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In this photo taken on June 12, 2009, a tourist sunbathes at the resort city of Cancun, Mexico. With the swine-flu scare still alive, but the chances of contracting it in Mexico lower than ever, it could just be the perfect time to head south of the U.S. border, where hotel operators and tourism officials are doing everything short of giving away vacations for free. (AP Photo/Israel Leal) (Israel leal/Israel leal/AP)
In this photo taken on June 12, 2009, a tourist sunbathes at the resort city of Cancun, Mexico. With the swine-flu scare still alive, but the chances of contracting it in Mexico lower than ever, it could just be the perfect time to head south of the U.S. border, where hotel operators and tourism officials are doing everything short of giving away vacations for free. (AP Photo/Israel Leal) (Israel leal/Israel leal/AP)

The Smart Cookies

Where to find free stuff Add to ...

It's one of my favourite words: free. Parents with kids on March Break, students, retirees, pretty much anyone who is tight on cash, will agree. So this week I looked for freebies in some of the most common areas we tend to spend money on.

Any savings opportunity - big or small - can boost your bottom line. And make no mistake, there are significant savings to be found in the land of free offers, some with the simple click of a button. Consider how some of these could work for you:

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Food If you're a parent, then "free for kids" sounds pretty good. If you're planning a dinner out with the kids, consider restaurants where your kids eat free. For example, kids are not charged on Mondays at East Side Mario's, Tuesday's at Pizza Hut, Wednesday's at Applebee's, and any day of the week, with an adult purchase of $10 or more, at Boston Pizza. You might want to place a quick call before heading out to make sure the restaurants participate.

Or, you might want to consider becoming a secret critic and dining for no charge. You'll have the chance to visit participating restaurants but you will be required to rate your overall experience in detail.

Phone If you're not using Skype, get on it. Calls and video calls are free if the person or business you would like to chat with is also signed up with Skype. Free video calls allowed me to stay in touch and to 'see' my family when I lived across the country. Another option is www.Talkster.com With this site, you enter the details of the person you wish to call and it creates a unique local number that is sent via text or email to you. Then, you use that number to call the person - wherever they may be in the world. You're using your minutes, however you're not charged international rates.

Also, if you're looking for information, instead of dialling 411 and paying up to $2.50 per call, dial 1.800.Goog-411. You'll get the same information - and you won't pay a penny.

Car To get the occasional free ride, consider car pooling. Sites like www.carpool.ca and www.erideshare.com connect you with others who are looking to reduce their commuting costs and take turns giving free rides. Considering the average commuter spends approximately $7,500 per year or $15 a day to operate their car, according to the Canadian Automobile Association, it could prove to be a significant savings.

Vacations You could have free accommodations, if you're willing to swap houses. Sites like www.homeexchange.com and www.ihen.com will help you get started. These sites let you search through thousands of locations and get to know other homeowners before discussing details of a swap. For most sites, you'll likely have to purchase a membership, but considering a night at a hotel could easily cost you more than $250, a small upfront fee for a free stay is a smart investment.

Books Yes, the library is the number one way for getting books for free. But, if you have books collecting dust and want to trade them for your next book club selection, check out www.bookmooch.com or www.titletrader.com - online communities for exchanging used books. The books are free, but there are minimal costs for shipping. Also, check out www.craigslist.ca for book swap meets in your area.

Shipping If you're placing an order online www.freeshipping.ca is the first spot to visit. The site will provide you with information on whether or not your desired order comes with free shipping, and if so, what minimum amount you'll need to make in order to get free shipping. If you shop regularly at Amazon, for example, you'll know that free shipping comes with purchases over $39. If you're pretty close to the spending minimum but not quite there, visit www.filleritem.com. If you're short, say, $2.25, this site will search for all items at Amazon equalling exactly that amount to add to your cart.

Samples Some companies will let you test out their products for free before you commit to purchasing them. You can sign up for email alerts on free products and offerings at sites like www.freesamples.ca. If you're a parent, you might like www.freeparentstuff.ca. The site claims to find the best free samples from companies who will reward you with samples, discounts, coupons and sweepstakes entries. You may want to create a different email account for all sites offering coupons and discounts, so you can check them at your leisure.

For some of the items above, you've got to spend a little to save a little. Even better - spend a little to save a lot. But if you were planning to spend anyway, why not explore free or less costly alternatives. Instead of paying to take your kids out for dinner, why not opt for a restaurant where they can eat for free? Or, if you're ordering online, why not order from a site with free shipping?

Getting something for free feels good. Plus, saving a few dollars on your next dinner out, or a few hundred on your next vacation, simply leaves more money in your pocket.

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