Free Lunches: What’s the Catch?

I noticed an ad offering free lunch—at a new restaurant—if I’d listen to a pitch from the Neptune Society about cremation services. Discussing my ashes with strangers wasn’t as big a draw as that complimentary lunch. Fears about planning for my demise were outweighed when the mix featured food for nothing.

Free meals like these can be enticing, but do they involve arm twisting? Turns out many offer interesting information and opportunities to share tasty grub with new acquaintances.

Some of these freebies—including dinners for diabetics and those with relapsing multiple sclerosis or thyroid conditions—are touted in newspaper ads. Quite a few assisted-living communities hope to gain new residents with open houses that include a free meal.

When you hit retirement age, there’s a blitz of snail-mail invites to fancy restaurants. These sometimes indicate you need to be at least 45 or 55 with a minimum of $250-300k in assets. Frequently you can bring a guest (or three) and get free parking.

Think juicy filet mignon, garlic chicken, and grilled wild Alaska salmon (none of that farm-raised Atlantic stuff), among other options. Plus, you can pick up useful tidbits as you fork those garlic mashed potatoes or parmesan herbed risotto. Hosts are financial advisers who share strategies for not running out of money before you depart this life. Naturally, they seek new clients, although they sell nothing at these gatherings.

I reserved a spot at a free meal at a Seattle waterfront restaurant. The financial adviser who led the event said approximately a third who attend her dinners ultimately become clients. This dinner drew about 30.

Fifty percent of women over 65 are widowed, she noted, and many fail to plan for a sustainable income stream in retirement.

“Don’t sit and worry,” she urged. “Have a financial plan, then feel confident spending your money. Don’t wait, because whoever inherits what you saved won’t have the same habits as you.”

She described the importance of rating yourself on emotional decisions, understanding investment fees and taxes, personalizing investment strategies, optimizing Social Security benefits, and more.

Some of her advice was unexpected.

“Take time to walk around your house and write down why certain items are special to you and who you want to have them so they can be passed on to the next generation,” she said.

After recommending that participants meet with her individually—some signed on, others didn’t—dinner arrived. Good thing, because a few stomachs growled at my table, where my assigned seat was between a travel consultant and a commercial real estate broker. The meal was worth the wait, the thickest hunk of perfectly grilled Alaska salmon I’ve had in years.

Here’s the rub, though. Once home, I told my mate I was toying with transferring some funds to this financial firm.

“You’d give someone your money to invest because she bought you a nice salmon dinner?” he said with an incredulous look.

“I hear a lot of that,” the financial adviser later conceded with a smile. “Some women bring their husbands to meet with me and they sit there with their arms folded. It takes a while.”

Back to the free lunch from the Neptune Society, the behemoth of cremation with 600,000 members above ground. At that event, the presenter said a funeral and cemetery plot can cost more than a new car—and that doesn’t include the cost of transporting a body, particularly when someone dies aboard a cruise ship. This lunch drew four retirees: three teachers and an attorney. They doubted his cruise-ship claims.

Neptune Society’s rep held his ground and said it’s surprising how many people die on cruises. Costs add up for refrigeration shipboard plus transport home. While other cremation services cost less, Neptune’s are available worldwide, except North Korea.

Weeks later, I was still mulling over cremation and that delicious chicken wrap freebie lunch when I spied a T-shirt that stopped me dead. “Being cremated,” it read, “is my last hope for a smoking, hot body.”

Annie Culver developed a knack for unearthing oddball characters and improbable events as a staff writer for various newspapers. In the early 1990s, she went to work for websites where she wrote sassy essays aimed at women. In recent years, she morphed into a writer for several universities in the Northwest. She retired in 2016, yet still enjoys freelancing.

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