We all love free stuff. I mean, have you seen the line at Ben & Jerry’s on Free Cone Day? You’d think they were giving away Ferraris.
But sadly, not all things come at so low a price. There’s a lot of great free software out there, but some of the best tools cost money—whether it’s a $4 app like Dark Sky or a $120-per-year subscription like Photoshop. If you’re strapped for cash, there might be a way to lower the cost of that program you’ve been eyeing.
Track giveaways, sales, and bundles on deal sites
A lot of companies give away their products—or put them on sale—from time to time to stoke interest. This happens more with smaller programs that need exposure (you probably won’t see a Final Cut Pro giveaway anytime soon), but it’s still a great way to save a few bucks.
Sometimes, you can plan in advance—Digiarty gives away their premium DVD ripping software every year around the holidays, and Black Friday is always a good time to nab discounted licenses for popular programs. Other times, deals may come out of nowhere—like the Spotify-with-free-Hulu bundle from a few months ago—and disappear just as quickly. Some sites are dedicated to providing bundles of apps at a heavily discounted price, like MacHeist and Humble Bundle.
It can be difficult to keep an eye on all these sites at once, so aggregators like Giveaway Radar aim to collect deals in one place. But that’s still a whole lot of information to parse at once, so I recommend picking the programs you really want and setting up alerts on a site like Slickdeals.net (for desktop software and subscriptions) or AppShopper (for mobile apps). That way, when something goes on sale, you’ll know about it right away.
Get a referral link from a friend or forum
Many programs and services may offer discounts if you get a referral from a friend—like a longer free trial, or a discounted rate for your first year. Trello, for example, offers a month of its premium service for each friend you refer. Dropbox offers extra cloud storage space for each person you invite (I’ve had 20GB of free space for almost a decade). Evernote uses a points system that you can use to pay for premium features. Referral programs are more common with subscription services than one-time-purchase apps, but it never hurts to check.
Companies don’t always advertise their referral program heavily on the front page, though, which means you might need to ask around to find out if one even exists. Check forums like Reddit, Slickdeals, and others to see if current users are willing to offer you a code—they probably will, since they usually get some benefit, too.
Use your education discount (if you’re a student or teacher)
You probably know this is a good way to get a decent discount on computers, cell phone plans, or even Amazon Prime. But you’ll arguably find the deepest education discounts on software like Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, and—yes—Adobe products like Photoshop. However, you may have to actually walk down to your student union for the best prices.
For example, Adobe offers 60 percent off its Creative Cloud membership for students, but that’s still pretty expensive ($20 a month—and it goes up after the first year). Some schools, however, have worked out a deal with Adobe where a membership is far cheaper, or even free. (I’m still using the discounted version of Photoshop CS5 I got 10 years ago.) So ask at the university’s computer store, or email someone in the IT department, and see what they offer. Microsoft offers Office for free to students directly, as long as you have a valid .edu email address—not to mention upgraded versions of Windows 10, depending on your school. You may find similar discounts for military members as well.
Find the secret “free” URL
Some companies offer a free version of their software, but make it incredibly difficult to find on their site—probably so you’ll second-guess yourself and pay for the full thing. I once spent 20 minutes clicking around Genymotion’s site looking for the free version of their Android emulator. I remember Bitdefender being similarly difficult back in the day (though they advertise their free version more prominently now). And tax preparing companies like TurboTax are notorious for hiding the truly free version of their software—you can only access it if you know the secret link, or find it on the Internal Revenue Service’s website. (It’s only for certain income levels, though, and you may be better off with one of the IRS’ other free software recommendations.)
So if you know you’ve heard about a free version of some program but can’t seem to find it, ask around—read articles about the topic, post in a relevant subreddit, and see if anyone knows where to find that hidden web page. That free software may be hiding in plain sight.
Email the developer
Sometimes, all you need to do is ask. I’m not saying you should email every software company asking for free stuff—that’s a pretty annoying tactic, and it’s not likely to get you very far with most companies. Some may direct you to a sale you didn’t know about, or offer you a short-term deal—but I wouldn’t bank too hard on it.
In some cases, though, your circumstances may set you apart. Maybe you own an older version of the software and need a new activation key. In that case, a developer might offer you a discount on the latest version, or a new key with a proof of your original purchase. (Sega, for example, now offers Steam keys to owners of the boxed copy of Dawn of War for PC as long as you can send a photo of those old discs.) If you have a previous relationship with the developer as a paying customer, there’s a good chance they’ll do their best to help you out.
When all else fails, find a free alternative—or spend the cash
If you just can’t find a discount on the software you want, you might be out of luck. If you haven’t already, make sure to try the free or cheap alternatives—like GIMP or Pixelmator instead of Photoshop. (Check out our favorite open-source alternatives to Office for more recommendations.) And if they don’t work, you may just have to pony up the dough—trust me, some of those programs are worth paying for.
Just be careful as you go through this process. Some deals are totally legitimate, while others are straight-up piracy—and even more exist in a weird grey area. Sites that sell heavily discounted game and software keys, for example, might be selling stolen keys that could get revoked at any time. So be sure to do your research before you press that “buy” button.