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How to Have Fun on a Fixed Income

Consider these free or low-cost activities to help inspire frugal choices

En español | The recession and rocky recovery left few households unscathed, but older Americans living on a fixed or moderate income have been particularly hard hit.

Diminishing real estate values, rising health care costs, lost jobs, few new opportunities and a volatile stock market have sapped their financial security. What's more, near-zero interest rates on savings have failed to generate income that many had counted on.

See also: Smart money moves to make by age 50.

Yet, despite the difficult economic climate and the dip in money for extras, older adults aren't giving up on having fun. They're just taking a more thrifty and creative approach — and reaping surprising rewards.

Senior woman smiles while standing at table covered by bills and calculators

Find ways to stay busy while saving money. — Photo by Corbis

'Everything I do is free'  

Betty Gerstein's social calendar is teeming, but her skimpy entertainment budget remains intact. At 80, Gerstein has figured out how to take in shows, concerts, sporting events, the ballet, and even meals without forking over a single cent.

Her secret? Volunteer for just about everything.  

"A normal person wouldn't be able to live on my income. I can because I'm a saver," says Gerstein, a retiree who lives in Delray Beach, Fla., with her dog, Bogart. "Everything I do is free."

If it's February or May, Gerstein is volunteering at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships, a tournament where some of the biggest pros compete. "I get to see great tennis, and they give me breakfast and lunch every day," Gerstein says.

She helps out at the Downtown Boca Film Festival, usually in April, when she's also busy at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. "I get to see all the movies," she says.

If it's October, she's ushering at the Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic. In December, she's dividing her time between ushering at the Nutcracker ballet, working at Palm Beach County's Jewish Film Festival and helping out at the Chamber of Commerce, which hosts holiday events and provides her with lunch every day for about three weeks, not to mention discounts at local venues.

In between, she volunteers at a community center that shows movies Sunday mornings and hosts a critique afterward. There's also Lynn University in nearby Boca Raton, where she volunteers for numerous events, including shows, concerts and lectures. When most theaters close in the summer, she takes in concerts in the park. In her downtime, she scours local newspapers for art gallery openings or receptions that serve wine and cheese.

"This is my social life," says Gerstein, who estimates that she spends up to 70 percent of her time volunteering.

Next: Sharpen your mind at a local college. »

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