How to live, eat, travel and have fun – for free

Forget the credit crunch – living well doesn't have to cost you a penny, says Helen Monks

This summer's must-have accessory is likely to be the tightened belt for many, as the cost of living rises and easy credit remains a distant memory.

The good news is that thrift is in and there is no reason to lose out on holidays, cultural experiences and even gourmet food just because you're skint. We suggest eight ways you can join the nouveaux pauvres and take your slice of the fashionable freeconomy.

Travel

While it is no longer as popular as it was in years gone by, fans say that hitchhiking is a great way to get about for free, both at home and abroad.

Specifying a road and direction of travel – M6 North, for example – on your sign is likely to get you further faster than using a sign with the name of your ultimate destination, especially if this is hundreds of miles away. Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that writing the word "please" on your sign will also boost your lift pick-up rate.

By following a few simple rules hitchers can help minimise the potential danger of getting into a stranger's car. Start by hitching in a pair and if you can't find a friend who thinks it's a good idea, try hooking up with a partner online at sites such as www.hospitalityclub.org or at www.digihitch.com.

The Hitchhikers Guide to Hitchhiking ( www.hitchwiki.org) suggests it's safest to only accept rides from a couple or a single driver. Remember to sit in the front of the vehicle, keep your backpack close by in case you need to get out quickly and always keep valuables about your person. You can also maximise your security by texting the registration number of any vehicle you get in to a friend who knows you are hitching.

Of course, anyone over 60 need not go to the bother of hitching as under a national scheme extended last month they now have access to free off-peak bus travel anywhere in England using a single pass.



Exercise

The direct debit to the gym can look particularly incongruous on one's bank statement when the going gets tough. Free exercise, such as running and walking, including power walking and walking whilst pushing a buggy, are much more de rigueur for the nouveaux pauvres.

According to walking charity The Ramblers' Association, studies show that walking can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, lower blood pressure, reduce body fat and enhance mental well-being, among a range of other health benefits.

Londoners looking for walking inspiration should go to the "London on foot" section on Transport for London's website ( www.tfl.gov.uk) for ideas on interesting routes and maps in and around the capital. Choose the walk that you want to do and then print it out and off you go.

Outside of London, try websites such as www.walkit.com for route planning guidance in a number of locations in the UK, including Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds and Derby. Site users can choose between direct and less busy roads to get from A to B.

If diehard but impoverished gym-lovers feel the need for fluffy towels, aerobic work-outs and a spin session from time to time, it is usually possible to blag a trial day at the gym they plan to join when finances ease. Many gym chains, such as Virgin Active and Fitness First, run regular open days or free trials for would-be customers if you ask nicely and fill in the relevant marketing and medical forms.

Household goods

If you need something specific for your home, but don't have the cash to pay for it, you could turn to your local Freecycle group. The worldwide network is made up of groups of people willing to give and receive stuff for free in their area. Go to www.freecycle.org to join your local group. The online forums match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them, to keep usable items out of landfills.

After joining your local group online, start by simply posting a "wanted" message specifying what you are looking for. If someone has the item you are looking for, they will contact you and you can arrange to pick it up at a convenient time, swapping contact details at this point.

Freebies

At any one time any number of companies are offering free things to hook consumers in to their products or services. Some companies even offer free money to grab your attention, with First Direct (www.firstdirect.com) currently luring new banking customers with the promise of £100 when they join.

For comprehensive listings of all the free stuff you could be getting go to the "Freebies" directory section of www.moneysavingexpert.com. Current giveaways listed include everything from condoms to cold-sore patches, stationery to water-saving devices.

Accommodation

Becoming a house-sitter means that as well as getting a roof over your head, you could also earn up to £50 a day simply by living in someone else's des res and possibly looking after their pets and plants while they are away. You could try and find clients independently or go through an agency, such as www.safehandssitters.co.uk.

Before agreeing to house-sit, either through an agency or otherwise, it is a good idea to draw up a dos and don'ts agreement with your client which should cover how many hours it is acceptable to leave the house, who can come and visit you, as well as detailing agreed plant watering, cleaning duties and pets' routines

If this seems too much like hard work and you only need somewhere to crash for a few days, take a look at www.couchsurfing.com.

CouchSurfing International is a non-profit organisation that connects travellers the world over who are looking to sleep on each other's sofas. Staying with a member of the network is free, members are vouched for by other members and there is no pressure to let anyone you don't want to stay on your sofa in return. The site says it has members in 228 countries.

Alternatively, the Advisory Service for Squatters ( www.squatter.org.uk) says there are more properties available for squatting in recent times. "There are high levels of squatting at the moment because developers might have bought a property, but can't get the credit they need to do the work they want on it, so they're being left for longer," says a member of the collective.

However, while squatting is a way of living rent-free this does not mean to say it is an easy ride: "There's a lot of hard work that goes into researching a squat and making it habitable, usually by using recycled materials or things blagged from skips. If you find a place that's spick and span and ready to live in, you probably won't be able to stay there long," warns the member.

Gourmet food

You might not be able to survive on it, but wild food can add something extra to your plates this summer at no extra cost.

Wild food enthusiast and chef at the Stanneylands Hotel in Wilmslow, Cheshire, Richard Carver recommends foragers get out this weekend in search of the pungent punch of wild garlic: "We're right in the middle of the season. Wild garlic works really well stirred through buttery pasta, used in a mayonnaise, or served in salad," he says.

Wild garlic is fairly common and can be found growing amongst bluebells in hedgerows and woodland across the UK. Use the leaves for flavour and the delicate white flowers as an edible garnish.

Wild horseradish will also come into season soon: "You can find this by roadsides all over the country. Look out for the broad green leaves and spiky white flower," says Carver.

When hunting for wild horseradish, remember to take a shovel with you, as it's the root you are after and this can take some digging out. You can turn the fruits of this labour into a sauce to complement beef, mackerel or smoked salmon.

Another food around this time of year that costs nothing is nettles. These can be used with boiling water as a tea, in soups or, as Carver suggests, in risottos: "Go for the young, small and more tender shoots for the best flavour."

A less common delicacy available for nothing from Mother Nature is marsh samphire, also known as sea asparagus. This time of year this plant can be hunted down growing on tidal salt marsh areas as are found in Cornwall, the North West of England and other areas. To prepare, simply blanch the samphire in boiling water for a couple of minutes and enjoy as a salty accompaniment to seafood, in particular crab.

Days out need not break the bank. Tourist website www.enjoyengland.com lists the UK's top 20 free attractions in England.

These include Britain's largest Grade I-listed historic building, Albert Dock in Liverpool at number two and the National Railway Museum in York (number 16) plus London's Imperial War Museum (number 17). However, the number one attraction, according to Enjoy England, is Blackpool Pleasure Beach. While it is free to get in to the amusement park, it's hard to imagine how anyone could get away with spending nothing once inside.

For more inspiration and local listings of free events and free entry attractions try www.dofreestuff.co.uk or www.afreedayout.co.uk.

Joining your local library could prove a cultural saviour when financial pressures make buying books an indulgence to be sacrificed. Joining is straightforward, normally requiring a utility bill and, of course, free. Also, many libraries allow you to dodge overdue fines by renewing online. As well as books, many libraries offer cheap or free DVD hire, making the standard £16 trip to the cinema seem prohibitively expensive.

If the book you want isn't available in your local library, you could look into swapping books, either informally with friends or online at sites such as www.readitswapit.co.uk.

On the site, users select the book they want from the online library. Choose one of the people with the book you want before clicking on "swap with this member". The ReadItSwapIt member who owns that book then receives an email saying you want to swap and goes to view the list of books you are willing to swap. If the other user finds one they like, they will confirm the swap – or reject it.

Assuming everything is OK, you'll receive an email saying the swap has been confirmed, along with the address to which you need to post the book. When the books are received, each person logs on to say they have received the book and also rate the other person for the benefit of other site users.

ReadItSwapIt is free to join and to use, so the only cost is posting the books. The site says that most paperbacks of around 300 pages or less will cost only 83p to post (second class with Royal Mail).

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