if you can find it. autodesk (the guys that make 3dmax) used to make a free program called Gmax.
they don't make it anymore, so you might have to do a little digging to find it. It's basically just 3dmax minus a few features, sort of like a demo.
i'm not sure if it can export meshes though.. I would assume that you could save stuff as a .3ds at least..
never worked with the thing myself. since i have a legal copy of the real deal
Yeah, I used 3ds max for a short while. Getting good at modeling can take months if not years. Developing your own style is fun though, you wont realize you have your own style until you look at a tutorial and go, "But can't I just do this?" Learning modeling is just like learning a language. It takes time to become fluent.
You can also check out Hexagon 2 from DAZ3D. Why drop big bucks on top end programs if you're not creating stuff for broadcast or corporate level work? Hex will run you $149. Check it out at http://www.daz3d.com/i.x/software/hexagon/-/?
I don't know who said 400 dollars for 3ds max, but that price is grossly understated... theres not even enough digits in there... XSI is good, alot cheaper, not sure what formats the modtool exports too.