story illustrations by rob dobi
En español | For shoppers who love finding great deals, free is the best price of all. Our curated list of coast-to-coast freebies has products and services for home, health, family, food and fun.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables. Folks 60 and older who have an income under about $23,000 ($31,000 for a two-person household) can get coupons to use at authorized farm stands and farmers markets. At fns.usda.gov, click on Programs at the top of the page; then select Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program from the drop-down menu.
- Birthday presents. Score a free beverage at Starbucks if it's your special day and you're a rewards member. Baskin-Robbins doles out a free scoop if you have an account with the ice cream chain.
- Meals for the grandkids. Taking your grandchildren the next time you dine out won't cost you extra at restaurants where kids eat for free. Go to WalletHacks.com/kids-eat-free for a list of eateries. Call ahead to confirm that this deal is still available.
- Healthy recipes. To make food that's both good and good for you, get free recipes at websites including EatYourselfSkinny.com, which includes options that are gluten free, vegetarian, vegan and dairy free; AllRecipes.com and Delish.com (search for “healthy” on either site); and DeliciousMeetsHealthy.com.
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- National parks. You don't have to pay an entry fee on certain dates each year; the last in 2019 is Veterans Day, Nov. 11. For 2020 dates, go to nps.gov/PlanYourVisit/fee-free-parks.htm.
- Travel guides, maps and planners. Yes, your navigation app is great for getting you there, but paper guidebooks and planners are rugged, and they never run out of juice. You'll find guides, maps and planners for many states at FreeTravelGuides.com. Or just search a state name plus “travel guides."
- Hotel amenities. From luxury to budget-friendly lodging, most hotels and motels offer an array of free amenities to attract guests. Marriott's Residence Inn delivers groceries to your room, Kimpton Hotels lends you a bike, and Hard Rock Hotel lets you borrow a Fender guitar. For a list, see GoBankingRates.com/saving-money/hotels/things-hotel-give-free.
- Wi-Fi when you fly. Many airports and airlines now offer free Wi-Fi. To find the airports where it's offered, go to WifiFreeSpot.com. For a current lineup of gratis in-flight Wi-Fi, visit pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/airlines-free-wifi.
- Hotel room. If you search online for “third night free,” you'll see dozens of hotels, such as Four Seasons and Fairmont, that give you the last night at no charge for stays of at least three nights.
- Vacation home. You might get free accommodations on your next trip by swapping houses with someone who lives at the destination. Some swapping sites include HomeExchange.com and Intervac-HomeExchange.com.
- Cancer screening. The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program helps low-income and underinsured women get lifesaving early screening and diagnostic services for breast and cervical cancers. To learn if you qualify and to locate a provider near you, go to cdc.gov/cancer and click on National Programs.
- Peace of mind. Search online for “UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center” to get free guided meditations (in English or Spanish) that you can practice on your own. Some other no-cost meditation phone apps include InsightTimer and Stop, Breathe & Think.
- Fitness tips. Run by the American Council on Exercise, the ACE Exercise Library offers a free trove of exercises that target specific areas of the body. Each comes with photos to ensure proper form. At AceFitness.org, click on Education; then, under For All, click on Exercise Library.
- Dental care. If you or a loved one don't have dental coverage, look into Donated Dental Services, a network of dentists and labs across the country that provide free dental work for the elderly, the medically fragile, the disabled and those who can't afford dental care. Eligibility varies by state, and there may be a waiting list. Go to DentalLifeline.org.
- Medicare advice. Trained counselors in the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) can help you choose the best Medicare plan for your situation from among the numerous options. Go to shiptacenter.org for contact information for your state.
- Brisk walks. Many apps focus specifically on walking. Some track your route, speed and distance. Others are geared more toward tracking your daily steps and activity. And some do all of the above. Free apps include Map My Walk, Endomondo and the Fitbit app's MobileTrack (which doesn't require a Fitbit).
- Time off for caregivers. If you are looking after a veteran, you may be able to get free respite care. Go to va.gov and click on Family Member Benefits near the middle of the page. Caring for a civilian? At n4a.org you can find your local Area Agency on Aging, which can tell you if free respite care is available.
- Dietary encouragement. An online weight-loss support group can supply you with a free and helpful cheering section. Shape magazine's Goal Crushers Facebook group, for one, has attracted more than 9,500 members. If you prefer face-to-face motivation, go on Meetup.com to locate a weight-loss support group near you.
- Fitness. One of the most popular gratis exercise apps is Runkeeper, which will track your running, your cycling or even your skating routine. Avid cyclists can try Strava, which maps your trips and also compares your abilities with those of others who have traveled the same route.
- Gym test-drive. Membership can be expensive, so it's a good idea to try before you buy. It's easy to find fitness centers that offer free introductory guest passes ranging from one to seven days. Contact gyms near you to check out what they have to offer.
- Eyeglasses. Many chapters of Lions Clubs International provide free eye exams and recycled glasses to children and adults in need. To find chapters near you, go to directory.lionsclubs.org.
- Health screenings. Sam's Club, Costco and CVS offer free health screenings that, depending on the retailer and location, may include blood glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index and osteoporosis checks. Visit your local store or the retailers’ websites to discover what's available near you.
- Checkup (for Fido!) Set up a free pet health exam at your local VCA Animal Hospital, which has 800 locations in the U.S. and Canada. Visit vcahospitals.com/free-pet-exam.
- Electric-car money. The Qualified Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle tax credit, worth up to $7,500, is available for most electric cars sold in the U.S. For a list of eligible vehicles, go to fueleconomy.gov, click on Advanced Cars & Fuels, then, on the drop-down menu, select All-Electric Vehicles/Tax Incentives.
- Local rides. Many counties and towns offer seniors free or discount transportation through their local Area Agency on Aging. Go to n4a.org to find the agency near you.
- Autos for disabled veterans. Vets and military members who have suffered certain service-related disabilities can receive up to $19,817 toward the purchase of a vehicle, plus free adaptive equipment required because of their disability. Go to benefits.gov/benefit/278.
- Pension recovery. Having trouble tracking down a pension you're owed — maybe because your employer merged or changed owners? Get help from the Pension Rights Center, at PensionRights.org.
- Legal services. Federally funded programs, aimed at older people with a social or financial need, provide advice on a wide range of legal issues, including access to Social Security and Medicare. Go to ElderCare.acl.gov to find legal aid in your area.
- Credit monitoring. WalletHub.com, CreditSesame.com and CreditKarma.com will monitor your credit score for free and let you know if something changes. Many other companies require payment after a trial period.
- Tax preparation. The AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program's volunteers prepare returns at no charge for people of low to moderate income. There is no age requirement. For a location near you, visit aarp.org/taxaide during tax season.
- School. Whether you want to hone your job skills or just love to learn, you'll find that many colleges and universities waive tuition for older people. Type in “free tuition for seniors” at ThePennyHoarder.com to discover how to find schools in every state.
- Museums. If you hold a Bank of America, Merrill Lynch or U.S. Trust credit or debit card, stop by BankofAmerica.com and do a search for “museums on us.” The companies offer cardholders one free admission to participating museums around the country on the first full weekend of each month.
- Animal adventures for grandkids. Many zoos allow kids in gratis on select days of the month. Just search for the zoo of your choice to find out if and when.
- Theater. Many local theaters will let you watch the show for free if you volunteer as an usher. Wear comfy shoes — you'll probably be standing during the performance.
- Weatherization. The Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program covers costs to make homes more energy efficient, helping consumers save an average of $283 or more each year. Any recipient of Supplemental Security Income qualifies; otherwise, eligibility varies by state. For more info, go to benefits.gov/benefit/580.
- Phone and internet. People with low incomes can get help paying for cellphone or landline service as well as broadband under the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program. The benefit is $9.25 per month toward your monthly bill. Go to LifelineSupport.org to discover if you qualify.
- Odds and ends. The Freecycle Network is a grassroots nonprofit movement providing a forum for giving and receiving free stuff in cities and neighborhoods across the country. Go to Freecycle.org to find a group near you. You can also get items for your home and garden on Craigslist; simply search for “free stuff."
- Repairs. At Repair Café events — held nationwide, usually about once a month — volunteer coaches help you fix small appliances, furniture, lamps or whatever else you can carry in. Find the nearest one at RepairCafe.org/en/visit. Can't wait? Go online to Fixya.com to get no-cost expert advice for fixing just about anything.
- Money for heat. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance program helps consumers cover the cost of heating and cooling their homes. Learn more at benefits.gov/benefit/623.
- DIY school. Home Depot offers do-it-yourself classes for free, such as one on how to install a ceiling fan. Go to homedepot.com and search for “workshops.” Michaels craft stores also offer classes, some of which are gratis. Go to michaels.com/classes.
- Room design. Want to remodel or renovate a room? Even deciding on furniture placement can be a challenge. But visualizing your plans with a free, easy-to-use online room-design application can help. Check out floorplanner.com or 3dream.net.
- Garden plotting. Free online tools make it easy to decide the contents and layout of your garden. Search online for “plan-a-garden,” or go to gardeners.com and type in “garden planner."
- Assistive electronics. People who have both significant hearing loss and vision loss can get free smartphones, computers, screen readers and other technology, along with help setting up the devices. The federally funded program is for individuals earning up to $49,960 or two-person households making no more than $67,640. Go to ICanConnect.org.
- Color scheming. Who hasn't painted a room and later wished for a different hue? Next time try one of the free online tools that let you upload a picture of a room and try different shades. Three options are ColorSnap from Sherwin-Williams, Personal Color Viewer from Benjamin Moore and Glidden's Room Visualizer.
Shelley Emling is a senior digital editor at AARP and is also editor-in-chief of The Girlfriend and Disrupt Aging newsletters; Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer; David Schiff is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Warwick, New York.