Short on cash? Here are 7 things you can get for free, including movies, TV shows, books

Marc Saltzman
Special to USA TODAY

As the rising costs of living strain many families – not to mention the interest rate hikes that will probably affect credit cards and mortgage payments – Americans look for ways to save.

No surprise that Google Search told USA TODAY there was a huge spike for the words “cheap” and “affordable” over the past few months.

What’s the only thing better than “cheap” and “affordable”? Free, of course.

This is especially true when it’s for things you otherwise pay for.

You probably know about the thousands of free games you can download from your favorite app stores, but there is so much more.

Here are seven suggestions on how tech can dish up freebies, to help ease some tension in your wallet.

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It’s never been easier to cut the cord. Pluto TV lets you watch hundreds of free live channels and many thousands of on-demand movies and TV shows.

Free TV shows and movies

Called AVOD services (“ad-supported video on demand”) or sometimes FAST (“free ad-supported streaming TV”), there are several options that provide free videos to watch on demand via your Smart TV, smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Popular examples include Tubi, Pluto TV, Crackle and Roku Channel, all of which have a huge collection of new and older shows and movies. Other platforms that offer free content include Facebook Watch, Peacock (free version), Dailymotion and YouTube.

You’ll need to sit through commercials, but they’re typically shorter and less frequent than those on regular TV.

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Get a free phone number, and send/receive calls and text for free over Wi-Fi – and even free cellular service for only 99 cents. This is what the ad-supported TextNow brings to the table.

Free phone numbers

A handy app, TextNow (iOS Android) gives you a secondary – and completely free – phone number to use on your smartphone.

After all, you might not want to reveal your real phone number if you're, say, selling something online (which may require a phone number) or going on a blind date (in case it doesn’t work out).

Choose a city in the USA or Canada, and you’ll receive a number with an available area code and number. Like your main number, you can change the ringtone, access voicemail and more (at no cost). Note: There are ads in the app.

You can call or text for free over Wi-Fi with this new number or use it out of the home by picking up a TextNow SIM card for 99 cents, then unlimited calls and texts over cellular connectivity are $0/month. If you want data, plans start at $8.99/month for one gigabyte.

Borrow, rather than buy, books with apps such as Libby by OverDrive. As long as you have a library card, you can freely borrow books, audiobooks and magazines and enjoy the content on various devices you own, such as a tablet.

Free books

So long as you have a library card, you can borrow ebooks – today’s bestsellers and classics, too – through the Libby by OverDrive app.

Once you install Libby on your tablet or smartphone, create a free account, then search for something to read.

You can enjoy the book until the “due date,” like checking it out from the library, but you don’t need to drive the books back to the library or face a late fee!

You can install Libby on multiple devices and all your loans, notes, bookmarks and reading progress sync across your devices. For example, start on your iPad and finish on your smartphone.

Free audiobooks

Here’s a little-known trick for iPhone or iPad owners: Turn your ebooks into free audiobooks, using a built-in accessibility tool called Speak Screen.

It will read aloud any text on the screen. You can listen while in the car, while closing your eyes on an airplane or when walking down the street.

To activate it (only required once), go to Settings > Accessibility > Spoken Content > Speak Screen. In any app you have open, such as an ebook reading app, swipe down with two fingers from the very top of the screen for the book to be read to you.

It works with emails, web articles, recipes or notes.

You can tweak the voice (which does not sound synthesized, like many apps do), including gender and language, speaking speed and more.

Free radio plays

Speaking of audio, you’re missing out if you’re not listening to “old time radio” (OTR) shows.

Popularized in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s – before television became the dominant entertainment medium in the home – you can find virtually all major radio series for free at websites such as or by subscribing to various podcasts (one of my favorites is the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society and anything by Relic Radio).

Just like TV, there are different genres to choose from, but be sure to check out these series: "Suspense!," "Escape," "The Jack Benny Show," "The Shadow," "Lux Radio Theatre," "X Minus One," "Inner Sanctum," "Fibber McGee & Molly" and highly recommended from the ’70s and early ’80s, is "CBS Radio Mystery Theater," which is part of an OTR revival.

The BBC also has some great shows.

Not sure where to start? Stream or download "Sorry, Wrong Number" (suspense), starring Agnes Moorehead and the infamous "War of the Worlds" (Mercury Theatre).

Keep in mind these aren’t audiobooks – they’re radio plays, featuring a cast of characters, sound effects and music and more.

Presence is a free app that transforms your spare Android and iOS smartphones and tablets into a free Wi-Fi security camera and motion detector.

Free video surveillance

Given how often we update our devices, you might have a spare iPhone, iPad or Android somewhere at home.

If so, you can turn it into a free wireless surveillance camera, a baby monitor, a “nanny cam” or a way to keep an eye on your pets while away.

It’s all handled through an app called Presence.

After you install (and sign into) the app on your phone or tablet and your aging one that will become the camera, simply place that old device somewhere in your home, ensure it’s plugged in and point the device’s camera somewhere.

Wherever life takes you, open the app on your phone or tablet to see what’s happening in real-time at home.

Free productivity software

Though there are some free productivity programs, most require an internet connection to use.

Instead, Apache's OpenOffice is a downloadable, offline suite of productivity tools for word processing, creating spreadsheets, presentations and more. OpenOffice is available in multiple languages and runs on many operating systems, and you can install it on as many computers as you like.

The software suite supports a wide range of file types created by other programs (including Microsoft Office's .doc, .xls and .ppt).

On a related note, there are many good, free photo-editing tools, but Gimp might be the most robust, thanks to its powerful editing features, digital retouching, multiple file support and customizable interface options.