Free NYC

Joan Warner, a professional business and finance writer, has lived in New York City since birth. She graciously caved to my insistent pressuring that she be today’s guest blogger.

As a native New Yorker, I was almost miffed a few years ago when London overtook my home town on the World’s Most Expensive Cities.  “Oh, really?” I thought to myself. “British takeout chains charge more than $10 for a bowl of lousy soup?” Maybe, but New York remains a place where you need big bucks just to wake up in the morning someplace other than a homeless shelter.

Here’s the thing, though. Natives know how to beat the system. That’s especially true of people like me who, thanks to the American economic miracle, keep getting poorer as we mature. Decades of downward mobility have taught us tricks — and I’m going to share themfree samples with you. New York is full of free food, free entertainment and free stuff. You just have to know where to find it.

Scoring swag does require two upfront investments:

  • A MetroCard. New York is big town. You just can’t walk everywhere. Unless you’re unusually sedentary, the $116 unlimited monthly card is the best deal.
  • A digital subscription to The New York Times . Mine costs $7.50 a month (hint – watch for the one-day sales), and it’s worth several hundred times that amount. You’ll see why very soon.

OK, now you have transportation and insider intelligence. But first things first: You’re hungry. Head to any Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or Fairway, where smiling people in

of course you can try it first!
of course you can try it first!

clean aprons will offer you cheese and crackers, fresh fruit, samples of in-house entrées and other noms for free, no purchase necessary. (The Trader Joe’s at 72nd and Broadway has a dedicated “sample station.”) High-end home-goods stores like Williams-Sonoma, which hold free cooking classes from time to time, also give away food. And at pretty much any supermarket you can sashay up to the deli counter and ask to try a slice of the roast beef or a bite of the Stilton.

Free booze is harder to come by, and believe me I’ve tried. But at many bars that cater to working New Yorkers, especially in midtown Manhattan, buying a single half-price beer

your ticket to free stuff
your ticket to free stuff

during happy hour entitles you to unlimited free hors d’oeuvres, often quite substantial: mini-pizzas, meatballs, steamed mussels, buffalo wings, pigs in a blanket and more. Thrillist, Yelp and other online review sites will keep you up to date on which bars are serving what. Crave something sweet? Dessert is as close as the nearest Cold Stone Creamery or Maison Kayser. Most ice cream shops will let you taste a couple of flavors, while bakeries often keep a plateful of cookie fragments on the counter. When you’re done, say politely and regretfully that you just remembered your diet.

art opening
After 5 glasses of cheap wine, it all looks good!

I said free booze is hard to come by, but I didn’t say impossible. Artcards lists New York City gallery openings and museum events; you can sign up to get the weekly calendar via email. Complimentary wine is often served at art openings. It’s not Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it comes in plastic cups, but it is free. As for learning what the avant-garde are painting these days: priceless.


If you need to get out of the weather, rest your feet or charge your phone, forget Starbucks.  Instead, take refuge in the lobby of a fine hotel. From the free wi-fi to the immaculate rest rooms, these classy oases can’t be beat for reading, checking your e-mail and, if you’re in the mood, chatting with visitors from Wichita. Stroll in as if you own the joint, sink into a leather armchair, and enjoy the scent of fresh flowers and the soft classical music. Aahhhhh.

Better than starbucks
Better than starbucks


Now, about that digital Times subscription. Five mornings a week, it dumps a file called New York Today onto your device along with a daily news summary. Both files go live at 6 a.m. and stay up until late morning. New York Today gives you the latest local news, weather and MTA alerts — and a section called “Coming Up Today” that’s absolutely indispensable for the freeloader. It lists concerts, dance parties, walking tours, classes, tastings, fitness outings and other events in the five boroughs … a great many of them costing zero dollars and zero cents.

The column includes regularly scheduled free performances, like summer movie nights and Shakespeare in the Park. But it’s the less-publicized stuff that makes the app worth its weight in gold. Free activities  listed in the last couple of days have included a fencing

dance free
Free and fun

class, a bowling competition, a playwriting workshop, a little-known cherry blossom festival, freshwater fishing for kids (equipment provided) and astronomical observing sessions.

So pack a peanut butter sandwich, fill up your water bottle and enjoy New York like a native. Oh, and you do know about Freecycle, right? Good.

Read more from Joan on her blog

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