One question I get over and over again from readers is the simple question of "what can I do with my friends that doesn't cost money?"
This kind of question usually arises when a person is beginning to be aware that they're in financially worse shape than they ought to be and the first thing they notice is their most wasteful spending, which usually takes the form of going out with friends.
Yet, at the same time, they want to hang onto a healthy social circle. After all, who wants to lose friendships?
So, people start seeking cheap things to do. I usually respond by sending a few ideas their way. Here are fifteen of the best ones, as these are ones that Sarah and I do regularly with our friends.
Start a dinner party circle. The idea is simple: host a dinner party at your house for a group of friends, preparing the whole meal from scratch. However, after that, each friend takes on the same project, hosting a dinner for the whole group and making it from scratch. Sure, you're preparing a dinner for six or eight people once, but then you have five or seven free meals with friends coming down the pipe after that. You'll basically invest the cost of one large meal and a few hours of preparing it to have a free invite to a bunch of dinner parties in the future with a group of people that you enjoy hanging out with.
Play a board or card game. There is an infinite array of board and card games out there to try, from inexpensive games that just require an ordinary deck of playing cards and are quick to learn and play to epic games that take an entire day to play and require deep strategy - and everything in between, with almost any theme you can imagine. Check out this article including several great games, as well as a huge assortment of great games played with a normal deck of cards. The true fun of a board and card game is the people that you play it with.
Go geocaching. Geocaching is a simple activity that anyone with a GPS can do for free. A geocache is simply a little box or other container that someone has hidden at a specific location. Finding it is kind of like a treasure hunt. You just go to a website like Geocaching.com and enter coordinates for some nearby geocaches into your GPS device, then navigate there. You'll wind up wandering in a park or in the woods or along a fence line or in any number of unusual places until you find it, at which point you can add it to your list of "found" caches and sign the log that's usually found inside the container. It's very fun and actually becomes really addictive, too.
Play a tabletop role playing game. A role playing game is just a way to collaboratively tell a story together. Some methods are more structured than others. The most famous one, Dungeons and Dragons, is all about collaboratively telling a fantasy-themed story like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and you can find the full rules for it (and its cousin, Pathfinder) for free online. There are many other systems out there, many with fewer rules and designed for other things. One of my favorite ones is Fiasco, which comes in the form of a small paperback and only requires some blank notecards and some six sided dice to play; in it, the players are collaboratively creating a story of a "fiasco" - an incident where everything goes awry, often criminally, in almost any setting you can imagine - your block, a fantasy world, a sci-fi world, 1960s London, 1970s New York City, whatever you'd like. These types of games are great because they're completely different based on whatever you imagine at the time.
Have a meal-making party. Everyone gets together and makes a few copies of the same dish, which they can then take home and put in their freezer. For example, you might get together with three other people and each of you makes four full pans of lasagna for the freezer - that's sixteen pans, total. It turns the drudgery of a lot of cooking into a fun social encounter, spreads out the labor involved, and also allows you to buy everything in bulk, making it all nice and cheap. It also leaves you with a bunch of meals in the freezer.
Go to a free community event. Check your city's website (as well as that of your local library, any local colleges or universities, any local newspapers, and Meetup) and see what kind of free events are going on in your community. Don't hesitate to check out the websites of the communities near your own, either. During the year, there are countless free concerts, group meetings, speeches, museum open houses, art galleries, business openings, and other things going on that you might never hear about but can very well provide you with a ton of entertainment for free.
Have a movie night, complete with popcorn and beverages. This is far cheaper than going to a movie theater, but often much more enjoyable. Just rent a movie for a dollar or two from Redbox, fire up your DVD or Bluray player, and kick back on your couch to watch a movie with friends. Pop some popcorn (you just need a brown paper bag, some popcorn kernels, a touch of oil, and a microwave) and have a few beverages and it's still light years cheaper than any theater experience would be - and a lot more enjoyable, too, since you know all of the people in the room.
Go camping. If you already have equipment (or can easily borrow it), camping is a great way to spend one or both nights over the course of a weekend. If you camp with several people, the cost of everything you need - food and all - comes in well under $10 and you get many hours of camaraderie, fire building, wilderness exploring, and fresh air. Some of my best memories with my friends have taken place while sitting around a campfire late at night, swapping stories and talking about life.
Play a sport together. Take a soccer ball to the park and kick it around. Pull out a frisbee and toss it around. Take a basketball down to the park and shoot some hoops. Play catch with a ball and two gloves. It doesn't take much equipment at all to play a sport together and it gives everyone involved a bunch of healthy exercise and fun. It doesn't matter that you're terrible at a sport, either; likely, most of your friends will be pretty awful, too, and you can handicap anyone that's actually halfway decent.
Volunteer as a group. Spend a Saturday together working at a Habitat for Humanity house or helping a food pantry restock their shelves or planting flowers at a park. Maybe you could work together to coach a youth baseball or basketball team or get involved with a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop or another youth group. There are many opportunities to volunteer, and it can be a lot of fun when you do it with like-minded friends.
Go "Goodwill hunting." Simply visit the thrift stores and Goodwill stores that are near you and see what kind of bargains can be found. We often turn this into a game, where everyone involved is striving to find the absolute biggest bargain they can find with the goal (in theory) of flipping it for a profit on eBay. You'd be surprised at what you can find if you keep your eyes open.
Start a fantasy sports league. With baseball season just around the corner, you can go to Yahoo! or ESPN and easily start a fantasy sports league for you and your friends. Even if you don't know much about the sport, a fantasy league can provide a constant source of discussion for you and your friends as fortunes rise and fall throughout the months to come.
There are almost endless opportunities for free social activities you can do with your friends if you simply choose to look for them and you're open minded about what you discover. Just be willing to try new things with your friends - things you may have never tried before. You might find something new that you deeply enjoy, but at the very least, you'll have a fun afternoon with your friends that you'll remember that didn't cost you much money at all.