Staffer Diary: I Tried to Get as Much Free Food as Possible on My Birthday
How did I do?
When it’s your birthday, you can have whatever you want.
So long as you adhere to certain terms and conditions, and sign up for loyalty programs in advance, and choose from the freebie options that have been allotted to you, and map out a strategic itinerary. Or just ask nicely.
So long as you do all of that, the world is your oyster.
It’s a not-so-secret secret that shops and restaurants give birthday freebies to those who are in the know. Several articles have circulated with extensive lists of which deals are offered where, ranging from a free dessert (with the purchase of an entrée) to entirely complimentary items, or even meals – no purchase necessary. And by the looks of these lists, with the right planning, a valid ID, and an e-mail address, your birthday can be your ticket to a gold mine of free food.
With access to so many opportunities, I thought, isn’t it a shame that on most ordinary birthdays, we *maybe* make it around to claiming one, or maybe at most three, birthday freebies? What if we dedicated the whole day to exercising our right to take full advantage of our special day?
On the 24th anniversary of my birth, I set out on my quest. With zero shame and a fully charged external battery, I tried to redeem as much free food as humanly possible. Here’s how it went.
One Day Before My Birthday
On the eve of my birthday, I finally get around to taking a serious look at all of those freebie articles. I figure this shouldn’t be so hard – all I have to do is determine where I want to go, and how I’m going to get to all those places. It should be a snappy, seamless process, right? Just tell ’em it’s your birthday, flash them your ID, and bam. You get whatever they’re willing to offer – no questions asked.
But as I begin to dig into each deal, I realize I’ll have to do a bit more work than just having been born.
Almost every deal requires that I sign up for each restaurant’s version of a loyalty or membership program.
But filling out a simple form with some basic personal information seems a small price for a birthday filled with freebies, so I gladly acquiesce. How bad could it be?
God, I was so wrong.
Two hours later, I’ve barely gotten through half of the programs (and deals) I wanted to sign up for. (This also includes downloading several apps on my phone.)
But I’ll do anything in the name of FREE FOOD… so I persevere.
Several account sign-ups later… I make a spreadsheet of all my prospective spots because this ambition of mine is becoming unwieldy.
(I just want free stuff. No one said I’d have to make a spreadsheet.)
I started this thinking it’d be EPIC to get slews of freebies from morning to night, but as my spreadsheet grows monstrous, it becomes apparent that I need to set some constraints. The list could go on and on and on… but the thought of literally spending all 24 hours of my birthday redeeming free food starts to feel more like work than fun.
So, I decide to limit my redemption period to 8 hours – a standard work day – because I don’t want to spend my entire birthday chasing deals. And, so I can spend the rest of my night hanging out with my friends and doing what I wanna do (it is my birthday, after all).
I also limit myself to Manhattan – that is, within a reasonable radius of where I work and live – because the moment you put more time and resources into traveling than you do eating is when this whole shebang isn’t worth the trouble.
After some time, I get a few welcome e-mails, confirming my membership to several loyalty programs, and get excited until – I start to read the fine print. A good number of them state that I had to have signed up a week in advance to even receive a birthday deal coupon (for example, Red Lobster). Others say the coupon will come within 24 hours… as in it could come the next day at 3:19 p.m. – well into my birthday, which makes things difficult to plan.
I start to get nervous that tomorrow will be just another ordinary birthday all because I’d procrastinated.
But I just plow through the rest of the forms with my metaphorical fingers crossed (my hands were busy typing), hoping that at least some of the coupons will come through in time.
By 5:50 p.m., I’m desperate. Wendy’s® offers a free Frosty® (or so I’ve read) if you sign up for a My Wendy’s account, but for some reason, the website won’t… let me… sign up?!
So OK. Just to be clear. I am a financially independent soon-to-be-24-year-old adult that can definitely just pay for her own Frosty®, but I am staying late in the office on hold with Wendy’s® customer service line just so I can get a free one tomorrow.
God, yes. Absolutely yes.
Not I think. I have.
I guess I am not getting a free birthday Frosty®.
The day has finally arrived!
Sometimes your birthday just comes on the second worst day of the week (Monday is the first), nothing you can do about it.
But despite my fear that I wouldn’t receive enough freebie coupon-code-containing e-mails, I wake up to quite a few of them:
Let it be known! The ideal thing to do is to sign up for everything at least two weeks in advance to guarantee getting all those deals. But! Signing up the day before in a panic is also somewhat effective.
Invigorated by my inbox, I head over to my local Starbucks® to get some much-needed caffeine.
But I’ll tell you now – I wasn’t a Starbucks Rewards™ member until yesterday (I know, how could I, oh my god, the horror), and am antsy that I won’t be able to get my drink since I still haven’t received an offer e-mail, and it isn’t yet showing up in my Starbucks app.
I explain my situation to the barista, and he decides to honor the offer anyway (yay, thanks Starbucks®)!
“Yep, any drink, any size!”
Oh my god.
I scan the menu for the coolest drink I can find and decide to get The Melrose, a Reserve Bar Seasonal Creation that’s Starbucks’® “coffee version of the Manhattan” made with “Reserve Cold Brew shaken with cherry bitters and finished with a Maraschino Cherry.” So, like a very fancy coffee cocktail.
I sip to a great start, and I have to say I would’ve never discovered this drink were it not for my birthday.
They weren’t on my itinerary, but I decide to just walk in and ask if they offer any freebies. I mean, why not?
And it turns out they do! And I already signed up as a member of their Pressed Rewards program a long time ago but forgot! How the stars have aligned.
They offer a free bottle of any juice to members, so WOW OK. Jackpot.
I pick out a “greens 3” smoothie to get my daily dose of vegetables since, let’s be honest, I’m probably not going to eat that many more greens today.
And ugh, it is so refreshing. I love juice. And spontaneity.
I can’t just drink liquids the whole day, so I make my way to the only Denny’s in Manhattan to redeem my free Build Your Own Grand Slam®.
That’s right, fam. You get an entire free, customizable meal from Denny’s on your birthday. And the best part? You don’t have to sign up for a rewards program. All you have to do is show up to the restaurant with your ID, and boom. You get breakfast.
To save room in my stomach, and maintain some level of health-consciousness, I order wheat toast, my eggs sunny-side-up, hash browns, and turkey bacon for my Slam.
5 minutes into my meal, not gonna lie, I start to get a little lonely. Responding to Facebook wall posts can only fill so much time.
So, I draw myself an imaginary friend across the table.
(YOU WOULD DO IT TOO, OK?)
One caveat though: tax and tip aren’t included, so don’t walk in with no cash on you.
Only three freebies in, and I’m already so. full.
I show up at IHOP® to redeem free pancakes (was going for breakfast #2, yes). But it turns out you have to print out your e-mail offer to get your stack, so…
Don’t be like me. Print out your e-mail before you go.
On my way to my next destination, I see Gong Cha, a bubble tea chain I also really like. I wasn’t planning to go here either, but with my IHOP® failure, I figured I’d try to make up for it somehow.
I walk in and ask about their birthday offers, and they tell me I can redeem a free drink if I sign up for their loyalty program (do you see a pattern here?).
Luckily, I’m able to sign up at the store, so once all my personal information is locked in, I order a hot bubble tea. (YAY.)
I stop by Subway® because I read somewhere that you can redeem a free sub and drink. But after walking into two separate stores, it seems that nobody knows what I’m talking about.
If you try this at home, make sure that the deals you’re going for are up-to-date and accurate.
But honestly? I’m still full from all those drinks and my breakfast entrée.
So when that starts happening, you take that ish to-GO.
Personally, my ish was a Thai Peanut Chicken salad.
The next stop on my journey is Panera Bread®, where I can get a free pastry – so long as I am a MyPanera member.
And I am! So I order a Bear Claw, a fresh-baked pastry with a luscious almond filling and drizzle. It’s one of my favorites from Panera… but I’m too full to eat it. So I take that ish to-go too.
At one last desperate attempt, I walk into a Wendy’s® and ask if they do that “free birthday Frosty thing.”
The cashier talks to her manager.
Her manager tells me Happy Birthday and no, they don’t do that.
The Frosty® eludes me STILL.
But whatever, that doesn’t stop me from getting my free frozen yogurt thanks to my Pinkberry® app.
I am really loving these no-purchase-necessary loyalty perks.
It’s lunch time, and I am excited to go to one of my favorite fast-casual lunch spots: sweetgreen®! I come here all the time, and since I already have the sweetgreen® app, and am part of their rewards program (and signed up well in advance of 14 days before my birthday), I get an offer for $10 credit to use within 30 days.
I order the Harvest Bowl, which typically costs me $13.23 including tax. The $10 credit isn’t enough to make my order completely free, but $3.23 is a relatively low price to pay for a big hearty bowl of salad. (Their salads are actually filling, I promise!)
I take it to-go, and head out to meet up with my boyfriend – who has also promised me free food.
When I see him, I whip out my phone and Snap photos, obviously.
“What are you doing.”
“I need it for my story!”
He obliges. So, here’s a posed photo of him with my free lemon-raspberry cupcake:
(Are gifts from your loved ones priceless… or free?)
I can’t say for sure, but I do know that I did not have to pay for the cupcake, so it counts.
“Can you, like, not just sit with it? Like, I need a photo of you giving it to me.”
“Oh my god.”
“I’m not being bossy, see, I’m – directing you. This is a photo shoot. I’m just trying to create content, Matt, please.”
For his services, I give him my Bear Claw. I don’t see myself being able to eat all this free food, anyway.
Halfway through my day, I make a pit stop at the office to drop off the food I’ve acquired and give my Au Bon Pain salad to my coworker and friend, Rachel.
I take a few bites of my salad from sweetgreen®, and it’s just too much. I don’t think I have it in me. So, I put it away and save it for tomorrow’s lunch.
I’m beginning to see why many birthday offers are valid for a few days, or even your whole birthday month. You’re actually not supposed to try to fit everything into your stomach in one day.
I stay a little longer at the office and print out my IHOP® coupon in case I decide to go back (I don’t). But while I’m there, sitting inside starts to feel real nice.
Beware. You will get tired from running around all day.
But we’re only halfway through, so I pull myself up by the bootstraps and make my way to Penn Station.
Penn Station is a mecca for freebies because one of New York City’s busiest transportation hubs is also home to several chains that offer birthday deals. They’re all clustered in one place, so you can hit up a whole bunch without expending a ton of energy. You just have to weave through lots of commuters – but that’s okay. Each spot is only a few footsteps apart.
If you try this for yourself, head to malls or transportation stations that have some kind of food court. These hot spots are where you’ll get the most out of your time and effort.
They offer a free whole burrito, plus apparently a bag of chips – what a deal! I order the Homewrecker chicken burrito and take it to-go.
Nearby, I see a Jamba Juice®, another shop that wasn’t on my original itinerary. But I inquire, and if you sign up for their Insider Rewards program, you can get a free smoothie.
I sign up on the spot with my phone, and get an Aloha Pineapple right away. So I do end up with a smoothie after all.
Next, I go to one of many Auntie Anne’s® stands and redeem a free Original pretzel. You must sign up for their My Pretzel Perks Loyalty Program through the Auntie Anne’s® app to see the offer, but for some reason my app keeps crashing.
However, the cashier honors the offer anyway, and wishes me a happy birthday.
Some spots will honor deals even without an e-mail or barcode, which is a nice thing for them to do. So don’t ever be afraid to just ask – especially if it’s your birthday.
Still inside Penn Station, I head to Krispy Kreme® and redeem my free doughnut!
You get a free one for your birthday, and one just for downloading their app, so if you play your cards right, you can get two free doughnuts in one trip.
It’s time. I leave Penn Station, and go to Sprinkles to claim my free cupcake – any flavor.
I give away my untouched burrito from Moe’s to a homeless man, because I seriously cannot fit it into my stomach.
I’m nearing the end of my 8-hour work day, but I make it a point to go to Hooters, a restaurant I don’t normally eat at. But what can I say? They have a great b-day deal. If you sign up for their eClub, you get 10 free wings with the purchase of any drink.
I order myself a beer, and wait for my wings.
At this point, I’ve become used to eating alone, but I still low-key feel like a fish out of water, since I’m not exactly their target demographic. It’s like an 80-year-old going to Chuck E. Cheese’s® without their grandchild. But oh well. The wings were free and the beer certainly helped.
To no one’s surprise, I can’t finish my wings, and pack them up before heading to Sbarro®, a pizza chain that’s just across the street from Hooters.
With my birthday coupon, I get a free slice – any kind – and get myself a Hawaiian one.
The heart wants what it wants, and that’s pine-app-le-on-pizz-a. OK?
Freebie acquisition has its trade-offs, I guess.
I could easily stop here. I’ve already redeemed from 15 places, but there’s one more super-value deal I don’t want to pass up.
Sounds like a steal to me, so I order an Italian sub to-go, and figure I can save it for later when I’m hungry again.
And so concludes my birthday work day (seriously, this took a lot of work), and I’ve managed to redeem freebies from 16 vendors. That’s way more than I’ve claimed on any other birthday – that’s for sure.
I calculate the value of my offers in relation to what I paid to get them, and since the majority of the deals I went for were straight up free, I manage to have spent only $15.07 for food that retails for a total of $121.31. I ended up getting all that food at an 87.6% discount – how crazy is that?!
Tips & Takeaways
Sounds kind of bleak now that I think about it. Nonetheless, it was an adventure.
All in all, I am quite pleased with my savings, but I will say that I wouldn’t do this again – at least not all in one day, and not on my actual birthday.
My serious recommendation to you, dear reader, is not to do what I did, and not the way that I did it – scrambling last minute, and trying to acquire as much as humanly possible, despite what my body was telling me. Tempting as freebies may be, nothing in this world is free (hate to break it to you non-adults), and my birthday blow-out cost me time, effort, energy, phone data – and dare I say it? Time with people I actually care about.
It’s not tragic, but I opted out of sitting down for lunch with my boyfriend to maximize the amount of deals I could get. I also didn’t get to hang out with my coworkers, whom (the next day…) surprised me with birthday treats. (They couldn’t do it on my actual birthday since they knew I’d be out of the office all day).
Call me cliché, but in retrospect, I would’ve rather spent a regular day at work redeeming a couple freebies from places I really like, than all this free food I could barely even finish.
But hey. It was fun to give it a try, and if you too find yourself itching to exercise your full birthday rights, here are some tips that can help make your experience better than mine.
1.Plan at least two weeks in advance. A lot of deals are dependent on that vital coupon code that comes via e-mail. Determine where you want to go, and what exactly you have to do, to claim your freebie. Requirements vary by vendor. And planning gives them plenty of time to get to your inbox, and will make redemption more seamless the day of.
2.Create an e-mail specifically for loyalty program accounts. Ideally, don’t be dumb like me and use your school or work e-mail to create dozens of accounts. Vendors send promotional e-mails to their members regularly, which isn’t a bad thing, but you probably don’t want them cluttering up inboxes that should be dedicated to work. Plus, it’s just easier to have all your coupons sitting neatly in one place, and you can avoid fishing through your 1,000+ unread e-mails just to get a free ice cream cone.
3.Create a map with points of interest. You’re not just optimizing time and money here, you’re also economizing travel. A map can help to ensure that you’re hitting up all the places you want to go to in the most sensical order possible.
4.Don’t be afraid to ask and improvise. Will anybody ever be able to compile a comprehensive list of birthday deals? Probably not. If you see spots you like, whether they’re chains or local mom-and-pop businesses, just walk in and ask! There’s no harm in trying. And people tend to be extra nice to you on your birthday.
5.Check promotions before you order. Let’s say you sit down at a restaurant, order the most expensive entrée on the menu expecting it to be free, and then have to foot a bill you didn’t come prepared to pay. Avoid those awkward situations by asking staff if they honor birthday deals before you get yourself into a mess.
6.Bring a friend. If you can, bring a friend or birthday buddy. Nothing like spending your entire birthday eating by your lonesome…
7.Don’t stress. True, if you do it right, your savings can be EPIC. (And brag-worthy.) But don’t conquer freebies at the expense of your special day. This is supposed to be fun, not stressful. So, if you don’t end up going to every spot on your spreadsheet (I didn’t), are too full, or just don’t feel like doing it anymore – pull the plug.
It’s your birthday, you can do whatever you want!