Updated on 01.15.08

Maximizing the Free (or Nearly Free) Things That Make You Feel Good

Trent Hamm

On my recent flight home from the west coast, I spent most of my time thinking about my family – my wife and two children that I couldn’t wait to see. I thought about embracing my wife and holding her close. I thought about playing with my toddler son, a game we play where I play “possum” on the floor and he runs across the room to leap on my back in order to “wake me up.” I thought about sitting in my favorite chair in the house, just holding my daughter on my lap as she smiled and made cooing noises. Since I had basically stayed up all night the night before, I hadn’t taken a shower, so I was also imagining a long, hot shower at my home, in that comfortable place that I always take showers.

What I started to realize is that all of the things I was looking forward to were essentially free. The embrace, the wrestling, and the baby holding were all free, and the cost of the shower is negligible. As this thought wormed around in my head, I took out a notebook and started listing all of the things that I truly enjoy doing that are either completely free or have a negligible cost (less than a dime per hour, let’s say).

I actually got quite into this activity. I wound up filling six pages of notebook paper with these ideas, with the list, in the end, numbering about 170 distinct ideas (I had repeated a few). I could easily make up a few entries just out of this list, because, from my perspective, this is frugality at its best.

The interesting part, though, wasn’t the items on the list. It was the list itself. As I began to look through that list, I realized I had enough activities on it to fill years – literally. So, why would I engage in activities that weren’t on this list? Obviously, sometimes there are things that happen that do cost money, like traveling and so forth, but for most day to day things, there’s really no reason not to just grab one of the things on that list and do it.

I kept that list. Right now, it’s taped up on the wall at my desk, all 170 items. Whenever I feel an urge to do something, particularly something that costs money, and I don’t have any better alternatives, I’ll go look at that list – and perhaps get inspired.

Why don’t you give it a shot? Just take out a piece of paper – or a Word document – and start listing all of the stuff you do that’s free or has a very small cost. Taking a long, hot bath. Reading a book from the library. Playing in the yard with your kid. Making something interesting in the kitchen out of whatever you have on hand. Going through all of your clothes and rediscovering old outfits. Whatever these things are that excite you and don’t cost anything, write them down. Then save that list and use it when you get bored.

Over time, it can save you a lot of money.

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  1. janewilk says:

    Please post your top 20!

  2. Just Simple says:

    The lists that you had made are the lists of things that money can’t buy. And this had proved that “Money is not everything” (though without money you can’t do anything)

    Great post, Trent!

  3. Matt says:

    I completely agree that we often forget all of the simple things in life, the free things, and the things that we often overlook in place of spending. Spending time with family and loved ones is more oft than naught replaced with a trip to the mall or going to see a movie for what seems to be way too much money.

    We don’t need to live our lives expensively we’re just conditioned to.

    Awesome post Trent thanks for the reminder about the important things in life.

  4. Tim says:

    Is there going to be a follow up with the list?

  5. Nick says:

    Awesome post. Things no one can take away from you are the best things, the things we all need to cherish.

  6. LisaB says:

    That’s fantastic (and so true). Managing my finances required me to look at why I was spending. I used to fool myself and think that because I was spending it on food or things for other people that I was “better” than others who were spending on “frivolous” things. Now that’s sounds so ridiculous. The bottom line is we all spend for the feeling we get. Thinking about that list really shows that I can get the same feeling from things that are free/cheap. Like they say, the best things in life…

    Thanks for that post!

  7. Michael says:

    That we can “have it all” but choose less is sad.

    Now, please click these two links…



    …and tell us why you sold that Jack Canfield ad to the right. The payday loan ad was worse, but this you control totally.

  8. Mrs. Micah says:

    One of the free pleasures of my hospital job is getting to hold the babies. Wonderful. Of course, I don’t get to keep them, so maybe I’ll have my own someday.

    It’s amazing how many nice and happy things are free. Speaking of that, I think I’m going to take a walk now.

  9. JvW says:

    What a great idea! It’s all too easy to get caught up in planning events and spending money when there are plenty of things to do that don’t cost a thing at all. Thanks for a much-needed reminder.

  10. Joe says:

    The best things in life are free!

    I love hiking in the Austrian Alps. I just have to leave my house and walk up the hill. In 3 hours I’m in the mountains, 5000 ft above sea level and above. It’s free, and I love it. That’s also what I did on my 30’th birthday. I think rich people are definitely not as happy as me.

    Amazing post, Trent
    yours, Joe

  11. partgypsy says:

    I was just thinking about this last night after taking care of my 5 year old and 1 year old. Instead of my usual try to watch them and also try to do chores I gave them my undivided attention. After dinner we literally played for hours, first on the rocking horse pretending to have races, then in the den making “food” with the play food set, then in the living room having a tea party on a blanket, having fun slurping play tea and pouring each other more cups. After tucking in the youngest, reading to my oldest daughter in bed. They were thrilled to have my undivided attention and I went to bed feeling deeply content.

  12. Jim says:

    You make a very good point, Trent. On the other hand, none of these activities are truly free because of their opportunity cost- i.e. what you give up in order to do them.

    For example, playing with your kids may not cost you anything per se, but the time spent doing that could also be spent working on a blog or doing something else that could earn you money.

    So what’s my point, you ask? I’m not trying to discourage you from spending your free time doing the things you like, just pointing out that in order to do the “free” things we enjoy, we all must give up other, potentially more profitable opportunities, but for most of us that’s a fair trade. I know it is for me.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “tell us why you sold that Jack Canfield ad to the right.”

    I went ahead and used the Canfield ad because I read the book. The conclusion is very similar to my “There Is No Secret…” post that you linked to: positive thinking helps, but you’ve got to get up and get it done or else it won’t happen. That’s the big part that’s missing from “The Secret” itself. If you notice, the Canfield ad even points this out by mentioning that the book contains actions (not just thoughts), and if I were writing a book like what he wrote, I would be trying to milk all of the marketing for “The Secret,” too, hoping to attract readers.

    I would tend to think that getting rid of the majority of my ads would garner some degree of trust from my readers, but apparently that’s not the case.

  14. Lise says:

    Excellent points, Trent. I just realized last night that if I decided to read through my library of unread books, play through my library of unplayed games, and watch my library of unwatched DVDs, it would probably keep me busy for the rest of my life. So why am I paying for two MMO subscriptions, a Netflix account, and cable?

  15. Cat-Daddy says:

    I was going to post a list– birdwatching, woods-walking, but I must disagree with Jim. You write that we make a tradeoff with otherwise profitable activities we could be doing when we do something free.

    But you make it seem like every waking moment can be devoted to moneymaking activities, which is, of course, absurd.

    Besides the fact that taking a break can boost productivity by making you more focused when you go back to work, it just seems like a profoundly unhealthy way of thinking, one I think writers like Trent work to knock down. Even if you could work non-stop 168 hours a week, your life wouldn’t be worthy anything despite the money you made.

  16. Frugal Dad says:

    I had a similar experience this weekend. I took my son to the park and we spent two hours playing, swinging and walking around the perimeter of the park looking at squirrels and birds. The cost – $0.00. The saying, the best things in life are free really is true. If we can free ourselves from the materialism thrown at us from every angle thanks to the media maybe more of us could realize it.

  17. sir jorge says:

    this is a great piece of advice

  18. Joe says:

    The sappinest quotient for this article, even for you Trent, is through the roof…

  19. Leisureguy says:

    A complementary approach is to find ways to create pleasure from things you have to do anyway. For example, learn more about cooking and cooking efficiencies so you can really enjoy your time preparing meals. Add a small flower or herb garden to your yard so you can find yardwork more enjoyable.

  20. Cory says:

    Sex is free … once you get past the initial relationship start-up costs …

  21. Jim says:

    Cat-Daddy, I wasn’t trying to seriously suggest that we should be spending every waking moment doing something that earns us money. That would be a ridiculous (and unhealthy) argument, which is why I ended the post the way I did.

    I was pointing out that from an economic perspective, these activities aren’t truly “free”, but that they carry with them an opportunity cost, a cost that most of us (myself included) are willing to pay because of our priorities in life.

  22. Jen says:

    Lol…Cory, I’d have to disagree with you about sex being free. Depending on your gender and situation, there can be birth control to worry about, and generally the most effective stuff will cost you.

    Not that I’m discouraging sex, of course. :-)

  23. plonkee says:

    It’s the initial relationship start-up costs that are the killer though if you’re not careful.

  24. Rick says:

    @Joe: What is a “sappinest quotient”?

    Regarding the ads, Trent can put whatever he wants. It’s his blog. And besides, so what if he changes his mind about display ads or not. People change. Circumstances change. Beliefs change. In any case, I never minded even the Payday Loan ads.

    @Trent: This was an excellent post, and it just goes along with the adage: The best things in life are free. God has given us nature and relationships. Why do we need anything better?

    And as you’ve said before, money is not happiness. It is simply a tool. It’s the rest of life that truly gives one a sense of happiness and contentment.

  25. I’m very sorry, but those who say the joy related to having children is FREE, are not looking at the big picture. The figure typically quoted to raise a child in the United States is $250,000. Think about it: you need a bigger house (which means more interest paid, higher property taxes, more furniture, more maintenance, more energy, more heating/cooling), you need to feed them, you need to send them to school, you need to bring them to the doctor, the dentist, you need to buy them clothes, you need to buy them toys and gifts, you need to drive them all over town constantly. That figure does NOT include opportunity costs.

    You can argue that the enormous cost incurred by raising children is WORTH IT, but please do not claim that it is FREE. You are paying $1.68 PER HOUR, non-stop 24x365x17 to raise children, and a heck of a lot more than that per hour if you only count the time you actually spend with them.

  26. >listing all of the things that I truly enjoy
    >doing that are either completely free or have
    >a negligible cost

    That is an exercise that would be good for us all to do. It is very easy in this fast-paced world to forget what is truly important.

    Best Wishes,

  27. sunny says:

    lovely exercise, will give this a whirl tomorrow while I’m at work.

  28. Betty Ann says:

    Hi Trent:

    Yet another great POST…

    You are truly blessed..

    I have my own list of free or nearly free…and some are easy to fit in 5 minutes here and there; others take time getting to and back (and free to travel all around NYC with my monthly unlimited bus/train pass for only 76.00; which I have to buy for work anyway).

    I have some great things I could do for FREE with my 11 year old son; but time is a factor; the traveling from one part to another part; that sometimes it is just more simple to walk the dog and talk and enjoy a simple thing like that..

    Thanks for this Blog………this is one of my other free thing to do as a single mom.. of 3. Reading this over coffee or tea…

  29. Betty Ann says:

    P.S… my savings went down to under 1,000.00 .. due to some real life issues… but I do have $200,000 in equity in my home……..I do plan on living NYC someday… will be too expensive to retire here with mine always being a SAHM (stay at home mom); or working around my last child school schedule..
    Might be foolish..but i raise 3 ; almost 24,22 and 12 they all 3 will be turning this winter shortly.
    I have to find another revenue of income for retirement beside social security and equity in this home; without it interfering with my last child’s life..
    Children are beautiful and easy to raise frugally; but yet; leaves me little time to sought more income. I work only in the field when he is in school and enter reports from my lap top at home.
    No Latch-Key school program; i’m here for him and his play dates each day. I might have to sell my home and leave NYC somewhere cheaper; or get a 3 family home and rent 3 units and live in a well transformed basement (I read that in a book like Your money or your life; to live by renting the larger units and living in the smallest). I have options.. but right now being a MOM .. a single mom is most important.. but wish I had more free time to do more free fun things too.

  30. ms_christilin says:

    (I’m very sorry, but those who say the joy related to having children is FREE, are not looking at the big picture.) I’d have to say that you are completely missing the point of this discussion! It’s not that having children is a free activity, but the decision to have them is already made and the expense figured into their lifestyle. The point now becomes this: having already paid this price, do I now make the most of it by enjoying my children at every opportunity (essentially free), or spend my available time doing something that is going to add more expense to that cost which has already been accepted? I totally agree with Trent on this! I stayed home to raise and homeschool my children, who are now all adults (and very well adjusted, if I may say so myself). My husband and I paid a great financial price in unrealized income for me to do so, and are continuing to recover with regards to our retirement, but I would do it all over again, given the same choices.

  31. AnKa says:

    ‘sex is free’ – LOL. You’re *so* naive.

    Seriously though, can you shower for an hour for less than a dime?

  32. Carol says:

    The best things in life are free. Sometimes just looking at a sunset, or the green trees, which I wish I could see now in my yard, playing ball with my dogs, having time to talk to my husband, getting a good book from the library are the best things.

  33. eileen says:


    I just stumbled onto your posting about “free entertainment” via MSN money where I was checking retirement calculators. It was very thought provoking, especially as we are working to reduce our entertainment budget. So often we wonder what we should do and it almost always involves going out to dinner or seeing a movie. But the fact is, we LOVE to read, I love to garden, we have two terrific kids we enjoy spending time with, we both like to workout at home, etc. I think your idea of making a list of such ideas and keeping them posted is excellent. I will look forward to reading your other articles. Thanks for posting this.

  34. John says:

    Do you plan on making a post out of the list?

  35. MIKE says:


    Yep, water utility bill is bundled with rent ;)

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