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.