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Free Trials Are Great, but You're Probably Doing Them Wrong

If you're not using a prepaid debit card or virtual card when you sign up for a free trial, it could cost you.

Savings in a bag with a dollar sign
Hold on to your money when you sign up for a free trial.
Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of Try This, CNET's collection of simple tips to improve your life, fast.

Signing up for a free trial is a great way to try something before deciding if you actually want to pay to use it. But if you've ever been burned by a free trial that automatically rolled over into a paid subscription for a service you didn't want to keep using, then you know how frustrating it can be to discover that you've unknowingly been paying a monthly charge for something you tried one time -- months ago. Those charges really do add up, even if the subscription costs just a few bucks a month.

In a perfect world, you wouldn't have to enter any payment information to start a free trial. But good luck finding a free trial these days that doesn't make you hand over your payment details in order to activate it. 

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So if you really want to give that service a try but don't want to give up your credit card information to sign up for its free trial, what can you do? You don't actually have to drop your credit card number -- you can just use a prepaid debit card or virtual card instead. Doing so can save your bank account -- and your sanity. We'll show you how.

For other tips, here's our advice on how to save on your water bill with a waterless car wash and how to cut a cake with dental floss.

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Why do you need to enter your payment info for something that's supposed to be free?

The simple answer is that companies want to be able to charge you for a subscription immediately after your free trial expires. Companies will often say that requiring a credit card upfront streamlines the process to ensure there's no disruption in service. Sure, it may be convenient and helpful in some cases to automatically slide right into a paid subscription after a free trial, but it's probably not something you want to have happen for every free trial you sign up for. 

The truth is, companies are counting on you to forget about canceling your trial as much or perhaps even more than they're counting on you to willfully convert into a paying customer. Some employ tactics like negative options -- where your inaction implies consent to continue charging for a recurring subscription -- and others deliberately try to make it as confusing and difficult as possible to cancel. And many don't offer an option to disable auto-renewal when you sign up for a free trial, so it's on you to remember to cancel the trial before it converts to a paying subscription if you don't intend to pay for it.

Getting stuck in a subscription plan you don't want is easier than you may think. So, know that when a company makes you enter your credit card details before signing up for a free trial, it's really more about stacking the deck in the company's favor instead of yours -- regardless of how they attempt to spin it. 

Read more: Save Money and Ditch Netflix, Hulu, Peloton and More for These Free Options

Why use a prepaid gift card?

A recent Bankrate survey found that 51% of the 2,497 US adults surveyed said they've incurred unwanted charges from a subscription plan. (Bankrate is a sister company of CNET.) And with the subscription economy flourishing, it's likely that consumers will only continue to increasingly get hit with unwanted recurring charges going forward.

You can shield yourself from becoming a statistic by using a prepaid debit card to sign up for free trials. A prepaid debit or gift card is not connected to your bank account, but you can use it just like you would your traditional debit or credit card. Though you may incur a small fee for topping up your card balance -- depending on the card you use -- you can typically load as much or as little money as you would like. So if you happen to forget that you've signed up for a free trial for any particular service, the maximum you can lose is the amount that you've loaded onto your prepaid card. This way, you can save your bank account from accumulating months of charges for a subscription you didn't intend to purchase in the first place.

If you do end up wanting to continue with a subscription after a free trial, you can load additional funds onto your prepaid debit card to avoid a disruption in service, or you can always add your regular credit card number if you prefer.

The other bonus with using a prepaid debit card to sign up for a free trial is that you can avoid sharing your sensitive credit card details with the companies whose services you try. With data breaches surging, it's always a good idea to limit which entities have access to your sensitive data.

Read more: How to Save Money Around Your Home: 27 Simple Tips

What about virtual cards?

Using a virtual card is another great way to protect your bank account when signing up for a free trial online. The difference between a virtual card and a prepaid card is that a virtual card is tied to your regular credit card, whereas a prepaid card is completely isolated from your bank account altogether.

Even though your virtual card is connected to your regular credit card and bank account, your bank account stays safe and your actual credit card number remains private because you can generate a new, temporary virtual card number for each individual purchase you make online. With a virtual card, you're in control. You can generate a card number that lasts only 24 hours, set a specific expiration date or spending limit or even lock or delete a card as you see fit. This level of control and flexibility makes using a virtual card an ideal solution for times when you don't want to pay for something you don't intend to use. 

Most credit card issuers offer virtual card options for their customers, so if you want to take this route, check with your bank or credit card issuer to see what options you have.

Where to get a prepaid debit card?

You can get a prepaid debit card online directly from Visa, American Express or Mastercard, each of which offers various options to fit your needs -- whether you want a standard prepaid debit card or prepaid gift card. Or you can get a card from a third-party financial entity like Revolut or Netspend. Another option is to purchase a physical prepaid card at a retailer like Target or Walmart.

Some cards will require you to load a balance onto the card upfront in addition to an activation fee. That initial balance, if required, can be anywhere from $10 to upward of $500, depending on the card you purchase. Some cards don't have a monthly fee, but others charge a monthly fee of $5 or more (which can often be waived if you top up your balance every month). There are tons of options, so be sure to read the fine print and know what you're getting into before committing to a particular card. 

For signing up for free trials, it's best to go with a card that doesn't have a monthly fee or minimum balance requirement.

For more tips, here's how to put a stop to junk mail and how to see if your state owes you money.