SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
My husband and I have been discussing the abysmal economy for months, but always in a generic "wow, times sure are tough!" sort of way. Then one day Joe uttered the dreadful sentence that strikes fear into the heart of every wife and mom: "I've been working on a family budget."
That was a huge understatement. As the two of us perused his elaborately crafted spreadsheet, it was clear that we could cut back. A lot.
Some changes were no-brainers. We agreed we'd eat out less, switch to a family health insurance plan with a higher deductible and lower premium, and forsake prepackaged foods.
"What about this beauty category?" Joe asked tentatively.
"What about it?" I shot back. Not that I had a right to be defensive: The spreadsheet showed that my vanity was gobbling up a not-insignificant chunk of our financial pie. I like to think I'm at least modestly thrifty -- I cut my kids' hair myself, shop at four supermarkets to get the best deals, and still wear a pair of shoes I bought 15 years ago. I'm prepared to make sacrifices. Just, you know, as long as I can look good doing so.
Desperation breeds creativity, I guess, because suddenly I had an idea: What if I could score -- and subsist on -- free beauty samples for a month? It might be a fun way to try new products. Maybe I'd even find a prettier look in the process. Could I make it that long without buying anything? There was only one way to find out.
I decide to begin my quest online. I'm feeling cautiously optimistic, since I don't have many makeup musts: just foundation or powder, eyebrow pencil, and some sort of lip tint.
At first there seem to be zillions of beauty freebies to be had, but I soon discover that most of them have a string attached that's about five miles long. After filling out several odd, borderline-invasive surveys (do I smoke? have Crohn's disease? want a personal astrology reading?), I can have my free razor/deodorant/toothpaste...just as soon as I accept any two of the dozens of "partner offers" listed. And they all have a fee or enrollment requirement attached. Lesson learned: A long survey can sometimes be a sign you're getting scammed.
I then spot an offer claiming that a Purity Mineral Makeup Kit is mine "to try for free." All I have to do is pay for the shipping and handling. I'm psyched, but then I see the fine print: "If you enjoy our Collection...Your credit card will be charged the low price of $69.95 at the end of your 21-day trial period." I don't think these people used the same dictionary as the rest of us when they looked up "free" and "low price."
I decide to call my friend Julie, who runs a blog called momspective.com, knowing that she'll point me in the right direction. As it happens Julie includes a section that lists legitimate freebie sites for beauty products.
"Have you ever gotten, say, a free eyebrow pencil?" is one of the first questions I ask. My bare, scanty brows are already worrying me.
"I don't think so," she says. Uh-oh.
I mention that I may be too lazy for the free-swag thing; it's going to take me forever to type my contact information into every company's form. But she's found a way around that; roboform.com offers a free plug-in you put on your Web browser's toolbar that automatically fills in your info with a mouse click. Soon I'm four to six weeks away from receiving a haul that includes a mini-box of Playtex Sport tampons, a box of Crest Advanced Seal Whitestrips, and a full-size tube of Revlon 3D Extreme Mascara.
I do come across a few sites on my own that deliver on their promises. Eveorganics.net offers a free sample a month; my first goody, a delicious peppermint lip balm, arrives practically overnight. And at bionic-beauty.com I find a list of legit offers. With a few mouse clicks I'm the soon-to-be recipient of a Dior Diorskin Fluid Foundation sample, some Dove shampoo, and a Mary Kay MK Signature Ultimate Mascara. Not bad for three minutes' work.
Two days into my experiment I wake up, splash my face with water and stare at my blotchy, dehydrated skin and anemic smattering of eyebrow hairs. Desperation is setting in. I throw on an eyebrow-concealing hat and hit the mall to do some discreet begging.
I walk into Macy's and spend a few minutes working up the courage to walk over to the Lancome counter. "Do you offer any samples?" I ask the perfectly made up gal behind it. "Um, no," she says dismissively. I slink away and hide in the shoe department, where I attempt to regain my nerve and come up with a better approach.
"I'm not really familiar with your products" is my oh-so-clever opener with Chanel's salesperson. "Can you tell me a little bit about them?"
She asks about my skin concerns: wrinkles? tone? clarity? moisture? All of the above, sister! She whips open her sample drawer and forks over several "single use" packets of Precision Ultra Correction Restructuring Anti-Wrinkle Firming Cream SPF 10 and Precision Ultra Correction Nuit Anti-Wrinkle Restructuring Night Cream. I vow to make each one last three days.
"Do let me know how you enjoy them," she says with a friendly smile and not even a hint of sales pressure. Now that wasn't so horrible.
I head to the farthest counter away from her and try the same line on the Estee Lauder rep.
"Ooh! " she says excitedly. "Have you tried our new Perfectionist CP+ Wrinkle Lifting Serum?" She hands me a nail polish-size bottle of what looks like liquid gold. (The stuff retails for around $55 an ounce, giving my quarter-ounce sample a street value of nearly $14. Nice! )
"Will you tell me how your custom-blend foundation works?" I ask the Prescriptives gal. It's a cheesy line but it works. In minutes I have a week's worth of perfectly matched foundation and a bottle of primer.
Although I'm thrilled with my many samples, I'm still without an eyebrow pencil. Good thing I have a lot of hats.
Confession: I am a Sephora-holic. I am a card-carrying member of their free "beauty insider" program, which rewards you with a point for every dollar you spend. Once you reach 100 points you get to start redeeming the points for products. But today I refuse to spend a dime.
"I'm not sure about this shade," I say to an employee as I inspect the smear of Laura Mercier Silk Creme Foundation I've applied to my jawline.
"Yeah, it might be a little dark," she agrees. "Try this one."
She applies the lighter shade and steers me toward a mirror. "That one's perfect," she declares.
"Hmm, I'm not really sure..."
"Well, you need to be sure," she says. And with that she opens a huge drawer and my heart skips a beat. She selects a petite plastic pot and fills it to the brim with the foundation. There's enough in there to last me for weeks. "Anything else you'd like to try?" she asks. I mumble something about eyebrow pencil; she tells me I can try any pencil in the store but that they don't have samples. Mortified, I ask for a cheek color recommendation. She suggests Benefit Cosmetics Sheer Cream Blusher and squirts a healthy dollop into another pot.
And she's not done. "We just got this stuff in," she says smartly as she presses a few packets of Dr. Brandt Lineless Lines No More Filler & Volumizer into my eager hands. "It's amazing." And so are you, ultragenerous Sephora saleswoman.
A few days later I'm in my local CVS, which has a section reserved for some fabulous high-end brands. They even have an employee who roams the beauty aisles ready to answer questions. I revert to my original direct approach.
"We don't offer samples," the nice lady tells me. "But you can return any makeup product you purchase for any reason, even if it has been opened and you just don't like the shade."
Not helpful for my mission but good to know. Another lesson learned: It's easier to score beauty booty at pricier stores. With that in mind I decide to hit my local beauty boutique.
Right next to my regular hair salon is a chic beauty shop called Treat. I often peruse the aisles and occasionally I buy something. But not today.
"Is this a new line?" I ask, pointing to a Colorescience display.
"No, we've had that for a while," the impossibly beautiful salesgirl tells me. "Have you tried it?"
"Not yet," I admit, avoiding her gaze. I test a lip gloss on my hand and come up with an idea. "I really want to revamp my entire makeup collection," I say. "I'm just not sure where to start."
"Maybe I can help," she tells me. I try not to look too excited as she hands me several Colorescience samples: a handy Glow and Go Pearl Powder Travel Puff, a tube of F.A.C.E. Colore Creme de la Creme Liquid Foundation and a handful of Pearlescience Pep Up Gel packets. She also throws in a small jar of Julie Hewett Cheekie Cheek & Lip Shine. "We usually give these to our best customers with a purchase. But we know and like you," she adds with a wink. I feel downright giddy.
But here's the thing: I'm going to see Jerry Seinfeld perform tonight and I can't wear a hat indoors. I need my brows. In desperation I toss a blond-brown eyebrow pencil onto the countertop. At $13 it's just a slight blemish on my otherwise-flawless record.
All in all I collected around 40 samples during my experiment, and the stash lasted me a month. When I went over the numbers I realized that my combined haul was easily worth more than $100 -- and it was mine just for the asking! (Though the asking part was a little awkward.) I'm just as psyched that I discovered some new favorite products along the way. I've become a custom-blend foundation convert; you'll never see me looking blotchy again.
My husband was as thrilled as I was, since the "beauty" part of our budget looked far less ugly. Money aside, the adventure turned out to be fun. The online freebies continue to arrive nearly every other day. As for my brows...well, maybe I'll get them tattooed. You know, in case I make this experiment a regular thing.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.