MONEY

Wake Up! Monday Is National Coffee Day and There’s Free Coffee to Be Had

A sea of to-go coffee cups
Paul Kooiman—Gallery Stock

On Monday, September 29, a.k.a. National Coffee Day, plenty of regional and national restaurant chains will pour you a coffee for free—or at most, $1.

Fake marketing holiday or not, Monday, Sept. 29 is being celebrated as National Coffee Day, and that means free (or nearly so) coffee can be had at several donut, fast food, and coffee specialists around the country. Here’s where to score an extra jolt of caffeine on the cheap:

Dunkin’ Donuts: All customers get a free medium cup of Dark Roast CoffeeDD’s new flavor, a surprising one from the chain—on September 29, and from September 30 to October 5, the same coffee (medium size Dark Roast) is being sold at the special price of 99¢.

Kangaroo Express: A 12 oz. cup of the convenience store chain’s Bean Street Coffee costs just 1¢ from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Monday.

Krispy Kreme: Help yourself to a free cup of 12 oz. coffee, or get $1 off a mocha, latte, or ice coffee.

Lamar’s Donuts: The Colorado-based donut chain is giving away free 12 oz. coffees on National Donut Day.

McDonald’s: Monday is actually the culmination of a two-week coffee giveaway at McDonald’s, which has provided one complimentary small coffee during morning hours since September 16.

Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.: Customers get a free coffee (hot or ice) with the purchase of any menu item.

Peet’s Coffee & Tea: Participating stores are giving free samples of coffee and espresso, and all beverages are available on a buy-one-get-one-free basis; also, bags of coffee (ground or whole bean) are discounted by $2 apiece at Peet’s on Monday.

Tim Horton’s: The Canadian quick-serve chain gave out free donuts on National Donut Day, but sadly, customers have to cough up actual money for coffee on National Coffee Day. Any size coffee costs $1, and the promotion stretches from September 22 to 29.

Wawa: Fill out a form linked to from the Wawa Facebook page and you’ll get a coupon valid for a free 16 oz. coffee on Monday.

MONEY freebies

McDonald’s Is Giving Away Free Coffee for the Next 2 Weeks

All McDonald's customers get free coffee during breakfast hours over the next two weeks, starting Tuesday, September 16.

From September 16 to 29, participating McDonald’s restaurants around the country are giving one free small McCafé coffee per customer during the location’s breakfast hours—generally from around 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

The move comes at a time when the world’s fast food giants are embroiled in a battle for consumers’ breakfast dollars, when on-the-go Americans are less likely to be eating cereal or anything else at home—and are more prone to swing by a chain restaurant for a quick fix of calories and caffeine. After Taco Bell launched a breakfast menu earlier this year (and also launched some funny ads poking fun of Ronald McDonald to generate attention), McDonald’s responded by giving away coffee for a 14-day period starting in late March.

The new coffee giveaway, roughly six months after the first one, is basically a repeat performance, a McDonald’s statement explained: “This event builds on McDonald’s first-ever Free Coffee Event launched in March, when the company gave away millions of cups of free coffee during the two-week period.”

With a two-week giveaway in the fall, a few weeks after the new school year started—when mornings for families and students still feel exceptionally hectic and harried—McDonald’s is likely seeking to position itself as a quick and convenient habit that’ll help you get your day started a little easier. The idea is to give out lots of free coffee now, with the goal being that 1) customers will buy breakfast when they’re picking up free coffee; and 2) customers will keep coming back for breakfast and coffee (and perhaps lunch and dinner, too) long after the freebie promotion is over.

It also must be noted that the promotion comes on the heels of McDonald’s suffering through a horrible month for sales in August, when global same-story sales were down 3.7%. Giveaways are always known to juice sales, and McDonald’s is hoping that this giveaway more than pays for itself in the form of boosting sales in the long run.

MONEY Sports

How to Watch Every NFL Game This Season Without Going Broke

guys on couch cheering for football team
Michael Cogliantry—Getty Images

The 2014 NFL season starts Thursday, September 4. Here are 5 essential tips for tuning in to all the NFL action your eyeballs can handle throughout the regular season, and beyond.

Watching the NFL used to be simple. Fans could just plop down on the couch on Sunday afternoon, click on the local broadcast station, and they’d be contentedly screaming at the ineptness of the local team before they knew it. Then came exclusive NFL contracts with pay TV providers and sports channels, plus Thursday Night Football, plus a wide range of streaming options. Let’s not forget about the advent of fantasy football, which brought about the “need” for fans to keep tabs not just on their local team, but on the players they drafted across the league and relied upon to stomp on the teams run by their college buddies and office mates.

Stuff got complicated, at least compared to how it used to be. For help sorting out how and where to watch the NFL this season without spending a fortune, here are some handy tips.

All fans can watch some Thursday Night Football for free. According to NFL.com, “Thursday Night Football” starts one week from today, on September 11. That’s silly, of course. Even CBS Sports acknowledges that Thursday Night Football begins tonight, September 4, with rival NBC broadcasting the season-opening matchup of the Green Bay Packers versus the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Anyone with access to free network TV can watch the game.

What the NFL is referring to is that September 11 is when the NFL Network begins its airing of Thursday Night Football. But even then, it’s not necessary for fans to have a pay TV package that includes the NFL Network. For the first time, seven Thursday night games, between September 11 and October 23, are being broadcast on both the NFL Network and CBS. An additional Thursday night game will be aired on NBC on Thanksgiving night. So unlike in the recent past, when the NFL Network had exclusive rights to almost all Thursday night games, even cheapskate fans without a pricey pay TV package get to tune in to some pro football on Thursdays. What’s more, whereas in the past Thursday night games tended to be dominated by mediocre matchups, this year’s lineup features several premier rivalries of teams with big fan bases, including Steelers-Ravens (September 11), Giants-Redskins (September 25), and Jets-Patriots (October 16).

On Sundays, check out networks for free, or DirecTV at a price. Fox and CBS will broadcast NFL Sunday afternoon games featuring local-market teams—and another game or two, usually—and NBC is yet again the network destination for Sunday Night Football.

For fans who want the freedom of tuning into any NFL game their hearts desire on Sundays, DirecTV is the go-to provider. Thanks to an exclusive contract with the NFL, DirecTV offers two packages to subscribers: the NFL Sunday Ticket ($40 per month for six months) and the supersized NFL Sunday Ticket Max ($55 per month for six months). Both options allow subscribers to tune in to any out-of-market NFL game on Sunday. The Max package comes with extra features including the Red Zone Channel (shows highlights and scoring plays of all Sunday games) and, notably, the ability to stream Sunday NFL games on your computer, tablet, or phone.

ESPN has a stranglehold on Monday Night Football. Nothing new here: ESPN has the rights to air Monday Night Football. The MNF action begins with a double header on Monday, September 8, starting with a 7:10 ET kickoff of the Detroit Lions hosting the New York Giants, followed immediately by a matchup of the Arizona Cardinals hosting the San Diego Chargers at 10:20 ET. If you don’t have a pay TV package, or you don’t have a package that includes ESPN, you’re out of luck (though there are some less-than-fully-legal streaming methods out there). Monday Night Football is available for streaming—for subscribers only—at WatchESPN.com. Subscribers have the option of tuning in via desktop, tablet, Google Chromecast, Xbox Live Gold, and several other methods, but not through phones.

Here’s how to watch games in just 30 minutes. In addition to ESPN and DirecTV streaming options, a variety of Game Rewind packages are offered by the NFL, allowing fans to watch full game replays on-demand on your choice of devices after they’ve aired on TV. As a bonus, subscribers can use a Condensed Game feature, in which the typical, stretched-out 3.5-hour football viewing experience is boiled down to roughly 30 action-packed minutes. Fans have the option of buying Game Rewind for a single team ($30 for the season) or all teams ($40) during the regular season. A Season Plus package ($70) includes all of the above, as well as access to view the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl—on-demand, after they’ve aired on TV.

(The alternative to Game Rewind is simply recording games on a DVR, then fast-forward or replay to your heart’s content.)

Yet another streaming option is available for subscribers to Verizon Wireless More Everything plan. Verizon used to charge $5 monthly for subscribers to live stream nationally televised games on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday nights, but it dropped the fee for this season. Fans can also use their devices for live streaming local-market games on Sunday afternoons.

For now, hated blackout rules remain in effect. In recent years, the NFL has received pressure from fan groups as well as the FCC to get rid of blackout rules, which stipulate that networks will not broadcast local home games if the stadium isn’t at least 85% sold out within 72 hours of kickoff. The rules threatened to ruin several Sundays for many fans around the country last season, even during the playoffs, but several teams ran last-minute ticket promotions to boost attendance and thereby avoid blacking out broadcasts. In a few cases, local corporations or the NFL franchises themselves bought thousands of tickets and distributed them free of charge so that games wouldn’t be blacked out.

Lately, the league has been threatening to move all NFL games to cable if the FCC insists on eliminating the blackout rule. That, in effect, would black out the games for everyone who doesn’t have a pay TV package. So for now at least, the blackout rules remain, and fans of local teams that have trouble selling out—Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, we’re looking at you—are likely to face the choice of paying up for a ticket or missing the game a few times this season.

MONEY Fast Food

Why People Care So Much About McDonald’s One-Minute Drive-Thru Guarantee

McDonald's drive-thru sign
Ace Stock Limited—Alamy

A McDonald's drive-thru promotion in Florida has kickstarted discussions on the treatment of low-wage workers, the quality of food and customer service, and even fast food's effects on health and society in general.

When McDonald’s restaurants in Florida began a limited-time promotion guaranteeing that drive-thru orders would be ready within 60 seconds, it seemed like a pretty interesting development to us. But we had no idea just how interesting others would find it. The response it has generated on the TIME Facebook page has been off the charts.

And it all stems from what seems at first glance like some quick, little article about a limited-time promotion that’s only available at McDonald’s in one state. What gives?

After reviewing hundreds of comments, as well as seeking comment from McDonald’s, low-wage worker activists, and assorted industry observers, here are some theories for why the story received such a huge reaction.

Concern for Low-Wage Workers
The comments section discussion is dominated by a wide range of people—McDonald’s workers, former McDonald’s workers, fast food customers and noncustomers alike—who essentially are worried that McDonald’s employees will be screwed over by such a guarantee. They say that fast food staffers are already overworked and under too much stress, for wages that aren’t nearly up to snuff. There’s “enough pressure right now without having to deal with this,” one commenter who said she is a McDonald’s employee wrote. “They are some of the most mistreated workers in our community,” another commenter wrote of McDonald’s workers. “This is a terrible, terrible idea and I do not support it whatsoever.”

Worker activist groups such as Chicago-based Fight for 15 and New York City’s Fast Food Forward have been campaigning for more than a year to push fast food giants such as McDonald’s to institute a minimum hourly wage of $15. As a Fight for 15 statement explains, “We believe that people who work hard for a living should make enough to support themselves, their families and their neighborhoods—and that workers should be treated with dignity and respect.”

“This is just another example of how McDonald’s is the boss, despite what it says,” reads a statement released to MONEY, credited to Angeling Carter, a 23-year-old McDonald’s worker in Miami who makes $7.93 per hour. “The corporation sets rules and controls just about every aspect of its stores, from drive-thru service speeds to up-to-the-minute reports on labor and sales. If McDonald’s really wanted to improve customer satisfaction, boost their bottom line and help the economy, it would raise workers wages instead of telling franchisees they are paying too much.”

McDonald’s responded to our inquiry by saying it was “great” the post received such a big response on social media. A statement from the company also clarified, “The 60-second guarantee promotion is reinforcing a standard we’ve had for many years regarding timing from the ‘cash’ window to the ‘food present’ window.”

Because there’s been much confusion about what exactly is being guaranteed, let’s reiterate: The timer starts after the customer has placed an order, paid for it, and received a receipt. After that, employees are to deliver the customer’s food within 60 seconds. If they miss the cutoff, the customer does not get his or her order for free. Instead, the customer receives a coupon good for a free sandwich on a future visit to McDonald’s. And again, the 60-second guarantee is a promotion only at McDonald’s in Florida with drive-thrus (approximately 800 restaurants), only Monday to Friday from noon to 1 p.m., and only through August 29.

As for the criticism that the guarantee is unfair to workers, McDonald’s instead characterizes the promotion as “energizing our crew and … entertaining to our guests. Contrary to some of the Facebook comments, the feedback thus far from the crew is that they are having fun with it. They are engaging with customers in a new way and are having some fun camaraderie with each other.”

Concern About Quality and Service
Many commenters took the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with McDonald’s drive-thru service even when there is no timed guarantee. “I’ve had to wait at drive thru 10 minutes for a Coke,” one customer chimed in. “The staff employed have no idea how to count change back, poor interpersonal skills, and little to no work ethic.”

When employees are under the gun to get orders ready under a strict time restraint, the assumption made by many is that the service and quality of the food can only get worse. Commenters joked, “Now you can get your wrong order even faster,” and “I’ll take 50 Big Macs and 24 snack wraps. Good luck doing that in 60 seconds.” Others offered more measured, sensible thoughts: “I’d rather have good service and good food by a polite employee than rushed, bad service with a half-cooked burger,” and “Accuracy is better than fast.”

McDonald’s maintains that restaurant accuracy scores “actually improved when this program was tested in Tampa and we’re seeing similar results more broadly thus far.”

Steve Connelly, of the Boston advertising firm Connelly Partners, said via e-mail that the reaction shows how much people care about food quality. “The seesaw between quality and speed, which has for so long leaned towards speed, may be coming back into balance,” he said. “People have finally started to figure out that something worth eating is worth waiting for. In a down economy, food is fuel. When the economy is less dire … food elevates in importance. Dare I say, it may even be worth [waiting] 90 seconds.”

Concern about Society in General
Some received news of McDonald’s limited guarantee as yet another indication that the priorities of our instant-gratification, rush-rush-rush society are way out of whack. “It’s sad when society has gotten to the point where it can’t wait more than 1 minute for something,” one extremely popular comment reads. Another person commented, “increased speed = decreased quality, and if you don’t believe that you’re delusional, and if you don’t care… well that shows you where society puts its priorities.”

Concern That Fast Food Is Ruining the World
When McDonald’s introduced a creepy mascot named Happy recently to consumers in North America, the masses took to Twitter to declare it the stuff of nightmares. And sure, the idea of a Happy Meal come to life with googly eyes and big teeth might be a little scary. But that alone doesn’t explain why so many people felt compelled to bash the Golden Arches.

Connelly, the ad executive, explained at the time that McDonald’s isn’t merely a brand but “a piñata” that some people must poke at every available moment. Likewise, the reaction to the 60-second guarantee shows that, “McDonald’s is a target for everyone,” Connelly explained. “No matter what they do they will be bashed. This is very important to consider here: the people who don’t eat at McDonald’s or who will never admit they eat at McDonald’s will smash them at every available turn for being a bad employer and serving bad-for-you food.”

Indeed, the people who commented on TIME’s Facebook page along the lines of “Eating that timer would be better for you than eating McCrap,” and “now they can kill Americans a little faster than Usual” probably aren’t McDonald’s customers. At least, you’d hope they aren’t.

Concern That Some People Don’t Read Beyond Headlines
Many commenters said the guarantee was absurd because customers sometimes take more than one minute to order, or they don’t have their money ready and therefore take up more time to pay. Others wondered why their local McDonald’s doesn’t have a 60-second drive-thru guarantee. And still others commented something to the effect that they will place a huge order that will be impossible to deliver in 60 seconds, and then come away with all of that food for free.

What all of the comments like these reveal is that some of the commenters didn’t read the story before responding — or at least not very closely. (One commenter who did read the post chastised this group: “Reading comprehension people!”) To clarify again, the 60-second timer starts only after the customer has paid. The guarantee is only in effect in Florida McDonald’s. And if McDonald’s fails to meet the 60-second cutoff, the customer receives a coupon for a free sandwich in the future. You don’t get your current order for free.

But why even bother with this explanation here? The people who didn’t read the initial five-paragraph post probably aren’t reading the end of this much longer story now.

MONEY Food & Drink

McDonald’s Guarantees One-Minute Drive-Thru Service or You Get Free Food

Burger Timer
Mike Willis—Flickr

In a test program underway at McDonald's, customers are given timers at the drive-thru—and a promise that their order will be ready within 60 seconds.

The Miami Herald reports that participating McDonald’s in Florida are trying out a limited-time 60-second guarantee on weekday lunch orders from noon to 1 p.m. now through August 29. Drive-thru customers are handed timers after they’ve paid for their orders, and then the countdown begins. If the food isn’t ready in one minute or less, the customer will receive a lunch item for free on a future McDonald’s visit.

It isn’t hard to imagine why McDonald’s is giving this idea a shot. First and foremost, it’s a way to boost business at lunchtime. While the giants in the fast food world are prominently battling for breakfast customers because more and more Americans are eating out in the morning rather than having cereal at home, lunch remains the marquee meal, attracting 34% of all customer visits. McDonald’s and the rest of the fast food scene must also contend with Chipotle and other players in the fast casual category, which is really the only part of the chain restaurant industry that’s growing.

Secondly, the promise of speedy service—a throwback reminiscent of Domino’s old guarantee or pizza delivery in less than 30 minutes—could be just what some consumers need to get them back at the drive-thru. In recent years, studies have shown that drive-thrus have gotten slower, at least partly because menus have expanded and its’ more difficult for restaurants to deliver speedy service. The industry-wide average time at the drive-thru recently rose from 173 seconds to 181 seconds, researchers at QSR Magazine reported last fall. (That time total includes the time spent ordering food, as well as any wait before placing an order, neither of which is factored into McDonald’s one-minute guarantee.)

Lastly, because McDonald’s is testing out this guarantee in extremely limited fashion—one hour only during lunch, Monday to Friday only, in one market only for a few weeks—there’s not much at risk. [CORRECTION: The guarantee is in effect in all Florida McDonald's locations with drive-thrus, not just those in South Florida as stated in a previous version.] At worst, McDonald’s will be giving out coupons for free sandwiches here and there, which all but guarantees the customer will be back in the future. Such freebies also probably mix up customers’ emotions: Instead of grumbling about how long it is taking to get their orders at the drive-thru, they may actually be hoping that the service is slow.

Related:
McDonald’s Seeks to Supersize Its Growth
Dunkin’, Mickey D, or Starbucks? The Surprising Winner of the Coffee War

MONEY Shopping

CONTEST: Are You America’s Smartest Shopper?

All You America's Smartest Shopper presented by Samsung

MONEY's fellow Time Inc. publication, ALL YOU, is launching a contest to track down the country's savviest shopper, sponsored by Samsung. Here's how to enter.

Visit allyou.com/smartestshopper to share your best shopping tip and a photo that illustrates that tip. You can also enter on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #aysmartestshopper. Entries will be accepted from July 25th through August 15th.

ALL YOU will select 25 semifinalists who will be given a new Samsung Galaxy S5 to create a 60-second video that explains why they deserve the title of America’s Smartest Shopper. Those entries will be winnowed down to 10 finalists; ALL YOU, voters, and a panel of saving-savvy judges will determine the winner. The big reveal will air live on NBC’s TODAY show later this fall.

How to vote

Visit allyou.com/smartestshopper from September 17th until October 3rd to cast your vote.

The prizes

The winner will take home $1,000, plus a Samsung prize package that includes a Tab S 8.4 Wifi, Gear Fit and Smart TV.

Two runners-up will each receive $50, plus Tab S 8.4 Wifi, Gear Fit and Samsung Level headphones.

All three finalists will receive a trip with a guest to New York City, where the winner will be revealed live on NBC’s TODAY Show.

 

MONEY freebies

Marvel Comics or The New Yorker: Choose Your Binge-Reading Bargain

To celebrate Comic-Con and the makeover of a literary journal's website, fans can binge on cheap (or free!) all-you-can-read deals.

If you’re looking to escape summer’s swelter by binge-reading about alternate universes, bizarre worlds, and fascinating people you’ve never heard about and didn’t think could exist in real life, man, are you in luck!

Not one but two binge-reading bonanzas have recently made their debut. First, The New Yorker announced that it is opening the entirety of its archives to all, free of charge, for the entire summer, to celebrate the makeover of its website. (Normally, much of the archive is accessible only for paid subscribers.)

Then, in a deal coinciding with this week’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, Marvel Comics is offering a special “Marvel Unlimited” package, with one month’s access to more than 15,000 digital comics for just 99¢. (New subscribers must use the promo code SDCC14 when signing up for the service, which usually runs $9.99 per month or $69 per year.)

What might you read? Wired suggests that Marvel subscribers should check out some of the Infinite Comics that have been specially designed for the digital experience, such as the six-issue Captain America: The Winter Soldier (inspiration for the recent film). Meanwhile, BuzzFeed, Vox, Digg, and Slate are among the many publications that have weighed in with recommendations for New Yorker reading while the archive door is wide open.

The suggested free New Yorker readings from Business Insider are heavy on gripping but grisly tales of war, genocide, and evil, such as Seymour Hersh’s “Torture at Abu Ghraib” and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” the latter about the trial of the infamous Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann. After reading some of these stories, it might be time to turn one’s attention back over to Captain America.

MONEY deals

It’s a Great Day for Mas Cheap (Sometimes Free!) Tequila

Margaritas
Jonelle Weaver—Getty Images

In honor of National Tequila Day, bars and restaurants are offering deals like $2 shots and $2 margaritas—and in at least one case, margaritas are totally free.

Thursday, July 24, is being celebrated as National Tequila Day, yet another of what seems like an endless stream of fake, completely made-up holidays. Contrived marketing scheme or not, today’s holiday comes with a range of tequila-infused deals and promotions in bars and restaurants around the country—so, yeah, there’s good reason to celebrate.

Nationally, the On the Border restaurant chain is selling $2 house margaritas and $2 shots of Lunazul Reposado Tequila all day at participating locations. Other national chains with National Tequila Day specials include Abuelo’s, where hand-crafted margaritas are $5.95 all day, and Chevy’s, where deals like $2 house margaritas and $4 shots of Cuervo Silver or Cinge come with the added bonus of being available not only on Thursday, but every day through Sunday, July 27.

Individual bars and restaurants have National Tequila Day specials of their own, so it’s as easy as doing a “Tequila Day Deal + Your Town” search to find them, or just show up at your local watering hole and hope for the best. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find, thanks to the help of local bloggers and writers around the country:

New York City: Horchata, in Greenwich Village, is teaming up with Patron and is giving away free margaritas featuring the new tequila Patrón Rocca from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. A half-price happy hour stretches from 4 to 7 p.m. as well. Sources such as Metro list tons of other spots that are primed for celebrating National Tequila Day on Thursday.

Washington, D.C.: The options include $3 shots of Sauza Blanco at Agua 301.

Las Vegas: Cabo Wabo has had half-priced tequila shots since Monday, while Park on Fremont and The Salted Lime offer $2 drink specials.

Houston: Look for $2 tequila shots, $1.99 margarias, and $5 appetizers at restaurants throughout the city.

We’ve also come across National Tequila Day promotion roundups for Denver, Phoenix, and all over Connecticut, so suffice it to say: If you’re hankering for a tequila deal today, head to the nearest downtown bar-and-restaurant district and you’ll find one.

As an added unexpected bonus/justification for bar-hopping tonight, a recent health study has found that the sugars in tequila could help you lose weight. Cheers!

MONEY Saving

Verizon Smart Rewards, and Dumb Rewards Programs You Should Skip

140724_EM_VERIZON
iStock

Verizon's new rewards program, which requires users to receive targeted ads if they want to get any benefits, is a case study for why you shouldn't sign up for every reward program on the planet

On July 24, Verizon rolls out a new program called Smart Rewards nationally. All customers who sign up as members—and, more important, who also enroll with Verizon Selects, a targeted advertising program—accumulate points for doing things like registering for paperless billing, autopaying their bills, and connecting a tablet to their account. Points are redeemable for things like retailer gift cards and perks such as the ability to “save up to 40% on brand name merchandise,” according to Verizon.

By now, we should all be well aware that there’s a tradeoff for membership in any such rewards program. Namely, that rewards come at the cost of giving up our data and privacy. Verizon’s program, while not all that different from many others in the marketplace, stands out because it’s especially invasive, allowing the bots to track members’ locations, web browsing history, and app usage, among other things. What’s more, the program’s rewards, which mainly consist of discounts on merchandise rather than cash back or discounts on, I don’t know, say, … your monthly Verizon bill! seem pretty lame.

So are the program’s meager benefits worth the sacrifice? We asked a few rewards program experts for their thoughts on the topic, and on the state of rewards programs in general. Here are some key takeaways consumers should think about before absentmindedly signing up for any old rewards program.

Rewards programs aren’t designed to reward you. “What’s most important to understand is that these are marketing programs,” said Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who covers loyalty and reward programs. “They’re just another form of advertising. They’re designed to get you to spend more.”

That happens either when you spend more often because you’re a member, or you buy things you wouldn’t have after they’re brought to your attention—again because you’re a member—or both.

Forget the garbage about getting only ads you want. To consumers accustomed to being spammed with irrelevant ads, the idea of receiving deals and offers specifically tailored to your interests sounds appealing. While some targeted advertising efforts indeed seem, well, on target, the reality is that once the door is open, “you’re going to be pestered by all kinds of marketers,” said Blyskal. “And you’ll have no idea how exactly these companies and marketers got your information.” The result is that you’re likely to be bombarded by ads for products and services that you weren’t shopping for, and/or that you have no interest in whatsoever. And the result of that is increased annoyance, increased spending on stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have bought, or both.

“If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls,” said Louis Ramirez, senior editor at dealnews. “You can opt out of some of these, but I’m sure it won’t be an easy task.” (A representative from Verizon reached out to clarify that Smart Rewards and Verizon Selections are entirely optional for customers, and “that it’s easy for customers to change their privacy choices at any time, and we encourage them to review and consider them on a regular basis.”)

The rewards are rarely as rewarding as promised. “Every program has more than one catch,” said Ramirez. Among the many catches are that the rewards are harder to use or less valuable than they seem at first glance, and that the “rewards” come in the form of discounts or “special offers” that are readily available elsewhere on the web, without the requirement of joining a rewards program. Verizon Smart Rewards, for instance, promises that members who are redeeming rewards points for discounts on merchandise are guaranteed that they’ll get the lowest price available; if not, they’re eligible for a refund of both the points used and the price difference on the item.

“They’ll say they have the guaranteed lowest price, but it’s up to you to shop around and make sure that’s true,” said Blyskal. “You’ve got to do the work. And we all know that you won’t do the work. As soon as you trust a marketing company, you’ve lost half the battle.”

It’s not easy to correlate points to dollars. The best rewards programs give members easily understood discounts or cash back on items that they’d be buying anyway. When you get a CVS receipt giving a flat $5 off your next $25 purchase, that’s a solid, comprehensible value. (There may be some other hassles involved, including the fact that the rewards may expire quickly, and that you’re apt to wind up buying something you wouldn’t have just because you’re trying to use the coupon, but those are different issues.) Likewise, consumers like the simple value provided by supermarket rewards programs that give discounts on gas based on the amount spent in stores. (Though this structure can also result in customers buying stuff they didn’t need in order to secure the discount.)

What’s truly frustrating are the rewards of undeterminable value because there are so many unknowns involved. Is $5 off a $25 gift card at a retailer you think of as a ripoff worth jumping at? Is 40% off a blender that you had no inkling to buy before seeing the offer a good deal? As Ramirez pointed out, “Verizon states in their FAQ that every point you earn has no monetary value.” Sometimes, the reward structure is so complicated that it may be best to not even bother wading into the fine print. “Sometimes there’s a fee involved to be a member, or for some other part of the program,” said Blyskal. “The benefits are hard to measure.”

“Sorting the worthwhile from the worthless can require time, effort, and an exhaustive (and expensive) amount of trial and error,” wrote Brad Wilson of BradsDeals.com in a post about rewards programs. “No one wants to toil away in a customer loyalty program that doesn’t effectively reward their loyalty.”

Working the system is harder than you think. “There are people out there who are really good at working these programs,” said Blyskal. “They look at them like games, like bingo.”

Being good at this game takes up a lot of time. In fact, some reformed extreme couponers (remember that craze?) have said that maximizing every little offer in order to snag every freebie or deal under the sun is, in fact, “a waste of time.”

To figure out which of the thousands of rewards programs out there are worthy of your membership, it’s necessary to look at oneself—and one’s spending inclinations—in the mirror. If you’re the type who wants to win at everything, and who therefore may be tempted to nonsensically spend hundreds of dollars in order to “win” $25 off, tons of rewards programs would absolutely love to have you as a member. Likewise, it may seem fun to regularly be presented with tempting random offers, but if you’re the type who frequently bites on such deals, rewards programs and targeted advertising schemes could be bad news for your bank account.

The key is to make sure that you’re working the rewards program, and not the other way around. Sign up for rewards programs when the benefits pay off in a clear and practical way, with rewards for things you would be buying even if the program didn’t exist. Don’t go overboard. Don’t buy all sorts of things you don’t need. Understand that with every rewards program, there’s a tradeoff for every little reward you receive. And understand that however rewarding the programs seem to you, they’re far more rewarding for the retailers that run them.

MONEY freebies

Free Jamocha Shakes at Arby’s on Wednesday

Arby's restaurant sign, Central Florida.
Arby's restaurant sign, Central Florida. Ian Dagnall—Alamy

The fast food chain Arby's is turning 50, and it's celebrating by giving out free shakes

In honor of its 50th anniversary, Arby’s is giving out free Jamocha shakes on Wednesday, July 23. All customers have to do for a free frosty 310-calorie beverage is follow that link, enter a name, and print out a coupon good for a complimentary 12 oz. shake at participating Arby’s restaurants.

The shake is listed on Arby’s low-priced Snack ‘n Save menu, and depending on the location, it might cost as little as $1.09 usually. But a freebie’s a freebie.

The shake giveaway is one of several periodically offered to Arby’s customers. The chain is known for handing out free curly fries on Tax Day, April 15, and customers are lured with the promise of a free Roast Beef Classic sandwich if they’re willing to sign up to receive news about the latest Arby’s deals and promotions.

And these and other efforts to please the chain’s biggest fans and bring in new customers are part of a campaign introduced two years that included a makeover of the company logo, and its image in general. At the time, consumer surveys ranked Arby’s among the worst fast food chains. Arby’s has tried to revamp its reputation by spending millions on restaurant renovations and adding more than a dozen new items to the menu. The chain has also been attempting to get hipper, scoring a big social media success earlier this year at the Grammys, when the company Tweeted about Pharrell Williams “stealing” the oversized hat on the Arby’s logo, launching a million laughs and retweets.

Rolling out the occasional freebie should put smiles on people’s faces too.

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