Updated on 03.20.12

Utilize Community Resources (78/365)

Trent Hamm

This past weekend, Sarah and I went on a long walk in the woods at a state park, checked out the restored birthplace of President Herbert Hoover, ate a picnic meal in a beautiful grove, found a bunch of Devonian-era fossils, and played with our children on a playground.

Our total cost for all of this – minus the food we brought ourselves – was nothing. All of it was made free to us by our community and other communities in Iowa.

Utliize Community Resources (78/365)

In the past month, my family has gone ice skating in a public rink, played disc golf, played tennis, played basketball, watched an outdoor concert, and enjoyed a pile of food samples. Cost (beyond stuff we already own)? Nothing.

In the next month and a half or so, my children are participating in a youth soccer league, my oldest may be participating in a youth baseball league, we’re going camping for a weekend (probably), going to a couple of concerts, watching at least two parades, eating a ton of food samples and at least one meal, watching multiple live sporting demonstrations and tournaments, playing and eating picnics and exploring and hiking in several public parks, going on a family scenic bicycle ride, and observing the religious practices of several world religions. Cost (beyond stuff we already own)? Nothing.

The amazing thing is that we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s available to us. The vast majority of the free options we have on hand are discarded without discussion, and quite a few more are tossed aside after discussion. There are still more things to do and enjoy in our community and surrounding communities that are free than we can ever take advantage of.

How do you find all of this stuff? Here are several tactics to use.

Read any and all free local newspapers. They are almost always full of notices of free community events, festivals, parades, concerts, and other things of that nature.

Find your community’s parks and rec department’s website (and those of towns nearby). Search for your town’s name plus the phrase “parks and recreation” in Google. Look at the offerings they have, from bike and hiking trails to parks and organized sporting activities.

Find your community’s calendar of upcoming events (and those of towns nearby). Search for your town’s name plus the phrase “community calendar” or “upcoming events” in Google and you should find something (provided your town has at least a little size to it). Do the same for surrounding communities. You’ll find tons of different activities, from community festivals and parades.

Keep your eyes open. I’ve discovered many community events by simply examining the bulletin board in local stores or outside the local post office or near city hall. I’ve found posters for interesting events all over the place, from being taped to light poles to being stuck in our front door.

We’ve found that, as a family, if we have a long list of free things to do, we eventually find a few that we all have at least some interest in doing, and if it’s a free activity that’s enjoyable for all of us, that’s a big win. We aren’t spending money, but we’re all having fun.

If you can find fifty free things to do, you only need to have one of them be appealing to you to have something free and fun for you to do.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Jessica says:

    My children take free sports and art classes through our parks & rec and I take a free ceramics class. The kids also take two classes that have a minimal cost- gymnastics and swimming. Classes at a private studio would be unaffordable for us.

    The truth is though, you are paying for these opportunities in the form of your property taxes and possibly your sales tax and income taxes too.

  2. jessie says:

    Thanks for these ideas. I have to tell you that a lot of the stuff that is free in your community isn’t in ours. Youth sports leagues cost at minimum $200 per season here, plus equipment. Every state park here charges entrance fees, and good luck finding a free festival or concert. We have very few public recreation facilities left, and those that are here charge a usage fee. Time for us to move out of California, I guess.

  3. Izabelle says:

    We spent a bit more on our house to ensure we’d be in a community like this. It’s a trade-off that has already paid for itself in so many ways!

  4. Shannon says:

    It must be nice to have the luxury of living an an area that offers those sorts of things.

  5. Chris P says:

    and, since I live in Des Moines, thanks for publishing your free and nearly free events. I benefit from those, and need to comment and thank you more often!!! I love your blog!

  6. Amanda says:

    I am glad the photos are improving.

  7. kc says:

    “…my family has went…” Seriously??

  8. Joan says:

    I agree there are quite a few things to do for free in a community you just need to know where to look. We live in a town of about 35K and each month there is a movie playing at the big park for people to go to for free and just bring your blankets and chairs and sit out under the stars plus, you get to meet others. Someone sells popcorn and other treats to buy but the movie is free!There is a man made lake that is supplied with fish and you can go fishing for free. We live in Arizona so there are many outside activities all year long but I guess that is one of the benefits of living here.

  9. cheryl says:

    Wow! It must be nice to live somewhere where community recreation programs are free. The only way to get anything for free where I live is to go begging to the recreation director for your child to get on the “every kid can play” program and if there is enough money in the fund you will get one program paid for and then you have to go beg again for the next one – if there is enough money.

    I have lived in a lot of communities all across Canada, large and small, and have never received recreation programs for free. I take that back. When I was a child in the ’60’s there were park supervisors in the summer who created programs for the kids who went to the playgrounds.

  10. Kai says:

    I think this is less about ‘get free stuff’ as about ‘make use of what you’re already paying for through taxes’.
    That said, the same opportunities simply aren’t available to everyone, so it’s not a great idea to assume that when someone says the free opportunities aren’t there, that they must just be missing out.
    I’ve never heard of a free youth sports league. Anywhere I’ve ever seen has at least a small fee to pay for uniforms and such, even if all coaches, officials, and organizers are volunteers.

  11. Misha says:

    kc, what are you talking about? The only Ctrl-F result on this page for “family has went” is your comment.

  12. Thanks for the reminder about taking advantage of local community opportunities. Sometimes you just need to get creative! While not free, we did get a season zoo pass and go there quite often. We bring a picnic lunch and check out the cute animals! Buying a pass makes it very inexpensive per trip!

  13. Roberta says:

    I second the comment from Jessica. All of those things you enjoy cost money, and someone is paying it. Either you are directly with entry and usage fees, or property, income or sales taxes, or someone else is, or has paid for them. Someone has to cut the grass, clean the restrooms, dump the trash, maintain the parking lots…..

    We also pay for kids sports. Town youth football last time we had one playing was $200 plus equipment, but the officials who work the games are paid, so that’s primarily where the fees go.

    But there are always some free things around if you look for them. We went to three art museums over spring break and they were all free, and there were many activities for the kids. Thank you wealthy patrons of the arts, and businesses who help subsidize those things for all of us!

    We have to pay for kids town-run recreation activities by and large, but our city does have beautiful parks. There are sports fields, hiking trails, stocked fishing lakes and all kinds of group areas you can reserve. they host guided nature walks and trail hikes frequently. We’ve used the covered pavilions for group get togethers of all kinds – use of the grills, the parking, benches, tables, clean restrooms etc are all free to town residents. They just ask you to put your trash in the provided barrels.

  14. Leah W. says:

    I don’t know of an acceptable place to camp (e.g. a place with facilities) for free in Oklahoma/Arkansas. It’s generally pretty cheap, of course, but certainly not free.

  15. SMS says:

    Our community/rec programs all have a cost associated with them. Example: Soccer to pay for jersey and referees ($35). Nothing in walking distance. No public transportation so gas needed to get where you are going. Free swim lessons at the beach. Low cost programs. Most have a scholarship system if you meet income requirements. They all do fundraisers. Sick of that too, but that is likely another post.

  16. Tom says:

    I agree with comment 1 that you probably paid for it via property tax, sales tax, and/or income tax. I’m not going to rant on taxes being so egregious (because I’m not of that opinion anyway), but I think you could have made the argument that, “Hey you already paid for it, go enjoy it.”

    That is an impressive list of free services in your area.

  17. Ashley says:

    I understand where Trent is going with this, but his “free” trip really wasn’t free (or at least, shouldn’t have been). His home is at least an hour to an hour and a half away from Herbert Hoover’s birthplace. Even with the Prius, his family did have to pay for the gas, wear and tear on the car, etc. Secondly, as of just a few years ago at least, the State did have a (very) suggested donation to visit the park and get beyond the park ranger at the first stop. If I recall, it was around $6 for adults. I hope Trent and his family paid this nominal fee and weren’t cheap.

  18. kc says:

    @ Misha: the sentence has been corrected (!!!!!). It’s the paragraph that begins “In the past month…”

  19. kc says:

    Or more accurately, it WAS the paragraph…

  20. ChrisD says:

    Hmm, free food samples. Perhaps it works differently in the US, but I used to work at a market in London and the free samples were not intended to provide a free taster session for people planning not to spend money, they were intended to help people choose what they wanted to buy. It is supposed to be a working market but management chose to attract lots of tourists and the Americans wondering round, helping themselves to samples with no intention of buying anything, who thanked you as if you were being put on as a tourist attraction where a bit annoying.
    I obviously didn’t expect everyone who sampled to buy from our stall, but I would expect people to buy something from some stall, not just to wander round a picturesque ‘working market’ and crowd out all the real customers.

  21. Another great thing about using community resources is the chance of children seeing and playing with friends. It’s an unplanned playdate.

  22. RachH says:

    @KC, yes! I tried to leave a comment about the misspelled “Utliize” in the title, but it has been corrected. I’m happy to see someone is correcting things lately! :-)

  23. Cj says:

    Joan #8—fishing is not free in arizona…even fishing in a public pond you must have a fishing licence…they will even fine a 5 year old for fishing without a license…errgg so annoying. But I live in a town of 50k in southern az and we have TONS of free and low cost stuff…you just have to know were to look. Movies in the park are not my cup of tea…but hiking is always free and camping is less then 10 bucks a night at a place with potable water. “Off road” camping is free in the whole state of Az. You have to a certain distance from any roads though.

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