Dana writes in:
What exactly is all of this “free stuff” you talk about doing all the time with your family and your friends? I’d love to see a list for ideas!
I often mention in articles for The Simple Dollar that I fill my free time with activities that cost very little. Most of my hobbies and interests and methods of filling time at this point are activities that either are strictly free or could be free to participate in or are paid for by expenses that I’m buying for other purposes.
But what exactly are those things?
What follows is a list of how I spend most of my free time, organized into what I consider to be sensible groupings. Each of these things are activities that I personally get a great deal of happiness and joy from, and each of them is essentially free.
Some caveats, though.
The items on this list are just things that I actually do. There are many, many more things out there in the world to try out that don’t actually cost anything. In many places, I’m going to suggest tools for finding those additional things, but the truth is that the list of possible free things to do is limitless. The only boundaries on it are set by your imagination.
The items on this list together consume far more time than I actually have. I’m constantly picking and choosing from among these ideas. I don’t do them all all of the time, simply because I don’t have the time. There are items on here I haven’t done in months, not because I dislike them, but because there’s only so much free time to be had.
My children in particular often influence what I choose. If I were not a parent, the frequency with which I choose many of the items on this list would change drastically. I often find myself choosing activities that my children can also happily participate in.
I do choose to do things not on this list sometimes. This isn’t a be-all-end-all list of how I spend my free time. It’s just a collection of free things that fill up a lot of my free time.
Given that, I hope you’ll find some activities on this list that can fill you with similar joy and happiness.
Let’s dig in.
I spend quite a bit of my time at various libraries in my local area. I’ve checked out books at every public library within a good twenty five mile radius of my home and I’ve spent time working and researching topics at most of them over the years. Libraries provide a home base for a lot of my interests.
Books are the obvious things you can get from a library. Most libraries have tens of thousands of books that you can borrow for free, provided you return them in a timely fashion. If there’s a specific title that you want that the library doesn’t have, they can usually get it in a week or so via interlibrary loan. There are few things I enjoy more than browsing the shelves of a library, picking out a few books, and checking them out so that I can go home, curl up in a comfortable chair, and get lost in the pages for a few hours.
I read books purely to entertain me. I read them to enlighten and educate me. I read books to inspire me. I read books that are challenging, while others are just simply page-turners that sweep me away in an adventurous plot. I mostly read silently to myself, but I also read many books aloud to my children. Books and reading are a major part of my life, and the library makes that hobby essentially free.
DVDs and Bluray discs are another item that’s well worth checking out at your local library. Our family often checks out DVDs and Blurays from our local libraries for our family movie nights, skipping over the expense of renting one from a Redbox or buying one or renting one for streaming. After all, checking out a movie is free provided you return it in adequate time.
The selections at the library can sometimes be a mixed bag, but if you pay attention and browse through what they have, you can almost always come away with a gem, whether you’re choosing a movie for your whole family to watch or something just for you, or for you and others to watch together.
Audiobooks are a staple of our family road trips. We love to listen to an audiobook on our way to visit family and friends or on a family vacation. We’ve listened to dozens of family-appropriate audiobooks on these trips, all from the local library, and all without cost.
Similarly, I’ve checked out audiobooks from the library for long road trips that I’ve taken on my own, or just with my wife, or just with a close friend or two. Naturally, the selections differ in those cases, but they provide a wonderful form of entertainment on a long road trip or flight, and you can’t argue with the price.
Children’s programs are provided by most libraries and tend to serve children from infancy all the way to high school. My children are annual participants in multiple summer reading programs sponsored by libraries, and when they were younger we took them to the free library reading times quite often. The local libraries also bring in speakers and presenters and actors and puppeteers appropriate for children and we take them to those activities, too.
While this isn’t so much an activity for me, it does offer a great opportunity for me to leave the kids in the children’s room at the library for a while, giving me time to browse the shelves without child distraction.
Book clubs are another feature of many local libraries. I have participated in a pair of book clubs over the years, including a wonderful science fiction and fantasy book club that I still miss (the librarian who ran that program retired). Again, participation is free – the library will usually find many copies of the book that the club is reading so all members can check them out.
If you want to turn reading into a bit of a social and conversational endeavor, a book club is a brilliant way to do that, and libraries everywhere are constantly running them.
Speeches and community meetings are another feature that many libraries provide to the community. Libraries often bring in people to talk about a wide variety of topics and leave those meetings open to the public, again, for free. Similarly, many community groups and forums use the library as a meeting place, providing a great opportunity to jump in and learn more about those things.
I absolutely love going to local, state, and national parks and wildlife preserves. Simply walking in the outdoors, breathing in the fresh air, seeing beautiful sights, and getting my body moving makes me feel incredibly good.
Playgrounds are a big part of this, unsurprisingly. As a parent of three young children, my kids are drawn to playgrounds like moths to a flame. I can’t complain, though – if they’re outside and getting exercise, it’s not a problem, and I’ll often curl up on a park bench and read while they’re playing on a playground.
But it doesn’t just end there.
Hiking trails are an endless source of enjoyment for me. I actually have a personal goal of going on every hiking trail in every state park in Iowa over the next several years, which is actually a pretty big goal since there are nearly a hundred state parks with many trails in each one.
Hiking trails provide an enormous variety of landscapes and vistas. They encourage you to get out there and get your body moving and get a bit of exercise. Most trails are labeled with their difficulty, so you’re not going to get stuck on a trail that exceeds your capabilities. And it’s all free.
I find walking on trails to just be incredibly mentally soothing while also being physically invigorating (provided that we’re not going at a breakneck pace). The best part is that there are so many trails near me (and probably near you) that I never need to have the same experience twice.
Biking is something of an extension of trail hiking. Many areas offer bike trails which combine many elements of the pleasure of trail hiking with the fun of riding a bicycle. Sure, you need a bike of your own for this as well as a bike helmet, but if you already have that gear, this is essentially a free activity.
Bird watching is something I often combine with trail hiking. I love hearing bird calls, looking for them in the trees, and watching how they act, particularly when there are other birds around. I’m slowly getting better at being able to identify birds by sound, a skill that my father has in spades and one that I don’t quite have yet. I sometimes take pictures of rarer birds, just to remember that I saw them.
Nature exploration and discovery extends beyond mere bird watching and stretches into things like being able to identify native trees and plants. This is more of a personal interest that probably won’t be widely shared, but it’s something that I deeply enjoy.
One of my favorite ways to spend my spare time is to plan and host (and also attend) social events with my friends. These tend to come in several flavors, of which I’ll mention three.
Dinner parties are simply events where someone invites several people to their home and makes dinner for everyone involved. The guests often bring drinks of various kinds.
Since this is a large home-cooked meal, ingredients can usually be bought in bulk, which takes the price down. There’s also the “reciprocation” factor, in that if you have people over for an enjoyable dinner, they’ll often reciprocate in some fashion, providing you a “free” meal and essentially recouping your cost.
We enjoy hosting these, and we also enjoy going to them when they’re hosted by others. We have several friends with whom we exchange these kinds of dinner parties. The cost is a wash because it essentially boils down to a large homecooked meal for several people followed by a free meal or two for our family.
Board game nights are often linked into dinner parties, but essentially it just consists of pulling a few board games off of our bookshelves and playing them, or playing the games that guests bring with them. Sure, again, there’s that initial cost of having a board game or two on hand, but you can simply do this with a deck of playing cards if you wish.
Movie nights often revolve around a movie that one or the other of us has in our already-existing movie libraries. Often, we’ll watch a movie that one friend or another received as a holiday gift. This often follows on the heels of a dinner together, providing a very cheap evening of entertainment.
This somewhat goes hand in hand with parks, but these activities can be done in other places and, in some cases, actually cannot be done in parks.
Geocaching is a fun activity in which you use a GPS device to find “caches” that are hidden all over the place. Caches are kind of like tiny treasure boxes which usually just contain a small paper log for people to sign, but sometimes also contains unusual trinkets.
If you have a GPS device or a smartphone, it’s pretty much free to go geocaching, and you can find geocaches virtually everywhere. There are several within easy walking distance of our home, for example. It’s a great activity for exploring an area and it can be a really fun search when you’re actually looking for a geocache when you know you’re close to it. You can start by checking out Geocaching.com.
Ingress is basically “virtual geocaching.” It’s a free smartphone game where real world landmarks are the “caches” you’re looking for. Players are on one of two teams, and you fight over control of these landmarks (which amounts to physically visiting landmarks controlled by other players and then playing a number of smartphone mini-games while standing there).
If you have an iOS or Android phone, this app is free and has no additional cost. It’s a great mix of a smartphone game and real-world exploration, since you have to go out and about to play. You can find out more about this game at ingress.com.
Morel (mushroom) hunting is an annual spring activity for my family, something I’ve written about extensively before. It gets me out in the woods a lot when morels are in season. I’ll get up really early, get as much work done as possible by mid-morning, and spend hours wandering in the woods.
This is something that takes some practice and also requires permission from the land owner before picking morels. It’s definitely a rural activity, but it’s also definitely a fulfilling and very relaxing activity.
Rock collecting follows many of the same traits as morel hunting, except you can do it year round. You simply need permission from the land owner to harvest interesting rocks that you find. I love wandering around on creek beds looking for beautiful rocks to add to our gardens.
Summer Community Festivals
During the summer, we attend virtually every community festival in our area. Community festivals can be expensive if you drop money at the flea markets or buy expensive foods there, but we often bring along a cooler with sandwiches and other foods inside to keep our meals cheap. That way, we can enjoy these festivals without any real cost.
Parades are a big part of the enjoyment of community festivals, especially with children who have a lot of fun collecting candy. I enjoy seeing the creativity and effort that local groups and business put into their displays and I also enjoy the local marching bands.
Demonstrations are another nice part of community festivals. We almost always go to any martial arts demonstrations that groups put on. In many communities, the demonstrations have a lot to do with the local flavor and heritage of the town, so we’ll often partake in some demonstrations that relate to that local culture. For example, in Pella, Iowa, there are many demonstrations of Dutch crafts and architecture during their community festival.
Free concerts are a staple of many community festivals. Local bands will often take the stage and play several songs… and if you don’t like that particular group, just wait a while and someone else will be on the stage. I’ve discovered several great local acts that I actually look for when they’re performing.
Fireworks in the evening are another part of community festivals without any cost. It’s a great way to put a cap on a day spent at a community festival. We just find an open spot, spread out a blanket, and relax while the fireworks illuminate the sky above us.
I’m a big fan of Meetup.com, which is a great way to find groups in your area that are related to particular interests. These events are virtually always free to check out, at least. I’ve dabbled in a lot of groups, but three types often stand out to me.
Community game nights are simply opportunities for people to meet up to play and learn tabletop games – usually board games, but sometimes including tabletop RPGs, miniatures games, and other things. I’m involved with two different groups that meet on some sort of regular basis for games.
Maker groups get together for the pleasure of simply making things with your hands, often using modern technologies. Such groups are often associated with makerspaces which often require memberships, but you’ll often be able to visit for free during maker meetups. If you enjoy making stuff with your hands, regardless of whether it’s building a robot prototype or something as different as arts and crafts, a maker group will be enjoyable.
Technology groups are face-to-face groups where people share ideas and strategies for technology solutions for problems. These groups are often loaded with IT professionals of various flavors, and the groups are usually centered around a mix of presentations on technical topics, socializing within a professional peer group, and occasional community volunteer efforts like setting up computers for a charity.
The last group of free activities that use some of my time are volunteer activities. These also involve a wide array of things. Here are three areas that I spend my own time on.
Political campaigning simply means stepping up to the plate for a candidate or a particular issue and doing whatever work is necessary to get people to vote for and support that candidate or issue. This can involve things like phone banking (meaning you call up people and encourage them to vote), going door to door, doing office work, or handling other “grunt work” that needs to be done to help a candidate or issue succeed. It’s not glamorous, but it is rewarding, especially when your candidate or issue secures a victory on election day.
Charity work simply means you’re providing your time and energy for a cause in your community (or elsewhere). This can mean something as simple as volunteering at a food bank or a soup kitchen or something as involving as working on a Habitat for Humanity house or collecting canned goods for a food pantry.
Community work overlaps with charity work quite a bit, but I look at community work as stepping up for tasks that make shared community resources better. Doing things like tending public gardens, cleaning up roadways, and other such tasks makes your area nicer for everyone that lives there.
If you want to know how I fill my free time with free or extremely low cost activities, well, there’s your list. Those activities actually exceed the free time that I actually have, so I’m often choosing from among these given my energy level or the need at the moment. For example, in the fall, I’ll give a higher focus to political campaigns, whereas in the spring I might be more focused on things like hunting for mushrooms in the woods.
The point is this: There are many, many, many interesting and engaging things to do out there for free if you’ll simply look for them. You can learn new things, meet new people, explore new places, and do it all for practically nothing. You just have to be willing to expand your horizons a little.