By Bryan Lee
There might be no such thing as a free lunch, but how about an iPod, phone or TV instead?
In a few weeks' time, I will be taking possession of a shiny new laptop that I've been eyeing - without paying a single cent of its thousand-dollar price tag.
All I had to do was to make a commitment to maintain the broadband connection for my home for the next two years, something I would most probably have done anyway.
Telecoms companies are offering all sorts of goodies, along with more traditional phone discounts, in return for a pledge to use their services for a year or two.
While the free gifts used to be dull, utilitarian items such as modems and networking gear, premiums have been getting increasingly trendy - and valuable.
Even if you can't find space for a svelte MacBook Air notebook or an XBox 360 game console, these hip gadgets can be turned into cash with relative ease.
The best part is, these freebies and phone subsidies are often available to existing customers too, as long as they're willing to extend their loyalty to the service provider.
And they would be well-served by doing so as a "re-contract" of a mobile phone line or broadband connection is pretty much a non-event for all but the most fearful of commitment-phobes.
After all, telecom services are, for many today, basic necessities that are little different from traditional utilities such as running water.
For most people, life without a mobile phone is at most a distant memory. In fact, Singaporeans just can't seem to get enough of the device, which has been outnumbering the population for some time.
Similarly, more than 80 per cent of homes here are hooked up to high-speed Internet links, and it is rather inconceivable that Singaporeans would ever want to unplug themselves from the Web and abandon their cyberspace alter-egos.
There is also little reason generally to switch between telcos because keen competition has kept pricing fairly comparable, while service quality is arguably not too different from one telco to the next.
So after the initial set-up, which can be rather bothersome, most people tend to stick with their service providers well after their initial contracts are up.
Lots to gain for just a little pain
But a little initiative amid this inertia can prove quite lucrative, as I have found.
I had been thinking of getting an ultra-portable computer to surf the Web with and to download pictures onto from my camera when I travel.
I was mulling over whether I should jostle with the crowds at the ever-packed PC Show to pick up a similarly-sized, but arguably inferior, notebook that was on sale at a $200 discount.
And then I saw the broadband ad in the papers, and a phone call later - actually three - I saved myself a few hundred bucks and avoided the ordeal of being squashed by the throng at Suntec City.
My little story is probably familiar to many. Yet, I suspect many more have yet to take advantage of the great telco giveaway.
The ubiquity of these services makes them melt easily into the background of the mind of the average busy Singaporean. As well, it is a hassle to track yet another date on top of the myriad of deadlines, birthdays and anniversaries that one is already obliged to remember.
But until telcos start offering the option of equitable subscription discounts in place of the premiums, I reckon it's worth the tiny effort to mark your contract end-dates on your diaries and to start looking for offers when your bonds run out.
The choice is easy when the goodie on offer is something that you actually want.
A little patience and luck help here, as well as a keen eye to help you recognise that big promotions tend to be timed with IT fairs, with the best offers usually reserved for Christmas.
But don't wait too long as you are effectively pushing back the date for your next freebie.
In fact, it is worth noting that telcos might be willing to bend the deadline for your contract and let a loyal customer "re-contract" three months early, as mine kindly did for me.
But what if you already have the top-of-the-line Nokia phone or if that 32-inch LCD TV is too big for your bedroom?
Selling to friends or family is one way of encashing that free iPod or discounted phone. But to avoid money getting in the way of relationships, local auction websites and online forums provide a useful alternative.
How to sniff out the most prized freebies
My personal experience has been that vibrant forums with many active members like those at hardwarezone.com provide the best results.
A simple ad helped me sell a smartphone last year for a decent price, and the process was really smooth and easy.
There was no need to worry about payment systems or sending things through the post. The transaction was finalised in a McDonald's outlet after I struck a deal with the buyer over the phone.
Forums also provide a good sense of what price the freebie can fetch on the market, as well as a sense of what the hot items of the moment are. Knowing what is hot is especially helpful if you're renewing a phone contract and deciding which phone to get.
Free and cheap phones are likely to yield the best profit margins, and there's little risk you'll be stuck with an expensive white elephant.
But old and basic models might be harder to sell as the people who are willing to spend extra cash to buy a phone without a contract tend to be those who hanker for the latest and snazziest models.
A speedy turnaround is rather important in the fast-moving world of technology as gadgets can lose their value quite quickly.
Look out then for special weekly deals or roadshows, where prices of even the latest models can be slashed dramatically.
They say the best things in life are free but, in this case, you still need to reach out and grab them.
Go dig out that service contract now, and perhaps you'll find it's time to pick up a prize from your friendly neighbourhood telco.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on 13 July 2008.