17 Cheap Things To Do in Retirement

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Retirement: Now you get to do all the fun stuff!

Or do you? According to a recent survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, one big fear about retirement is “finding meaningful ways to spend time and stay involved.”

For some, it’s a question of finances. Family issues or health conditions can take a big bite out of available funds. Some were forced into early retirement and thus unable to set aside as much money as they would have liked.

For others, it’s a question of identity. If you’ve always defined yourself by your job title, then retirement can be a scary time.

Fortunately, plenty of activities are inexpensive (or free), and getting involved in something new can help you forge a new identity.

This isn’t just about staying active and engaged: It could also mean staying alive. According to a study published in JAMA Network Open, adults age 50 and older who didn’t have a sense of purpose in their lives were more than twice as likely to die during the study years of 2006 to 2010.

Here are some inexpensive ways to keep the luster on your golden years.

1. Start a vegetable garden

Woman picking tomatoes in her garden
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Think of gardening as a hobby you can eat. And given how expensive food is, having even some free groceries is a good thing.

Obviously, gardening isn’t completely free since you have to pay for seeds (or starter plants) and maybe a few other supplies as well. But it doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if you learn to save seeds and collaborate with other gardeners.

Pro tip: Your neighborhood Buy Nothing Facebook page might be a source for free gardening supplies as well as connections with other dirt worshippers.

Consider fruits and berries as well for perennial produce. “How to Start a Vegetable Garden (That Won’t Overwhelm You)” will help you get going. Bon appetit!

2. Map out your family tree

senior woman smiling looking at family photos
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For-profit geneology websites relentlessly advertise their services on TV and online. Here’s a secret: You can generally find what you need for free if you’re willing to do a little sleuthing. Some say the detective work is as much fun as the discoveries.

Resources like the National Archives, FamilySearch, AfriGeneas and AccessGenealogy can lead you to census records, surname databases, naturalization archives, historical documents and numerous other ways to track your ancestors. Best of all? No monthly or annual membership fees! Start your investigation with help from “10 Ways to Research Your Family Tree for Free.”

3. Learn a new language

Woman using the internet on her laptop
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Being able to communicate through something other than your mother tongue is a great way to open up to the outside world. And you can do this for free with resources such as Duolingo, podcasts, Busuu, YouTube videos and language-instruction websites.

What to do with your newfound fluency? Practice it! Maybe a friend or two would like to join you in your learning quest, and then all of you can chat, watch international films or maybe even plan a trip together.

And if not, then online language clubs, local MeetUp groups and organizations like the Polyglot Club can help put you in touch with folks who want to use what they’re learning.

4. Take part in art

senior violinist
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Community theater. City chorales. Regional orchestras. Comedy improv groups. Plein-air painting meetups. Opportunities for all this and more might be available in your area.

Don’t think you have the artistic chops? Keep in mind that not everyone is onstage. The lively arts wouldn’t get very far without dedicated volunteers to build sets, sew costumes, do makeup, create programs and sell ads for them, act as ushers and serve on boards. Your skills are needed!

Speaking of which …

5. Volunteer

Senior volunteer
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You just knew we’d bring that up, didn’t you? But volunteering isn’t limited to stuff like ushering at a concert or handing out cups of water at a local fun run. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but why not match volunteer opportunities to your skill set and/or passion?

For example, if you were a teacher for 30 years, then you might offer 10 hours a week to local schools. Retired accountants and CPAs could join the local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program each year.

A recently retired firefighter could become part of fire safety and disaster preparedness programs run by the American Red Cross. A former landscape architect could serve on their city’s design committee.

6. Senior sports

Happy senior couple putting on rollerblades to exercise
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Who says you have to give up softball, swimming, basketball, running, tennis, skiing and the like once you hit retirement age? Rec leagues rule.

If you define “sports” as “any activity that gets you out of the house and/or moving,” then be sure to include options like dancing, bowling and hiking.

Contact a local or regional parks and recreation office to see what’s out there. Do a web search for “senior sports in [your town]” as well since some health clubs, YMCAs and private groups might have their own options.

You get the exercise that the doctor ordered plus a chance to make new friends. Win-win.

7. Hit the library

Senior worker in a library
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Keep up with the latest best-sellers, discover the great classics you always meant to read or view the Oscar-winning films you missed the first time around. And all for free!

But don’t stop there: You might be shocked to find out what else your local library offers.

Depending on where you live, you can borrow things like art prints, power tools, fishing gear, Wi-Fi hotspot devices, musical instruments, toys and even cookware. All can be game-changers and money-savers.

Why buy (or even rent) a masonry saw for a home improvement job if the library will let you use one for free? Why bake a plain old sheet cake for a grandkid’s birthday if you can borrow a dinosaur-shaped pan? And changing the artwork every few weeks is a simple way to refresh the look of your home without spending a dime.

Visit your local or regional library to see what’s up for (temporary) grabs.

8. Become a docent

museum tour guide
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You’ve likely met a docent during a visit to a museum, botanical garden, zoo, planetarium, park or some other cultural or scientific institution. Ever thought about becoming one?

A docent becomes the public face of an institution by getting visitors engaged. They explain the history of the place, share interesting facts, answer questions and generally work to help each person get the best possible experience.

If you’ve got great communication skills and love meeting new people, look for places in your area that need docents. You’ll help inform the public about the treasures in their own backyard.

9. Mentor a younger person

man giving advice
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The luckiest among us had someone offer advice, encouragement and professional guidance as we grew up — and maybe even beyond. Now that you’re retired, why not share the same sort of kindness?

This could mean encouraging and guiding a child or youth to adulthood or offering support to a young person who’s entering the same profession in which you worked. The number of hours required varies, and anyone who wants to work with minors can expect to be screened for suitability.

Some mentors find their mentees through service clubs, their places of worship or organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. A professional group you once belonged to could likely put you in touch with those in need of guidance. Or check out MENTOR, a nonprofit that could help you find a young person who could benefit from adult advice and perspective.

If you have the time, give mentoring a shot. The difference could quite literally change someone’s life — and giving back in this way feels great.

10. Be a tourist

Senior couple tourists on vacation
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There’s some truth to the idea that many New Yorkers have never been to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Whether you live in the Big Apple or in flyover country, ask yourself this: What am I missing?

Is there a historic site or popular attraction you never got around to seeing? There’s no time like the present. There might even be a senior discount available.

Check out local parks and recreation departments for tips. If you live near a tourist-friendly area, check out their attractions. These could often be day trips. For example, while taking the Megabus from Philadelphia to New York City, I met a couple of 19-year-olds who planned to spend the day in Manhattan for sightseeing and student-discount theater tickets.

Or maybe there’s an interesting neighborhood you always wanted to spend more time in — well, now you have the time. So have the fun!

11. Take college courses

Older student in a college classroom
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Maybe you want to learn a little about robotics so you can keep up with your tech-obsessed 10-year-old granddaughter. Perhaps you just binge-watched “The Good Place” and now want to take an ethics course. Could be you’re concerned about privacy in an age of big data and near-constant surveillance.

Learn about these subjects and so many others by taking free college courses online. You won’t have to worry about driving, parking or being exposed to potential illness from tens of thousands of other students (which is important if you or your partner have health issues). Many of these courses are free; those that aren’t don’t cost much. Find out more from “8 Ivy League Colleges That Offer Free Online Courses.”

Prefer your learning in-person? Some colleges and universities let resident seniors audit courses – or take them for credit — free of charge. You might even be able to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree this way, without having to take out any student loans. Get the details in “9 Colleges That Offer Free Tuition for Seniors.”

Note: Although tuition is free, you might be on the hook for fees and other items, such as textbooks.

12. Join (or start) a book club

Book club meeting
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Now you finally have time to read all the classics, or to wallow in mystery novels or summer potboilers. Talking about these books could be as much fun as reading them, so why not look for like-minded readers?

You can search for established book groups, or take up a friend on that standing invitation to join their club. No luck? Start your own group via:

  • Word of mouth, with friends – probably the simplest way.
  • Modified advertising: a bulletin-board posting at the bookstore, gym, senior center or your place of worship.
  • Facebook or a platform like Meetup.

Note: You will need at least modest organizational skills to keep a book club going: creating a host schedule, polling members for future book suggestions, and keeping the discussion running smoothly rather than having one or two talkative folks monopolize the event.

One more suggestion: Make the event Zoom-friendly. Health issues (their own, or a spouse’s) can keep some people housebound at times. This way, they can still “attend” every meeting via someone’s open laptop.

13. Become a birdwatcher

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Let’s make this clear at the start: You don’t have to be north of age 65 to enjoy birdwatching. Plenty of young and middle-aged folks enjoy this pastime as well. But there’s a reason for the stereotype of birdwatchers as old coots with binoculars: Older people tend to be retired, and retirees simply have more time to devote to waiting. Birdwatching can mean a lot of waiting, either for just the right bird to show up (life list!), or for birds to show up at all.

The beauty of the birds (and of nature in general) is gratifying. But bird-watching is also good for you — and not just because of the exercise you get from walking around, according to The New York Times:

“It’s no secret that spending time in nature is good for your mind. Studies show that even a stroll through a city park decreases stress, sharpens concentration and improves long-term mental health outcomes.

“A few studies suggest there might be something especially healthy about birds in particular. One, published in [2022], found that just being near bird song improved mental well-being.”

Birds are everywhere – yes, even in cities. Binoculars are a big help; if you don’t have any, put out an “ask” on your local Buy Nothing Facebook group and you might get them for free. Or, see if you can borrow a pair, to make sure this pastime is right for you. A field guide to local birds (probably available from the library) will let you name what you’re seeing, so you can start your own life list.

Pro tip: If you decide to keep birdwatching, put both binoculars and field guides on your wish list for birthday or holiday gifts.

14. Tell your life story

A man does research on his computer
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Now you have time to look back on your life — and to share it with others. Writing your memoir is a way of connecting the past to the future — and also to tell your descendants about what it was like to be you.

Think no one will care? You’d be surprised, according to an article in U.S. News & World Report:

“Think of your grandparents, parents and other family members who have already passed. Are there things you wish you could ask them today? Are there parts of their lives and who they were as people that you wish you knew better? Your surviving loved ones will feel the same way towards you. The people who read your memoir will learn things about you and your family that they would never know otherwise.

“The act of writing your memoir will lead you to recall and more fully appreciate the life you have lived. Undertaking this project can be as rewarding to you as it will be to others.”

Where to start? How to focus? Am I writing about my WHOLE life? Those are good questions! While you could just start scribbling, take time to read a little on memoir writing and how to get started. Here are a few examples:

Pro tip: Check out other people’s life stories, to get an idea of the many structural possibilities within this genre. The Reedsy blog has a good list called “21 Memoir Examples to Inspire Your Own.” You don’t have to read them all! But glancing at even a few is like giving your imagination permission to do what it needs to do.

15. Adopt or foster a pet

Owner with his cat
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Getting a pet is a big responsibility, but the experience can pay off handsomely. According to a survey from Aging & Mental Health:

“[T]he role of pet ownership may benefit community-dwelling older adults by providing companionship, giving a sense of purpose and meaning, reducing loneliness, and increasing socialization. These benefits may also increase resilience in older adults against mental health disorders, which may positively influence their mental health outcomes.”

About that “increasing socialization”: When you walk a dog, lots of people will talk to you. If you take a cat or bunny to the vet for a check-up, you could get acquainted with other pet owners. Participating in a pet website or a local pet activity also gives you the chance to make like-minded friends.

Not sure you’re ready to be a full-time pet owner? Consider fostering. Animal shelters and rescue programs are always looking for people who want to care for homeless critters. You might not even have to pay for their food. However, you will have to meet the fostering qualifications, which can be rigorous. Don’t be offended: The rules are for the animal’s well-being.

To find foster opportunities, do a web search for animal rescue groups in your region. If you have experience with a particular type of animal – malamutes, pot-bellied pigs, iguanas – include that in your search.

16. Take up a musical instrument

Woman playing a violin
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Always wished you could play the guitar, piano or contrabassoon? Now’s your chance! Whether for reading, singing or playing music, free tutorials abound online. The BBC compiled this list, but you could also do a search for “YouTube free music tutorial for [your instrument].”

If you’re not a vocalist, then you’ll need to acquire an instrument. A few tips to keep things affordable:

  • Put it out in the universe, via word of mouth or social media. A relative or friend might have an instrument they’re not using any longer.
  • You might score a free instrument on Buy Nothing, OfferUp, or by leaving a note on a message board (online or in person) or a site like NextDoor. Keep in mind, however, that such items could need repair. In other words, not entirely free.
  • Check yard sales for the guitar that a wannabe rockstar got bored with after six months, or the flute that someone’s kid vowed never to touch again after two years of compulsory music lessons.

Once you’re reasonably proficient, consider joining a local band, orchestra or chorus. It’s one way of making like-minded friends, after all. Or just play piano for yourself, or sing (on-key!) in the shower. Not everything has to be about public performance.

17. Sign up for mock juries or legal focus groups

jury duty
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This is a fun hobby for anyone who’s a fan of courtroom dramas or legal thrillers. And it’s a paid hobby: Lawyers and legal consulting firms will pay you to participate. Sometimes the money is pretty generous, according to the SideHusl.com website: Depending on the length of the project, you might earn $100 to $350.

These are sometimes done in person and sometimes via computer. Either way, you read/watch a case and then offer your feedback. Recently, I did one that required me to hear a lawyer’s brief opening argument, watch a short surveillance camera view of a vehicle/pedestrian accident, listen to a closing argument, and then answer questions about how I might vote as a juror. It took about 40 minutes total, and I was paid $50. Not bad for work I can do in my PJs.

Legal focus groups are set up so that lawyers can gain insight on how to structure a case, or what might be missing from their presentation, as well as to get a look at the body language of potential “jurors.” Often a legal focus group is done in person, which can take a few hours or all day. Meals and snacks are typically provided.

According to SideHusl.com, these three sites are good places to sign up:

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