Exercising on the Cheap

Piggy bank
Getty Images/Peter Dazeley

Exercise may be tough to fit into a busy day, but outfitting your home gym is easier than you think. Your home gym can be as lavish (mega-machines, treadmills, etc.) or as simple (a good pair of athletic shoes) as you like and, for the budget-minded, it doesn't have to cost a thing.

When I first started working out, I didn't have much of a budget. I was in college and what little money I had went towards food (Ramen noodles) and drink (beer, of course). What I didn't know was that I could've made my own set of weights without spending an extra dime.

The nice thing about weight training is that anything with weight will work--a dumbbell, a full water bottle or a sock full of sand...your body doesn't know the difference.

There are plenty of things you probably have in your house right now that could serve as weights--you just need to be a little creative to get started.

Making Your Own Weights

Whether you're outfitting a home gym or traveling, there are a variety of things you can use as dumbbells such as:

  • Full Soup Cans. These are great for lighter weights. Some larger cans weigh up to a pound (or more) and could be used for upper body exercises like biceps curls, overhead presses and lateral raises.
  • Full Water Bottles. A large water bottle (say around 33.8 fluid ounces) can give you a little more than 2 pounds when full of water. Fill it with sand, rocks or change and you get even more weight.
  • Computer Bags or Small duffel bags. My husband carries around a small computer bag so stuffed, it weighs about 10 pounds. Because computer bags usually have handles, these can be great for exercises like bicep curls, lateral raises or one-armed rows. Small duffel bags with handles can be filled with books and used for lower body exercises like squats, lunges and deadlifts.
  • Milk or Orange Juice Jugs. Save your old milk jugs and fill them with sand, change or water for weights with ready-made handles
  • PVC Pipes. I had one client who filled PVC pipes with sand, capping them off with duct tape to avoid spillage. This is a great idea since PVC pipes come in all shapes and sizes, many of which fit perfectly in your hand.
  • Tennis balls and cans. Shawn Keith, certified personal trainer, recommends filling tennis balls and tennis cans with sand or change for some great handheld weights.

Most of these materials can be found around your house or at your local hardware store. If you're not into making weights yourself, there are some other alternatives for finding cheap equipment.

Finding Inexpensive Exercise Equipment

If you don't mind a little bargain-hunting, you can find inexpensive exercise equipment in a variety of places such as:

  • Garage Sales. I almost always see exercise gear at garage sales and some of it's even worth buying. Pick up the newspaper to find weekend garage sales in your area and you may just find something.
  • Play it Again Sports. This store buys and sells used (and new) exercise equipment. If you have one in your area, it's worth checking out, especially for their dumbbell selection, which is usually pretty good.
  • Walmart. Walmart is known for bargains and great for small exercise equipment like dumbbells, barbells, exercise balls and resistance bands.
  • Classified Ads. Americans love to buy things...especially exercise equipment. They also love to sell things...especially exercise equipment they never used. Check your newspaper for cheap gear or try Craigslist or Freecycle to see what's near you.

What Not to Skimp On

While it's a fine idea to bargain-hunt, there are a few crucial items you shouldn't skimp on. Learn from my mistakes and make sure you spend good money on:

  • MP3 players. These days, you might be using your smartphone while you workout, but you can also get a dedicated music player that's lighter and may give you more options for listening to music while you exercise.
  • Heart Rate Monitors. I once bought an HRM from a discount department store for about $25. It quickly went into the trash because it was uncomfortable and only intermittently picked up my heart rate. It's better to spend a little more money on a quality heart rate monitor that you'll use for years.
  • Treadmills, Elliptical Trainers or Other Machines. This is one area where you get what you pay for. Spend as much as you can for larger pieces of equipment to ensure they'll last for the long-term.
  • Athletic shoes. Your shoes may be the most important piece of equipment you own--if you don't have supportive shoes that fit right and match your sport, you could end up with pain or a long-term injury.

Creating a home gym with little or no money is easy if you're on a budget. Anything with weight can be used for strength training exercises and, don't forget, there are plenty of great bodyweight exercises that require no equipment at all.​