Things We Buy that are Actually Free - picture of back of woman running on paved road

Things We Buy that are Actually Free

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Please enjoy this guest post from my Get Rich Slowly co-worker, Kristin Wong.  Kristin recently founded Brokepedia, a guide to saving money on damn near everything.

This year, I vowed to start exercising more, but I hate exercising. I thought if I bought a gym membership or yoga classes, I’d be more inspired to get off my butt. I’m very motivated by the thought of wasted money. But that trait also keeps me from paying for exercise when I can just as easily head to the park and jog for free.

I’m certainly not knocking anyone’s spending decisions when it comes to the following categories–I pay for some of them, too. However, if you’re looking to cut costs, or if you’re on a super tight budget, you may want to consider this list of things we buy that are actually free.

Exercise

I already mentioned this, but I was surprised by the cost of gym membership, so I thought it was a topic worth diving into a bit more.

Personal trainers and Pilates instructors are definitely useful to the field of fitness. But if you’re simply looking to get off your butt a few times a week, and you also happen to be cash-strapped, working out doesn’t have to cost anything. According to stats from U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of a gym membership is $55. And 67 percent of people don’t even use the gym memberships they buy.

Jogging trails, public parks, dancing your face off—none of those cost a thing. When you’re on a budget, exercise is an easy cost to cut, because you can still get it without paying for it.

Water

Even though we already pay a water bill, most of us pay for drinking water, whether it’s bottled or filtered. Lots of us don’t trust or simply don’t like the taste of tap water. But is it safe? Well, opinions vary. There are reports warning that the tap water safety is at risk in some cities. Still, for the most part, experts agree that the EPA-regulated tap water in the United States is perfectly safe to drink.

I’ll admit, I don’t drink tap water. I’ve always heard, mostly from my mother, that tap water is contaminated with who-knows-what. After years of living with that idea, I accepted it as fact despite never actually looking into it myself. To each her own, but people spend a lot of money on something they could get for much less, if not free. Here are some interesting facts that make me want to switch to tap:

  • “People spend from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they typically do for tap water.” (NRDC)
  • About one fourth of bottled water is bottled tap water. (NRDC).
  • “The Food and Drug Administration has little authority to regulate bottled brands…While municipal water utilities are required to provide public reports of test results, bottled-water makers are not.” CNN Health

Banking

A couple of years ago, my bank started charging a $12 monthly fee if you keep less than $1,500 in your checking account. Essentially, this is a way to charge people for banking.  Should you have a $1,500 cushion in your account anyway? Probably. Is it the bank’s business where you put your money and how much you decide to sock away in what account? Hell no.

Not only are most banking accounts now free of fees, some of them even offer interest. If you’ve been paying fees on any of your accounts, it might be time to reevaluate your banking.

Museums

Over the summer, I visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York with my mom. We paid something like $25 each.

“You paid?!” exclaimed my Uncle Danny, a native New Yorker.

“Yeah. You have to pay,” I said. And he just laughed.

It’s been kind of a controversial topic, but many museums obscure the fact that they’re legally obligated to be free. At the entrance of the Met, there’s a huge sign listing their fees. In smaller font, below the numbers, it the word “recommended.” Apparently, native New Yorkers joke that the only people who pay to go to the Met are tourists.

Many people have argued about whether or not all museums should be free to the public. This post isn’t about that, so I won’t get into it. The point is that many of them are free to the public. So if you’re broke and think you can’t afford to appreciate art, culture and history, you might be wrong.

Books, movies and magazines

Maybe this is an obvious one, but local libraries offer so many free resources that are easy to forget about. For example, during a trip to Europe this year, I thought I was being frugal by buying some second-hand travel books. Know what would’ve been even more frugal? Renting them from the library. I thought about this after the fact and felt like a fool, but it’s a good reminder that the library is an awesome resource for media. Libraries offer lots of other freebies, too: classes, movie nights–even financial literacy programs.

Our spending can become so automatic that we often don’t think twice about some expenses. If you can afford it, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a gym membership and fridge full of Evian. But if you find yourself spending more than you’d like, it might help to review your budget and pick out the things you buy that could very well be free.

What kinds of things do you buy that are actually free?

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46 Comments

  1. I buy coffee that I can get for free at work. Only brew at home coffee… but still.

    We have a Brita although we still use just plain-old tap water for things like “the aforementioned coffee.” 🙂 I guess that’s a little inconsistent on our part…

  2. I tried to exercise every other day after doing my household chores. Why would you pay for a gym membership fee if you can exercise in your home?

    1. Yeah! This is kind of embarrassing, but I like to put on some Beyonce and dance while I’m doing my chores, too. …Okay, that’s more than ‘kind of’ embarrassing. Ha!

      At my old apartment complex, we used to have a free gym, and that was awesome. Now, I try to take advantage of the stairs in our new apartment. There are lots of YouTube vids that show you how to get a workout using just your stairs.

  3. Another thing to add to the library section – most libraries now let you borrow e-books through their online lending portal. You don’t even risk a fine for returning it late because it’s automatic. My mom blew $75 on e-books upon getting her Kindle 2 years ago, but nothing since she figured out the online borrowing system.

    1. You’re right! I haven’t used the LAPL’s eBooks system yet, but I think this is great. Libraries are awesome–so many free resources. Our city library even has an online database with a ton of free educational courses.

  4. My family wears out our local library. And MoneyMateKate is right, they have online e-book rentals that my wife downloads to her Nook too, it’s awesome!

  5. The only thing on this list that I actually pay for is exercise, but I love my gym membership (only $20/month) and use it at least three times a week. I would exercise a lot less if I didn’t have it. Great tip about the museums, though in the Twin Cities you definitely do not have the legal right to go for free to some of them. There is a ticket charge and they do make sure you bought a ticket before they let you in.

    1. Hey DC!

      Yeah, it’s definitely not every museum. I don’t think the Los Angeles County Museum is free, either. But I was surprised that some of them are, especially the Met! Despite the controversy over the whole “recommended fee” thing, I still think the cost is worth the visit.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. I used to pay for gym memberships thinking that it would motivate me more to get in shape but would only end up going for a few months out of the year. Not anymore. Since then I’ve purchased a few workout DVDs and have spent more time doing outdoor activities to keep in shape. I also love the fact that libraries have ebooks that you can download and borrow in the comfort of your own home.

  7. Wow – I had no idea that most museums are free!!! The others we take advantage of, but this is a new one to me. Thanks, Kristin!

  8. I always drink tap water and have tried hard to not get on the bottled water kick! I even take my own empty water bottle to airports and fill it up at a drinking fountain once I get past airport security to be able to avoid buying water there! I do confess to having a gym membership, though- but the gym is only two blocks from our house so we walk there and use it all the time 🙂

    1. Smart tip, Dee! Especially considering how much more expensive stuff is at the airport. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Ben @ The Wealth Gospel says:

    The only time I buy bottled water is at an airport or when we’re on a road trip. But even then I’ll refill used ones at the hotel so we don’t have to buy more. And I didn’t know that about museums. Pretty awesome! We’re planning a trip to New York next year so I’ll be sure to keep that in mind 🙂

  10. The bottled water thing drives me crazy. I have a 64oz water bottle that I fill up with tap water all of the time. Bottled water is such a waste of money.

  11. Water is the biggest kicker to me.

    Mrs Warrior and her mom HAVE to have either super-filtered water or bottled water. I’ve drank tap my whole life and I don’t seem to have many issues up to this point.

    The Warrior
    NetWorthWarrior.com

  12. The one thing that I most certainly do not pay for on this list is water, but I think I am the minority in that respect. I could never pay for water when it’s so much cheaper coming from the tap (though not completely free). Tap water is actually better for you than bottled water – WAY better.

  13. The water thing is nutty, but to each their own. We have a Brita filter on our faucet and use Nalgene bottles so we’re good with that. The thing we do pay for is movies/TV. I know we can use the library, but it just never seems to happen (largely by choice I guess 😉 ) and it’s one of the few frivolous things in our budget.

  14. I buy books all. the. time. It’s like a crazy addiction I can’t beat. Instead of driving 10-15 minutes to the library I just hop on Amazon and order a book every time I finish my last one. Since I read quite a bit this is really starting to add up. I need to get over my laziness and go the library.

  15. I don’t have a problem with paying to go to a museum. They have bills they have to pay so why not help them keep their doors open? I know that some overpay their upper manangement, but I would rather have too many museums than not enough…

    1. There are a lot of interesting perspectives on this topic. Even museum directors differ in opinion over whether museums should be free. An article at artinfo.com rounded up the percentage of money that LACMA receives, and of the $88 million they made in 2010, only 3% came from fees. Most of the money came from generous donors. The article asked whether it makes sense to charge visitors when the profit they make from admissions fees is so low. Then again, that 3 percent still makes up a couple million dollars, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. The director of LACMA said in an interview that if they stopped charging people fees, they wouldn’t be able to continue certain programs, because they wouldn’t have the budget for it. But the Getty in Los Angeles doesn’t charge anything, and they manage to stay afloat. Then again, they also charge $15 for parking, ha. Apparently the director of the Getty believes museums should be free.
      I think museums can probably still pay the bills without charging admissions fees, but I suppose there are a lot of programs/activities/initiatives they offer that rely on those fees. But, any way you slice it, it seems museums rely on support, generosity and an appreciation for the arts, so I think you have the right attitude!

  16. I totally agree with the exercise thing. I don’t know why people bother getting gym memberships. Granted it’s nice to live in a climate where I can go outside a lot, but I also use tons of free apps to work out to as well. If there’s a will there’s a way.

  17. Great list! I shouldn’t be one to talk since I probably need to exercise more but there’s so many exercises you can do without going out to the gym. As a native New Yorker, I knew the museums were free but I feel a little weird not paying. I guess if I was broke then I’d pay nothing or a nominal fee. Another thing that is free that people often pay for is anti-virus software…I don’t think the paid versions are much better than the free ones like Avast, which is what I use.

  18. As a New York City dweller, thanks for paying! I’ve never paid more than $4 to go into the Met. They take my tax dollars so I don’t feel the need to pay more. I believe museums that are federally (or state) funded should all be donation-based (most in NYC are). However, the Met is considering moving away from donation based and requiring a fee.

    I’m 100% with you on the exercise point. I belonged to Planet Fitness for about a year (only $10 per month with no obligation) — but it was a mile walk just to go work out and that deterred me most days. I figured, might as well just run to the gym and back for free! And banking — how dare they charge me to have an account! Those service fees have deterred me for signing up for an account with several banks.

    1. “I figured, might as well just run to the gym and back for free!”
      That’s too funny! I used to live near Runyon Canyon here in LA, and by the time I’d run there (about a mile), I’d be so tired I’d just turn around and walk back home, haha. A mile probably shouldn’t wear me out, but whatever.

      Ugh, I know. My bank is rude. I’m switching to a bank that offers interest checking. Getouttahere with those fees!

  19. Even though I ride a bicycle to/from work, I Still have a gym membership. My stench is repulsive!

    We’ve always checked out our travel books from the library.

  20. I do pay for a rec center membership. We use the pool and I like going to classes. That is really my social time, so I think it’s worth paying for.

  21. I’m ok with paying for museums (though I have no idea which ones in Chicago would be free…)! I think they’re a public good, so I’m happy to give them my $15 admissions fee.

    The water thing makes no sense to me. I really cannot tell the difference between tap and bottled. And often bottled tastes worse to me (it actually makes me more thirsty).

    1. I mentioned I don’t drink tap water in the post–we have a Brita water filter that I’ve gotten used to using. BUT I just found out the other day that my boyfriend has been making coffee every morning with tap water. Haha, I had no idea. Can’t taste a difference, It’s 100% in my head. Silly, and I need to get over it. Those filters ain’t cheap!

  22. Hey, I don’t pay for banking! Not anymore anyway, just transferred to a free online account. I’ve found that going online makes things much less expensive most of the time. One thing I pay for that’s actually free is parking. I go on different hikes with my fiance and for some reason, I’ve gotta pay $5 to park by the woods on a mountain…pretty interesting, but sure, I’ll pay, the hike’s worth it!

  23. Libraries are an awesome resource. And since we are paying for them with our property taxes, we may as well get the most out of them.

  24. I pay for gym membership. They have an awesome child care/play area that my children enjoy very much. I can leave them there for 2 hours at a time. I get to exercise for an hour and just lounge around in the lobby enjoying the free WiFi for the last hour. My kids and I get a break from each other…very important for this WAHM sanity.

    Great tip about museums in NY! Thanks! If you have BofA debit or credit card, they have a “Museum on Us” program that gets you free admission to museums on the first weekend of the month.

  25. The only thing I pay for on this list are books and movies. I have a kindle- though I usually just borrow things on it. And I have a subscription to Netflix, which I find totally worth it.

  26. Free is always better! Especially when there is the option of getting something for free (or basically free), I don’t understand why people insist on paying for it. Mrs. Roboto doesn’t drink tap water, so one of those $10 Brita filters was a great investment for us. I also cancelled the gym membership to get my exercise in the great outdoors. It’s a little more difficult, but the price is right!

  27. Gym membership are always one of the first things I look for when people need to curb their expenses. So often they have them but don’t use. Now I do have a gym membership but I use it and am comfortable paying the monthly fee. But it’s definitely a waste of money if you never go.

  28. Bottled water is so wasteful both in $ and plastic that I can’t justify it beyond special occasions (hosting a superbowl party, road trips, etc), but we do use a Brita most of the time. Tap water tastes different to me, but I know it’s fine so I won’t bother with the Brita to make tea since the flavor isn’t an issue then.

    I didn’t know about Museums, but I’m happy to pay an admission since I find their work/purpose worthwhile. On the flip side, I say that being in a position to pay the admission; I’d hate to think of a struggling family not taking their kids to the museum because they don’t know they can do so for free.

    1. Yes–I didn’t even mention all the plastic that goes to waste. From The Water Project’s website: “U.S. landfills are overflowing with 2 million tons of discarded water bottles alone.” Yikes.

  29. I don’t buy bottled water, though my relatives continue to do so. It’s such a waste! I have a Brita pitcher I use if I’m drinking just water, but I use tap water for everything else. I refuse to pay fees for banking as well. I love our library; it has tons of books, DVDs, CDs, e-books and other resources to use that are all free. I haven’t purchased a book or movie in years, simply because I only read/watch things once, so the library is a great solution.

  30. I don’t really have any issues with tap water but we do buy a brita filter to strain it through first. I grew up drinking well water so the taste of city tap water is just not pleasant. It might add a little bit to the cost of our water but it is a lot cheaper than buying bottled water. That’s not even getting into the cost savings for an environmental standpoint.

  31. In a lot of instances, we pay for the convenience, not necessarily the product itself. Bottled water is a good example…sure we could put water into a reusable container with a lid and take it with us, but then we have to worry about carrying it around with us until we get home. If we have a disposable bottle we just throw it away where ever we are. For gym memberships, we pay for the convenience of the use of lots of equipment and classes that we wouldn’t normally have access to. Not saying it’s right or wrong, just that it’s the convenience we’re paying for in a lot of cases.

  32. We visited the Met last summer and got in line to make the donation. My husband and I realized that it was optional but we thought it was the right thing to do. My parents, on the other hand, were like “Wait, it’s not required?? We’ll just go right in, then!” We grew up going to the Smithsonian so it really grates on all of us to pay to enter a museum (whether it’s required or recommended). It’s quite a high recommended donation. I think if I lived locally I would pay it once every few visits.

  33. Great list! There are a lot of things you really don’t need to pay for. I’ve only had a gym membership when I went to college (included in tuition) and I do enough sports and at home workouts that a gym would be silly. As for libraries, I adore them and constantly have out books. Unless its a book I really love or will read again, I’ll just borrow it.

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