20 Free Things I’ve Done and Enjoyed on Days Off in the Last Year

At the start of last year, I decided to make a list of things I did on the weekends that didn’t cost me any money at all and then mark which ones I really enjoyed. I thought it might develop into an article some day and, lo and behold, here we are.

It turned out that the number of things worth mentioning added up to exactly 20, once I eliminated things that I didn’t particularly enjoy and things that were basically repeated. My threshold for “enjoying it” simply includes things that I’d happily do again in the future, nothing more. If I didn’t feel like I wanted to do it again, it didn’t make this list.

Since our tastes and activities differ – after all, we are different people – you probably won’t find everything listed here enjoyable. Rather, take this list and try to find just five things that seem interesting and fun to you and slot them in over the next month or two on days off. If nothing else, you’ve found a weekend activity that won’t cost you anything.

Curate a “film festival” with a theme from your DVD collection (and streaming)

One cold winter day, we decided to have a Lord of the Rings film festival. We popped a bunch of popcorn we’d had in the cupboard for a while and watched all three Lord of the Rings movies in their full extended editions, taking about eleven hours.

We took a break between the first and the second entries for a late lunch, then a break between the second and third entries to go for a walk and then have supper.

You can do this with any “theme” you want from your own film collection. You might decide to watch a trilogy or film series, or you might decide to watch a bunch of movies by the same director or the same production house (like Studio Ghibli).

Go on a leisurely hike to an out-of-the-way place with a great view, and have a picnic there

One day, we woke up early, packed a picnic lunch in a backpack, and the whole family went on a long hike in a nearby wooded area. We eventually found ourselves completely alone – no one near us – and we came upon a magnificent view, so we simply sat down, spread out, and enjoyed lunch together, enjoying the view and the incredible weather and the nice meal.

We explored that area for a while, then slowly hiked back to our car. It was perhaps eight miles round trip by my best estimates, but we did it very leisurely and stopped quite often to look around and take pictures and just admire the scenery and to eat lunch and a snack.

Our total cost was nothing – well, obviously we had to pay for lunch, but we would have had a similar lunch at home.

Turn a bunch of unwanted vegetables that would probably be thrown out into a giant batch of stock

One weekend this summer, we found ourselves with a huge backlog of vegetables that we just weren’t going to eat. We considered canning them, but that would have required buying a lot of canning supplies, and we already had a lot of frozen vegetables. We didn’t want to just throw them out, either.

So, early in the morning, I got out a giant stock pot and put it on the stove over high heat. I added a lot of water and some peppercorns and some salt and just started chopping vegetables in a rough, quick way and threw them into the pot, too. Once it was boiling, I turned it down to a gentle simmer and just let the pot simmer for hours and hours on our stovetop. I added water once during the day.

The entire house smelled like a delicious, rich soup. It smelled amazing. In the evening, I blended it in batches, put it in quart freezer containers, and froze it. The stuff is magic for making amazing soups. It’s fragrant and basically good enough to eat on its own.

Go to an art festival

Last summer, we spent an entire day at the Des Moines Art Festival. We must have visited every single booth at the festival. We packed a cooler with food in it for both lunch and dinner and simply returned to our car when it was time to eat.

The festival was free and included a bunch of art exhibitions, live music, a number of art-related activities, some samples of various kinds, and, yes, some vendors selling items, but since we brought our own food and beverages, there was no real cost to us.

It was a great way to expose ourselves to a wide variety of arts and music from the local community without any cost.

Get a book on a challenging topic that you’ve always been interested in, read it slowly, and stop frequently to think.

I do this regularly. I’ll decide that I want to learn more about a particular topic, so I’ll do some research online to find a book on the subject, check it out from the library, and then read it a few pages at a time over the next few weeks. I’ll read three or four pages over the course of five or ten minutes, put it aside to do other things and mull it over in my head, and then read another few pages a little later in the day. I’d write two or three sentences in my own words to summarize every chapter or section, just to cement it in my head.

I’ve learned about countless topics with this very technique: Bitcoin, the French Revolution, CRISPR, Epicureanism, Buddhism, I could go on and on.

If you’ve ever been curious about a topic, look for a well-regarded book on that topic, then read it slowly, think about what you’ve just read, and write down a summary of each section in your own words. You’ll not only enjoy discovering the answers to questions you’ve always been curious about, but you’ll set those ideas in your mind for building upon later.

Binge watch a full season or series of an older television show you really loved

For me, this was Star Trek: the Next Generation, which is probably the most meaningful series that has ever existed for me. Not only did many of the individual stories make me think a lot about technology and relating to people different than myself, I watched a lot of it at a very difficult time earlier in my life when my father nearly died and I went to live with my uncle and my elderly grandmother for a couple of months. My uncle and I fell into a tradition of watching ST:tNG on a daily basis – it aired at 10:30 PM on one channel and then another episode on another channel at 11:30 PM, virtually every day – and it became part of a close bond for us that lasted until he passed away several years later.

I spent a day when I wasn’t feeling well binge watching parts of the first season and a lot of the second season of the show. Not only do most of the standalone stories stand up well, it felt like comfort food and made me remember my uncle, who I still miss to this day.

The whole series is on Netflix, so there was no additional cost to do this since we are already subscribed anyway.

Volunteer for a local charity

Find a local charity that’s in line with something you care deeply about and contact them, asking for opportunities to volunteer irregularly. Do they have upcoming days where they’re looking for help for something?

Spending a day or a part of a day arranging food or delivering food for a food pantry or washing and hanging up clothes in a clothing pantry or preparing and serving meals in a soup kitchen can be an incredibly powerful way to spend a day.

I spent most of a day last year working in a garden for our local food pantry. The produce from that garden was given to the pantry to distribute to their clients. It felt good to be outside with my hands in the soil, knowing that the proceeds from that effort would go to help hungry families and particularly hungry children in the community.

Take a free community class

In the area where I live, the local parks and recreation departments and the local libraries often offer free classes on various things, open to the public. Sometimes you have to call and reserve a slot; other times it’s first-come first-serve or it’s in a public space with unlimited attendance.

In any case, I’ve been to several of these in the past few years and they’re almost always worthwhile. I learned about things as diverse as basic yoga practice, the interior design of a microbrewery (along with samples), and how libraries get their funding. At many of them, there was free food, and there were always question and answer sessions and open conversation afterwards.

Not only did I learn something, I also met people in the community and often got a free meal out of the deal.

Make fermented or pickled foods

By “fermented or pickled,” I’m referring to a wide variety of things: pickled cucumbers (i.e., pickles), pickled garlic, pickled eggs, pickled green beans, preserved lemon, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and countless other items along those lines. I made most of those things at home at some point during 2018.

The expense of actually making those items is pretty low. For example, all you really need to make sauerkraut is shredded cabbage, salt, and a container that can breathe just a little bit. All you really need to make other pickled vegetables is that vegetable, salt, and maybe a few other basic ingredients. You probably have enough items on hand right now to make at least a couple types of pickled items.

The best part is that when you’re done, you end up with a food item that sells for much more in the store and often proves to be a delicacy.

Go on a daylong solo meditation retreat

Last summer, I spent an entire day by myself walking in the woods at a local state park. At several points during the day, I just sat by myself, meditating and losing myself in the moment. All I brought with me was a backpack with some food in it and a turned-off cell phone only to be used in emergencies.

I do not exaggerate when I say that at the end of that day, after about 14 miles of walking and several hours of just meditating in a forest, I felt better than I had in a long time. I felt tremendous.

I want to do this at least four times this year.

It’s simple. Just pencil off a day completely for you. Put a couple meals’ worth of food and a couple of water bottles in a backpack (along with bug spray if needed), then go to a wooded state or national park near you and go walking on a relatively simple trail. Walk at your own pace and just try to live in the moment. When you’re tired, sit for a while until you feel rested again, and spend that time, again, just trying to lose yourself in the moment and in your surroundings. I virtually guarantee you’ll feel better at the end of the day.

Go foraging

As I’ve noted before, I love foraging for food items. I’ve found and consumed all kinds of plants and fungi that I’ve discovered while exploring – morels, berries, tea ingredients, herbs, and so on. I’ve taken them home and baked things like wild blackberry muffins (exquisite, I tell you!).

The trick is to find a good guide to the types of things you can forage for in your area and stick to things that are very obvious – it’s pretty hard to mistake a blackberry or a mulberry for something else.

It’s a good excuse to get outside, get exploring, and learn more about the actual plants and wildlife that exist in your area. You’d be surprised what you can find even in humble city parks.

Go geocaching

Geocaching is a fun activity that’s like a giant treasure hunt, except the treasure map is a map of the real world from your phone or GPS device or even a paper map and you’re looking for the X on it. The fun is in finding the “treasure” – the treasure itself is usually a small log that you sign or perhaps a few small tchotchkes. The fun part? There are tens of thousands of them all over the United States and around the world – there are probably dozens within a few miles of your home, hidden by people who love to geocache.

How do you get involved? You can download a free smartphone app like c:geo or Geocaching. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can just visit Geocaching.com and find geocaches near you, making your own map by hand or printing one off. Then you just head out and about, finding them by exploring and observing.

My family and I have spent full days geocaching many times, finding tons of geocaches (our single day family record is in the twenties, I think) and just enjoying time outside together.

Binge-listen to a podcast

A few times over the last year, I found myself having to devote most of a weekend day to some kind of mindless task that I didn’t really want to do. Cleaning out the garage. Maintaining a lawnmower. Assembling some furniture. Those kinds of tasks.

Those tasks are mostly drudgery that don’t require you to pay much attention, but does suck down your time.

For me, I found that the time passes better when I have something to occupy my mind, and the best free option I’ve found for that is in podcasts. I’ll just find a new interesting podcast and listen to a whole bunch of episodes in a row.

Some good choices for this kind of binge listening are Caliphate, Serial, The Habitat, and The Truth. Your phone likely has a podcast app already on it that will easily let you subscribe to any of these (and countless others) and start listening from the beginning.

Start a fantasy baseball/football/basketball league with some friends

Fantasy sports are a great way to maintain a connection with friends and deepen one’s fandom of a particular sport, though I’ve found you don’t even really have to be much of a fan to participate and have fun in such a league. ESPN offers free fantasy sports leagues that work very well; I’ve been playing in them for years and have even managed a few.

For those unfamiliar, a fantasy sports league is one in which you have a “team” of sorts that’s comprised of real world players that you select in a draft at the start of the season. Your “team” scores points in direct proportion to the real-world performance of your players. You can trade players on your team to other team owners in your league and make roster changes throughout the season.

I find that fantasy football tends to work the best because the real-world games only occur once a week during the season, meaning you don’t have to focus on your team every day.

During the past year, I spent a couple of days off preparing for fantasy sports drafts and actually participating in those drafts.

Go to a meetup related to something you’ve always been curious about

Meetup is a giant listing of interest groups in your community and in nearby communities, allowing people who are into a particular topic or hobby to find each other and meet up in the real world.

In the past year, I’ve attended board game meetups, chess meetups, “maker” meetups, and computer programming meetups. Before that, I’d attended several others on other topics such as homebrewing. They’ve all been enjoyable; they’ve all been free, at least to check them out. Some have had membership fees if you decide to stick around.

If you have a particular interest but no one local to share it with, see if you can find a meetup related to that interest and, if not, try starting one if you have a meeting place available to you (check with city hall and the library if you don’t know where to start). It’s a great way to find like-minded people who are passionate about some of the same things you are.

Go to a religious service – or a non-religious one

If you have a spare morning or afternoon, look into attending a religious service of some type, whether it’s a religion that your family has traditionally followed or something else entirely.

When I was in college, I took a few religious studies classes that intentionally required me to attend the services of several faiths, and I got a great deal of value out of those experiences. Even now, I love attending the services of different religions and spiritual paths, just to enjoy the variety of religious experiences. If you let yourself go with the flow, it’s an incredibly powerful way to commune with your fellow people.

This doesn’t have to be strictly religious in nature. If going to a specific religious service is just not your thing but you’re interested in a spiritual search and wish to congregate with others, take a look at a local Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Learn how to knit or crochet

One day late last winter, I decided that I wanted to learn how to knit. I had some knitting needles in a drawer along with some yarn, so I just loaded up some videos, sat down, and ended up (very very slowly) knitting a potholder for the kitchen. I didn’t really keep up with it, but it was an enjoyable thing to learn and I could definitely see myself making something like a scarf in the future.

This does require a bit of material, but you can often get knitting needles or crochet hooks and some yarn by just asking around your social network. You can find tons and tons of videos on how to knit and crochet on Youtube that explain everything you’d ever want to know.

The best part? Once you’ve learned it, you can easily do it while watching a movie or a television program. Doing a row involves simply doing the same pattern over and over and over again, so it’s pretty mindless, but you can end up with some amazing stuff.

Write a handwritten letter or two

This might seem a little old fashioned, but there are two big benefits to doing this.

One, it’s surprisingly meaningful in this day and age to receive a handwritten letter in the mail. It’s an indication of time and thought and care from the sender. I’ve received a good handful of handwritten letters and notes over the last few years and they’ve all stood out and been meaningful in a positive way.

Two, it’s a great way to carefully collect your meaningful thoughts for a person. I found that writing to old friends and old mentors by hand gave me an opportunity to really reflect on what they meant to me and to tell them such in a very personal way.

If you combine those two elements, a handwritten letter can be deeply meaningful for both the person writing it and the person receiving it, and all it takes is a pen and a piece of paper.

Start learning how to play a musical instrument

Much as with knitting, this does require equipment, but you can often find an older musical instrument on Freecycle for free, or you might be able to borrow something for a while from your social network if you ask around. Also, as with knitting, there’s a ton of Youtube videos out there aiming to teach people how to play an instrument. You can just sit down and learn wherever and whenever you want.

The key to mastery of a musical instrument is deliberate practice – practice with the intent to improve basic foundational skills, not just to play a song well. If you have an instrument, such practice is all about the time, not about the cost. In the end, though you’ve built up a wonderful skill.

I’ve done this exact thing with both the guitar and piano – picked up an instrument for free somewhere, used Youtube to learn the basics – and I intend to do it with a banjo if I ever find a free one or an extremely inexpensive one.

Final Thoughts

There are two main purposes to this list.

First, it’s an indication that you can find a wide variety of things to do in your spare time that don’t cost money. Finding enjoyable things to do does not have to involve going out on the town and shelling out cash. There are an abundance of things to do on your days off.

Second, it’s a list of potential ideas that you can choose from for your own activities. I tend to really like seeking out new things to try and sometimes just inventing things to do out of whole cloth, but many people like choosing from a smorgasbord of options.

Regardless of how you use this list, keep one thing in mind: boredom is a choice. No matter what your financial constraints are, the world offers us a ton of interesting things to do and ideas to explore.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.