Updated on 04.10.07

Five Things That Seem Expensive – But Don’t Have To Be

Trent Hamm

Seeing money everywhereWhile reading through the plethora of comments on my recent post on giving television the boot, I realized that there are many things that I view as inexpensive that others view as being very expensive. Here’s a list of five of these items, along with ways to make this “expensive” thing not expensive at all (or at least significantly less expensive).

Conducting an exercise program Gym membership fees, a trainer, lots of equipment – you’re going to be shelling out the cash for an exercise program, right? The truth is that all of those are just motivators – if you can find your own motivator, you don’t need any of it. Instead, try:

Doing your own research. Go to the library or use the internet to look up information on exercise and dieting. You can easily find all kinds of information about anything that’s on your mind.

Finding something that works for you that doesn’t require expensive stuff. It was thanks to the internet that I discovered the exercise portion of the so-called geek diet, which is a wonderful self-motivating exercise routine with goals and milestones. I often do this after work but before the rest of the family gets home to get my endorphins going. I turn on some music and just do the exercises and before long I’m in a groove, sweating a bit, and breathing heavy. When I’m done, suddenly I feel great – and it cost about a cent (the electricity for the music).

Starting your own business Location, materials, paperwork – it’s such a huge investment of time and money, how can I possibly get started? The truth is that these are all just obstacles. I started my computer consulting business with a flyer printed on my home computer and hung up on the bulletin board in the post office. I started this blog on a free blog hosting service. Instead of burning money, try:

Looking for inexpensive opportunities. The only person doing regular consulting in my local area moved away, so I took that opportunity to build some business with just a handful of printouts from my local computer. Easy as pie.

Doing something you enjoy already. Can you turn any of your already existing hobbies into something that makes money? My aunt used to love spending afternoons hunting for geodes in the woods, so she just started selling them by putting them on a table in front of her house with a sign made out of an old barn plank and putting a jar out there that accepted payment on the honor system. She’d do what she always did, but about once a day she’d go out there and pull tons of cash out of the jar.

Taking a class / getting a degree This is expensive, but it’s literally an investment in your future. By using your spare time to get educated, you’re improving your job opportunities. Even moving up 20% in salary can pay for the education in a handful of years and then you’re better off for the rest of your life. Instead of sweating it, try:

Investigating the courses (or similar ones) online. Look up the topic on Wikipedia, or better yet, see if there are any appropriate classes on MIT’s Open CourseWare. You can find out a ton of information from these resources and begin to educate yourself for free.

Taking some classes at the local community college. Take some basic classes in your area at the local community college on the cheap to see if it clicks. If it does, then you can move on to finish your degree at a university; if not, you’re not out much money.

Prepare meals Many people my age say that they don’t want to do this because it’s so expensive and that it’s cheaper to get take out than it is to make your own food. This is truly nonsensical – the only way this can be true is if you buy every single ingredient fresh and in larger quantities than you need, then discard the rest. Instead, try:

Making food out of what you have. If you have enough ingredients to make a double batch of something and fresh ingredients will go to waste if you don’t, make the double batch and put the rest in the freezer to re-heat another time. Don’t be afraid of leftovers, ever; the only reason some people see them as “bad” is because they haven’t discovered some of the secrets of leftovers.

Starting from the beginning. Others buy $40 worth of ingredients to make something stunning, then completely mess it up because they’re not familiar with the kitchen. Work up to pheasant under glass; don’t try it right off the bat. Start off by teaching yourself how to cook the right way and make simple dishes before moving onto challenging things that you can really goof up.

Read a great book This one perhaps surprised me the most, but several people seemed to believe that reading was expensive. They could read a book a day, but that means $10 a day and $300 drowns their monthly budget. There are some obvious solutions to this; how about instead of dropping cash like that, try:

Going to the library. Thousands and thousands of books for free. The only possible drawback is that you can’t write on the pages or something if you want to make notes.

Using PaperBackSwap (or a similar service). Get books in the mail for free, basically. You just sign up, list nine books that you own that you’d be willing to send to others (via media mail for about a dollar and a half), and you can request three books out of their million-plus inventory to be sent to you for free. Whenever a book is requested of you, send it out, and when it’s received, you can request a book for yourself.

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  1. Matt says:

    As someone who recently finished my bachelors degree and has begun working on a masters I often ask myself how I should be categorizing expenses associated with my education. On one level I see it as an investment, but it’s very difficult to quantify what kind of return it will yield and I get apprehensive diverting funds allocated for other investments towards education.

  2. Libraries ROCK. In Seattle, they are a source of not only books, but music, movies, great lectures and other entertainment, access to computers and the internet and so much more. ALL FREE.

    I regularly check out audiobooks on CD, load them on my iPod, then “read” them while gardening, running, commuting, etc. (I then delete them to honor copyright protection). Many libraries have online audiobook services that let you load entire books onto an MP3 player. It automatically expires in, like, 30 or 60 days.


  3. KMull says:

    Three of the best exercises you can do for yourself are absolutely free:

    1. Running/jogging
    2. Pushups
    3. Situps

    I’ve started jogging for 20 minutes every other night. Hope to have a long term effect.

  4. Irene says:

    The big difference in getting a degree with self study is that some companies prefer people with degrees. Of course, there are others that don’t require it but the your possibility of getting hired is small because there are more people who can’t afford to have a degree than to those who have.

  5. MossySF says:

    I’m a fast reader so I just hit the local Borders and down a book in a sitting. For facts/trivia/topics, there’s plenty of reading available on the internet.

  6. plonkee says:

    Wow, that is fast. I always feel bad if I read too much of a book in the bookshop.

  7. eR0CK says:

    I debated starting my own computer consulting business on the side, but I wasn’t willing to do so without proper insurance.

    In most cases, I wouldn’t advocate starting a business on the side unless you have yourself covered should one of your customers sue you.

    Instead, I found a local business and I’m working for them. This avoided fees associated with insurance, becoming an LLC, etc.

  8. Gal Josefsberg says:

    Taking a class – Unless you’re looking for official credit or a transcript, there are multiple classes available online for free. UCBerkeley just started podcasting a lot of their classes. You can find those on iTunes. I’m currently listening to their economics class and I have a separate podcast to learn Spanish.

    Exercise program – Careful with this one. Sometimes you do stuff and it ends up being bad for you. Jogging for example, can be really bad for your knees. However, you’re absolutely right in that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get fit. Most of the information is available online and the actual exercise can usually be done at home. In fact, I just started a blog about getting fit (Got inspired by theSimpleDollar).

  9. Amy says:

    I agree, particularly with starting your own business. I think if people really thought about their talents that they could come up with a lot of things that they could do to get started for free or for really cheap.

    Great list!

  10. Nancy says:

    Taking a class on your own is indeed better for some reasons. Having a degree is more like the same with choosing your class. The free class just require us to to be more resourceful, unlike getting a degree which the school prepares everything for us at a cost.

  11. Sarah says:

    I’ll plug for the Harvard Extension School (disclosure: I work there). It’s the continuing ed division of Harvard. Relatively inexpensive courses for credit, including a couple hundred offered online, and part-time degree options if you want to do more. We’ve been really expanding our Distance Education options, too.

    I have it easy because I get a substantial employee discount, but I find that actually being enrolled in a class makes me to keep up with the work, where free options don’t enforce that discipline. One course per semester had been about right for me to find the balance between too much free time and being too stressed with work and class.

  12. Shane says:

    I agree that starting a business doesn’t have to be expensive. When I wanted to quit my job 4 years ago I put a lot of thought into what kind of business to start. It had to have almost no start-up costs because we didn’t have much money. It had to have some kind of “repeat” business because I didn’t want the stress/financial strain of constantly looking for new customers (I’m not a “sales” oriented guy). And it had to be something I could already do and would enjoy doing.

    I had done janitorial work in college and the more I researched the more I realized that this was just right for me. My wife got in on the action, too, and we started out doing both janitorial (at night) and housecleaning during the day. We found customers through fliers, door hangers, mailings, and word of mouth.

    We stopped doing janitorial because we were getting paid so much more for repeat housecleaning. Eventually we added several teams and had 9 employees. This January we cut back (employees caused more problems than they were worth, IMO) to only one employee and only kept the best clients.

    My BIL borrowed over half a million dollars just out of college to start a dairy farm and he’s constantly stressed-out about keeping-up with payments. That’s just not for me.

    What we do is not glamorous but it pays very well now that we can charge what we feel we are worth and it is very low-stress.

    I have found that there are lots of opportunities like this in many different fields – hauling, handyman, consulting (any field), yard-work, etc, etc.

    I always felt that if it didn’t work I could always try to get my old job back (or at least try another job). Throwing-in the towel on the business would be easy because we didn’t borrow to start it. In other words, there was really no financial risk.

  13. It’s definitely true that computer consulting businesses can be relatively low-capital startups if you approach them the right way. Nothing is free, but with some work and a little effort starting small business computer consulting companies definitely can produce some great rewards financially if you tap into the right specialty and niche within your area (and find one with high demand and market in a very targeted way).

    My Computer Consulting Kit Preview blog provides tips for computer consultants in all stages of business development, but also emphasizes a lot of articles about startup. Thanks for the blog post!

  14. Sara says:

    THANK YOU so much for the link to that MIT site. I am determined to self study my way to a degree and one part of that is taking some CLEP exams. Problem is I needed some kind of guidance as far as choosing reading materials and such and having the whole curriculum for the class… wow. I’m blown away. Awesome resource. I can’t believe I didn’t find it sooner. Thanks again!
    I’m also curious about which free blog host you used originally and how/if that effected you when you switched to your own domain as far as search engine rankings and stuff like that?

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