In these difficult times, saving money is essential for many of us. We look to pay as little as we can for everything, from food, to clothing, utility bills to entertainment. However, paying nothing at all is even better! I thought I would have a look at how to get stuff for free, or at least incredibly cheaply.
Some of these suggestions will work better when we are not in the midst of a pandemic (such as street festivals and other public events), but are worth bearing in mind for the future. We will get there!
I signed up for Olio a few years ago, but there was little on offer in my area. However, some friends recently became Olio Food Waste Heroes and persuaded me to have another go.
Olio is an app that allows people to share unwanted food within their local community. It prevents food waste and helps save you money.
If you volunteer as a Food Waste Hero, you will need to collect items from donors – usually supermarkets, cash and carries and other food retailers. Then you go on the app to offer them and arrange collection. You also get first choice of the food on offer.
Since I signed up again a couple of weeks ago, I have received loaves of bread, eggs, vegetables and salad items, all for free!
Too Good to Go
Another free app, Too Good to Go offers ‘Magic Bags’ of food from businesses such as shops, restaurants and cafes at the end of their day. Although the food isn’t free, it is extremely cheap.
You don’t know what you are going to receive until you get there, but the food in your magic bag will cost you a fraction of the usual retail price.
Too Good to Go works best in cities and large towns where there are a lot of food outlets.
If you get to the supermarket at the right time, you can get loads of money off perishable items on their use by dates. The later you go, the better, as things are reduced to pennies near closing time.
I particularly like the Coop’s stance on food waste in my area (I’m not sure if this is throughout the UK, but it should be!). They sell items on or just past their use by dates for just 10p! I have found a ton of great bargains in my local shop.
Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of the new Lidl app. As well as money off vouchers, you get £25 off your first shop once you have downloaded it, and a further £10 once you have spent £200.
Eating out for free
It is possible to eat out for free as a mystery shopper if you sign up with an agency such as Market Force Information in return for a written report on your experiences.
At restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets, you will often receive a main course, dessert and a drink. You have to pay upfront, but can claim back your expenses once your report and receipts have been submitted.
Foraging & skip diving
Foraging in the old fashioned sense is easy enough to do, even if you don’t live in the countryside. It’s hard to go for a walk anywhere a bit off the beaten track and not find blackberries in early Autumn, for example.
However, there is much more than blackberries to be found for free in our woods and parklands. Sloe and elder berries, wild garlic, apples, nuts, fungi and herbs are all there once you know what to look for. Richard Mabey’s Food For Free* book is still the definitive guide on foraging for food in the UK.
But there is a more modern type of foraging among so-called ‘Freegans’ – skip and bin diving. Despite many food retailers becoming much more aware of the need to reduce waste and using some of the methods mentioned above to do so, there are still many who throw tons of good food away at the end of each day.
Although the legality of skip diving is a little cloudy, many Freegans justify it (as long as no damage is done) on the grounds that it is ethically wrong to waste food and damaging to the environment. You can find more about skip diving for food and how to get stuff for free here.
Clothes swap or ‘swishing’ parties are a fun and sociable way to get new (to you) items for free. This site explains how it works and how to host a swishing party.
As well as selling your unwanted clothing, it is also possible to swap items on the Vinted app.
It is worth letting friends and family know that you are happy to receive hand me downs, particularly if you have children. They grow out of things so fast, sometimes items barely get any wear. You can return the favour later and pass them on elsewhere.
Not free, but really cheap items of clothing can be found at jumble sales, garage sale trails and boot sales. Keep an eye on the notices in post office and newsagents windows, at the library and on parish council websites to find out when these are due to take place.
I have found a search on Facebook often unearths jumble sales run by local scout groups.
Again, it is worth signing up to your local Freecycle and Freegle groups if you want to get stuff for free. They are also brilliant for getting rid of things you would otherwise have to take to the tip.
In the past I have received furniture, exercise equipment, paving stones, soft furnishings and more, and have given away old kitchen units, plants and lumber.
I went through a stage of making wine, and received all of the equipment from Freecycle. This was later given away by the same means.
Not all local authorities run tip shops at their waste and recycling centres, but where they do there are great bargains to be had. Again, they aren’t free, but you can usually pick up items very cheaply.
It is worth noting that you can’t help yourself to items that have been left at the tip. Once they are out of the previous owner’s vehicle, they belong to the company running the site. However, if they are still in the car and you spot something you can use, you can always politely request it!
Back to skip diving, it is always worth a peek as you go by neighbour’s houses when they have a skip. Always knock and politely request permission before removing anything, though. Most people will be glad to make some more space.
We were once walking past a restaurant, which was being completely cleared out. The skip was full of quality china plates, bowls, etc, some of it still boxed! We just couldn’t believe it was all being binned, so picked a few nice items that we could easily carry.
Within minutes there were people all over it, and I don’t blame them!
If you watch You Tube, there are many videos showing so-called dumpster divers, scavenging items to keep, repair or sell. In the UK, you would do best to get permission to go onto private land to look in the skips, or you are officially trespassing.
How many of us have rarely used drills, sanders and wallpaper strippers lurking in our sheds? We buy these things at great expense for a particular job then forget all about them.
This makes no sense when you are trying to save money and get stuff for free. If you need a carpet cleaner or a strimmer once in while, ask friends and family if you can borrow them. In return, offer your own much neglected items to them whenever they require them.
I had a search on the internet to see if there was a more organised approach to lending and borrowing, and came across Freelender and Streetbank. Signing up to Freelender proved a problem (could just be me!) but I successfully joined Streetbank and found several like-minded people within a short distance from Shoestring Cottage.
Some people are offering skills and expertise, as well as lending things like ladders and children’s toys. I love the idea of communities linking up to share in this way.
If nothing else, lock down has shown many of us that we can entertain ourselves and each other without going out and spending money! One small silver lining for trying times.
Early on I enjoyed seeing families out on long walks together and playing in the park. I love a good walk with the dog! Fresh air and exercise for nothing. However, if walking is not your cup of tea, so how about the following suggestions for free entertainment?
Since discovering Borrowbox, an app where you can borrow e-books and audiobooks from your local library, I haven’t looked back. I listen to at least two audiobooks a week as I am working from home or pottering.
You need a library card for this, but it’s easy enough to join. Check your county council’s website to find out how to do it.
Once you have joined the library you can use the space for free computer use, to read magazines and papers, and of course, to borrow books, CDs and DVDs.
I love Book Crossing! You can release your unwanted books ‘into the wild’, by leaving them somewhere public for somebody to pick up.
If you are lucky enough to find one, a label asks you to register it on the Book Crossing website. Alternatively, you can request certain titles from other members.
Of course, for it to work you need to pass the books back on once they have been read, and donate some of your own.
Open days at gyms and spas
Keep an eye on local gyms and spas for free open days. In normal times, the big chains seem to have them a couple of times a year, where you can go and try some of the facilities for free.
They are obviously hoping to attract new members, but there’s no harm in trying a few different gyms for free whilst you think about it!
Art and craft exhibitions
There are some very talented amateur artists and craftspeople out there who love to show off their work. It frequently costs nothing or maybe a small contribution to go in and have a look.
Facebook can be a good place to find art societies, your parish council magazines, library noticeboards and council tourist websites. Ours currently has their latest one online. You might not physically be able to get to it, but you can still admire the work!
Museums and galleries
Most towns have some free museums and galleries. Check your local council website to see how you can get stuff for free to do and see.
We live in a medium sized town can have access to the following for free:
Natural history museum
Large modern art gallery, First Site.
All well worth visiting, especially the latter,
Many town councils offer guided walks, lead by trained volunteers, to explore the history and landmarks in your area.
These are worth doing even if you are local. We found out a lot about our town that we had no idea about! For example, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was written here, and the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty was based on a falling cannon during the town siege in the 1600s. Who’d have though it?
Free lectures and readings
Universities, historical societies, poetry and conservation groups frequently host talks on various topics for free. A Google search of ‘what’s on, name of town’ will usually bring up some interesting possibilities.
London for free
If you happen to live in or near to the capital city, check out the London for free website. There are lots of things to do for free, or at least very cheaply.
Book clubs can be as informal as a group of friends meeting in each other’s houses, to more organised events in libraries and book shops.
Either way, they are a great way to meet and chat to like-minded people and get suggestions for books you would never have thought to try. They also cost very little, especially if you purchase your books second hand, borrow them from the library or request them from Book Crossing.
Street parties and festivals
Don’t you love it when you find a street party? We came across one in East London when we were taking an aimless stroll. There was food, music, various stalls to browse and lots of excited children.
We also frequently attend events like the Leigh Folk Festival, which has the most wonderful atmosphere and you can see all the bands for free!
Again, your local council or tourist information sites are good places to find street parties and free festivals. They will come again!!
If you want to organise your own, check out this website for advice and information.
TV show audiences
It is often the case though that you apply but still have to queue and aren’t guaranteed to get in. This is annoying if you have travelled any distance. I went to see French and Saunders being recorded years ago and we got the last two seats!
Check out the Antiques Roadshow programme. When they are recording you get access to the venue for free.
Hair and beauty
Find a student
The best way to find free or very cheap hair and beauty treatments is to find a student. Look on salon websites and windows, or find a college where students are trained.
I have had a completely free hair cut plus a manicure and pedicure in this way. In addition, I often go along to the further education hair and beauty department, where I can get a cut and blow dry for £7 and various treatments for £5 and up.
The only downside to getting primped for next to nothing is the time it takes! Students need to check with their tutor at regular intervals to make sure they are doing things correctly.
Makeovers in department stores
You can also book free makeovers in department stores. Obviously they are keen to sell you the products, but there is no obligation to buy.
In her book How I Lived a Year on Just a Pound a Day, Kath Kelly got a free hair and makeup session for her brother’s wedding!
There are many companies looking for product testers and reviewers. You sign up and apply for those that take your fancy. In return, you usually have to give feedback and sometimes feature the product on a social media account.
They aren’t exclusively for health and beauty products, although these seem to be the type of item most often offered.
Boots is a good one and you can sign up here.
Savvy Circle is the Proctor and Gamble site. As well as getting personal care products to test, they offer household items such as washing powder. I had quite a bit of luck when I joined, being selected to test shampoo, conditioner and laundry tablets within a few weeks.
Home Tester Club is one I have just joined, promising the chance to test anything from shampoo to biscuits.
When I was in my teens, I thought nothing of hitching lifts to get around, much to my parents’ dismay. With only one exception, all of my rides were with really lovely people. The exception was an amorous Spanish lorry driver, but fortunately I was with my boyfriend and came away unscathed.
It is still one of the cheapest ways of travelling, although perhaps not the safest. Now that I am a parent myself, I wouldn’t be happy for my daughters to hitchhike though, so I am not recommending it.
Car shares are probably a safer option. They aren’t free usually as you share the petrol costs, but they are certainly cheaper and often more comfortable than public transport.
Holidays & accommodation
I explored the idea of frugal holidays in this post. For totally free accommodation, you can’t beat a house swap. We did this several times in France and Spain when the children were young. The only downside was making sure your house was tidy enough for strangers to stay in. Otherwise, staying in a real home from home was great.
If you don’t mind a working holiday on an organic farm or smallholding, then Wwoofing could be good for you. You work half of each day for your hosts, and in return receive bed and board at no cost.
It’s also a great way to learn about sustainable farming.
Another way to get free accommodation on the move is via Couchsurfing.com. This isn’t one that I have tried, but according to the blurb, it allows opportunities to ‘stay with locals in every country on earth. Travel like a local, stay in someone’s home and experience the world in a way money can’t buy.’
Here are some other ways to get stuff for free that are worth exploring.
free-stuff.co.uk – all sorts of free things, from cosmetics to free trials of products and services.
Keep your eyes peeled for lost money as you go out and a about. You Tuber Carla Jenkins keeps the money she finds in a jar at home, which has totalled ver £100 in a year.
Free to enter competitions can be found at Lowuax and on the MSE forum competitions thread.
Compliments and complaints
It’s not only complaints letters that often elicit freebies from brands. A compliment will often work just as well!
I wrote to Felix to tell them how much my cats liked their cat food and received £10 in vouchers for my trouble!
Mr S and his brother have got us free firewood for several years now by clearing and trimming some of the trees at a local care home.
If you have neighbours who look as if they could do with a hand why not offer to do the same?
Skips can also be a good source of wood for burning.
How about some gardening in exchange for some free yoga tuition?
Save someone a trip to the dump
As previously mentioned, both Freecycle and Freegle are great for bagging things for nothing.
Other places to look are Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree. We recently offered a roof box on Facebook that was too good to throw away but not really good enough to sell. It was gone in a couple of hours!
You don’t need to spend a lot to live a great life. What are your tips to get stuff for free?
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