Free trials are all over the place. If you sign up for one, watch out …
Free is one of my favorite four-letter words.
But attach the word trial after the word free, and it can get you into trouble (or at least end up being something decidedly not free).
In and of themselves, there's nothing wrong with a free trial of a service or a membership. It's a great way to try something out before committing financially to it.
But, like all good things, free trials come to an end. Then, a decision is in order.
Free trials can get you
A few weeks ago I signed up for a bundle deal on an online course. The package by itself was a good deal.
One of the pieces of the deal — which wasn't really part of the bundle but a potential upsell — was a free two-week trial to some templates. It was advertised as a product that was “normally $500/year” and, since it was clearly labeled a free trial, I expected that I'd need to pay something to continue using it beyond the two weeks.
I bought the bundle ($27) and started in on some of the material in the course. I checked out the templates, but only a few of them were useful to me now (though they all could be useful in a few years under the right circumstances). But, I made the decision pretty quickly that I wasn't going to pay for this part of it.
Well, then life happened. My entire family got sick, and things fell by the wayside. I got behind in my email. (Protip: Don't do that.) I missed the two emails at 11 days and 13 days that explained that my free trial was about to end, and that I could cancel easily. Or, if I wanted to continue using the templates, I could just do nothing and my credit card would be charged $500 for the year. (They already had my credit card information from me buying the bundle.)
It turned out that the normal price was spot-on. Sure enough, a week later when I finally piled through my mails, I saw all of them and verified that I had a fresh $500 charge on my credit card.
My heart sank.
Free trials can end both ways
Fortunately this episode has a happy ending. I called the owner, and emailed support, and explained what happened (that it was my fault, I was confused, but could they be gracious and cancel the charge). They did refund the $500, for which I was very thankful.
It wouldn't have been the worst financial oops I've made, but it still would have stung a bit.
Free trials can be set up to end one of two ways:
- “Silence is refusal.” If I don't say anything, I've effectively refused the service. The free trial stops, as does my access, and I'm not charged anything.
- “Silence is consent.” If I don't say anything, I've effectively accepted the service. The free trial stops, but my access to the service continues, and I'm charged the going rate.
I haven't kept careful track but over the past few years I've sensed a move away from “silence is consent” to “silence is refusal.” Opting people out of free trials by default probably decreases revenue a bit, but I'm sure it results in fewer complaints. Opting people in by default, though, takes advantage of inertia both to start the paid service and to keep it going (the “Columbia Record Club” model).
Both ways are around.
How to avoid unpleasant surprises with free trials
- Read the terms carefully. It's possible that the “flavor” of the trial will be spelled out (opt-in or opt-out).
- Consider your attention to detail before starting the trial. Are you forgetful? Do things fall through the cracks? Then it may not be a wise idea to start something if there's a good chance that you'll forget to cancel.
- Ask what happens after the trial ends. If it's not at all clear, then ask. They should at least tell you.
- Set a reminder. This would have helped me to stay aware and remind myself near the time that the trial was to end.
- Check your email (and stay on top of it). Had I done this, I would have canceled.
- Worst case? Ask for a refund. I've done this more than once, and it's worked.
Have you gotten nailed by a free trial gone terribly wrong?