The desire to acquire is hard to shake off, even in troubled times. But here's a simple answer: this winter, rediscover the art of window shopping. Previously, the refuge of penniless masochists, cash-free shopping has now taken on a new dimension. "It's becoming more of an 'experience economy'," says Vincent Clay, trend reporter at consumer agency SCB Partners, of the new consumer trend. "People are focussing less on buying right now, so they're looking for things they can go and 'do', to come away with an experience." No matter what the sales assistants think, there's no shame in "only looking"; just remember Holly Golightly, a girl who even took her breakfast while window-shopping...
There is such a thing as a free lunch. Local farmers' markets are a good bet for tasters; in London, Borough Market's cheese samples and venison sausage have long nourished tight-fisted gourmands. Swipe a free Krispy Kreme at the Harrods Food Hall; stop in at the help-yourself trays at La Maison du Chocolat. You can pick up a free coffee in most branches of HSBC or in Nespresso stores. The seasoned scrounger knows that buying a cup of tea at Eat or Pret A Manger just before they shut entitles you to a free cake.
Motorists looking for cheap thrills can request a test drive from almost any dealership, either online or by just turning up, though do pretend to some extent that you have an interest in buying. Lexus now offer free 48-hour test drives of many models (www.lexus 48.co.uk), and Peugeot will loan their 207 for a day ( www.207testdrive.com ).
Fancy some penthouse viewing and sour grapes, roll up to one of the urban development projects currently languishing empty. Skyline Central in Manchester ( www.westpro perties.co.uk ) has a 20-metre rooftop pool, and Citispace Leeds ( www.citispace.co.uk ) boasts a contemporary roof garden. Try prestigious London agents, like Henry & James or Savills, to discover the Belgravia's you can't afford.
Gone are the days of the grumpy corner-shop owner barking "You read it, you buy it." Thanks to liaisons between Borders and Starbucks, or Waterstones and Costa Coffee, it's easy to pick up a book or magazine and do some perusing. Also try boutique bookshops like CB1 in Cambridge, and Porter Bookshop in Sheffield.
If you're determined to try on clothes you can't afford, most high street stores have well-designed changing rooms, and you won't be under pressure to buy. Topshop are relaxed, but beware smaller boutiques – you'll just end up embarrassed or out of pocket. Vintage stores are also good, and even better are clothes-swap, or "swishing" events ( www.swishing.org), which do charge a small fee on the door, but you're free to grab as you please – just leave a clothing donation.
Forget free art galleries: at Christmas, the big stores have stupendous window displays. Old favourites Selfridges put on an optimistic front and their theme this year is "the more, the merrier". Harrods, on the other hand, is channelling James Bond. Harvey Nichols' windows offer a fashion fantasy, so gorge yourself guiltlessly.
Habitat and Ikea have kids play areas as standard. Also try the pet kingdom at Harrods; Hamleys has an array of wind-up and squeaky interactive toys, woofing and backflipping. Santa's grotto is free at Harrods ( www.harrods.com/christmas ) and Westfield London (uk.westfield .com). He is also doing the rounds at Selfridges stores, giving out free books; you can reserve a slot online at www.selfridges.co.uk , a booking fee of £2 is donated to charity, or just turn up.
Testers and samples of skincare products are available from the counters in department stores – Kiehl's samples are especially generous, and Clarins will provide a whole range in miniature. And, of course, you can spritz a new perfume for free.
You can get your gizmo fix gratis. Check emails for free at any Apple store, and most mobile phone shops will let you charge your phone for free. Spend an afternoon at the listening posts in Zavvi, HMV and Fopp for musical inspiration, then search for free downloads on the web. Department stores open up their gadget sections to shoppers at Christmas, so you can play on an Xbox with your mates, if you're prepared to fight off hordes of surly teenagers.