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By Jon Cook
MoneyMix Contributor

"Most people think you need to spend money to get the services you need, but it just isn't true," says Annette Economides, New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of America's Cheapest Family.

hit the books

With all of the high-tech gadgets available today, it might be easy to forget about your local public library, but libraries aren't just about books. They're chock-full of free entertainment and services such as tutoring, audios, videos, DVDs, scholarly journals, and business directories. Your library likely has a website listing exactly what it offers. Here's the website for the Georgia Public Library Service. Remember, too, that libraries almost always have sharing agreements with other libraries, so if your branch doesn't have something it often can get it for you.

make school cool

If you're a college student, you likely have access to university resources such as audio-visual equipment and information technology services. You might be able to keep your computer running smoothly and get your hands on the latest software and computer protection for cheap or free.

You don't have to be a student to reap all of the rewards, though. If you live near a college or university, you probably have a trove of options for free entertainment and services such as plays, recitals, or concerts. Also, nearly all universities host public lectures throughout the year from visiting academics or field experts.

Take a look at the UCLA events page—many of the events are free.

see concerts, shows, and recitals

A great way to see concerts for free is to work at the venue. Ushers working at a concert have to make sure people are in their proper seats, but during down time, they get a perfect free show.

If you live near a college or university, you likely have a trove of options for free entertainment. 

"I've seen some of the biggest names out there for free and it's totally legitimate," says Shel Horowitz, owner of Frugal Fun and author of "The Penny-Pinching Hedonist."

Many nonprofit or college theaters will compensate you by giving you tickets to a later performance if you volunteer as an usher or ticket-taker.

"We live near Arizona State University, and there are free monthly concerts and they're awesome," says Economides.

Check local newspaper listings or city websites to see if your city offers an outdoor concert series. These are often weekly or monthly concerts offered for free. If you're in New York, check out the New York Philharmonic's free summer shows.

Economides also suggests looking into "free days" at museums and other public attractions. "National museums can be expensive, but most are required to offer one or more free days during the year," she says.

park it

You likely have city, county, state, or national parks within a short car ride of where you live. Many state and national parks have an annual admission sticker, but you often can get around this by riding your bike; parks typically don't charge cyclists for entering or using a park.

"The national park annual pass is a great deal if you make it a point to visit multiple parks per year," says Economides. "The deal is especially good if you have a big family, like we do."

Make a trade

If you can't find a free service in your area, maybe your friends can help. Barter with them for their expertise. For example, see if your car-savvy friend would be willing to help you change your oil in exchange for editing his or her résumé, whipping up some baked goods, or whatever else you happen to be a pro at.

If you're looking to learn more about the outdoors, check out postings for outdoor groups that teach you about the forest or a seasonal activity such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. One of the best resources is your state park's calendar of events. Check out the Vermont State Park Service calendar of events.

enjoy home entertainment

If you don't feel like going anywhere, you have access to virtually unlimited free resources on the Internet, TV, and radio. You can watch a bunch of shows without paying for cable if they're on normal public broadcast, or you can stream hundreds of shows and hit series on websites such as Hulu.

If you're in the mood for a flick, you could shell out a large amount of money for peak times and fancy theaters. Or, if you can handle a movie night at home, you can get movies for free from your library or stream them from websites such as Crackle.

Otherwise, get hooked on a weekly radio program or podcast such as eTown, a weekly radio show that highlights new bands and gives awards to people doing good in their community.

When it comes to phone calls, consider getting a service such as Skype, AIM, or Google Voice and you can chat with video (if you have the capabilities) for free.

find financial help

The world of personal finances can be confusing, but there are free services to help you understand your financial situation and avoid pitfalls.

Your credit union is the best place to start. It may offer free or low-cost financial help in the form of seminars, online resources, one-on-one counseling, and more. Check with the professionals there to see what's available.

If you need someone to file your tax return for you, the Internal Revenue Service has a program called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance with offices across the country. The program can help you prepare your taxes for free if you make less than $50,000 a year.

Whether you're looking for recreation, information, or just something to pass the time, chances are you'll be able to get something for nothing if you look hard enough.

Published February 21, 2012

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