Productivity and careers (2)

These sites have plenty of intensely good competition, which they consistently rise above.

Lifehacker: Founding editor Gina Trapani built a site that focuses on using technology to get things done smarter and faster, and includes offline solutions for streamlining your life.

Zen Habits: Writer Leo Baubata aspires to simple productivity, and his own turnaround story is pretty darned inspirational. (Short version: He went from being a fat smoker to a thin marathon runner, all while raising six kids and launching a successful blog that replaced his day job.) Baubata's Write to Done is a writing-specific blog that's also worth a look.

Cheap entertainment (4)

People who don't watch TV used to annoy me -- except more and more, I'm becoming one of them. Now when I do watch, it's usually via a tablet, laptop or smartphone. My music streams out of the same devices. The traditional options like pay TV aren't going away, but they're being shouldered aside by some pretty good alternatives.

Hulu: Hulu offers a variety of TV episodes, movie trailers, food shows and documentaries. It's worth perusing to find those videos that are not necessarily mainstream. You can access a lot of older content for free. For $8 a month, you get access to current episodes and more movies.

Netflix: The once-adored DVD rental company really ticked off its users by jacking up prices and threatening to spin its rental business from its streaming subscription services. I still find it a great value for the money, though, particularly when we can stream movies through our Wii or catch up on the latest BBC series on our tablets.

Pandora: Not only does Pandora give you free radio; it also sets up a "radio station" that plays music you like to hear. Registration is free, and the music begins to play almost immediately. The best feature is that you'll discover new acts and performers you might never have heard otherwise, thanks to Pandora's "Music Genome Project" that figures out what you might enjoy based on what you already do.

Rdio: When it comes to entertainment, streaming is where it's at. There's really no need to own most of the shows, movies and music we consume anymore. That's particularly true when it comes to ever-ephemeral pop music, which is why I'm delighted Rdio (and similar sites like Spotify) came along just as my daughter got interested in Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, et al.

Together, we have access to millions of songs, so as soon as we hear about a new band or singer -- or a new release by an old favorite -- we can start listening. Rdio makes it easy for me to keep explicit songs out of her playlists, and our $10-a-month subscription allows us to download the songs onto our phones, tablets and other devices so we can listen even without an Internet connection.

Freebies and swaps (5)

Who doesn't like free?

Free Stuff Times: This site scores points not only for the offers and coupons it presents but also because of the solid, un-self-promoting advice it gives in its tips section. The links are sound, and the site is updated daily.

Hey, It's Free: This site is entertaining and full of information about freebies, from the running blog by "Goob" to the ads that top the site. Goob claims to spend his day looking for "100% legit, non-spammy freebies" and updates frequently, including noting which offers have expired.

The Freecycle Network: This site was launched by a guy in Tucson, Ariz., who hated to see perfectly good stuff wind up at the dump. Freecycle connects people who have things to give away with those who want them.

PaperBack Swap: More than 3 million book titles are available here, and they're free. Members list books they're willing to swap. You pay postage on the books you send out, and members who send you books return the favor.

TitleTrader: If you have boxes of books and, well, just stuff, you can swap it or sell it here. As soon as you send an item to someone else, you earn credits to buy other things on the site. It's free. In addition, you can set up a wish list and be notified when something on your list becomes available.

Free tech stuff (3)

If you've got technology, you've got trouble, or at least the potential for same. These three sites will keep you calm and connected:

5 Star Support: This site offers tech support, articles and forums for computer security, tutorials for free computer support, troubleshooting FAQ and a self-help "Tips, Tricks and Tweaks" section.

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Mozy: This online backup site saved my bacon when a relatively new laptop hard drive melted down when I was on the road, leaving me data-less. I was able to pull key files off Mozy's site and got the rest a few days later in a packet of CDs. You don't have to be a road warrior to be at risk: Back up your computer online, so if your house burns down, all your music, pictures and data won't be dust in the wind. Plans start at $6 a month.

Wi-Fi Free Spot: Find a fast, free Internet connection wherever you are.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.