Posted by Mike DuBord on
- Check out these secrets for scoring Wi-Fi, music, software and classes without paying a dime.
1. Get Wi-Fi on the road
Extend your cable. Bright House, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner Cable customers will soon have access to CableWifi, which will let you access a secure network in certain cities. Hotspots are being rolled out in New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Orlando; more will be added soon.
Hit the books. Some 82% of public libraries offer free Wi-Fi access to visitors, the American Library Association reports. So look for a library near where you'll be.
Claim a park bench. Many locales offer connectivity in their green spaces. Examples include Kirkland, Wash., and New York City. Search muniwireless.com for others.
Get Wi-Fi sniffing apps. Wi-Fi Finder by JiWire is a free app for both iOS and Android phones that roots out networks in 144 countries. Similarly, for your laptop, install NetStumbler or WeFi for Windows machines and iStumbler for Macs.
Go to a business that wants your business. Several national chains advertise their free hotspots. (Naturally, they want you to come in, stay awhile, and drop some serious dough.) Among those that provide a connection: Panera Bread, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, McDonald's, and FedEx offices. For others, visit wififreespot.com.
2. Stock your e-reader
Hit the library. More than two-thirds of public libraries offer access to e-books, reports the American Library Association. The catch: Only one person can have access to a copy at a time, so you may have to wait a bit for new titles and bestsellers.
Read the classics. There are more than 1 million titles in the public domain; the copyrights on them have expired, which means you can download them free. Find them at sites like gutenberg.org, openlibrary.org and manybooks.net.
Check the bookstore. Search "free books" on bn.com for more than 2 million digital titles, or search "$0.00" at Amazon or iTunes. Also, take a look at Zero Dollar Books; the site tracks which of Amazon's Kindle bestsellers are currently free, a selection that changes regularly.
Borrow from others. Some e-books have a lending feature, which allows you to swap them with friends. Expand your circle of sharing with sites like Booklending.com and ebookfling.com.
Discover new authors. Free-eBooks.net offers no-cost books from new and independent writers.
3. Get more from your cable provider
Start by talking with the right person. "Can I speak with the retention department?" It's their job to keep you as a customer, so they'll have more authority to throw in extras that will motivate you to stay, says Linda Sherry of Consumer Action.
Threaten to go to a competitor. "XYZ Satellite is offering a year of HBO for free. I'm thinking of switching." Cable companies are terrified that customers will defect to satellite counterparts. Capitalize on that by mentioning a specific deal.
Force them to do better by you. "Can you match what XYZ is offering?" If your provider can't give you what you want, ask what it can give you, whether that's another cable box or premium channels like HBO and Showtime.
4. Get big company perks
There may be perks you're overlooking, says Mark Schmit of the Society for Human Resource Management. "Often companies don't advertise the full range of benefits bundled by third-party administrators, such as employee-assistance programs."
Ask HR if you get these or other extras:
Help kicking the habit. Seven in 10 employers provide wellness benefits, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans reports. Among the more common offerings: smoking-cessation, nutritional counseling, and weight-loss programs.
Financial planning. More than 90% of large companies offer employees some type of investment education, reports Hewitt Associates. That may range from hosting seminars to providing one-on-one phone counseling with a financial adviser.
Tickets to attractions. Before buying tickets to a show or museum, see if your company will pay your way. Many corporations donate to cultural institutions and get admission for employees in return. Remember that when visiting other cities where the firm has offices.
Backup child or elder care. Your company may provide benefits to help care for your child or elderly parent when normal care falls through. Pricewaterhouse-Coopers gives workers $1,000 for emergency care, for example; Ernst & Young offers backup options for those in a pinch.
5. Take advantage of military benefits
"It's hard to say something is free when you've given your service for it," says Katie Savant of the National Military Family Association.
A few earned benefits you might not be aware of:
Private college tuition for kids. The GI Bill generally doesn't fully pay for private college tuition -- the max is $18,078 per academic year for post-9/11 vets -- but through Yellow Ribbon programs, some schools cover the gap. These benefits, like those of the GI Bill, can be passed to spouses and kids. Find info at gibill.va.gov.
Mental health services. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers vets access to counselors via videoconferencing through its Telemental Health Program (go to va.gov for details). Friends and family of soldiers and vets can also get phone help through the VA's new Coaching Into Care program.
Financial planning help. The Financial Planning Association offers pro bono sessions for military families on Yellow Ribbon weekends (yellowribbon.mil for info). Also, H&R Block provides members of the armed services with audit help, tax prep, and other advice.
Money for nursing care. The Department of Veterans Affairs' Aid and Attendance program is often overlooked, says Randy Noller of the VA. Through the program, vets may qualify to receive extra income to cover nursing home care or to pay an aide. Apply via your regional VA office.
6. Back up your data
You could drop $100-plus on an external hard drive to back up your PC or $30 a year for 25 gigabytes of space on websites that offer cloud storage.
A cheaper choice? Most of the storage sites in the table on the right provide around five gigabytes of room gratis. So open accounts on a few of them and cobble together a completely free system. The disadvantage is that your data are spread out, but you can download a free app from Otixo.com to help manage it all.
7. Dynamite software downloads
Why pay more for software? We stack up three examples of freeware against their popular -- and sometimes pricey -- software counterparts.
Google Drive vs. Microsoft Office Suite
Save up to: $350
Google Drive has tools that mirror Excel, PowerPoint, Word, and Adobe Acrobat and that are also compatible with those programs, says Dan Ackerman, senior editor at tech site CNET.com.
A new download lets you work offline, but you still need Internet access for some of Drive's features.
Avast Free Antivirus vs. Norton 360 v6
Save up to: $49
"Antivirus freeware is one place where a consumer can get great value," Ackerman says. Avast Free provides a shield for e-mail, as well as anti-phishing and anti-spyware protection. It even auto-updates every four hours.
Avast doesn't have the free live chat or phone support that Norton does; it also doesn't provide antispam or firewall protection.
Picasa or Pixlr.com vs. Photoshop CS6
Save up to: $700
Picasa has all the features an amateur shooter needs to tweak photos, including cropping, color, and light adjustment. Pixlr.com offers more advanced filters for those with a bit more experience, Ackerman says.
Neither has Photoshop's proprietary file format, so you won't be able to share files with people who use Photoshop.