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8 Ways to Save (and Spend) on "Free" Apps

Great ideas for dealing with in-app purchases.

Question: Can a free app actually cost you $100 -- or more? Answer: Yes, if your kids make in-app purchases without realizing that they're spending money.

Free apps with in-app purchases (also called "freemium" apps) are becoming more and more prevalent in the app stores and are a big source of revenue for app developers. While they're free to download, they offer opportunities within the app to buy things that cost real money.

These in-app purchases can be for anything from additional content to a chance to skip a level to in-game currency that can be used to outfit a character, speed things up, or decorate a room. And many kids -- and their parents -- have found out the hard way that what looks like a free app can cost $1, $5, or even $100 (in a single transaction!). Some families are finding these unwelcome surprises in their app store account or on their mobile phone bill.

Simulation apps are one of the most common categories in which families stumble onto in-app purchases. In many of these apps, players are doing things like building a world, growing a garden, or running a restaurant. Smurfs Village is a free app that's also among the top-grossing apps, with (often young) players purchasing the app's premium currency, Smurf Berries, by the bucket ($5), bushel ($10), barrel ($25), wheelbarrow ($50), or wagon ($100!). But Smurfs' Village isn't alone -- other apps using the freemium model include high-grossing apps like DragonVale, Tap Zoo, Tap Pet Hotel , and Tiny Zoo Friends.

It's not impossible to prevent your kids from racking up big bills with in-app purchases. Here are a few tips:

  • Mind your PINs and passwords. If you're using the Android Market or Amazon Appstore, you can choose to require a PIN to make in-app purchases. You'll find this option in the Settings section within each app (be sure you've installed the latest version of the apps to get access to these options). On iPhones, you need a password to download apps from iTunes; keep your password to yourself.
  • Turn it off. In the Amazon Appstore app settings, you can disable in-app purchasing entirely for apps purchased there. To disable in-app purchasing on iPhones, go to Settings, General, Restrictions. Enable restrictions, and, under "Allowed Content," choose "Off" for in-app purchases. If your phone is running iOS 5, you also have the option of allowing in app-purchases but requiring a password immediately (or 15 minutes from the last authorized in-app purchase). Important: Use a restrictions passcode (not the same as the phone's passcode lock) that your kid doesn't know and can't guess. If your child knows the restrictions passcode, he or she can disable the restrictions. Also, some mobile carriers offer "direct carrier billing," which means purchases will be added to your mobile phone bill. Contact your mobile service provider to learn about your options for restricting purchases.
  • Go with a gift card or prepaid card. Let's say you want to allow your responsible kid to make purchases but not go wild. You can buy gift cards for iTunes or a prepaid debit card to use in place of a credit card for iTunes, Google Checkout, or Amazon. This will allow you to control the amount that's available to spend and will require your kid to stick to a budget. Letting kids know how much they have available to spend should encourage them to budget wisely.
  • If you still get stuck with a bill... It's crucial that you prevent unwanted transactions before they happen, because it's much more difficult to repair damage after the fact. In general, all refunds for in-app purchases are at the discretion of the developer, so you'll need to contact them directly with your concerns. The developer's responses will vary, although some have been known to make one-time refunds.

If you know what you're doing, free apps aren't necessarily a minefield of unexpected fees. As long as your kid knows to check with you before agreeing to buy anything, there can be perfectly good reasons to fork over the dough. Here are some ways you can spend your app dollars wisely:

  • Go ad-free. You've downloaded a free app that has ads, but you can remove the ads with an in-app purchase. If, after using the app for a while, you decide that you really like it, why continue to put up with the ads -- which are often quite intrusive? Pay the dollar or so to buy the full version, and go ad-free. If your kid loves a free coloring book or card game app but keeps accidentally launching ads, removing them will make for a better user experience.
  • Support the developer of a great app. Maybe you're playing a freemium sim that really doesn't require in-app purchases to progress in the game. Is there ever a reason to buy anyway? Yes -- when purchasing the app rewards a company's hard work. Take Tiny Tower, the free building sim that Apple chose as iPhone game of the year for 2011. It's not all that difficult to amass the game's premium currency, "bux," so why would you pay for them? Because Tiny Tower is an awesome free game that's not overrun with obnoxious ads and is good enough that paying a dollar to buy it would be reasonable. Why not buy a few bux to show your support?
  • Skip a really difficult level. You love the app. A lot. But there's this one level you just can't clear. You've tried all the hints and demos with no luck, and you don't want to give up on the game. For some apps, an in-app purchase will let you move forward rather than abandoning the game.
  • Progress past the "intro" phase. Some apps are never really meant to be free apps. They're offered for free so you'll install them and try them out, but then you'll need to pay to continue playing. For example, a free app may only have five levels, but an in-app purchase unlocks the other 25 levels. Or, a hidden object adventure introduces you to the story and lets you play for a while, but you'll need to pay to continue with the story. If you go into these apps knowing this, the in-app purchase shouldn't feel like a big deal at all -- as long as you like the app.
Ingrid Simone
Ingrid joined Common Sense Media in 2010, bringing more than 15 years as an editor and writer, a passion for providing quality content focused on kids, and a love of most things digital. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Florida A&M University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan. She has worked as an editor or writer with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Houghton Mifflin, Voyager Expanded Learning, the National Geographic Society, Rally Education,, the San Jose Mercury News, and more; has taught in early childhood settings; and has worked with teachers and students on projects for Leapfrog, PBS Kids/SRI, and WestEd. She's mom to two grade-schoolers who have been using the iPhone since the day it launched and is herself a mean hand at Words with Friends. Google+