I like free stuff. If a task can be completed without dishing out money for an expensive piece of software, I'm all for it. Why spend money on bytes that could be better spent on more important things, like beer?
There is a lot of software available for free. Just like anything else, a lot of it is crap. A lot of free software actually comes with strings attached, like your personal information, ads, or important features that can only be used if you send the author money.
There are some real gems available if you know where to look. Software that is professional quality with no strings attached. Real alternatives to commercial applications.
One of the most important apps for any user is the office suite. The most popular suite is, of course, Microsoft Office. It's an excellent application, with lots of wizards and templates to make tasks easier, and more features than any one person could ever need. It also costs a few hundred dollars, and they keep changing their file format every few releases just to remind everyone they have to upgrade to the newest version or risk not being able to read others' documents.
Another excellent office suite is OpenOffice. It is also has lots of wizards and templates, and more features than any one person could ever need. It is available for free, however. And while it has its own file format, it can also read and save Microsoft Office documents, which means you will still be able to share documents with people who are broke because they've spent all their money on Microsoft Office. It's also multiplatform: it will run on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and FreeBSD.
OpenOffice comes with a word processor called Write, a spread sheet called Calc to replace Excel, presentation software (you know, like Powerpoint) called Impress, and a database application that they call Base that replaces Access. There is also a drawing program called Draw.
The wordprocessor does what you would expect a word processor to do: process words. You can also do some neat things like save your document in Adobe's .pdf format or in Aportisdoc format, so you can transfer the file to your Palm device. It has lots of wizards to help with some of the more complex tasks, like mail merge.
The presentation software (called Impress) comes with templates, backgrounds, etc. and starts out with a wizard to help you create your slideshow. It can export your presentation as a Flash file, if you wish, allowing you to post it on the web. It does not come with as much artwork and backgrounds as PowerPoint, but you can download more from the web.
I use the spreadsheet only occasionally, for very basic tasks, but it's served my needs. I've been able to import Microsoft Excel files with no problems, but I understand that some people have had issues with complex Excel files with scripts.
I've never had need for the database, so I won't comment on it.
If you're used to using Microsoft Office you will get the hang of OpenOffice quickly, although there are differences. If you have files with complex scripts and macros though, OpenOffice probably won't do the trick for you.
Don't let the fact that it's free fool you. OpenOffice is feature-rich enough for almost any personal or small business use. By not buying Microsoft Office, this piece of software will free up money to buy enough Pez for the rest of your life.