Eight Life Essentials You Can Get for Free

Sometimes our salaries don’t stretch quite far enough, no matter how hard we work. That’s generally due to un- or underemployment, student loans, medical issues, or plain old bad luck – or some combination thereof.

If the money that’s coming in barely covers (or doesn’t quite cover) the money that’s going out, and you’ve done everything you can to cut expenses, then one of two things will happen:

  • You and/or your family will go without needed items, or
  • You will go into debt to get those items and services.

The following eight tactics can help you cover some essential everyday expenses until times are better.

1. Immunizations (including flu shots)

Start at your state’s department of public health to find clinics that immunize. Depending on your income, you might not have to pay. The Centers for Disease Control maintains a state-by-state list of health departments. You might also find income-based immunizations at federally qualified health centers; use this U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration tool to find one near you.

More than 44,000 doctors offer free immunizations through the Vaccines for Children program. People under age 19 who are uninsured, underinsured, Medicaid-eligible, or American Indian/Alaska Native can take part in this program. While some doctors do ask for a fee to give the shot, you cannot be turned away if you can’t afford to pay it.

With regard to flu shots: Medicare covers these with no co-pay. In addition, the vaccine may be offered at Women Infant Children nutrition centers, schools, workplaces, and houses of worship. They also appear at random locations, so do a search for “flu shots [your city]” to ask about availability.

2. Prescriptions

A number of common medications are offered free by some supermarket chains. The idea is that while you wait for the prescription you might also pick up the milk and bread you also need.

That’s not required, of course – you can just get the free antibiotics, prenatal or children’s vitamins, or meds for blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, or allergies. Follow the links below to see which prescription drugs are offered free in your area:

(Pro tip: Download the local store list in case someone in your family gets sick. If appropriate, the doctor can choose a medication that’s on the free list.)

People with extremely limited incomes may be able to get free medications through groups such as:

3. Phone service

The nationwide program called Lifeline Across America has been providing reduced-cost or even free phone service to low-income U.S. residents for more than 30 years. The amount you receive depends on your income and the type of service offered in your region.

You can qualify for Lifeline if you or a dependent receives Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), federal public housing assistance, a veterans pension and survivors benefit, or any tribal programs if you live on federally recognized tribal lands.

FreedomPop offers a limited amount of free phone service. If you’ve got internet access – say, from a roommate or a friendly neighbor willing to share Wi-Fi – then you can use the basic version of Skype for free.

4. Women’s health care

Not everyone has insurance or belongs to a healthcare ministry. If that’s you or someone you know, Medicare, Medicaid, and most insurance programs cover mammograms and Pap smears. Here are some options for the un- or underinsured:

  • American Breast Cancer Foundation: Grants are available to pay for diagnostic treatment. To see if you qualify, call 410-730-5105 or send a note to info@abcf.org.
  • National Mammography Program: Free mammograms and diagnostic breast care services are available, as well as continued treatment after abnormal test results or a diagnosis of cancer. Visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation to find services in your region.
  • NBCCED: The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provides free or low-cost screening to women who qualify. The program also offers services such as HPV tests, pelvic exams, and further testing and referrals if needed.
  • Susan G. Komen Foundation: Check the website or call 877-465-6636 to find low-cost mammography options near you.
  • The YWCA: Free mammograms and cervical cancer screenings are available in some parts of the United States. If you’re uninsured, visit the website to see if these services are offered in your area.
  • Planned Parenthood: Services available on a sliding-scale basis include cervical cancer screenings, pelvic and breast exams, and help with family planning. You could also get referrals to low- and no-cost mammograms.
  • Local sources: Try doing a search for “free mammograms/Pap smears [your city].” You might find options that don’t show up anywhere else.

5. Eye care

Don’t have vision insurance? You’re not alone: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 58 percent of Americans with private health insurance have vision coverage.

Look for help through programs such as:

  • Vision USA, which operates in 40 states and the District of Columbia, organizes members of the American Optometric Association to provide care for those who can’t afford it. Visit the link to learn about how to apply.
  • Eye Care America: This program from the American Academy of Ophthalmology provides eye health exams for seniors (65 and older). Nine-tenths of those helped pay nothing out of pocket.
  • Sight for Students provides eye exams and glasses) for uninsured low-income students. The student must be 19 or younger.
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program: Eligibility varies by state, but children under 19 (or older in some cases) can receive free or reduced-cost medical and dental visits, mental health services, and other care.

6. Dental care

When you’re not making much money, dental care could feel like a luxury. It isn’t.

Due to a combination of issues, I went without dental care from age 16 to 20 and age 21 to 25. Long-term problems resulted, including a serious abscess, several root canals, and the loss of two molars.

Learn from my mistakes, and investigate the alternatives:

  • Federally qualified health centers: More than 8,500 of these clinics will provide health care based on a sliding scale – and some of these places provide dental care.
  • National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics: This agency has links to low-cost or even free health care, which may include dental care.
  • FreeDental.org: The site has a state-by-state list of free and low-cost dental clinics, including ones that offer care on a sliding scale.
  • Give Kids a Smile: The American Dental Association will help you look for dental care based on your ability to pay.
  • Dentistry From the Heart: This nonprofit group organizes dental professionals to create large-scale “events” for uninsured adult patients. Speaking of which, you should also…
  • Search for pop-up dental care clinics. Dentists and hygienists will rent a sports arena or convention center and set up shop to provide care for hundreds of people in a relatively short time. In my own city, people camped out overnight to be sure of getting spots. Do a search for “free dental work [your city].”
  • University dental schools. You’ll pay less than at a dental office, or maybe nothing at all. While the practitioners are still students, they’re about to become dentists; besides, all their work is supervised. To find schools in your region, visit the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website and click on “”Dental Care.”
  • Dental hygiene schools. Some offer low-cost care. Regular cleanings are essential for overall oral health. To find a school in your region, visit the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.

7. Orthodontics

According to the Mayo Clinic, tooth and jaw alignment affects the ways we bite, chew, and even speak. Correctly aligned teeth are less vulnerable to decay and gum disease because they’re easier to clean and floss.

But orthodontic care isn’t cheap. One dental network estimates the cost between $3,000 and $7,000 (or more), depending on the complexity of the treatment.

Can’t afford that? Some options:

  • Smile for a Lifetime: This nonprofit gives free braces to children ages 11 to 18 who could not get care any other way. Use the link to search for participating orthodontists in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Smiles Change Lives: More than 750 orthodontists participate in this program. Note: It costs $30 to apply, and if your child is accepted you must contribute a single co-pay of $650 upfront.
  • For information on a few regional programs in the U.S. and Canada, visit the American Association of Orthodontists website and click on the question that begins, “Is free orthodontic care available…”
  • The AAO also has a list of dental schools with orthodontics programs. While care at these schools won’t be free, it will definitely be cheaper than an established practice. Some of these schools will accept Medicaid-authorized patients, and a child with a particularly unusual case might receive care for free.

8. Life insurance

Mass Mutual’s “LifeBridge” program provides $50,000 worth of free term life insurance for working-poor parents. You read that right: It’s free, if you qualify.

You may be eligible if you are:

  • Between the ages of 19 and 42 and are the parent or legal guardian of at least one child under age 18
  • A permanent, legal resident of the U.S. and have a total family income of $10,000 to $40,000 through part- or full-time work
  • In good health as determined by underwriting guidelines

The money, which is administered by a trust, must be used for education, including prep school, college, trade school – or to pay off a dependent’s current education loans.

The good news is that you get to keep the insurance even if your salary rises during the policy’s 10-year term. The bad news: You have to die in order for your child or children to get the $50k.

But that’s the way term life insurance works. It’s horrible to think about dying before your kids are grown. However, this free policy will give you some peace of mind in the here and now: If the worst were to happen, your kids will have some help getting a degree or certificate.

Related Reading:

Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

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