Where Logic Meets Love

10 Free Things I Use Every Day

Friday, May 13, 2011

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10 Free Things I Use Every Day | Faith Permeating Life
I started thinking today (and by that I mean yesterday... stupid Blogger outage) about how many things are part of my daily life that probably wouldn't be if I had to pay for them. I have a tendency to assume that I'm the last one to find out about things and that everyone already knows about them, so I'm always surprised when someone doesn't know what I'm talking about and gets excited to learn about something I use.

With that in mind, I thought I'd share with you the many magical things you can use for free in the hopes that at least one will be new to you. I've also included tips that may help you use old services in new ways.

1. Mint.com
If you've been around my blog for any length of time, you've heard me promote Mint. It's not without its problems, and if you really need to know how much you're going to have at the end of the month down to the last penny, then you may want to go with a paid service. Having said that, if you're looking for a free, easy way to track activity on all of your accounts at once and to make a spending plan based on how much you plan to bring in each month (plus account for any long-term goals you're saving for), you can't get much easier than this.
A tip: Mint handles every-few-months expenses pretty badly. If you have a $200 purchase every four months, it'll take $50 out of your budget every month, then take the full $200 out the fourth month. It's better to calculate the amount per month, add that to your monthly budget, and then split the eventual purchase into four parts and change the dates.

2. Delicious Bookmarks
Add the Delicious tools to your browser and you can bookmark any site, marking it with tags and a description if you'd like, and then have access to your whole list of bookmarks from any computer. Any bookmarks not marked as "private" are viewable and searchable by others, and at times I've found this to be a better solution than Google when I'm searching for a website that does something specific.
A tip: If you have trouble keeping track of all the blogs and articles you've left comments on, next time you leave a comment, bookmark the page as private and tag it with something like "comments," so when the mood strikes you can revisit those pages and see if anyone's replied to your comments.

3. Google Reader
If you read a lot of blogs or other sites that post regular updates, chances are most of them have an RSS feed, and you can put all of those feeds into Google Reader. That way, the only page you ever have to check is your Reader, and you'll automatically see if any of your favorite sites have updated recently. I'm a big fan of Gmail myself, but you can actually set up a Google account with any e-mail address.
A tip: In Google Reader, go to Settings (the gear in the top right), then Goodies, and scroll all the way down. You'll see a Subscribe link you can drag into your toolbar, and then if you find a new website you like you can simply click this link and have the feed added to your Reader.

4. Podcasts
I used to think podcasts were weird and not for me, until I actually started searching through the iTunes store. Podcasts offer the opportunity to learn about practically anything, and the good ones offer engaging, bite-sized pieces of information you can listen to at your convenience. I have a 20-minute walk as part of my commute every day, and podcasts make the time go by quickly. They're great for driving too, and you can look for ones that are as long as your commute or several shorter ones. My favorite are the Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts, but I also listen to French lessons, The Daily Boost, One Extraordinary Marriage, Freakonomics, and NPR news summaries.
A tip: Create a smart playlist in iTunes that only holds podcasts you haven't listened to yet, sorted by date. This way they'll play back-to-back without having to select each individual one you want to listen to. As you listen, they'll be automatically taken off the playlist.

5. PaperBackSwap.com and other free books
OK, I don't use PaperBack Swap every day, but I do read or listen to free books every day. They've got such a good selection in our local library network that it's been a very long time since I bought a book. However, occasionally there are books that I want my own copies of for long-term reference, re-reading, or lending out to others, and for that I use PaperBack Swap. By listing 10 books I wanted to get rid of, I got 2 free credits to order books from other members. When someone wants a book from me, I just pay the cost of mailing it, and then in exchange I get a credit to select a book and have it mailed for free right to my apartment. I particularly like using it to order audiobooks (usually 2 credits), which our library doesn't have as many of, but which I like to listen to when I'm not listening to podcasts. I'll also try to get audiobooks when there's a book I want Mike to read, since he's more likely to listen than to read.
A tip: Before importing an audiobook CD into iTunes, select all the tracks and choose Advanced->Join Tracks. After importing all the CDs, use Doug's Bookmarkable AppleScript to make your iPod treat it as an audiobook. Keep in mind that if the audiobook is from the library, legally you need to delete it out of your iTunes when you return the audiobook. (I wouldn't want it taking up that much space anyway.)

6. HootSuite
I've got several Twitter accounts (my main one is here), and HootSuite provides a dashboard where I can switch between feeds without having to log in and out of Twitter. I can post something simultaneously to multiple feeds or to Twitter and Facebook; I can schedule tweets to post later (great if I have a blog post scheduled to post later as well); I can also shrink URLs right on the dashboard and then see how many clicks I get from various tweets.
A tip: In addition to adding your various accounts to the dashboard, you can add streams of Twitter searches. If you're trying to monitor trends in an industry, for example, this is a great way to keep organized, and you can put several different searches on the same at-a-glance page.

7. Dropbox
Dropbox is an incredibly easy way to keep files synched across multiple computers and have access to files from anywhere. There is a space limit, but you can get more space if you invite friends and family to join the site. Dropbox is simply a folder on your computer, but anything you put in there will show up inside the Dropbox folder on every other computer it's installed on. You can also log on to the Dropbox website and access those same files if you're on a computer without a personal Dropbox installed. I was working from home yesterday and accessing my work computer remotely via LogMeIn, which is another great free site, but it can run kind of slowly, so I prefer to work on files on my home computer when possible. Because I have Dropbox on my work and home computers, I could remotely drag-and-drop work files into the Dropbox, open them up on my home computer, work on them, then remotely drag all the files out of Dropbox back into the folders on my work computer.
A tip: You can also share folders with others. If you're actually collaborating on a document, I much prefer Google Docs, but if you just all need access to the same files, Dropbox is a good option.

8. StatCounter
This is one of those that I assume most bloggers know about already, but maybe not. You can add an invisible site tracker to any website so you can see where your visitors are located, how they're getting to your site (Google search, other site's link, etc.), and how long they're staying. This was how I found out my DivaCup review had been posted on DivaCup's Facebook page -- within a few hours, I suddenly had about 200 visits all coming from Facebook directly to that post.
A tip: StatCounter showed me the importance of adding target="_blank" code to all of my external links so they open in new windows. Otherwise people leave and don't come back!

9. CrashPlan
If you're worried about losing your files when your hard drive crashes (and eventually it will) but can't afford an external hard drive or online storage space, this is a good option. It allows you to upload your files to another computer, then will sync the files once a day as long as both computers are on. When we first got it, it said that we'd have to pay some fee after the first 30 days, but that never happened and their website now doesn't say anything about that, just that it's free for personal backup. My files are backed up to Mike's computer, which won't help if we have some major natural disaster since both computers are in the same place, but at least protects me from a hard drive crash.
A tip: Even though the other person doesn't have access to your files, it does take up the same space on their computer that it's taking up on yours, so be aware of that before asking a friend to swap backups with you. You can change which files are backing up to only include the ones you're most concerned about, which will help save space.

10. Pandora
Here's another one I assume everyone knows about, but it's worth sharing just in case. Pandora lets you pick a song or an artist and builds a custom radio station of music that's similar. You can mark songs thumbs up or thumbs down to help it better understand what you're looking for, and you can also add additional "seeds" -- artists or songs -- to a station to give it variety. The free version has audio ads and a monthly listening limit of 40 hours, but I find it's still better than a traditional radio station for listening at work.
A tip: If you're looking for a certain type of music or a "mood," consider seeing what other users have created first rather than creating a station from scratch. Pandora seems to have buried the option of searching for stations created by other users, instead wanting you to connect using Facebook or Twitter to share stations with your friends, but you can still get to all shared stations. The quickest method I've found is to click "Help" and then the "Shared" button at the top, and "Find a shared station." Then you can search for whatever keywords you want.

I hope you learned something new! I should mention that I have no affiliation with any of these sites... I'm not that cool, haha. These are just things I love using and hope they'll be of some use to you as well. Please share your own favorite free things in the comments -- I love learning about new sites and services!

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