Free Substitutions for Everyday Expenses

What would you rather spend your money on: a super-amazing trip of a lifetime, or day-to-day costs? Of course you want to be able to live well, but when you’re saving for a trip or other big goal, you may realize that you’re spending money on things that you don’t need to spend money on. But going on a spending freeze does not mean you have to stop enjoying the things you love. It just means you have to go about things differently. Here are twenty-one expenses that many people have, along with some cost-free substitutions.

Instead of paying for network television… many channels upload some of their popular shows onto their website or onto the free version of Hulu. ABC, CBS, and A&E are just some of the channels whose websites you can visit for free shows. Yes, this does mean watching on your computer, but if you really want to watch on a bigger screen, you can consider a one-time cost of buying a cord that will display your computer screen on your television. If your favorite show is not offered online, see if a friend who has that channel would be willing to host a weekly screening night.

Instead of going out to dinner… enjoy time together by cooking a meal at home. Begin by looking up a recipe (for free online, of course) for a dish you’ve never made or tasted before. If you don’t have the ingredients at home, make shopping at the grocery store part of your dinner date! This can be your opportunity to try out crazy cooking methods and use your finest dinnerware. You can even make it formal by busting out the cocktail dress or suit and tie! I realize that technically, this still costs money as you’re buying the ingredients, but you need to eat anyway, right? As long as you’re not purchasing new cookware or exotic foods, this memorable night in can cost just as much as any other meal you cook at home.

A former roommate and I spent an evening shaping and baking pretzels!
A former roommate and I spent an evening shaping and baking pretzels!

Instead of spending money on movies… some production companies have movies available for free online, often available to stream straight from YouTube! There are also dozens of websites dedicated to providing free documentaries to the public. Now this takes care of your movie subscription services, but what about the movie theater experience? If you’re a business owner, ministry leader, or even a blogger, not only can you attend movie screenings for free, but you can see them before they come out. Since getting into the Lifeway Films advanced screenings, I’ve been able to see several free movies over the past few years in the best theaters in town!

Instead of buying books… the obvious recommendation would be the library, but I realize that it is not a viable resource to everyone. Even if you do have a local library, it may not have the kind of selection you want. Many communities have some sort of book exchange, which could be anything from a mailbox on the sidewalk, to a bookshelf in a store, to a whole building filled with free books! Sure, you may have to give up some books, but in return you can get an entire selection of new books! If your area doesn’t have a book exchange, consider starting one up! A great way to get brand-new books is to enter contests, often sponsored by either the author or the publisher. Even if there are no advertised contests, a nice fan letter sent to the author may be returned by free books- possibly autographed!

Instead of shopping online Craigslist, eBay, and other online stores… you can look for a local free group on Facebook. This has a similar philosophy to the Freecycle website, but because it’s on a regularly-accessed social network, it tends to be better utilized. Once you join your local group, all you have to do is either post what you’re looking for, or post something that you want to give away. Your neighbors will then be able to help you out in your endeavor. In addition to this, never underestimate the good old-fashioned method of telling your friends what you’re free-shopping for!

When I was moving, someone on a local Facebook group was fortunate enough to take this custom-made bed out of my hands for free!
When I was moving, someone on a local Facebook group was fortunate enough to take this custom-made bed out of my hands for free!

Instead of purchasing clothing… you can try trading with friends. Of course, this only works if your friends have similar size and style. You can also take up sewing and upcycle your current threads. You can prolong the life of your clothes by patching up holes, or you can give your wardrobe a complete makeover and turn one item of clothing into something else entirely. If you get creative, you can turn a t-shirt into a skirt, or a skirt into a scarf!

I upcycled twelve camp t-shirts into a no-sew blanket!
I upcycled twelve camp t-shirts into a no-sew blanket!

Instead of buying school books… share with a friend who is also taking the class, or borrow from someone who took the same class the previous semester. If you don’t have these kinds of connections, many school libraries, and sometimes local public libraries, carry the current school books and allow students to borrow them for a short time as needed. If you can, contact the instructor before the class starts and ask what books are actually required. (Sometimes what the school thinks is read and what the instructor actually assigns can be different.) All the above options typically only work for books that are not read on a daily basis. You probably will have to buy some books, so find them used for as cheap as you can online, and after your class ends you can sell them directly to another student for almost the same amount that you bought it for. Even though it requires putting a little money down, many students find that this method will help them break even in the end.

Instead of purchasing souvenirs… take lots of pictures. Go geocaching and trade for an item that will remind you of the area. Keep a travel journal. Collect your ticket stubs, itineraries, and brochures. Find rocks, shells, or other natural objects and label where you found them (make sure this is legal before taking them). The souvenirs you want to buy are likely made overseas and simply stamped with your destination’s name. Another bonus of free mementos is that they often better represent your vacation spot.

The only "souvenirs" my friends and I have from this hike are the photos we took and the trinkets we traded in the geocaches.
The only “souvenirs” my friends and I have from this hike are the photos we took and the trinkets we traded in the geocaches.

Instead of giving pricey gifts… find a way to spend time instead of money. Newlyweds may need a house- or pet-sitter while they’re on their honeymoon. First-time parents often need help catching up on housework and yard work, or getting the nursery ready. Not-first-time parents may be looking for babysitting for their older kids or meal preparation. You could also get crafty and make a unique, quality gift out of items you already own. Used gifts are sometimes okay as long as it’s a gift from the heart, such as an antique family heirloom being passed down. Just make sure that your free gifts don’t come across as stingy or unwanted. In some cases it is better to buy a (couponed, on-sale) gift for a dear friend than hoarding away a few extra bucks.

Instead of paying for a pet… pet-sit for your friends and neighbors and you could get paid to snuggle with a furry friend! You can also get your animal fix by volunteering at, or even just visiting, an animal shelter. You could also volunteer or work as a farmhand and be exposed to a variety of creatures! Remember that a pet does not typically fit into a traveler’s lifestyle. You either have to hope to find pet-friendly lodging and camps and pay the extra pet fee, or pay for a kennel or pet-sitter back home. This is a huge expense in addition to the regular expenses of food, immunizations, etc.

Not having pets didn't stop me from playing with my Nebraska neighbor's puppy!
Not having pets didn’t stop me from playing with my Nebraska neighbor’s puppy!

Instead of buying paper products… use reusable! Many people already have plenty of towels and other paper product replacements already in their homes, but even if you don’t have enough cloth towels to replace paper towels, you probably have enough material to make your own. Bandannas can make festive napkins. Old t-shirts can be cut to any size of rectangle for whatever you repurpose them as. Even old socks are great for scrubbing and wiping down when cleaning. If you don’t feel like washing rags, use a small piece of salvaged cloth for the task and then throw it away.

Instead of purchasing periodicals… think about why you’re really reading it. If you only buy magazines to read one or two certain sections, search for those topics on Pinterest and you’ll get thousands of pins linking to articles on that topic. Remember that lots of magazines publish their most popular articles online for free. As for the newspaper, I’m not sure why they’re even still in print, but you can find all that news online and immediately after it happens. If you want something you can hold in your hands, there are free subscriptions, or at least trial issues, to many magazines. They’re getting rare, but they’re still out there! Finally, utilize free magazine racks, check out magazines at the library, and trade magazines with friends. As long as it’s your first time reading it, who cares if the magazine is several months old?

Instead of paying to exercise… work out at home and on the road. If you are traveling and there is no price difference between an accommodation with a pool or workout room and an accommodation that doesn’t offer any workout equipment, choose the place where you can be more active. As long as you have decent walking or running shoes, you can turn any place into a gym. Motivate yourself to exercise more at home by doing small, vigorous tasks such as unloading groceries, walking to the mailbox, or vacuuming. Also, there are many workout videos available for free online streaming. Some may recommend simple exercise equipment, but you can replace a yoga mat with a towel and use water bottles filled with rocks instead of weights.

You can save money on exercise AND transportation if you decide to walk EVERYWHERE like I did on my Niagara Falls trip.
You can save money on exercise AND transportation if you decide to walk EVERYWHERE like I did on my Niagara Falls trip.

Instead of buying shipping material… save the packaging from items shipped to you, cover your address with a new label, and ship it out! If your shipment requires cushioning, you can use already-used wrapping paper, the contents from a paper shredder, or any other needs-to-be-recycled paper from around the house. Oh, and you can also save the bubble wrap that gets sent to you for later use. You can even place fragile items in the center of the package and surround it with other softer, non-fragile items. If you plan to ship through Priority Mail at the US Post Office, don’t even bother trying to find packaging. All post offices provide Priority Mail boxes, envelopes, tape, and address labels for free. Whenever you have to mail just a small envelope, consider if you could send the information online instead. If you’re careful about your shipments, you can get away with only spending money on stamps!

Instead of buying video games and gaming devices… I’m not entirely sure why the gaming industry is so big when there are so many games you can play for free. If you have a smart phone, you’re probably already aware that you can download free gaming apps. There are also many free online gaming sites with many different genres. And a bonus to parents and students: there are a ton of fun, free games that are also educational! But, in my opinion, video games will never be as fun as traditional board games. You probably have a few hiding in the back of your closet; why not pull them out and play a few rounds?

Instead of paying for a hotel room… don’t do it! I understand the merit behind hotels and motels, but I believe that they are used far more than they need to be. Read my article on ten alternatives to hotels. All of them are cheaper than a hotel, and several of the suggestions are absolutely free!

Lounging in a lodge... that we stayed a night in FOR FREE!
Lounging in a lodge… that we stayed a night in FOR FREE!

Instead of an expensive friends’ night on the town… enjoy a night in! Have a potluck (depending on what dish you make, you could actually spend less than you would for your own personal dinner), and spend the night watching movies, playing games, or simply catching up. If you volunteer to host a night like this, your friends will probably realize that they can also host low-key, low-cost get-together at their house. There will be fewer pricey nights in town and more times celebrating friendship in the comforts of each other’s homes.

Instead of spending money on music… many cities of decent size will have free concerts going on at least a few times per month. These may be small, one-man shows inside coffee shops, but this could be great as you’ll really get to know the artist. For in-home entertainment, Amazon often offers free downloads, and up-and-coming artists will give some songs away on their website to get people interested in their music. Of course, if you don’t care about owning music, you have plenty of options for listening to music, such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and, of course, the traditional radio.

A few years ago, I bummed a ride with friends to South Dakota to attend Lifelight, a huge, FREE music festival!
A few years ago, I bummed a ride with friends to South Dakota to attend Lifelight, a huge, FREE music festival!

Instead of buying snack foods… go foraging! First study up on different types of edible plants that are native in your area, and which ones can be poisonous if ingested. Then go into the forest or perhaps even your backyard or another area that doesn’t get sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Some leaves can be used as spices or to make herbal tea, and there are plenty of other nuts, flowers, grasses, fruits, and roots to enjoy. Foraging may not fill an empty belly, but it will give you a greater appreciation for food and hopefully these wild, organic options will lessen your consumption of junk food!

Instead of spending money on sporting events… watch the kids! In most communities, sporting events for children in middle school and under are free to attend. Even if you don’t have any kids in sports, this is an easy, free way to show your support in the community. Check with the local schools and Little League for game times. You could also check with community clubs, churches, and other organizations that may play intramural sports and ask if you can come watch a game. Local games can be just as interesting as the big leagues. If you’re set on seeing the professionals play and you don’t get any free sports channels, you can stream some games online.

Even some college games are free! When Penn State Men's Volleyball came to challenge Ohio State, it didn't cost me anything to cheer on my cousin!
Even some college games are free! When Penn State Men’s Volleyball came to challenge Ohio State, it didn’t cost me anything to cheer on my cousin!

Instead of paying a monthly phone bill… make phone calls using Google Voice. If you’re in the United States, you can call for free to any other phone number in the United States. However, there are some caveats. First of all, you need to be connected to the internet, which usually isn’t a problem with the prevalent free WiFi and the fact that so many people use data plans. The worst part is that you cannot provide a number for people to call you, and you cannot leave voicemail. But since Google Voice will take care of most of your outgoing calls, consider getting a cheap pay-as-you-go phone for when you need to receive calls and leave messages. You can get a Tracfone for as little as $10 (they even have smart phones for a slightly higher price), and all of their phones come with at least 10 free minutes upon activation. If you prefer texting, there are many websites that will allow you to text over their website, and will even provide recipients with a temporary number for them to text you back.

What swaps have you made to save money for your adventures?

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