Image: Man holding out empty pockets. © Dougal Waters, Photodisc, Getty Images

January is when the bills for holiday overindulgences come home to roost. It might take every dime of ready cash to pay off the bills. Heck, it might even take more -- which means giving up fun for the next few months.

Or, rather, giving up expensive fun. There are plenty of ways to stay entertained without the use of credit or debit.

Ideally, some of the following suggestions will prove so enjoyable that they'll become part of your regular entertainment rotation. If so, you can set aside some of your monthly fun budget and pay cash for next year's holiday.

And if you're one of those sensible folks who didn't break the bank in November and December? Good for you! But you're still welcome to join in the free fun.

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

Learn a new skill

Entertain your winter brain by picking up a new hobby, craft or ability. Some will save you money, and some might even earn you money. The Internet is bristling with ways to learn things as varied as toilet repair and search-engine optimization.

University-affiliated sites such as the OpenCourseWare Consortium and peer-to-peer organizations like Dave's Site are good places to start. Or do an Internet search for "free courses" on any topic that interests you.

A midwinter mind-stretcher with truly practical applications: learning a second language. Sites such as Word2Word and LearnALanguage.com provide coursework or links to language instruction.

Note: Be sure to consider provenance when choosing an online course. For example, I'd skip over a "nutritional supplements" class offered by a company that sells the supplements.

Be wary, too, of free courses that ask for a lot of personal information upfront, since they might spam you and/or sell your stats. Start a separate email address before signing up for any class or tutorial.

Get out of the house

You can cocoon only so long. Getting outside is an antidote to cabin fever. Bundle up and go bird-watching. Shoot some photos. Learn to identify constellations. Look around for organized winter activities.

The city of Manchester, Conn., floods a couple of man-made basins for safe winter fun. Vivian Dawson likes to fix a Thermos of hot chocolate and hit the ice for a little exercise and socializing.

"You run into everybody you know," Dawson says.

When was the last time you went sledding? It doesn't matter if you left your trusty Rosebud back home with the folks. Improvise a new one, suggests Andrew Schrage of Money Crashers, a personal-finance blog.

"Yoga mats and large storage bin lids make for great makeshift sleds," Schrage says. Those plus any kind of slope equals "an afternoon of awesome fun."

More than 100 national parks will forgo admission fees from Jan. 14 to 16. If you live near one (find a park here), look for events such as the ranger-guided snowshoe hikes at Olympic National Park in Washington state. Equipment is provided; although a $5 donation is suggested, it's not mandatory.

Don't want to go it alone? Look for activities via online communities like Meetup and GroupSpaces. In Anchorage, Alaska, where I am as I write this, there's a Meetup group that plans January hikes, snowshoe treks, fat-tire bike rides and even snowshoe softball (which is probably even more fun to watch than to play).

Can't find a local group? Start one. The sites are easy to use.

Start a club

Get a few like-minded friends together for a monthly session of talking, learning and growing. A few possibilities:

  • A book club. Consider a classic that's in the public domain and free to download. Make sure the book's in your local library, though, for those who are low-tech or who just prefer the old-fashioned thrill of turning pages.
  • A money club. Set some financial goals -- investing, paying down debt, learning to budget -- and explore ways to meet them. This could be a spinoff from your book club if you read personal-finance titles.
  • An exercise club. A regular workout date with friends means you're more likely to stick with exercise. It would be rude not to show up, right? Cheer on one another as you build strength and maybe even lose weight.
  • A coupon club. Your food budget is the one with the most potential wiggle room; it's unlikely you can reduce your mortgage or car payment by $200 or more per month. Check the library for books such as "Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half and Raise Your Standards of Living . . . and Giving." You can also learn from an online couponing site like Southern Savers, which is packed with how-to tips; founder Jenny Martin also has a YouTube channel. Some of her readers have started coupon clubs, sharing knowledge and setting challenges. "It turns into a game for a lot of the folks I hear from," Martin says.

Find free entertainment

In Anchorage, the library system offers a bunch of activities in January, including programs with cartoonist Chad Carpenter and nationally known storyteller David Gonzalez, a young writers workshop, a chance to meet actors from a traveling production of "Beauty and the Beast," a board-game afternoon and a continuing "conversation salon" on the topic of the working poor.

And this is just one medium-sized city! So check your local library. Also investigate:

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  • Book signings. Independent, chain and university bookstores bring writers in to read from and talk about their new works. You might even get to ask questions. (Hint: Do not ask "Where do you get your ideas?" It's pretty much unanswerable.)
  • Open mic performances. Look for coffeehouses, bars and bookstores that host these. Maybe you'll get up the nerve to sing the song you wrote for your girlfriend (invite her along, by all means).
  • Free movie screenings. Studios seeking word-of-mouth promotion give away tickets before some movies open. Check sites such as GoFobo, Wild About Movies and FilmMetro. See if local theaters do regional promotions, too.
  • Art walks. First Friday, First Thursday -- whatever your town calls it, you will get a look at new gallery shows. Some places put out appetizers and wine for the occasions.
  • Free museum days. Maybe it's once a month; maybe it's once a year. Check local museums to see which day or days you can get in for nothing.

Redo the menu

You can live without entertainment or new clothes, but you have to eat. To free up a little extra money for holiday bills, vow to use everything in the freezer and cupboards. Supplement with a few basic fresh foods, but see how innovative you can be with what you've already got.

Frame it as a contest, if you like. Jan Brown, a life coach from New York City, suggests a "creative cook-off" with a husband or partner. "Each person has to make dinner with only things that are in your pantry, fridge and freezer already. No going to the store for any new ingredients at all," Brown says.

That's hardcore, but some people just can't resist a challenge. Think of it as a chance to use up that 2-year-old tuna.

Sites such as My Fridge Food or RecipeLand.com can help with recipes to match available ingredients. Or search phrases like "three-ingredient recipes" and "30-minute meals" to find menus suited to your pantry particulars.

Or look at food as entertainment in other ways:

  • Make your own. Try something you've never made before, like yogurt or one of those no-knead breads that use only three ingredients. It's entertaining to turn out something so delicious so easily.
  • Batch cooking. Put on your favorite music and team up with your spouse, kids or a good friend to cook and freeze several dishes. Extra frugal points if you use mostly ingredients from the cupboard.
  • No-restaurant challenge. Use your newfound culinary chops to keep away from restaurants and takeout for a week -- or more. Eating out is a subtle sabotager of budgets, especially if it's "debit and forget it."
  • Organize a potluck. If you're afraid your pals will respond with taco chips, supermarket pasta salads and a single rotisserie chicken, create a basic sign-up sheet -- bread, appetizer, casserole/entrée, etc. You have to eat anyway. Why not have friends over and make it a party?

Entertaining at home

It doesn't have to be a full meal, mind you. Kristl Story of The Budget Diet suggests a wine-tasting party to "discover your favorite cheap wine." Pull out whatever plonk you have on hand, and invite friends to do the same. Just make sure no one drives home drunk.

Play around with themes. What about a leap-year party? A bad-TV party? A dessert party? Denver resident Rose Beetem and her friends do creativity parties: They make "junk art" from materials at hand, write poetry (limericks, haiku), read plays aloud, shoot music videos or craft handmade valentines.

She says, "Another perennial favorite is game night" -- classic and modern board games, or old-fashioned charades.

If you don't have any board games, drop by a thrift shop for reduced-price fun. Learn a new card game. Or go with the charades -- which, incidentally, might be more fun to perform and watch after a wine tasting.

The art of the barter

Or how about a trading party? January is the perfect time for a post-holiday gift swap, according to Jon Lal of BeFrugal.com. One person's trash is another person's Valentine's Day present.

These items need not be "bad" gifts per se. For example, a guy I know developed an allergy to fragrances; his wife must now regift any scented candles or bath sets. Or suppose your kid got two copies of the same book or identical Transformer toys?

Clothing swaps are hot, too. Encourage friends who are more or less the same size and/or have similar tastes in accessories. Turn the bathroom and bedroom into try-on areas. If children are involved, provide games or a G-rated video to watch while the grown-ups haggle. Ask attendees to bring snacks and/or drinks to share along with their tradable items.

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Oh, and be sure that everyone gets the guest list -- otherwise, someone might show up with a gift someone else at the party gave him.

Swapping is both frugal and eco-friendly. You get a "new" wardrobe or a book you haven't read, and your guests get to unload boldly patterned scarves they'd never wear while snagging adorable ladybug rain boots for their kids. Nobody spends; everybody wins.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").