Editor’s note: This article originally published on August 2, 2001. It has been updated by TechRepublic blogger Susan Harkins.

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, I’ll tell you one of the few things I dislike about being a self-employed consultant: having to buy all my own stuff.

I understand now why it was so tough to get my requests into the budget when I was a regular employee. Some of the software packages I need for my work as a documentation contractor carry a price tag of $1,600 or higher, and even the less expensive ones add up quickly.

To worsen the financial sting, I may not get a project that requires a specific tool often enough to justify shelling out big bucks to learn the darn thing. And because I no longer work for someone else, I don’t get to keep my skills up to date by going to training seminars on the company dime — although I do need to list proficiency with these software tools on my resume and marketing copy.

Fortunately, I’ve found several methods for obtaining a copy of a new software package without having to pay for it. Usually, it’s a demo or a trial version that either expires in a certain number of days or has a limited set of features; or it may be full-featured, but it won’t allow me to save or print the work I do with it.

That’s fine with me: My intention is not to avoid paying for the software. When I try to find free versions of software, I do so for one or more of the following reasons:

  • To learn the software so I can list it as a skill.
  • To demonstrate a great solution that a potential client might overlook.
  • To evaluate the software for an upcoming project and compare it to other applications.

Once I land the project that requires me to use that tool, then it’s time to buy the software outright; my investment will pay for itself, and I’ll have the latest version without having to upgrade from a copy I bought four years earlier and never used.

I’ll share my methods with you in this article.

Look for online product demos

The most obvious way to find software is to find downloadable product demos. Look for these either at the Web site of the company that makes the software or at download sites such as Downloads.com (a CBS Interactive site) or Tucows or in TechRepublic’s Software Downloads directory.

To help persuade users to upgrade to a new version, companies will often post a demo of that software that you can download for free, so keep current on the release dates for new versions and regularly check the download section of the company’s site. Demos are usually 30-day trial versions and are rarely available for more than a few weeks.

Be sure to maximize your free use of whatever you download. Most often, such software will expire a certain number of days after you run the program’s executable file, not after you download that file. If that’s the case, don’t launch the program until you’re ready to devote time to learning or using the software. I have a small stack of CDs with trial versions that I’m not even going to install until I finish my current projects and have some spare time.

Find books that include a trial version on CD

Spend some time at the computer section of your local bookstore and look for how-to books that include a CD trial version of the software they’re teaching. For instance, the books in Wiley Publishing’s For Dummies series often include a demo version on CD.

If your goal is to learn the software, the book will also come in handy. Even if the book that has the CD doesn’t meet your needs, buying two books — one for the CD and another for the content — is still less expensive than buying the software.

Keep an eye out for seminars that offer freebies

A similar but more expensive method is to watch for seminars and other training programs that provide some version of the software as part of the seminar. You’re most likely to find this kind of freebie at seminars where a sales representative or trainer from that software company is speaking or teaching.

Although seminars can be expensive, remember that you can deduct from your business income all these expenses for books, seminar fees, and airfare or other transportation. Depending on the seminar’s distance from your home, you may also be able to deduct your lodging. Plus, you learn new skills and get a great opportunity to network with other people in your field. Many of the people at training seminars may be in charge of departments that need some contract help, so be sure to go equipped with a stack of business cards.

Volunteer to be a beta tester

Find out if the software company uses volunteer beta testers. You get a free copy of the software, and you may even get some inside information about using the software via your correspondence with the company. Ask if you can get a discount on the release version when it becomes available.

Caution: Using beta software does come with inherent risks, so don’t run it on a production system.

Contact the company directly

If none of the other methods work, try this: Contact the company directly (usually the sales department), explain your situation, and ask if you could obtain an evaluation copy. Most companies have these sorts of CDs handy, even if they don’t normally hand them out to the public. If they don’t have a trial version, ask if you can have a temporary license for a regular copy.

To help ensure success with this method, keep the following points in mind:

  • Make yourself sound like a businessperson, not a geek asking for a handout. Use your business name in your introduction and describe the services your company offers. In a subtle way, assure the company representative that you do indeed run a business. For example, you could suggest that the representative check out your company’s Web site.
  • Make your case based on what’s in it for the software company instead of why you need the software. I don’t usually say, “I really need to add this skill to my resume.” Instead, when applicable, I say something along these lines: “I have a client who’s reluctant to consider using Software X because they aren’t familiar with it, but I think it’s the best solution for them. I’d rather not purchase the software outright until the client is willing to commit to using Software X and my services. Would it be possible for me to obtain a demo copy to help persuade this client to use your product?”

If you consistently put in a little research time to keep current with new releases and seminars, one of these methods is likely to eventually get you the software you want at little or no cost to you.

Related TechRepublic resources

Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox
TechRepublic’s IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!