FARGO - Casey Hillebrand can’t remember the last time he cooked.
“Boy, I’d have to think,” Hillebrand said. “August 3, I think?”
If you’re doing the math at home, Hillebrand, 34, of Fargo, says he hasn’t fired up his stove, turned on his oven, opened his microwave, or set his Pizazz in over a month.
“My fridge is still empty,” said Hillebrand.
For the past 30 days, Hillebrand has been on an extreme couponing adventure, penny-pinching his way to free meals at local restaurants in what is becoming his own “birthday marathon” tradition. For every meal during the marathon, which includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, Hillebrand eats out. All for free.
Hillebrand, whose birthday is Aug. 16, does so by strategically taking advantage of special birthday-related promotional offers from local, regional and nationwide eateries.
Hillebrand says the key to unlocking all of the free deals is to sign up a few weeks ahead of time for individual restaurants’ newsletters, email campaigns, or mobile apps. That way, when your birthday does come, Hillebrand says, your name is already in the system and you’ll be blasted with coupons for free items on your birthday.
The Fargo man said the idea all started after seeing a page inside a local magazine that compiled lists of all of the birthday perks offered by restaurants and bars throughout Fargo-Moorhead.
“The reason why I started three years ago was ‘can it be done?’” Hillebrand said. “I saw this list of food (in the magazine) and I thought ‘this looks delicious!’”
Hillebrand said he had his first free meal on Aug. 9. It was a nine-inch “Rough Rider” pizza from Uncle Maddio’s Pizza, 1690 45th St. S., in Fargo, a $10 value. To get the free pizza, Hillebrand said he simply signed up for their rewards program online. Upon signing up, rewards members are given a free nine-inch, three-topping pizza along with additional perks on their birthday.
Kristen Welter, manager of Uncle Maddio’s in south Fargo, says that they typically encourage all customers who dine at their restaurant to sign up for their rewards program, saying it’s a great way for them to get people through the door.
“It’s a great thing for us,” Welter said. “Once we are able to sign people up, we are able to then have that information to use to send out other promotions.”
When asked about Hillebrand’s birthday marathon, Welter said it was both ingenious and interesting.
“Usually people like the sound of free,” she said.
Other free birthday items Hillebrand took advantage of included a “Grand Slam” breakfast from Denny’s, a “Juicy Lucy” hamburger meal from The Crooked Pint, nearly a pound of frozen yogurt from Tutti Frutti, a footlong sub from Firehouse Subs, a burrito from Moe’s Southwest Grill, a roast beef sandwich from Arby’s, a deep dish pizza from Old Chicago, a sub from Jersey Mike’s, a sandwich from Chick-fil-A and chicken wings from Buffalo Wild Wings, just to name a few.
In total, Hillebrand estimates he cashed in on approximately 38 different free meals from over 36 different restaurants and bars. Certain establishments, like Caribou Coffee, for example, offer its rewards members more than one free item based on the number of points you’ve earned and if it’s your birthday.
Hillebrand, who works as a graphic designer for Forum Communications in Fargo, took pictures of each meal and logged the price of each item on a sheet of paper. He estimates that the total cost of all 38 items added up to approximately $323 and, according to Hillebrand, an extra seven pounds of unwanted body fat.
“I’ve got a little extra (body fat),” said Hillebrand. “But I’m fine with that.”
Meanwhile, during that span, Hillebrand says he spent no money on groceries, so the $323 dollars he saved by eating out for free was pure savings, and it ended up being put to good use.
The money saved from Hillebrand’s birthday challenge allowed him to pay off the remaining balance on one of his student loans.
“Since I saved hundreds of dollars by eating as many free birthday meals as possible, I decided to reward myself even further,” Hillebrand wrote on a Aug. 4, Facebook post. “I took the money I saved in free meals and put my money towards paying a student loan … IN FULL!”
A $275.15 balance on a student loan was no more, and now, Hillebrand can focus on paying off the next one, something he says he wants this challenge to inspire others to do as well.
“I started doing this in my 30s,” said Hillebrand. “I should’ve done this back in college.”
Hillebrand says that he’ll be back at it again next year doing the same thing, though for now he says he’s looking forward to getting back into a more normal routine.
Oh yeah, and cooking.