Thrifty Living: Why there really is no such thing as a free lunch

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The Independent Online

Mr Millard nods sagely when I ask him whether a freebie can truly exist, or whether the term itself should be reviewed under the Trade Descriptions Act. "Free flights on cheap airlines seem to exist," he says excitedly, tapping away on his laptop. Then he gets a bit less excited. "Well, Ryanair is offering flights for 1p to places like Dusseldorf, or Oslo. Or Newquay." Quite apart from whether I want to go to Oslo or not, the deal seems to be that in order to get the 1p flight, you can't travel at the same time as any national holiday, school break or major sporting event. It's a mite restrictive, essentially.

Kirsty Towler writes to me full of the joys of her recent half-term adventure to Venice, apparently acquired solely by virtue of Airmiles, but I maintain, even at the risk of sounding "pompous" (ta, Kirsty), that it's jolly difficult to get a true gift. Unless someone has bought it for you first. You have to do quite a lot of shopping at Tesco in order to clock up enough Airmiles (Kirsty says it took her 11 months), and if you are hell-bent on claiming cashbacks, cost-free weeks or other such deals, you usually have to be intensely focused on them to the extent of doing nothing else with your life.

This week, for example, I managed to source a free MP3 player (with video) from MyStuff insurance, but I'm not really confident it is mine gratis. You had to take out a policy with MyStuff (a subsidiary of Barclaycard), but unless you actually wanted the insurance anyway, you had to remember to cancel it within a set period. Naturally Barclaycard is banking on hauling in people who are tempted by the idea of a free MP3 player but who'll forget to cancel the deal in the given time. Indeed, I missed the deadline by three days, and although MyStuff has assured me no payment has been collected, I sort of doubt this.

Even things that appear to be totally free often are not. This week, during a crowded journey on the Tube, I reached behind a fellow traveller to grab a copy of the tabloid freebie Metro. Usually communal protocol on the Tube indicates that these are freely available to all and sundry. Not this one, however. "I haven't dispensed with it yet," said the man who was sitting directly in front of it. He wasn't reading it, or touching it in any way, but mindful of his prior claim, I instantly withdrew my hand, and stood, mortified, while everyone else around me immediately set about perusing their copies of Metro with huge interest.

Virgin Trains is currently offering free first-class travel to anyone unlucky enough to have had their New Year ruined by booking a Virgin train ticket between 31 December and 3 January, when engineering work at Rugby basically scuppered all journeys – but you've sort of already paid for that.

And Clairol Nice'n'Easy is offering you a free sample of hair dye in whatever shade you want, as long as you tell them what colour your hair is – and give all your contact details. For a further "freebie", namely the chance to win a £50 voucher, you have to fill in a further questionnaire, which includes a section in which you must give details about whether you have done something remarkable with your life. This story might then appear in Red magazine. So,for a sachet of hair dye and the "chance" to win £50, Clairol gets a heap of useful marketing data, and Red magazine sorts out its research for a feature on "remarkable lives" in a forthcoming edition.

Something for nothing just doesn't exist. (I am naturally discounting home-made Mother's Day cards and head lice here, both of which I will probably receive from the permanently infested Junior Millards.)

I was even offered a free helping hand with my Halifax bank account today, courtesy of a friendly email entitled "Your Online Banking Account is Suspened" (sic). "Please ensure that listed information is provided correctly," it went on, asking for my online banking user name, password, full details used on first registration, security question and security answer. For "security reasons", you understand. To "be added and updated in our new software". There was even a lovely Halifax logo, just to add credence. Oh yes, a lovely free banking service. Which manages somehow to raid all my savings. I don't think so.

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