11 Ways I Entertain Myself for Free

As you read this article, my town is facing the brunt of an enormous winter storm. We’re anticipating between one and two feet of snow with winds in the 30 miles per hour range with gusts much higher than that, which means that we’re going to have very large snowdrifts (probably over 10 feet in places), highly impassable roads, and whiteout conditions for at least a day or two.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be leaving the house today, and neither will my children nor my wife. We’re snowed in, which means that we’ll have something of a lazy day together.

Usually, days like this mean that we spend a part of the day taking care of unfinished household tasks and another part of the day is spent on hobbies and entertainment. The thing is, even at home, a lot of those forms of entertainment rely on extra expenses. Watching Netflix means a home Internet service and a Netflix subscription. Watching cable television means a cable or satellite service. Looking online for sales ends up costing money, too.

What my family and I often look for are things to do that we enjoy that don’t cost anything. We just try to use the things we have on hand.

For us, that includes just our home Internet connection (since I need to have that for my work), basic electricity, basic home appliances and kitchenware, and running water.

Here are 11 things I do for entertainment that use nothing more than those items. These things provide more personal value and enjoyment than I will ever be able to consume over the course of my whole lifetime.

Read Books from the Library (or My Existing Collection)

Few things are nicer on a lazy afternoon – particularly one where you’re stuck indoors – than to curl up with a good book and get lost in the pages.

I love reading books. I read some purely fun page-turner fiction, some highly challenging works of literature, and all manner of nonfiction from which I learn all kinds of different things. Sarah is also an avid reader and we encourage the same in our children.

Right now, for example, I’m in the midst of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell. My wife is currently reading Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (at least, that’s what’s on her bedside table). My two oldest children are simultaneously reading The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. All of these books were either gifted to us or came from the library.

Reading a book doesn’t mean you have to grab something challenging or confusing or boring. Go to the library and grab something purely fun. If you like crime shows, pick up a mystery novel, maybe something by Elmore Leonard. If you like horror, grab something by Joe Hill. If you like to learn, find any topic you want to learn about and seek out a book on that topic. You have the freedom to pick a book that’s about exactly what you want.

Then settle back in a comfy chair and get lost in the pages. If you got that book from the library or off of your shelves, then it’s not costing you a dime.

snowed in house
Snowed in? Resist the urge to shop online or rent a movie, and opt for some old-fashioned, free fun. Photo: Doc Searles

Make an Art Project out of Found Materials

This is something that I often do with my daughter, whether the weather is nice or cold. We simply look around for materials with which we could make something interesting or beautiful, gather them up, and make something out of them.

Sometimes we’ll make a collage out of old magazines and posters. Sometimes, we’ll explore outside and collect leaves and pinecones for a table centerpiece. Maybe we’ll dig through drawers for some markers or pens and make a drawing.

It’s just a free-form art project, made out of whatever we can find.

Now, while this is fun to do with your child, it’s actually interesting to do this on your own as well. I’ve used found materials to make greeting cards, wrapping paper, and wall decorations in the past.

For example, just a few years ago, I took a bunch of old photo prints that I had digitized along with some construction paper, some blank greeting cards, and some glue and made homemade stationery. I made a rectangle of construction paper just slightly smaller than the front of the card, positioned the print on top of that (because the print was just a bit smaller than the construction paper), and glued the three layers together to make a beautiful and unique greeting card. I ended up making piles of these and giving them away as gifts for people.

It’s all about finding an interesting use for the things you have on hand. Just look around for anything that’s visually interesting, both inside and outside, and use them to make something new and cool.

Watch Movies from the Library (or My Existing Collection)

You could take almost everything I wrote about books in the earlier section and apply them here.

They’re free from the library. Or, if you have a collection at home, it’s free to watch them, too.

All you need is some kind of a DVD player to watch them. Likely, there’s one on your computer, if nothing else.

They’re a perfect way to spend a couple of hours, wrapped up in a blanket on the couch or in a comfortable chair.

There are movies that will make you laugh. There are movies that will make you cry. There are movies that will make you think. The best ones manage to do all three.

And it’s free.

Attend a Community Board Game Night (or Play with My Family)

Within a 30-mile drive of my home, there is a community board game night every single night of the week. Some store, some church, or some restaurant is hosting a board game night.

Board game nights are incredibly fun – and they’re free to boot. All you have to do is show up and you’ll find dozens of people there, most of which have armloads of games of all different themes, lengths, complexities, and styles – everything from 10-minute-long team word games to four-hour-long careful economic games and pretty much anything you can imagine in between.

Board games occupy a special place in my heart, as they provide a great opportunity for face-to-face social interaction while doing something thoughtful together. Board games can be played by anyone and you’ll find people ranging from four-year-olds to 70-year-olds at game nights with almost every age in between.

If you have some games in your closet, you don’t even have to leave the house for a game night. Just pull out a game you haven’t played in a while, put it on the table, and encourage your family members to play with you. Or pull out a few decks of cards and invite some friends over.

No matter what you decide, it’s still a fun social time that involves as little or as much thinking as you desire.

Visit Nearby State Parks and Walk All of the Trails

The state I live in, Iowa, contains 85 state parks, six state forests, two state fish hatcheries, 24 state wildlife areas, 20 state wildlife management areas, two state wildlife refuges, one national historic site, and three national wildlife refuges. Virtually all of them are completely free and completely open to the public. Most of those places have trails and interesting areas to explore, often far more than you can explore in a single day.

To me, that’s a checklist. Every single one of those place is an easy day trip from my house. I can pack up some picnic meals for the family, head out for the day, come back at bedtime, and everyone had an awesome day in the outdoors, exploring new places and seeing new things.

Sure, this is tough to do during an Iowa winter. I can’t really go visit those parks and recreational facilities when the weather is really bad (I can, I suppose, but the visit isn’t nearly as nice as it could be). So, what do I do instead?

I plan. I look at the maps for various parks online and plan out some weekend day trips for my family. I make a page or two in my notebook outlining a meal plan, everything we need to pack, and our destination, along with a list of a trail or two and a playground or two to check out. That way, when a lazy Saturday appears in the spring, we can head out and do some exploration without having to think about it at all. I just grab a planning sheet, grab the stuff we need, and we head out.

Make a Complex Meal or Other Food Item

One of my favorite foods to make is homemade pasta. It’s actually not all that complicated – it’s basically flour and eggs mixed into a pasta, rolled really flat, and sliced up. The thing is, it takes a little while to make it and in a busy life, it’s the type of thing that can easily be put off. You can use boxed pasta, right?

Except when I have a chunk of spare time, that is. That’s when I bust out the flour and the eggs and the rolling pin and do something cool.

Making something extra special for a meal is something I deeply enjoy. Going through the steps of making something from scratch, whether it’s a loaf of bread or some pasta or some salsa or coq au vin or tofu scramble, instead of relying on shortcuts is incredibly fulfilling for me personally. Plus, it usually ends up making for a fantastic meal.

Not only that, it’s usually cheaper in terms of the material cost than buying something prepackaged at the store. It’s not a ton cheaper, don’t get me wrong, but the raw ingredients usually save you a little bit. It’s not enough to make, say, from-scratch pasta effective use of your time as a money saver, but it’s good enough to realize that you’re actually saving a few quarters by doing things like this yourself.

For me, it’s not only deeply enjoyable to do this when I have the time to do so, but it’s also something that’s not going to cost much at all and is going to often save me a few dollars.

Learn About a Topic

In a given day, I hear about quite a few things that I don’t understand fully. Someone will reference a political issue that I don’t quite grasp, or I’ll hear a reference to an artist or a political philosophy that I don’t understand. My child will ask me how yarn is made and while I can give an approximate answer, the string of “whys” leads me down a path into the details of the textile industry that I don’t quite know.

Rather than just shrugging my shoulders and moving on with life, I’ll often make a quick note of that thing that I don’t quite understand. Then, later on, I’ll spend some time figuring it out.

I’ll usually start at Wikipedia. While Wikipedia isn’t a perfect trusted source, it’s usually more than good enough to give you the basics on a topic, from which you can branch out into more trusted sources. I might look up a philosopher on Wikipedia – let’s say Immanuel Kant – and then discover after reading through his entry that he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason, upon which I’ll download the full text of that book to my Kindle (or get it from the library).

I do this kind of thing quite often, usually several times a week. I’ll spend time taking a topic that I don’t understand, chasing it through a simple knowledge portal (usually Wikipedia) to give me the basics, then moving from there to more trusted sources once I have some idea of what I’m really looking for.

Given the combination of Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and local libraries, you can learn about almost anything that your heart desires. For free.

Go Geocaching

Here’s a secret: most of the time, when I go to state parks, I don’t go just to walk around on the trails. I’m usually geocaching, too.

Geocaching is basically a global treasure hunt. There’s a website, geocaching.com, that lists literally tens of thousands of specific locations throughout the United States where you can find “caches,” which are small hidden containers. These caches usually contain a tiny log book and some of the bigger ones contain cute little tchotchkes, like Mardi Gras necklaces, interesting rocks, and so on. The idea is that you find a geocache, log it in your geocaching notebook or on geocaching.com, sign the log book (often with a nickname), and, if you want, take one of the tchotchkes and leave one of your own.

There are several things that are really fun about doing this. First of all, even if you know the location of a cache, it can still be tricky to find it. The location is given to you as GPS coordinates (which means you’ll either need to have a GPS unit or look for the spot carefully on Google Maps before you go), but when you get to those coordinates, you still need to search around in a 20-foot radius or so to find the cache. It feels like a hunt.

Second, it’s fun to “collect” caches you’ve found and keep track of them and increase your “found” count. Third, it’s fun to leave something interesting in the caches (or sometimes find something interesting), like a polished rock or something like that. Fourth, it gives you a “mission” sometimes when you’re out exploring on trails.

And, finally, the whole experience is free. It doesn’t cost a dime, although having a GPS unit or a smartphone does make it much easier.

  • Related: An Introduction to Geocaching, My Family’s Favorite Frugal Activity

Make Some YouTube Videos

The videos on YouTube run the gamut from informative and educational to highly entertaining and bizarre. You can find videos of almost every kind, from informational videos on almost any topic you can imagine, endless commentaries, short films, home videos – it goes on and on and on and on.

It’s also incredibly democratic. Anyone with an Internet connection can upload their videos to YouTube.

So why not make some videos?

Yes, this does require some sort of device that can record video, but that includes most digital camera models and most smartphones. If you have that, you essentially have everything you need to make YouTube videos.

Think up something you’d like to record. Maybe you’d like to make an instructional video about the nuances of hunting deer. Maybe you’d like to record a commentary about the current political affairs of the nation. Maybe you’d like to review your favorite board game. Maybe you’d like to make a short film.

Whatever it is, try making it. Record some video, then record some more. Choose the take that’s best and edit it a bit in whatever video editing software is available to you. Then upload it to YouTube. Share it with your friends, perhaps.

The whole process is free. It’s also quite fun, especially when your videos get views and comments. It can also even earn you a buck or two if you enable ads.

Learn a New Skill

Ever wanted to know how to write a computer program? Maybe you’ve wanted to learn sketching techniques, or how to do manual lettering with a pen, or how to bake a loaf of sourdough bread.

Whatever skill you’ve always wanted to have – whether it’s a professional skill or personal one – you can likely learn it in your spare time, for free.

For starters, there are YouTube channels and videos devoted to instruction on almost any topic you can possibly imagine. Here’s one on how to get started with calligraphy, for instance, and here’s one on repairing a toilet. You can find videos and channels on almost any topic you can imagine.

Then, rather than just watching, try doing it. Take out your pens and try calligraphy. Get out your baking materials and make a loaf of bread. Change the oil in your car. Write a computer program.

Whatever it is, do it. Yes, you’re going to fumble around at first. You’re not going to do it well right off the bat. You’re going to make mistakes.

Keep trying. Watch more videos. Read more instructional documents. Try it again and again and again.

Eventually, you’ll get better and better. You’ll be able to do it without the videos, and you’ll be able to improve your own techniques.

And, suddenly, you’ll have a new skill in your repertoire, for free.

Write a Letter

Writing a handwritten letter or note seems kind of anachronistic in this day and age. Who writes a letter these days?

The thing is, receiving a letter is still quite fun and, more than that, it shows that you took the time to put pen to paper instead of just typing. It indicates a certain level of time and care, plus there’s the visual appeal of the handwriting on the page.

All you need to do this, of course, is a piece of paper (or a blank notecard) and a pen and a few thoughts in your head. Just write down your thoughts, sign it, and stick it in an envelope. If the person is far away, you’ll have to also add a stamp to it and drop it in the mail.

There’s no better way I’ve found to follow up when someone has done something nice for you. A handwritten thank-you note is a very nice touch, something that’s memorable for the recipient as well as a great way to genuinely say thanks.

It’s also a great way to keep in touch with someone in a deeper way. With a letter, you have the opportunity to choose your words as carefully as you wish and express them in your own handwriting, making it clear that you mean what you’ve written.

Plus, the only cost is a piece of paper and a bit of ink from your pen.

Final Thoughts

As you can see from this list, there are plenty of things to do that don’t cost much of anything at all. These are all things I personally enjoy, and together they could eat more free time than I have in the rest of my life.

I didn’t even include the multitude of things that other people in my family enjoy that are free. One of my sons loves to collect rocks that he finds in various places. He uses them to decorate our front gardens. My daughter absolutely loves to knit – while it isn’t quite free, she only needs a few balls of yarn here and there and she can make a sweet stocking cap or scarf. My wife enjoys gardening and saving seeds, which means that most years she doesn’t even have to buy a single seed to keep the garden going.

The story is simple: you can fill your free time with endless activities that cost very little – yes, even without television. There’s such a wide variety of options that almost anyone can find something that appeals to them.

Good luck.

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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.