Education can be expensive, with a course at a community college costing $338 on average and tutoring for those learning an instrument or language potentially adding up to thousands. However, it is possible to learn almost anything for free these days.
The amount of educational material available through apps, websites, and video hosting sites like Youtube is staggering. Far from being a poor quality option, these resources often involve renowned experts, dedicated communities, or people who are just genuinely passionate about a subject they want to share.
People with a bit of spare time and access to a smartphone or PC can pick up anything—from an interesting new hobby to skills that could take their career to the next level— without spending a penny. It can also be a handy way to kill some time. Despite most recreational travel prospects being out of the window, language learning app Duolingo saw a massive increase in its userbase last year.
Below are a few examples of skills you can pick up without picking up your wallet first.
Hobbies aren’t necessarily going to have a massive impact on your life—but they will give you an interesting way to spend your free time and potentially something you can show off to impress your friends if you get good at your chosen subject.
Woodworking is a good example, and Youtube is an excellent place to start learning. You can start as a total beginner with zero experience and take your pick of dedicated experts desperate to teach you the craft. You can also specialize at any point. Interested in making dollhouse furniture? Just do that. More into wood carving? There’s someone there to teach you. However, you should probably get the basics down first. The point is easy-to-follow guides are abundant, and you can tailor your learning, so you’re focused on picking up precisely what you want to know.
Similarly, Youtube is an excellent place to pick up an instrument. Guitar, drums, piano, tuba, whatever it is you’re playing, it’s never been easier to become “self-taught.” There are also apps like Yousician, which help users master an array of instruments. Though their free version is limited to 10 minutes per lesson, it can still be a handy tool.
Bookbinding, wine tasting, cheesemaking, clothing repair, oil painting. These are just some of the hobbies you can pick up, but the sky really is the limit. Just think of something that has always interested you, Google it and get the ball rolling.
Life skills are things you’re likely to use in everyday life, so improving any of these skills will make your life a touch better.
Cookery is a good example of this. People need to eat, but there is a level of skill involved in preparing good, nutritious meals. Numerous apps, websites, and Youtube channels cover everything from essential nutritional advice to detailed cookery lessons from some of the world’s best chefs.
Apps like Sidechef can hold a user’s hand every step of the way. The beauty of this is, you will be able to learn and push yourself with a reasonably big safety net underneath you in the form of the app’s features. Sidechef provides detailed instructions and visual guides for everything from basics like chopping an onion—all the way to advanced recipes. It uses timers built into the app to help ensure its users stay on top of things, integrates with any smart devices you may have in the kitchen, and even offers to have the ingredients needed for a particular recipe delivered straight to your door.
Over 18,000 recipes are available on the app. Recommendations can be tailored to fit many popular cuisines, such as Indian, Mediterranian, Korean, et al.—and dietary restrictions, such as egg allergies or gluten intolerance.
For those looking for something slightly more traditional, the world-renowned Institute of Culinary Education offers free online classes via Zoom. Those interested need to keep an eye out for a course being announced, register for the webinar, then take the opportunity to cook along with one of their expert chefs. They can also have questions answered by the expert through Zoom’s chat box at the end of the session.
Improved cookery skills don’t necessarily mean a healthier lifestyle—once you can make and subsequently douse everything in hollandaise sauce, your arteries are done for. However, if you can resist essentially drinking melted butter three times a day, you can use your newfound skills to help cut out fast food, pre-prepared meals, and general junk food. This leads to another life-changing skill you can pick up with tech.
Fitness can be complex, which is why the various facets of the pre-pandemic fitness industry made over $35 billion in the US alone. However, with some time and some tech, you can avoid putting your hard-earned cash into a personal trainer’s pocket.
Yoga is a good entry point into exercise, though some of the poses can be complex and require various levels of fitness and experience to pull off. But while classes are cheap, ranging from $12 to $16 each on average, costs will eventually add up. Alternatively, you can fire up Youtube or one of several yoga apps and stretch away with your heart’s content for free.
Weightlifting can be equally intimidating. Although on paper, you could say it’s just picking increasingly heavy things up until your muscles get bigger, it’s far more complex than that. Diving in without proper knowledge could lead to you not making the progress you want or even picking up a severe injury. A personal trainer could show you the ropes, but those cost around $60 an hour on average, and it usually takes multiple sessions to get a good level of knowledge. Alternatively, an app like Starting Strength can help you learn basic compound movements while developing a basic level of fitness. Any of the numerous fitness gurus on YouTube can advise on more complex maneuvers further down the line.
Though it isn’t as exciting as some of the other stuff mentioned in this article, Khan Academy offers a personal finance course on its app and website. Users can get to grips with things like saving, debt repayment, buying a home, and more.
Beyond picking up new hobbies and learning life skills, you can also use free tools to enhance your career prospects.
Picking up a second language can lead to a salary increase of around 2%. It also opens up a range of new careers and could easily make a difference in a job interview. Apps like Duolingo and Memrise are free, fun, and provide a solid base for picking up an additional language. Admittedly, they can only take you so far. But it is still totally possible to achieve fluency for free if you hop on to something like Reddit’s Language Exchange and find a native speaker to help practice your skills.
Even if you don’t go all the way, learning a little can still improve cognitive function, open up possibilities while traveling, or make you look impressive in a restaurant when the menu arrives in French.
Coding is another area that has become increasingly important within most people’s lifetimes. Until relatively recently, it was something learned by enthusiasts or people studying computer science at university. Now it’s being taught at some kindergartens, which makes sense as it is the building block of the technology we directly interact with every day.
If you were at school when blackboards were still a thing, you haven’t missed out. Numerous apps and websites will teach you how to code in your spare time for absolutely nothing. Something like Sololearn can teach you everything from HTML, which you should be able to pick up in a few weeks, to C++, which will make you want to destroy everything tech-related and go back to living in a cave.
Luckily, you probably won’t need C++ unless you want to pursue a career in computer science, though learning it is still an option for the sadists amongst you. HTML has far wider applications and can really enhance a resume, so it’s almost certainly worth the effort if you’re looking to give your job prospects a boost.
Many of the apps mentioned in this section have game-like formats to help make learning a bit less boring. So, as well as being free, you might be more likely to stick with this kind of learning format as you’re constantly engaged with encouraged by it. That might be more appealing than watching someone drone on for an hour in front of a whiteboard while pretending to take notes.
On a personal note, I feel like I’ve both taken advantage of the free educational resources out there far more than the average person and still not used any of them enough.
For example, I’m currently working on a free wine tasting course as I like wine and would like to write about it more often. The last ten years of my career have involved expanding my knowledge and picking up skills where I can, as the more I know, the more I can write about, and the more I write about, the more I get paid.
However, I’m still limited to one language despite picking up more little skills and bits of knowledge than I can remember and traveling extensively. This is an area where I’d like to improve, and the resources are obviously there; the only limitations seem to be the amount of time I want to set aside for learning and the drive to complete my goal.
And I’d imagine it’s the same with most other people. If you have some spare time and there’s something you want to learn, whether it be a hobby or something life-changing, nothing is stopping you these days. So, you should get on with it.