Updated on 08.25.15

40 Free (or Extremely Low-Cost) Things I Genuinely Enjoy Doing – and You Might, Too

Trent Hamm
Live music in Prescott Park, Portsmouth, N.H.

Live music is like magic — and many communities offer free concerts, like this one in Portsmouth, N.H. Photo: Prescott Park Arts Festival via Facebook

A reader recently “called me out” via Facebook:

I don’t really buy your claim that there are more “free” things to do than you have time to do for the rest of your life.

It’s a claim that I make pretty regularly, and I’ll say it again here. There are more free (or extremely inexpensive) things out there that I want to do than I have time to do over the rest of my life. There simply isn’t enough time to do all of it.

Because of that, I am slowly having a harder and harder time motivating myself to do things that require spending money. Knowing that I have so many free (or nearly free) things that I want to do makes it harder for me to justify spending a lot of money on leisure and entertainment.

So, then, what are these free things that I would spend my hours on? Here are 40 of them.

Now, I’m not going to argue that many of these won’t be appealing to you. What I fully expect is that everyone who reads this article will go through the list and shrug their shoulders at about… 30 or 35 of the items on the list. Everyone has different interests, after all.

Still, there are two key things that are really valuable from this list.

One, I expect most people will find about 10 or so things on the list that actually describe things that they would want to do. When you find those, mark them down, and the next time you’re looking for something to do, do one of those 15 or so things!

Two, the 10 or so things that appeal to each reader will be different from reader to reader. Some readers will find No. 14 exciting, while others won’t. Some readers will be on board with No. 29, while others will not. Everyone is wired differently, with different interests.

So, here we go. Here are 40 things I genuinely enjoy doing that are free or extremely cheap. If I actually did these things to the full extent that I would like to do them, I’m pretty sure I would completely run out of time.

1. Read a large swath of the great books out there.

This alone could eat up years of my life. There are so many truly great books out that deserve my attention and time, yet the reality is that there simply aren’t enough hours to read them all.

Take one area alone: philosophy. It’s an area of interest of mine, but if you start making a list of philosophical works that are worth reading, like, say, this one combined with this one, you’ll have dozens and dozens of books to read.

What about other subjects? I want to read great works of literature, of economics, of science, of fantasy, of science fiction, of history… the list goes on and on, and in each of those areas, I could make a long, long list of books like the one for philosophy.

Not only that, I like to journal many of the books I read. I almost take notes from them, and in some cases, I do take notes as I go. I don’t want to just read them, but absorb them.

The best part? I can get infinite books from the library, for free. Almost all of the books I would list can easily be found at my local library or through interlibrary loan.

2. Train for and run a sub-25-minute 5K.

For experienced athletes, this might seem like a simple thing to achieve. It’s not a mind-bending accomplishment. Yet, it is something that I know I have the potential to achieve. I was able to run a mile in well under nine minutes in high school, so I know that I have the potential within me to pull it off.

It just requires getting up off the couch and actually doing it. I have to go outside and start.

Yeah, my times right now are atrocious. I’m far from that 25-minute goal. But I know that with each 5K that I do, using some smart techniques that won’t injure me and also will help me build endurance, that time will go down. And down. And down.

It’s up to me. No one else.

3. Volunteer for the political campaigns of candidates I care about.

This is something I’ve done in the past, and here in Iowa, where the presidential candidates start invading almost two years before the next presidential election, there’s almost no “down time” between political campaigns. I can volunteer almost any time I like for candidates that need my support.

To me, supporting a candidate for office means more than just voting for that candidate on election day or writing that candidate a check. It means actually going out there and doing some of the dirty work that gets a candidate elected. Calling people. Knocking on doors. Running errands. Driving people around. Setting up computers, and fixing them. Filling out paperwork. Those are the kind of “grunt work” tasks that make a difference.

That takes time, particularly as elections approach. It can eat up every second of free time if you let it. However, if you believe in a candidate or a cause, it’s a great way to use your time. It also doesn’t cost a dime.

4. Make a good sketch of things in the world.

The catch here, of course, is “good.”

All you really need for this is a pencil or a pen and a sheet of paper. Sure, you can get all kinds of specialized equipment, but when you’re just learning how to make a good sketch, that’s really all you need.

5. Teach a class for local organizations on personal finance (that isn’t tied to selling stuff).

A few years ago, I spoke at several local libraries and a number of community groups about personal finance issues. I had a nice presentation that went along with it and ended up having a ton of great discussions with people.

Then our third child was born and I found myself having to turn down a few opportunities and stopped chasing new ones… and it died out.

I’d like to start it up again. I need to redo the presentation I made and get in contact with some local libraries again.

For me, this isn’t a thing to make money. It’s just something I enjoy doing. I love helping people reach a better understanding of their finances so that they can make wiser decisions for today and for tomorrow. This lets me do it in a very face-to-face way, and it doesn’t cost me anything.

6. Take photos of every kind of bird that lives naturally in this county.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying taking photographs of the birds native to my area, of which there are a lot. I started by taking pictures of an unusual-sounding bird that resided on the roof of my neighbor’s house and had a strange song that kept attracting my attention. I took several pictures trying to identify it… and realized that I had a lot of fun doing it.

So, now, I’m taking pictures of birds everywhere with my phone and using online tools to identify the birds. I can find quite a few different ones just within a short walk of my home and even more if I ride my bicycle there.

It’s fun to discover a bird that I haven’t seen before, to stay still and figure out where it is, to position my camera and get a good shot before he flies away. It takes patience and awareness, but it’s well rewarded.

7. Start a (better) permaculture setup in our yard.

Our goal, eventually, is to fill much of our yard and garden with perennial plants that survive well in our normal climate. In central Iowa, there’s quite a variety of plants that do just that.

This includes things like experimenting with plant layers, improving our natural use of water, minimizing soil runoff via natural means, and so on.

Ideally, we’d like to reach a point where our yard produces fruits, vegetables, and herbs with almost no effort each and every year. That will take a lot of work, though, but it’s work that’s enjoyable, mostly very inexpensive, and can be done almost any time.

8. Create a semi-inspirational YouTube video channel and thoroughly populate it with videos.

I’ve had an idea for a great YouTube channel for a while now, one that combines inspirational material with truly practical ideas. I’ve brainstormed many aspects of the channel, but I’ve never taken the time to continue to put it together.

I have the equipment I need – a camera and some video editing software are already in my home. It’s all about the time and the energy.

My hope is to involve one of my children in this project on the technical end if they’re interested, which leads into my next idea.

9. Help each of my children launch a microbusiness of their own.

I’d love for my children to gain an understanding and appreciation of entrepreneurship beyond the mere “lemonade stand” level. There are lots of simple enterprises they could take on themselves, from starting a YouTube channel to providing a driveway clearing service during the winter snows.

There’s a lot of work involved in making something like this successful, and getting involved with their entrepreneurial plans as a hands-on advisor sounds wonderful to me. My interest is mostly in helping them see and avoid pitfalls as they build up income streams for themselves.

Are they young for this? Perhaps, but not overly so. There are plenty of opportunities out there for them right now!

10. Volunteer to coach youth sports.

Coaching youth sports – especially for very young kids – is something that appeals greatly for me. It opens the children to a number of concepts, such as the fact that hard work usually pays off and that you can build skills over time. Not only that, it’s just simply fun to run around on a field of play and participate in a sport.

It’s something I enjoy on many levels, but it’s also a real commitment of time and energy to do it, so I don’t do it every single season. I generally volunteer when I am needed, but I end up enjoying it thoroughly.

So, not only do I actually enjoy the coaching aspect, I also enjoy learning more about how to coach youth sports. I read books and watch videos on the subject as well.

11. Visit and hike the trails of every state park in Iowa.

Here’s a complete list of Iowa’s state parks and preserves. All of them are well within a day trip of my home here in central Iowa, with some of them within biking range.

Packing up a picnic lunch, heading to one of these parks, exploring the trails, enjoying lunch somewhere, then returning home is a pretty low expense, considering it’s not only a full day of entertainment for me, but also for my children.

Most parks have enough trails to explore and things to see that you can spend more than a day at each one thoroughly enjoying the beauty and the offerings.

12. Take all of the classes online that are needed to complete – or come as close as possible to completing – a degree in a particular subject.

With the advent of huge numbers of online courses at sites like OpenCourseWare, it’s now possible to mimic most of the coursework for a college degree online for free from the comfort of your home, provided you’re willing to piece together the degree “program” yourself from a number of different websites.

I’ve actually been doing this with philosophy off and on for the past several months. I fill my spare time with things like PL SC 114.

I listen to the lectures, take notes by hand, pause the lectures when I need to, then when I’m done, I transcribe the lecture notes I just took back into the computer into Evernote, looking up things that I’m unsure about and clarifying anything that confuses me along the way. I also do the recommended reading (or as close to that reading as I can) between lectures, using free online resources.

The end result is that I feel as though I’m building a strong background in philosophy, one that will aid me when I study other subjects in the future. Topics I plan to address after I’ve done philosophy include mathematics and political science.

13. Study the Bible in its entirety.

I’m fascinated by the Bible, not just as a purely religious text, but also as a cultural text, too. It’s a book that was written by hundreds of people over centuries, but also includes whole documents from beginning to end. In different places, it’s written for different audiences. There are so many different ways to look at this document.

Because of that depth, I’ve always wanted to take a true thorough crack at it, digging deep into commentaries and concordances to really get a stronger grip on that book which has shaped so much of the modern world.

I have a great structure in place for actually doing this, but it, again, requires a lot of time invested that can be broken down into lots of little pieces, meaning it’s perfect for me to pick up and fill my spare time with it.

14. Learn how to play the old guitar in my closet.

I have a guitar that has sat in my closet for years. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play it. I have a number of videos and tools on my computer to teach me to play, as well as many musically-inclined friends and relatives that can give me tips.

One big motivation is the nascent musical appreciation of my children, two of whom are actively involved in learning to play an instrument. It’s an experience I’d love to enjoy with them.

Again, it’s a matter of sitting down and devoting my spare time to actually learning this. I have the equipment and materials I need, so there’s no extra cost. It’s all about the time.

15. Grow successful crops of barley and hops to make my own from-scratch home brew.

I love making my own beer. It’s not a free hobby, but once you have the equipment, it’s not terribly expensive, either. The big expense comes from the grains and hops involved.

So, why not grow my own grains and hops?

It won’t add any expense to the process, really. If the crops go well, then it’ll reduce the costs quite significantly. Plus, it seems like a fun project. All I need is, again, some time to make it happen.

16. Solve a Rubik’s Cube, then solve it quickly (in under, say, 30 seconds, as a great party novelty trick).

I used to be able to solve a Rubik’s Cube. At one point, I could solve it quickly enough – in perhaps two or three minutes – that it was a neat little party trick. Lately, I’ve tried a few times recently and I just don’t remember the algorithm.

It’s just a simple party trick I’d like to add to my repertoire of little things I can do, but it takes practice. For starters, I have to fully re-learn how to do it. For another, I need to practice it until I can do it quickly.

Again, this takes time, but this is the definition of something I can just pick up and do whenever I’d like.

17. Do as many pushups in a row without stopping as possible, and keep raising that number. Repeat with planks and other exercises.

Pushups. Situps. Planks. Burpees. There are a lot of great body-weight exercises that people can do to get themselves in better shape. The value in them is through repetition – doing a bunch of them quickly to elevate your heart rate, test your strength, and get your blood pumping.

I can do a nice number of each of these, but I’d always like to see that number go up. How high can I get those numbers before my muscles won’t do it, before I have to quit? The higher, the better.

The nice part about body-weight exercises like this is that I can basically do them anywhere. I can do them in my living room or in my wife’s grandfather’s guest bedroom or in the back yard. It doesn’t cost anything, either.

18. Attend any and all free musical concerts in my town and in adjacent towns.

Throughout the year, my community and some of the ones around us have free musical concerts in the park or in certain venues. These are usually announced online through the city websites and thus it’s easy to find them if you just look around for them.

I love live music. It’s like a magical emotional amplifier for me. It makes me want to get up and dance or slam my head to the music or feel the depths of emotional despair. It’s like magic.

When that magic is free, I want to be there.

19. Record and promote a long-running podcast.

I’ve dabbled in podcasting before, but I never really stuck with it. I enjoyed the process, but at the time I was working so hard to build an audience for The Simple Dollar that I felt burnt out doing it for two things at once.

Now, things are different. I’ve been thinking of jumping back into podcasting and have dipped my toes in here and there. I already have all of the equipment I need, which really isn’t too much, at least to get started.

What I need is blocks of time. Again, time. It’s the magic element of all of this. Not money.

20. Run for the school board of my local school district.

For the most part, the local school board does an amazing job and a thankless one. So why run for the school board (and take the time to serve on it)?

Sometimes, school board slots are filled by whoever can be convinced to run, for starters. They need people.

At the same time, I’ve seen a few decisions that the board has made over the past several years that has made me scratch my head. Those are few and far between, but they do exist. (One big one involves the school calendar.)

That’s why I’ve been considering running for the school board during the next election. Not only does it fill a community need, it also matches an interest of mine. It’s something I care about and am interested in that could potentially use the help.

21. Run a full role-playing game campaign.

I’ve loved role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons since I was a teenager. It provides a great imaginative outlet and a way to explore the differences between good and evil while also developing creativity and teamwork, all in the construct of a game.

I’ve run role playing sessions before using material created by others, but I’ve always wanted to create and run one using entirely my own ideas.

This takes a lot of work, but I’ve seen in the past how fulfilling it can be to run an adventure someone else wrote, and I can easily see how much more fulfilling it could be if you run your own adventure.

22. Finally finish the research for and write the nonfiction book that I’ve been toying with for years.

I have long been fascinated by the America First movement, which was a political movement in America that was opposed to World War II in 1939 to 1941. I’ve actually read a bunch of source documents, including documents from the movement, news reports about them, and other materials, and I’ve got a powerful idea for a book about it with a ton of references.

The problem is… it takes a lot of work to turn all of that stuff into an actual book. I have a pile of research materials, but can I turn it into something wortwhile? I also have some serious holes that I need to fill with some evidence for my claims.

It’s just sitting there for me. It’s an enjoyable task (for me, anyway) that won’t cost me anything other than time and focus and mental energy. Can I step up to the plate?

23. Volunteer for a regular shift at the local food pantry.

I’m essentially on a “call as needed” roster of volunteers at my local food pantry, which means I’ve had to work a shift twice this year and I showed up to help unload a bunch of food another time. That’s not a high level of volunteerism and I’m interested in stepping it up a notch.

A food pantry is a powerful piece of one’s community. It helps people keep food on their table when they might otherwise struggle, often helping in ways you never see. It gives aid to people at their lowest moments, something society really struggles with, and it’s done with the goodwill of others, nothing more.

That’s amazing. I always feel really good when I work there, and I want to do more.

24. Write a successful mobile app.

I’ve been experimenting with Swift, which is the new programming language that iOS and OS X apps are built with. I’ve written some really simple test applications, but I’d like to take that to a whole new level.

I have a really interesting idea for an app, but it’s really complicated. I’m going to have to learn a lot from where I’m currently at in order to be able to pull it off.

The thing is, I know I can get there. It’s just a matter of, again, spending the free time to learn some things.

25. Call my mother or my father or other people who are truly important in my life.

This is something I need to do on a regular basis, not just for my own well-being, but for the well-being of the people I care about most.

I like the words of J.K. Simmons on this topic, from his win at the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor: “And if I may, call your mom. Everybody — I’m told there’s like a billion people or so. Call your mom, call your dad. If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text, don’t e-mail. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them and thank them and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.”

Thank you, Mom and Dad. I need to give you a call.

26. Fully organize some of the more disorganized areas of my home.

This is one of those things that seems like “work” when you think of it from a distance, but as you’re doing it, it feels good and when you’re done it feels really good.

There are many nooks and crannies in our home that need to be cleaned, from the rafters in the garage to the closet in my office. It takes time to empty out those spaces, figure out what needs to stay and what needs to go, and figure out what to do with all of that stuff.

A lot of it needs to go, and it will feel good when it does.

27. Build my rock collection.

Our front garden is decorated with rocks that our family has collected from different journeys over the years. We have rocks of all kinds and all colors, from sparkly geodes to unusual chunks of jet black, from fossils to smooth white ones.

To find them, however, we need to go out there and explore the world. We need to wander around beaches and hills and stream beds. We need to look at and clean lots of rocks.

Activities like this and bird watching synergize quite well, and they provide great motivation for getting out of the house and doing something fun. Plus, it’s all free!

28. Learn to identify trees and mushrooms native to Iowa by their leaves, fruits, nuts, and plant shape.

Once upon a time, I was pretty good at identifying trees in western Illinois. Where I live now, the trees are largely the same, but I’ve forgotten more than I remember at this point. It’s a skill I’d like to sharpen again.

Along with that, I’d like to become better at identifying wild mushrooms. I find mushrooms fascinating, as they’re an amazing example of how life always finds a way.

This takes time. It takes books, too, but they can be checked out from the library. It’s another activity that’s very synergistic with walking in the woods, looking for rocks, and other similar activities on this list, but it makes those trips ever longer.

29. Prepare all of the meals in a few amazing cookbooks that I have.

I have several cookbooks that are loaded from beginning to end with great recipes. I dearly love Egg by Michael Ruhlman, for example, and I also love The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart and Ron Manville, just to name two.

I’d love to dig deep into those books, preparing the multitudes of recipes within, and even trying some of them several times to really understand the techniques.

The only thing I need is ingredients. It really doesn’t cost any more than making normal meals at home. It just requires time.

30. Learn how to use Adobe Illustrator and Adobe After Effects.

I’ve had a copy of Adobe Illustrator for a couple of years (I won a key for it in a contest), but I’ve never really understood how to use it. I’d love to learn how to utilize the program to design logos and a few other things.

Similarly, I have a copy of After Effects that I’d like to use to aid in some of the videos I want to make.

Adobe’s software is really powerful, but there’s a lot to learn with the interface. I can’t wait to dig in. Again, since this is software I already have, there’s no real cost involved here.

31. Play every board game in my closet at least a dozen times.

Board gaming is one of my main hobbies. I go to a community game night once a week, as well as a friend’s game night on a pretty regular basis. I love playing thoughtful strategic board games.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve built up a nice collection of such games (as this hobby started early in my teen years). Honestly, though, I haven’t played many of the games on my shelf nearly enough.

My goal is to eventually play every game on my gaming shelves at least a dozen times. Some of them are far above that count, of course, but there are quite a few deserving games on there that haven’t reached the “dozen” count yet. Let’s change that.

32. Run for the city council and serve as well as I can.

Most of my comments about the school board also apply here. For the most part, the city council does an amazing job and a thankless one. So why run for the school board (and take the time to serve on it)?

Two reasons: One, sometimes there aren’t enough people to fill the ballot. Two, there are always decisions that a city council makes that are tough and, from the outside, sometimes those decisions aren’t clear. I’d like to be involved in making those decisions and making them clear.

That’s why I’ve been considering running for the city council during the next election. Not only does it fill a community need, it also matches an interest of mine.

33. Write and edit the fantasy novel that’s been bumping around in my head.

About once a month, I get filled with fire about the fantasy novel I’ve been thinking about for years. I’ll write several rough chapters of it, then I’ll re-read them and feel as though they don’t really match the vision in my head.

Usually, at that point, I just delete them.

Lately, though, I’ve been saving those rough chapters. I feel like they all fit together in some way, though I haven’t really figured out how. Can a novel come out of this? I certainly hope so.

34. Prepare for and ride RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI refers to the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. It’s a week-long affair in the summer where people can ride their bikes from one side of Iowa to the other – usually from the Missouri River to the Mississippi, dipping a bike tire in the water at each end.

It’s more of an endurance event than anything else, and it would really challenge my bicycling skills. I can bike easily to the next town over and back, but RAGBRAI would mean days of riding that are each several times that distance.

It would require lots of training and preparation, but, again, I already have what I need to tackle this. I just need the time and initiative and energy.

35. Raise my morel hunting skills so that I can bag a few pounds each spring.

Every spring, I spend a bunch of hours in the woods looking for morels, which are a type of sac fungi that are considered a delicacy in many circles. However, morels do not grow in farms like many other fungi do – the only way to find them is by locating them in the woods. I even wrote about this in the past.

It’s an adventure, but it’s one I’m bad at. I’ve found exactly one morel in the last several years, sadly enough.

I need to raise my skills. I also need to find new legal places to look. Both of those require time, but they don’t really require money. They just require talking to people and spending time out in the woods.

36. Develop and publish my own board game.

I have an idea for what I think is a really good board game. It exists in an awful prototype form.

On top of that, my two oldest children and I developed another very simple card game that uses only 15 cards, but makes for a brilliant bluffing game.

I’d love to see both games published. The second one is a very simple one and is probably closer to publication, but both need a high quality prototype made. It’s a simple, inexpensive craft project to get to that point. From there, it’s all about improving the games and then showing them to publishers.

37. Make a very low-budget movie.

My two sons have both expressed interest in film making and we’ve made a few simple films at home, but I’d like to work with them to raise the level of the filmmaking.

We have a high-quality video camera ready to use that shoots in 1080p. We also have a costume closet and a lot of areas nearby that would be great for filming.

The thing that stands in our way is a script (which needs work), a cast, and some careful scene planning.

Our first endeavor will probably be a short film of some kind.

38. Raise my chess skill to at least a “master” level.

A long time ago, I used to work with someone who had a pretty good chess ranking. On the occasions when I played with him, he decimated me, but he also repeatedly told me that I had good tendencies and just needed to work at the game to get better.

I find that whenever I study chess, I enjoy it quite a bit and I do see the improvement. My biggest opposition to studying chess is lack of opponents.

However, my own children are starting to become interested in the game, particularly my oldest child. Perhaps this is the time to really start sharpening my chess game.

39. Prepare for and run a marathon.

This is something of an extension of getting ready for a 5K, but on a much larger scale. A marathon is a very big goal compared to my current fitness level, but it’s one that really interests me.

As with most other goals on here, I have everything I need to make it happen. It’s just simply choosing to spend time each day to actually make it happen.

I feel like this one is a goal that I can do at the same time as the 5K goal, at least at the start, but they do require somewhat different training as I get closer to this one.

40. Help out with a community theater.

I’m not so much interested in the acting (though I could see myself in the right role, such as the major-general in Pirates of Penzance), but I am interested in things like lighting, stage craft, and so on. The mechanisms of making a stage play work are interesting.

Thus, I’ve long considered volunteering for a community theater with regards to the “back stage” things that need to be done.

This type of experience would also help with the idea of making movies, as discussed earlier, as the crafts are quite similar.

Final Thoughts

I’ve long said that the idea of boredom is basically alien to me. I have more things to fill up my life than I will ever have time for.

This list is proof of that. In this list alone are enough free and extremely low cost things to do that I can never actually do all of them well in the free time that I have left on this earth. The first one alone could do that, let alone the others.

Yes, as you read through this list, you’ll probably find a lot that aren’t of interest to you. However, you probably found a few that did sound compelling, and if you spend some time thinking along these lines, you’ll probably come up with more.

Now, what’s keeping you from getting started? And why would you ever choose to do expensive things when you have a handful of compelling free things to fill your time and energy with?

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