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How I Tried to Get the New iPad for Free and What I Learned

Stocks in this article: AAPL JPM

Of course, it ends up being significantly less than that. The Sapphire offers two points per $1 spent on travel, the Freedom offers five points per $1 spent on special categories each quarter and both push out other rewards promotions throughout the year. Indeed, when I started this grand scheme, the 5% cash-back category on the Freedom was food and dining, which helped me earn points quickly since I eat constantly. Then the category changed to gas and this New York subway commuter was out of luck.

All of this led me to my first lesson in savings: You are more likely to charge frivolously if you are focusing on the rewards points.

The potential to earn points became a subtle but not insignificant consideration whenever I debated making a purchase. All things being equal, I found myself making a few more impulse buys than I normally do. Likewise, every time I went out to eat with friends, I offered to charge the meal with the goal of earning points more quickly. The downside, as anyone who has ever split a bill knows, is that not everyone ends up putting in enough money, so on occasion I spent a couple dollars more on the bill.

When Apple did finally announce the new iPad at the beginning of this month, I checked my account and saw that I'd managed to save up a little more than 20,000 points, or about $200 worth. My first reaction was a sense of discouragement that I'd barely covered half the cost of the product followed shortly after by something else: a sense of shock that I'd spent enough money in the previous months to earn that much.

Eventually, I reasoned that even this would be enough to knock the cost of the new iPad below $300, which is certainly a more acceptable price tag. But when it came time to pre-order the device, I learned my second lesson: The $499 price quote on the iPad isn't the actual price.

Apple has been very successful at marketing the iPad as a product that starts at $499, but in reality it ends up costing much more. In New York City where I live, the combined state and city sales tax is 8.75%, which means the iPad really starts at $543 for the cheapest model. But then you have to factor in the cost of an extended warranty ($99) and a case ($39 and up in the Apple store). Of course you don't need to buy either of these, but chances are you'll want to protect your $543 purchase. When you factor this in, the baseline model ends up costing close to $700, and that doesn't even include the cost of apps.

By the time I got to the checkout, my rewards points were really just enough to keep the cost of the iPad at $499, rather than knocking it below that point. I debated abandoning my plan to buy it altogether, but then I learned my third and final lesson: If you spend months thinking about buying a product, it's nearly impossible to let it go.

I briefly thought about holding out for another year, saving up even more rewards points and buying the iPad 4 or the new "new iPad," whatever it will end up being called. But I decided my time would be better served owning a product I love rather than dreaming of ways to buy it. I knew that I wanted it, realized I could afford it and accepted that I would probably never get it completely for free. So I clicked "purchase."

Splurging never felt so good.

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