I think I speak for most people (99% in fact) when I say that getting a bargain thes & e days seems nigh on impossible. With the cost of living rising steadily across the UK, Northern Ireland is no exception and, like everyone, I have been watching what I spend. Certain things are unavoidable, and cost is something we have to live with, such as rent, or fuel, however you can compromise on most things and save yourself a good deal of money. I have compiled a small, but not exhaustive, list of websites and services that can keep you in the black:
To stay connected, you have to be connected in the first place, and broadband is an essential for most people these days who need to stay on top of what's happening and to keep in touch with family, friends and the outside world. A good deal can be hard to come by, and it can be exhausting, frustrating and downright confusing when trying to look for the best deal. Enter Uswitch.
Uswitch has been around for a while, and originally only compared gas and electricity providers based on price and efficiency, but now they compare gas & energy providers as well as broadband, mobile phone, cable/satellite TV, home phone, credit card and home insurance providers based on your postcode, availability and user rating.
They also provide a wealth of information and advice for first time home buyers, newly qualified drivers, how to switch your provider, your rights as a consumer and those trying to save money. It also links to different websites that sell energy saving products. I can safely say that U Switch is one of the most invaluable money saving resources out there today, and this is why I have put it at the number one spot.
Have you ever bought a new TV, a new cooker or microwave but the old one is still fit for purpose? Has your TV, cooker or microwave clapped out and you can't afford to buy a new one? Well this is where the FreeCycle network comes into play.FreeCycle is based on the principal of recycling electronics and unwanted, fit for purpose appliances and products and giving them away for free. This is especially beneficial to those who are struggling to pay the bills, or have just moved into a new unfurnished property and need a few essentials. Everything from refrigerators, furniture, car parts and hardware are given away for free on this site. It covers the whole of NI, and further afield with online communities tailored for different parts of the country. It is definitely worth a look, and recycling is is never to be sniffed at.
3. Gumtree Freebies / SwapShop
Gumtree, if you are unfamiliar with it, acts as an online classifieds page, covering the whole of the UK, Ireland and the USA as well as further afield. Gumtree also has a 'Freebies' section on its site, much like FreeCycle, it is a place for those who are looking for second hand products for free, and for those who wish to give away products that are fit for purpose. SwapShop works in a similar way, however as the name suggests, it is a place for users to offer products in exchange for similar products, such as mobile phones, furniture and electronics. Be wary though, make sure that what you are getting is worth what you are swapping, as classified sites are notorious for scams, stolen goods and fake/faulty products. This is especially relevant when looking for vehicles, hardware or similar high end products.
4. Holidays / Things to See & Do:
It can be extremely difficult in these financial times to save, and it is even harder to save for things such as holidays or day trips, but not you don't have to go very far to get the most out of a weekend or to spend a week away somewhere with the family or friends. There are plenty of free events happening in and around your local community, and there are a number of websites and resources to help you find where to go and what to do for free.
This neat little website is a definitive (but not exhaustive) resource for finding out what is going on ear you, how to get there and how much it costs. While many of the events are priced, most are reasonable and within most people's budgets, but if you are really feeling the pinch it also offers events that are free for everyone. It also offers a handy free iPhone/iPod touch app for those intrepid travellers on the move.
(ii) Our Time, Our Place
Our Time, Our Place has been advertised with a splash of publicity and colour since the start of the new year. It has links to various festivals, parades and events that are taking place across NI during 2012. Like Culture Northern Ireland, it advertises ticketed events, however it also has links to events and festivals that are free.
(iii) What's On NI
Much like Culture Northern Ireland, What's On NI is a great resource for those who are looking for events in and around their area, what's happening in the coming weeks and how to get there. A unique selling point of this site is that it breaks down events by category and interest, so that users can find something that suits them down to a T.
NMNI is a fantastic resource for those who are at a loose end, or if the kids are a bit bored on the weekend. This website details the various events, exhibitions and festivals that are taking place in and around NI's four main museums. Both the Ulster Museum and the Armagh County Museum are free entry, with the Folk & Transport and the Ulster American Folk Park charging very reasonable prices for adults and free admission for children under 5 years old. Museums are an underrated community resource in this day and age, but children and families can really enjoy a day out at a museum, and I must say that I love visiting museums and their art exhibitions with my partner if we are at a loose end. They are there to be valued and appreciated, and with the museums having undergone a recent refurbishment, they have been modernised and revamped.
The original tourist resource for Northern Ireland, Discover Northern Ireland could be seen as an amalgamation of the above sites and services, giving details of what's on, where and how to get there, with a built in journey planner to save you time and effort. DNI also has links to various heritage sites, national parks and lake lands that are an invaluable tourist resource for those who want to enjoy the view, take a few photos and have a picnic with the family.
(vi) Your Local Council
A rather underrated and seldom advertised place to find information is the website of your local council. Many local district councils advertise local, free events that are taking place, many of them are free and open to all the family. They also advertise local parks, and little known gems such as Tannaghmore Gardens or Lough Neagh Discovery Centre in Craigavon, the Seaforde Gardens/Butterfly House and local festivals. I often trek the lakes around Craigavon or take a drive down to Newcastle and visit the Mournes on a good day. You don't have to have money to enjoy a day out.
5. Music / TV / Film
Now all those above ideas seem like good options if the weather is good, but this is Northern Ireland and more often than not you can be stuck in the house with nothing to do. Now there are a few services that let you (legally, mind you!) enjoy your favourite shows and listen to your favourite artists without costing the earth. These may seem luxury items on a budget, but you don't have to fork out a fortune in order to relax at home. It's beneficial to have a smart phone, laptop/PC or tablet and a good 3G data plan, (and you can find these on USwitch on certain Pay as You Go networks) or a decent WiFi connection in order to get the most out of these gems.
Grooveshark, unlike the more popular Spotify, doesn't require you to pay a monthly subscription in order to enjoy your favourite songs on your PC or laptop. With a completely web-based interface, Grooveshark allows users to create an account, (you can create a unique Grooveshark account or login with your Facebook or Twitter accounts) create playlists and listen to them back as many times as they like without ads or any additional charge or subscription. If you want to enjoy Grooveshark on the move, however, you do need to sign up to a paid account.
(ii) TV Catchup
Think of it as freeview for your PC, smartphone or tablet, TV Catchup allows users in the UK to access any freeview channel and watch live, streaming shows as they play. This is especially handy if you live in an area with poor reception, or someone else is hogging the TV. Another stand out feature of this site is that there is an app available for Android and iOS devices, letting you use your iPhone or tablet (if you have one) as a portable TV. It does require a decent internet connection, but with the likes of the GiffGaff network, you can enjoy unlimited 3G data on your phone on a pay and go tariff and indulge in your favourite TV shows on the move.
(iii) On Demand
Now TV Catchup might be number 2 on my list, however it is only useful if you manage to catch the shows you want to watch while they are on the air. If you happen to miss your shows, you can always catch up with an increasing list of 'on demand' services that are now available. With a decent broadband or 3G connection, you can re-watch your favourite shows on YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Channel 4 OD, Demand 5, ITV Player, RTE Player and STV Player. You can also watch on your iPhone or tablet, much like TV Catchup.
ClickPlayer is an online resource with links to every on demand service that is currently available, including paid services like Netflix, Hulu and HMV On Demand, as well as lesser known free services like TED, Crackle and BlinkBox.
While this blog post is not exhaustive, it can certainly help to minimise your outgoings and still let you enjoy your free time without worrying about cost. I use these services on a daily basis in my free time, and I find them to be a free, reliable alternative to costly mainstream services and sites. If you have any that I have missed or you have any comments to make, please don't hesitate!