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12 Free Things That Used to Cost Money

As everything from gas to movie tickets steadily increases in price, it can be easy to think that day-to-day life is more expensive than ever. But there are probably more things than you think that you can get for free—that you couldn't in the past.

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Modern wi-fi router on light table in roomAquarius Studio/Shutterstock


Of course, Wifi hasn’t been around all that long as it is. But when it first debuted, it was not as widely available as you’ll find today. “Businesses used to charge you for using their WiFi, but now tons of places offer free WiFi,” says Julie Ramhold, Consumer Analyst with “And some even have the password posted so you don’t have to ask! Personally I feel like it’s good practice to still buy something, especially if you’re in a small cafe or you’re planning to be there for a while. But at least you don’t have to pay for your latte and the internet.”

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Satellite navigation systemPincasso/Shutterstock


We probably take GPS technology for granted today; in fact, our phones and various apps on them asking to “know our location” can actually be a bit of a nuisance! But in the not-too-distant past, GPS technology was only available on its own unique devices, and they were not cheap. “A GPS unit was around $2,500 when it was first introduced, but now, if you have a smartphone, you likely have GPS in your native maps app,” Ramhold told RD. “And even if you don’t, you can find free map apps like Waze through app stores.” You probably know about a lot of these free things, but there are plenty of common things that people pay way too much for.

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News - Folded newspapers in front of black wallqvist/Shutterstock


In a time when reliable news is more important than ever, it’s a good thing that you no longer have to pay for access to what’s going on in the world. “It wasn’t too long ago that people would start their day by going outside and picking up their newspapers”—newspapers that they had to pay for, says Cyrus Vanover, founder of the personal finance site Frugal Budgeter. Newspapers all used to cost money. And while, of course, there are still plenty of subscription-based newspapers, and news sites, out there, today you’re likely to be inundated with news articles the second you sign onto your computer. “It now doesn’t cost a dime to read an endless stream of news articles,” Vanover says. “One doesn’t have to subscribe to a newspaper to stay on top of what’s going on in the world.” The times are a-changing; these U.S. cities used to be poor, but are now rich. 

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creditcardWAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

Credit scores

In another recent development, free credit scores have become not only available but legally required upon request. Before 2003, credit reports would set you back some cash. “It wasn’t uncommon to see one credit report cost around $15-$16 while purchasing all three major bureaus’ reports was around $40,” Ramhold says. But as of 16 years ago, when the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act was passed, “you can obtain a free credit report once a year from the three major bureaus [Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian],” Ramhold adds. Now that credit consulting is available for free, it’s much easier for anyone and everyone to keep an eye on this important information and manage their finances. Want to save lots of dough in the day-to-day? Check out these things you should never pay full price for.

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business, people, paperwork and technology concept - businessman with calculator and paper working in officeSyda Productions/Shutterstock

Filing taxes

“There are some great resources out there that are free that, at one time, consumers had to pay for!” says Robert Farrington, creator of The College Investor. Filing taxes is a mundane task as is, and it’s certainly nice that you no longer have to pay money to…potentially get money back. “There are free online tax software options, like TurboTax or H&R Block, that digitally file your taxes for you,” Farrington says. And in addition to saving money, the digital filing is also a great time-saver, since you no longer have to fill out forms by hand.

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Image of modern african american girl wearing headphones using laptop while sitting in bright kitchenShift Drive/Shutterstock


Of course, you could listen to music on the radio for free in the past, but you had no control over which songs you heard. But if you wanted to listen to your choice of tunes, that meant buying a CD (or a record, or a cassette tape). Today, streaming services and YouTube allow you complete control over the tunes you listen to (albeit with some ads, but radio has those too!), and you don’t have to pay. Music streaming services are only scratching the service of great free things you can get online.

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Blank cheque with pen on the tableNAN728/Shutterstock

Checking accounts

You’re no longer required to pay a fee if you want to set up an account to store your money with certain banks. “Lots of…banks offer free checking with no fees or minimum balance requirements, and some even offer cashback or earn a solid interest rate,” Farrington says. “There was a time when consumers had to pay to even cash checks, so these modern banking options save tons of money for the average, everyday consumer.”

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Courier is loading the van with parcelsBigBlueStudio/Shutterstock


Sure, there are plenty of shipping charges to be incurred on various e-commerce sites. But free shipping is a relatively new concept, one spearheaded by Amazon. “Online sites used to charge for shipping with every single order, but now retailers often have free shipping on certain orders,” Ramhold explains. “Even if they don’t offer it regularly, we frequently see coupon codes that’ll provide you with free shipping on your orders, often even with no minimum purchase required.” Amazon Prime made free shipping commonplace, and now you see other online sellers testing it out from time to time in order to keep up. And you may not know that there are actually plenty of things you can get for free on Amazon.

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African-american man preparing vegetable salad in loft kitchenProstock-studio/Shutterstock


Similar to music, there was a time not too long ago when recipes were not readily available—certainly not for free. Unless you had a recipe passed down from a family member or lent to you by a friend, you’d need to consult a cookbook, and cookbooks cost money. Today, though, things are different, thanks to (what else) the Internet. “While I love to thumb through cookbooks, admire the pictures, and plan my culinary adventures, most dishes I make these days are from recipes obtained online, at food blogs or social media groups,” says Marsha Kelly, marketing consultant at

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encyclopediaDumitru Ochievschi/Shutterstock


This isn’t just something you can get for free now that you used to have to pay for; this is a major cultural shift that’s defining the 21st century. “Information” is a wide umbrella, but Jodi McLean, Director of Strategic Initiatives for The Symphony Agency sums it up pretty well. In the past, she says, “people paid for instructional tapes and CDs and DVDs. They paid for how-to books; they purchased encyclopedias and college degrees and self-help/financial/business seminars that provided information they did not have access to,” she told “Today, any information that a person wants is a Google or YouTube search away.” Whether you’re trying to fix a car, make a fancy recipe, or learn a song on the guitar, you can find a quick—and free—tutorial with just a few keystrokes.

And though a college degree is a still a massive expense, many universities—including well-known, prominent ones—do offer completely free classes. “In the past, if you want to take a course from a leading university, you need to be enrolled in the university which also comes with expensive tuition fees,” says personal finance and money blogger Gladice Gong. “Now, with free online learning platforms such as edX, you can learn from many leading universities around the world for free.” Don’t believe it? We’ve got plenty of examples of free college courses you can take right here!

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An Asian young man holding game controller playing video gamesGooGag/Shutterstock

Video games

Yes, some video games not only cost money but are very expensive! But you can still get plenty of others for free, with your smartphone, iPod, or computer as the only “console” you need. You can download scores of gaming apps totally free. Sure, they’ll have ads and in-app purchases, but you don’t have to pay for anything unless you want to. And, Ramhold adds, “sites like GOG, Steam, and Epic Games all tend to give away well-known titles for free sometimes. In fact, Epic Games is currently giving away at least one free game every week, and sometimes as many as six.”

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beautiful young brunette woman holding office or home phonefile404/Shutterstock

Long-distance calls

Not so long ago, you could practically hear the money trickling away for every second you stayed on a long-distance phone call. “[They] could cost a small fortune, depending on where you were calling and for how long,” Ramhold says. “Now, most major cell carriers allow you to call anywhere in the country for free.” And not only can you call, but you can video chat too! “Skype and Google Duo are an easy (and free!) way to keep in touch with friends and family no matter where they are,” Ramhold adds. Wifi-connected apps like those, as well as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, even allow you to make international video calls. It’s a much more connected world nowadays!

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.