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When 'Free' Isn't Worth IT for Students

If you're scrounging around for good deals, you might want to watch out. Free trials and other seemingly sweet offers sometimes have fine print that might end up hitting you where it counts: the wallet.

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By Sarah Wright

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When A Good Deal Isn't So Good

Let's say you're interested in a new gym that's opened up down the street from your house. Winter break's coming up, and your school's on-campus facilities will be closed for much of it. This new gym offers a free weeklong membership to advertise their services, so you decide to check it out to make sure you get in some exercise during your time off.

It seems like a good deal, but when you start chatting with the gym employees, you realize that they want you to provide your credit card and other financial information in order to sign the free trial contract. If warning bells aren't already going off in your head, they should be. Why would you need to provide a credit card for a free trial? As it turns out, the gym requires you to cancel your membership after the free week is up. Otherwise, you'll automatically be charged for a month of membership. If you forget to cancel, your free deal won't be so free after all.

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How to Proceed With Caution

This type of scenario is common, but it's not always nefarious or hard to spot. Businesses that offer free trial periods and other incentives aren't necessarily out to scam you. For a lot of services, this is a legitimate way to attract customers and get new clients. But you should still be careful, especially if your precarious financial situation is what motivated you to take advantage of a free trial in the first place.

If you've decided you can handle the potential fallout from a free trial or other offer, whether it seems sketchy or not, it'll take more than good luck to come out unscathed. Taking these steps might help you avoid serious problems:

Ask if you really have to provide a credit card.

If you're certain that you're not going to go through with a deal after the free trial is up, you might try being up-front. See if you can still sign up if you don't provide financial information. They might say yes in the hopes that the free trial will change your mind.

Read the entire contract or terms of service.

Look out for fine print that might trap you into paying a cancellation fee to get out of a deal.

Ask about the cancellation policy.

Be sure you know when the deadline for cancellation is. Often, services that offer you a free week will automatically debit payment for membership right when the deadline is met. Forgetting to cancel on time can result in losing some money.

Be firm when saying no.

A lot of the time, salespeople and other representatives make money based on how many people they sign up for a given offer. They might lose a commission or suffer a similar penalty if you cancel, so they might try to pressure you into singing up or staying in the deal.

If you're looking for a no-strings-attached free deal, why not take some free online classes?

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