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

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- The worst part of writing about technology is that you are constantly tempted to buy the products you cover. That was especially true for me with the Apple ( AAPL) iPad.

Each time Apple released a new iPad, I wrote about its pros and cons, where to buy it and what apps to get for it, and all the while I tried to resist the urge to buy one for myself. When the first iPad came out, I told myself it was better to wait until they fixed the obvious flaws with the next model. Sure enough, the second generation iPad addressed almost all of my complaints, so naturally my concerns shifted to price: How could I justify spending $499 on a product that isn't absolutely essential? I couldn't, so I didn't buy it.
Trying to saving money on items such as iPads can be more trouble -- and expense -- than it's worth.

But about six months ago, I came up with a plan. I decided to save up all my credit card rewards points and put them toward the cost of buying the new iPad when it came out.

I have two credit cards -- a Chase ( JPM) Sapphire and a Chase Freedom -- both of which allow customers to redeem rewards points for cash. So I figured if I cashed out the points after a few months, I'd have enough to at least bring down the cost of the iPad to $200 - or about the price of a Kindle Fire. Who knows, maybe I'd even get it cheaper than that.

Unfortunately, when you do the math, this is easier said than done. With the cards, you get $1 back for every 100 rewards points you earn. So to cover the cost of a $499 iPad, I would need to earn roughly 50,000 rewards points. For both of these Chase cards, the baseline rewards rate is one point earned for every dollar spent. So theoretically, I'd have to spend $50,000 to make an extra $500 in cash-back rewards. Gulp.

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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