Here’s a little memory exercise: Try to make a list of all the things you’ve spent money on in the past week. Start with today, and work your way backward, jotting down the trip to the grocery store, the bus fare for work, and the movie over the weekend. Include everything, whether it was a just-for-fun purchase, such as a new outfit, or a necessary expense, like paying your cell phone bill.
Believe it or not, many of the things on your list you probably could have gotten for free. From necessities like food and clothing, to fun stuff like travel and entertainment, an amazing number of the items people spend money on can be yours for nothing – at least under certain conditions. It takes a little creativity and a whole lot of flexibility, but if you’re willing to make some compromises, you can slash many of the expenses in a typical budget down to zero.
Not all these budget-slashing ideas will work for everyone, of course. However, if you can find a way to use just one or two of them, you can free up quite a nice chunk of cash each month.
Food is one of the biggest items in most household budgets. According to the annual Consumer Expenditures Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2014 the average American household spent $6,759 on food – more than 10% of its total income, and more than 12% of its total spending for the year. Paring that yearly total all the way down to nothing probably isn’t possible, but there are certainly tips and tricks you can use to get food for free in some situations.
Extreme couponing is to regular couponing what a triple-shot espresso is to a cup of plain coffee. Instead of just using coupons to shave a few cents off the price of a handful of items each time you go to the grocery store, extreme couponing allows you to combine multiple discounts to dramatically slash the price of each item. True masters of the art regularly get groceries for nothing, or even get cash back that they can apply to the rest of their purchases.
However, there are drawbacks to extreme couponing. First of all, it’s a time-consuming hobby. You have to collect multiple copies of every coupon insert to make sure you have lots of coupons on hand when a good sale hits, and you have to spend a certain amount of time each week combing through sale fliers and matching up coupons to find the best possible deal.
Another problem with extreme couponing is that it limits your food choices. Some people who have tried it argue that it isn’t worth the effort because so many of the items they can buy with coupons are things they don’t need, foods that aren’t healthy, or items they already have plenty of in the pantry.
Still, even if you don’t become a full-time extreme couponer, it’s worthwhile to learn the technique. You don’t have to spend hours clipping coupons or use them every time you shop, but on those rare occasions when it’s possible to stack sales and coupons to get a free box of Cheerios, you’re able to spot the deal and take advantage of it.
Contrary to popular belief, sometimes there actually is such a thing as a free lunch. If you know the right places and the right times to go, you can enjoy a meal, or at least a light snack, on the house.
- Community Cafes. At community cafes, the price you pay for your meal is whatever you can afford. This means that if you’re fortunate enough to have a community cafe in your town, you can go out for a meal even if you don’t have a dime in your pocket. Some cafes, such as Grace Cafe in Danville, Kentucky, ask you to work an hour in the kitchen in exchange for your meal if you can’t pay. Others, like A Better World Cafe in Highland Park, New Jersey, have a free dish of the day that’s available to anyone at no cost.
- Birthday Freebies. Many restaurants have a “birthday club” that gives you a free meal, drink, or snack on your birthday. If you have the time, you can spend the entire day going from free breakfast at Denny’s or IHOP to free lunch at Moe’s Southwest Grill to a free steak dinner at Ponderosa or Bonanza Steakhouse, with free snacks and drinks in between at places like Starbucks and Baskin Robbins. You can find additional birthday freebie offers, and links to sign up for them, at HeyItsFree.net.
- Free Samples. Warehouse stores, such as Costco and Sam’s Club, often have stations scattered throughout the store with free samples of their products to try. Some grocery chains – such as H-Mart, a small chain specializing in foods from the Far East – do the same thing on weekends. Noshing on free samples isn’t exactly a substitute for a meal, but it’s a great way to try some exotic delicacies or other items you wouldn’t necessarily buy on a regular basis.
In 2012, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC), Americans consumed nearly 9.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2012 – close to 31 gallons per person. At $1 per 16.9-ounce bottle, that works about $240 a year for a drink you could get right out of a faucet for practically nothing.
Tap water isn’t completely free, but it’s pretty close. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average cost of tap water in the United States is $2 for every 1,000 gallons. That means that the $240 worth of bottled water the average American drinks each year would cost just $0.06 if it came out of the tap.
The EPA also notes that all tap water in the United States is subject to strict safety standards, and violations are few and far between. If the tap water in your area just doesn’t taste good, a simple water filter pitcher can probably clear away whatever is causing the off taste and provide fresh, tasty water for a lot less than the $7.69 a gallon you pay for the bottled stuff.
Clothing isn’t as big an expense for most Americans as food, but it still comes to more than $1,780 per year for the average household, according to the BLS. Yet at the same time, many of us have clothes in our closets that we don’t even wear – either because they no longer fit, or because they never fit well in the first place, or because we’re simply tired of them. By joining together with friends for a clothing swap party, you can clear the unwanted items out of your own closet and go home with new-to-you clothes for free.
Clothing swaps are sometimes humorously called “naked lady parties,” but they don’t have to be just for women. Guys who are into fashion can get involved too, and clothing swaps can be ideal for families with kids who are always outgrowing clothes before they’ve worn out. By getting together with a group of other families whose kids are a bit older or a bit younger than yours, you can pass on outgrown outfits and pick up new ones in sizes that fit. Anything left over at the end of the day can be donated to a thrift shop or a charitable clothing drive.
Transportation eats up an even bigger share of the average budget than food. The BLS reports that in 2014, the average American household spent more than $9,000 getting from place to place. More than a third of that amount goes toward gas, oil changes, and auto insurance.
However, driving isn’t the only way to get around. Here are a few free alternatives:
- Free Public Transportation. Many U.S. cities, and some smaller towns, have free buses or other types of shuttle service. For instance, in New York City, the Staten Island Ferry is free of charge. Dallas has a free, vintage trolley known as the M-Line, and Palo Alto, California has three free shuttles.
- Slugging. Some cities have special high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the highways for cars with multiple occupants. To gain access to these faster-moving lanes, some solo drivers offer free rides to passengers during the morning and evening rush hours – a practice known as slugging or casual carpooling. Passengers waiting for rides form “slug lines” at certain well-known areas, and drivers pull over and call out their destinations to find a passenger headed for the same location. Slugging is most widely practiced in Washington, D.C., but it’s also fairly common in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Houston. The website Slug-Lines.com has information about slugging locations in the Washington area.
- Walking. Walking to work isn’t an option for everyone, but it offers great benefits for those who can manage it. In addition to being completely free, walking provides healthy exercise, helps you to reduce your carbon footprint, and lets you avoid frustrating rush-hour traffic. A 2014 study at Great Britain’s University of East Anglia found that workers who walk or bike to work feel less stress and have an easier time concentrating during the day.
Housing is the single biggest expense in most people’s budgets. According to the BLS, the average American household spends more than $10,000 each year on “shelter” – more than one-fifth of its total spending. Eliminating this expense isn’t easy, but there are ways to do it – especially for young, single people.
The best-known way of living rent-free is to move in with your parents or other relatives. Recent college graduates often move back home until they get established financially, and in some places, it’s common for young people to stay at home until they marry and start families of their own. Moving in with family can also be an option for people of any age who are going through a difficult period, such as a divorce or an unexpected job loss.
Another way to get free housing is to work for it. Full-time and part-time jobs that provide housing as a benefit include the following:
- House-Sitting. People who are going to be away from home for an extended time – either for work, vacation, or because they own a second home that goes unused for long periods – often hire a house-sitter to look after the place while they’re away. In exchange for cleaning, doing yard work, and, in some cases, caring for pets, the house-sitter gets a free place to stay for anywhere from a few weeks to a full year. Although house sitting is only a temporary arrangement, some people manage to do it year-round, moving from one house-sitting position to the next throughout the year. Websites such as TrustedHousesitters.com and HouseCarers match homeowners with people looking for house-sitting opportunities.
- Apartment Management. A more permanent way to earn your rent by looking after a home is to manage an apartment building or complex. Many apartment complexes provide their managers with a free apartment as part of their pay. This job obviously requires basic home-repair skills, and it also requires you to be on call at all times to take care of repairs whenever they’re needed. You can find apartment manager positions through the want ads in your local paper or through online job-search sites.
- Home Sharing. Home-sharing programs match senior citizens who need help around the house with people who need a place to stay. The “hosts” provide a room, either free or at a reduced cost, and the “guests” provide services such as cooking, cleaning, and transportation, as well as companionship. Often these “guests” are students, but they can also be people in transition after a divorce or even other senior citizens with low income. The National Shared Housing Resource Center maintains a list of home-sharing programs in different states.
- Farm Work. If you’re interested in gardening, you could get a free room, board, and training in exchange for your labor on an organic farm. Volunteers with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) spend four to six hours a day performing farm-related tasks such as planting, weeding, harvesting, feeding animals, milking cows, cutting wood, and making compost. This informal arrangement can last anywhere from a few days to six months.
5. Cell Phone Service
The average American household pays $937 a year for cell phone service, according to the BLS. That’s not so shocking when you realize that plans with the four major carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon – start at $50 per month and range into the hundreds. However, for those who only need a basic cell phone for emergencies, there are a couple of ways to get one without paying a cent.
For low-income households, there’s SafeLink Wireless Lifeline, a free cell phone plan offered by TracPhone. It provides a limited number of free talk minutes, ranging from 68 minutes per month to 350, to applicants whose income is at or below 135% of the federal poverty level. Users can also purchase prepaid TracPhone cards for additional minutes if they need them. The service is guaranteed for one year, after which users must either re-qualify or switch to a paid plan.
If your income doesn’t meet these guidelines, you can still get free cell service through FreedomPop. This service gives you 200 minutes of talk time per month, plus 500 messages and 50MB of data. FreedomPop provides coverage through WiFi whenever you’re within range of a WiFi hotspot and switches to 4G mobile broadband when you’re out of WiFi range. If you go over your data limit, your credit card is automatically billed $10 to “top up” your account.
Today, we use our computers and smartphones for a huge range of tasks, from writing letters to paying bills. Each one of these tasks requires a different piece of software, and many of those programs are pricey. Microsoft Office, the popular productivity suite, costs nearly $150 for a single-PC copy. The deluxe version of the tax program TurboTax costs $55, and it has to be upgraded every year to keep up with changes in tax law.
However, for nearly any function you can name, there’s a program out there that can do the same job for free. Some examples include the following:
- Productivity. Apache OpenOffice is an open-source office software suite intended to do everything Microsoft Office can do for free. It includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, mathematical, and database software that runs on all major operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It’s also designed to have the same look and feel as Office, so users will find it familiar and intuitive. For users who don’t need their files to be Office-compatible, another alternative is Google’s productivity suite. Its four programs – Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms – are available either as apps for your mobile device or as cloud-based software for your PC.
- Money Management. Mint is a web-based, all-in-one money-management program. Just like the popular budgeting program Quicken, it can track your spending, sort it into categories, create a budget, remind you about bills, offer investment advice, and give free access to your credit score – all without Quicken’s $30 to $155 price tag.
- Taxes. For users with simple tax returns, TurboTax offers a free version that includes a federal tax return only – tacking on a state return adds $30. If your tax situation is a bit more complex, you can file a free federal return through a web-based program called TaxACT and tack on a state return for only $20. Also, any taxpayer with household income below $60,000 can use the Free File program provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which lets you e-file your federal tax return with a choice of several different providers – some of which also include a state tax return for free. Taxpayers with income of $60,000 or higher can use the IRS’s Free File Fillable Forms, an electronic version of paper tax forms that does some of the calculations for you automatically – however, you still have to read the instructions and fill out the forms yourself. For more information, check out the top free options for online tax preparation.
- Antivirus. If your computer runs Windows 7 or Windows Vista, you can protect it from viruses, spyware, and other malware for free with Microsoft Security Essentials. Users with other versions of Windows can choose Avast Free Antivirus or Avira Free Antivirus, each of which gets high marks from reviewers at the technology site CNET. Avast and Avira offer versions for Mac users as well.
7. Reading Material
Anyone who loves to read knows that public libraries are great places to find books, magazines, and newspapers you can enjoy for nothing. However, if you don’t have a convenient library branch, or if it just happens to be closed at the moment, you have some other options:
- Project Gutenberg. More than 50,000 free ebooks are available online at Project Gutenberg. They’re all works in the public domain, so while you can’t find the latest bestsellers here, you can enjoy classic works of fiction and nonfiction from all over the world. Books are available in a wide variety of formats, from ePub and Kindle books for download, to text you can read online.
- Electronic Libraries. If you’re looking for electronic versions of newer books, there’s a good chance you can find them at an electronic library, or e-library. If your local library participates in an e-library program, you can use your library card as an ID to check out ebooks to read on your home computer, tablet computer, or e-reader, free of charge. To find one in your area, try searching “e-library” or “virtual library” plus the name of your state.
- Librivox. If you prefer audiobooks, check out Librivox. This site offers a variety of public-domain audiobooks, read aloud by volunteers from all over the world.
- Newspaper and Magazine Websites. Most newspapers, and some magazines, have a website where you can read at least some of their articles for free. Newspaper sites often require a subscription, and many allow you to read only a limited number of articles each month without paying.
8. Music and Video
Libraries aren’t just for books. Many of them also boast large collections of music CDs and DVDs. The movie rack at your local library is likely to include selections you can’t find through Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, including foreign and indie films, documentaries, and complete seasons of popular TV shows.
There are also numerous ways to stream music and video off the Internet with the help of a personal computer or digital media player. For music, you can choose streaming radio stations like Pandora, Slacker, or Last.fm, or streaming services like Spotify and Songza. For movies and TV, you can use the free version of Hulu, or you can turn to YouTube for a wide selection of videos, many of which aren’t available on regular TV. You can also stream many shows, with commercial breaks, through the websites of cable or network TV channels.
Finally, it’s still perfectly possible to watch TV the old-fashioned way: with an antenna. Even HD signals come through clearly as long as you have an HD tuner, either separate or built into your TV. AntennaWeb, cosponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, can help you choose an indoor or outdoor antenna and figure out what broadcast channels you can pick up in your area.
9. Live Entertainment
As if books, music, and video weren’t enough, your local public library can also be a place to find live, in-person entertainment. Many libraries host a wide variety of events, including concerts, film screenings, poetry readings, lectures, story time for preschoolers, and other kid-friendly activities such as crafts. Some public libraries also have membership deals with local museums, which let you use your library card as a free entrance pass.
Even if your library doesn’t have this kind of arrangement, there are many other ways to get into museums for free. Some museums, such as the Smithsonian Museums and Zoo in Washington, D.C., charge no admission fee or request a donation of whatever amount you choose. Other museums offer free admission at certain times, such as the first Monday or third Thursday of every month. Also, if you have a Bank of America credit card, you can use it one weekend per month to get in free to any of 150 museums nationwide, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Libraries and museums aren’t the only place to find free entertainment. If your town has a local community calendar, either in print or on the web, you can use it to find all kinds of free local events, from outdoor film screenings in the summer, to holiday parties in December. If you live near a college or university, you can check the campus calendar for free events such as lectures, concerts, and art exhibits. Also, farmers markets occasionally have performances by local music and dance groups.
The most expensive type of entertainment of all is recreational travel. A 2013 study by American Express shows that the average summertime vacation costs $1,145 per person, or $4,580 for a family of four.
With these high costs, it’s hardly surprising that travel is the first item to get slashed from many budgets when times are tough. Figures from the BLS show that Americans cut back sharply on leisure travel during the recession of 2008 and 2009, and their spending still hadn’t returned to its pre-recession levels by 2011.
However, even a luxury like travel can be enjoyed free of charge if you play your cards right. With a little ingenuity, it’s possible to get free flights, car rentals, and accommodations, leaving you with nothing to pay for on your vacation except your meals and entertainment.
The best-known way to fly for free is to cash in frequent-flyer miles. You can rack up these miles faster by always traveling with the same one or two airlines, using a travel rewards credit card, and taking advantage of promotions that give you free miles.
If you don’t happen to have a nice stash of frequent-flyer miles saved up, you can earn a free ticket by deliberately getting yourself bumped from a flight. Airlines routinely overbook their flights, selling more seats than they actually have available, because they’re counting on a certain number of passengers to cancel. If this doesn’t happen, the airline often asks for volunteers willing to be bumped to a later flight in exchange for some form of compensation – cash, travel vouchers, or free tickets for future flights.
These payments can be quite substantial. According to Business Insider, if your rebooking delays you by one to two hours, the airline is obligated to pay you back at least twice what you paid for your one-way fare. If you’re delayed by over two hours, your compensation doubles again, up to a maximum of $1,300. So it’s possible to earn enough for two round-trip flights by getting bumped off just one.
Since most passengers would rather get where they’re going on time, being a willing volunteer puts you at an advantage for scoring free tickets. Keep your travel plans flexible, so you can afford to take a delayed flight if you have to, and travel light, so you don’t have to worry about transferring checked bags to your new flight.
You can also maximize your chances of getting bumped by choosing flights that are most likely to be overbooked. These include nonstop cross-country flights, any flight around the holidays, and any flight to or from a major business destination at the beginning or end of the work week.
If you’d rather drive to your destination than fly, you can do that for free by volunteering with an auto driveaway service. These are companies people can hire when they need their cars moved from one location to another and they don’t want to do the driving themselves. Some companies pay professional drivers to transport the cars, but others, such as Auto Driveaway, simply match up the cars to be moved with willing drivers who want to go to that destination. By signing up to be one of these drivers, you can get a free car to take you to your travel destination.
To drive for an auto driveaway service, you generally have to be over a minimum age, such as 23, and have a clean driving record. In addition to your driver’s license, the company is likely to ask for references and check your motor vehicle report for past violations. In some cases, you also have to provide a cash deposit or a credit card to cover the cost of damage to the car in case you get into an accident.
Once you’re approved as a driver, you can start taking assignments. You get a certain number of days to transport the car to its destination, and the company often pays all or part of your fuel costs as well.
Being a car mover can be a great way to see the country, but it requires some flexibility. Each company has a limited number of cars and destinations at any given time, so you have to be flexible about when you travel, where you travel, or both. Also, when you get the car to its final location, you either have to fly home or wait for another driveaway assignment heading in the opposite direction.
11. Free Accommodations
Once you get to your travel destination, you still need a place to stay. Fortunately, there are ways to get one without having to pay for it: home stays and house swaps.
Home stays are just what they sound like: staying in someone’s home, free of charge. Sites like Couchsurfing match travelers looking for a place to stay with hosts who want to meet new people and learn about other cultures. Couchsurfing has 10 million registered members from 200,000 cities all over the world. To become one, just set up a profile on the website and note whether you’re interested in being a host, a guest, or both.
Another site that matches hosts and guests is Servas International. For more than 50 years, this international association has worked to foster peace and goodwill by creating connections between people of different cultures. To become a member, you have to sign up for an account, provide two letters of recommendation from personal references, go through an interview, and pay a membership fee ranging from $25 to $98 per year. This is less than the cost of a one-night hotel stay in many cities, and it entitles you to as many visits with other members as you wish to make in a year.
It’s obviously easier to find home stays if you’re a single person traveling alone, since you can literally sleep on a couch if that’s what’s available. However, some hosts can provide accommodations for families, and families who discuss their experience on YouTube say that couch surfing gave them a chance to meet and bond with other families during their travels rather than just sightseeing. Servas International, on the other hand, is aimed mostly toward young, single people, such as college students or volunteer peace workers.
House-swapping is a slightly different arrangement. Instead of being a guest in a family’s home, you stay in their home while they stay in yours. You can swap houses at the same time, or you can arrange to have the guests stay at your home at one time and you stay in theirs at another time, with each of you staying somewhere else while your home is in use. This non-simultaneous arrangement is easiest for people who have second homes or vacation homes that they don’t use all the time.
House swapping can save you thousands of dollars in hotel bills, and it gives you a place to stay that truly has all the comforts of home. You can live the life of a native in your vacation city and save on food by having a kitchen to cook your own meals.
The downside of house-swapping is that it means letting strangers into your home. However, you get to choose the people you swap homes with and vet them carefully ahead of time, much as you do when you meet people through an Internet dating service. This gives you a chance to get to know your “guests” and get comfortable with the idea of being in each other’s homes.
It’s obviously easiest to find house-swapping opportunities if you live in a resort area. However, people travel for all kinds of reasons, so even if your city isn’t a popular tourist destination, it’s worth giving it a try.
Sites for house-swappers include the following:
- Craigslist. Offers free listings but doesn’t actively match hosts with guests.
- HomeExchange.com. Charges a $150 annual fee and guarantees a second year for free if you don’t find a swap partner in the first 12 months.
- Digsville. A free service that allows you to rate the places where you stay for the benefits of other users.
Additional Free Items to Be Found
Believe it or not, this list only scratches the surface of all the things it’s possible to find for free. Other sources of free stuff include the following:
- Birthday Freebies. The free goodies you can get on your birthday aren’t limited to restaurant meals. The list of birthday offers at Hey, It’s Free! also includes coupons from a variety of retail stores and free gifts from the high-end cosmetics stores Aveda and Sephora. You can also get free birthday passes to bowling alleys and sporting events.
- Free Samples. Companies offer a never-ending stream of free samples. To find them, sign up with one of the many freebie-finding sites online, such as Volition.com, TheFreeSite.com, Hey, It’s Free!, Hunt4Freebies, and FreebieBlogger. In addition to the usual miniature packs of snack foods and toiletries, these sites turn up a wide variety of interesting freebies, including a free pizza at Domino’s in honor of a baseball no-hitter, a free diet analysis, and a free circus ticket for a child.
- Secondhand Sites. The Freecycle Network is a website people use to give away unwanted items to others in their area who can use them. On my local Freecycle group, I’ve seen offers for books, toys, sporting goods, clothing, furniture, computers, and appliances, in every condition from brand-new to completely broken. Another place to find unwanted items people are giving away is the free section of your local Craigslist site.
If you can’t find what you’re interested in for free through any of these sites, try searching online for the name of the item you want plus the word “free,” as in “free games” or “free phone service.” If you’re looking for a physical object, such as a couch, try tacking on your location, as in “free couch Cleveland,” and see what pops up. No matter what you’re searching for, you’re practically certain to get at least a few hits.
Naturally, almost no one can take advantage of every single freebie on this list at once. You’d have to be unbelievably lucky to find a house-sitting job that covers all your housing expenses, is close enough to your work to allow you to walk, and is in a town with a great public library and a community cafe.
Moreover, just because it’s possible to get something for free, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. For instance, it probably doesn’t make sense to give up a job you enjoy that pays well to become a full-time apartment manager just so that you can get free housing. Nor is it worthwhile to take time off from work to travel to a destination you really have no interest in seeing just because you can drive there and stay there for free.
However, there are also some items on this list that nearly anyone can take advantage of. For example, to use freebie sites, all you need is a mobile device or a computer with an Internet connection. To practice extreme couponing, you don’t even need that, since you can use the coupon inserts from your weekly paper. No matter who you are or what your situation is, you can almost certainly find a way to get something for free and take a little bit of the pressure off your personal budget.
What are your favorite tips for finding free stuff?