-on for Microsoft Outlook, Thunderbird and Mozilla Mail, does what it can to kill the junk. PC World magazine recently named Spamato one of its 101 Fantastic Freebies. Get your download at spamato.net
Why’s it free? The company wants to make spam filtering available to as many computer users as possible.
Learn everything from how to write a business plan to how to finance your venture through the Small Business Administration’s website (sba.gov). Online courses are free and self-paced; they take about 30 minutes each to complete. Free in-person classes are also offered at SBA district offices and resource partners around the country.
Why’s it free? The SBA was created in conjunction with the government to help U.S. citizens learn how to become successful entrepreneurs. Support comes through financing of SBA loans.
Want to learn the basics of practical spoken Spanish? Sign up (some classes are 12 weeks) and you’ll get weekly e-mails from a teacher with lessons and learning tips. You can also learn French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Mandarin Chinese and more. Go to bbc.co.uk/languages
Why’s it free? The BBC, one of the world’s largest broadcasting corporations, is on a mission to enrich people’s lives with programs and services that inform, educate and entertain.
Picasa (picasa.google.com) is a free software download from Google that helps you locate and organize all the photos on your computer. You can edit and add effects, share photos with others through e-mail, print them or upload them to the web. It’s fast and easy.
Why’s it free? Originally a pricey piece of software, Picasa was purchased by Google, then made free as an enhancement to the whole family of Google products.
If you haven’t done this already, do it now. Everyone is entitled to one credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus each year free of charge. Go to annualcreditreport.com and follow the directions. You will be offered many options for which you must pay, but stay on target for the free report. Caution: There are dozens of services on the Internet that pose as sources for free credit reports, but they really cost you money. Ignore them.
Why’s it free? It’s mandated by law, and this site is sponsored by the three major companies-Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.
If you’re tired of paying a fee each time you dial 411, here’s your alternative. Dial 800-FREE-411, then follow the prompts to get your desired number by phone or text message. Works for both residential and business listings throughout the U.S.
Why’s it free? This service is advertising-driven. You dial in, listen to a 10-second sponsored message, then proceed to get the number you need.
The popular website Allrecipes.com, which features recipes from home cooks, now offers free downloadable cookbooks for many occasions (listed under “Tips & Advice”). The pictures are incredible and there are many to choose from. My favorite? Summer Picnics.
Why’s it free? This site derives its revenues through advertising and other sources, so members pay no fees.
Gently used stuff
One person’s castoff is another person’s treasure at freecycle.org. By joining your local Freecycle chapter, you can get used furniture, household appliances and a variety of other items. Just know that those who take are also expected to give. However, no money is allowed to change hands.
Why’s it free? Freecycle is a grassroots, nonprofit movement of people committed to helping the environment by reusing goods and keeping stuff out of landfills.