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I see suggestions to use Zapier to collect from and post to the CMS; how would you do this if didn't have a budget for new recurring expenses?

You can use Zapier for free but it will only run every 15 minutes and there are all additional upcharges it seems like.

If you were to build your own thing for free instead, what would you build?

Anything that zapier does can be done with custom written code (javascript), zapier makes it easier for us non-coders to do these things. I do agree that zapier’s plans are a bit costly considering how it’s a go-between between other services you’re already paying for.
I’ve used integromat as well. It’s a bit clunkier and takes longer to figure out but their pricing is more appealing.