Anyone who has ever spent five minutes with me knows I love free stuff. My house is filled with stuff I got for free (pull-out sofa, velvet unicorn painting, giant stuffed walrus). About half of the places I go I do because it's free, there's something free to be had or it will afford me something free in the not-too-distant future. My car is spattered with coupons for free drinks at Speedway, my key ring is weighed down by rewards cards of every sort and my brain is overloading with tips and tricks and schemes to disprove that adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch." Amateurs.
One of my many free-stuff schemes includes an ongoing promotion by the good people at Coca-Cola (from whom I have only had one defective diet soda during my tenure on Earth) in which bottle caps are emblazoned with a code that, when entered online, garners points. Single 20 oz. bottles are 3 points, a 12-pack is 10, and a large cube is 20. I don't drink much pop at home, but during grad school I would often look to the vending machines at Youngstown State University for the vital fizz to get me through the day. The English lab's no-trash-left-behind policy meant that my bookbag soon swam in little plastic caps. Thus began my mission of righteous thriftiness.
It is actually a neat little program. You can exchange the points for gift cards, housewares, electronics and all manner of Coca-Cola merchandise. With even just a few points you can start swapping for entries in sweepstakes and free pop. If Coke isn't your thing, you can get the points from Minute Maid, Sprite, Powerade and even bottled water. I swear they aren't paying me to say this.
I found that the caps added up quickly. Three points became thirty, which became sixty. I was tantalized by the promise of cool stuff at the far end of the reward spectrum: mp3 players, kitchen mixers, gift cards and two words: waffle iron. The need for points soon outgrew my regular consumption of Coke Zero, so I had to look to other sources to feed my point addiction.
I recruited helpers. Working in an office with late deadlines, co-workers often need a caffeine jolt to make it through the day. I made it well-known that they can deposit their caps on my desk. They have been rewarded with T-shirts and other goodies. I had YSU pals on the lookout for abandoned bottles hanging around DeBartolo Hall, with the promise that I would share my bounty and order them a nifty suction-cup basketball hoop (100 points was all I was willing to spend on my staff). A friend saved up for an entire year, and gave me the resulting shopping bag full of points as a Christmas gift. But even with helpers, that waffle iron seemed oh-so far away.
That's when I went full-commando in the hunt for points. I returned to a landmark of my youth: the Warren G. Harding football field. Yes, cheering on the Raiders still feels great, and the marching band is as good as it was when I was among the ranks, but I knew that behind the booster refreshment booth would be mountains of lovely, used cardboard Coke boxes. Twenty points a pop. After asking if anyone minded, I hauled them away. I briefly wondered if I was merely taking advantage of free stuff, or was on the path to becoming Sanford & Son. But waffle iron dreams can't be crushed.
My Coke Cap radar was soon honed to a precision NORAD could only dream of. No recycling bin was off limits. New employees in my office soon learned not to give the side-eye if they saw me combing through discarded bottles and unscrewing caps. Now, I know, this all may seem kind of gross, but duh, free waffle iron. I assure you I stay sanitized. IN THIS ECONOMY (a journalist's most-hated phrase), who are we to judge how someone gets free stuff?
After almost five years, feast on this: today, because of my thriftiness / lack of yuck factor, I am the proud owner of a free hand-held vacuum, 2GB jump drive, case of steaks, cordless curling iron / hair straightener, earbuds, subscription to Esquire, Spin, Wired and Bon Appetit magazines, "American Idol" cup set, many months of Netflix and a cheese board and knife set. The waffle iron still eludes me, but I still have a garbage bag full of caps to get through.