17 Ways To Have Cheap Family Fun
Summer is here. Are your kids bored yet? They shouldn’t be. There are dozens of ways to keep your family busy and having fun without spending much money. Here is what we do to prevent ourselves from getting cabin fever:
1. Walk or bike through the neighborhood (free). Great exercise and a quick way to spend a half our outside without having to pack anything or spend a lot of time preparing to go out. You’re not far from home wherever you are in the neighborhood. You might bump into some neighbors which might lead to more fun activities or at the least a pleasant chat.
2. Visit a neighborhood park (free). Bring a frisbee or some balls to toss. Make it an afternoon and pack a picnic lunch.
3. City parks and rec water park or swimming pool ($2 per person when you buy a 15 admission punch pass for $30). Our parks and rec department has pools all over the city and a water park not far from our house. For a couple bucks per person, we can enjoy a few hours (or all day) pool-side. This is guaranteed to exhaust your kids.
4. Nature reserve with creeks, natural mini-waterfalls, and tree-lined trails around a lake (free except for $2 in gas). Google describes the closest one to our house as a “quiet, wooded retreat with hiking trails” and that’s about all you need to know. The woods are home to beavers, owls, deer, hawks, and all kinds of wildlife. Our local park isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to make you forget you live in a city due to miles of trails.
5. Riding the circulator bus downtown (free). We have a free bus that runs around downtown in our city. You can hop on and hop off anywhere, which makes visiting and traveling around downtown free (at least the transportation part of it). The route passes by the State Capitol, many historic buildings, and a few (free) museums. The whole route takes about 30 minutes.
6. Art museum, science museum, history museum, state capitol building, walking architecture tour (free plus $1 in gas and maybe $2-3 for parking on weekdays). I guess we are “lucky” to live in the state capital where there are a ton of free museums. The museums are hit and miss with kids, but you never know which ones might pique the interests of your brood.
7. Arboretum or botanical gardens (free plus $1-2 gas). These are free ways to see hundreds of varieties of local trees, flowers, and other plants in a nicely manicured setting. Picnics are a great way to enjoy the scenery for an extended stretch (and rest your feet!).
8. Watching rec league sports like baseball, basketball, soccer, and softball (free). As we were leaving the water park, my kids were amazed at the softball tournament taking place in another part of the park. That’s when I realized they have never been to a “real” baseball or softball game. I’m no sports fan, but maybe my kids will show more interest than me. This tournament appeared to be free, and I’m sure there are plenty of city league games or tournaments that have no admission fee. Our local farm league baseball team also offers free tickets occasionally, so that would be another way to catch a free game and get the full baseball stadium experience.
9. Library story time, arts, crafts, and other activities (free). Our neighborhood library offers a wide range of programs for kids (and adults!) from toddlers up to fifth grade. They have toddler story time a few times per week that I attend with Mr. RoG Jr. For elementary school age kids, they have a weekly story time that includes an arts, crafts, or science activity. Last week we attended a monthly special program that included mining for gems and my kids took home a small bag of their finds for free. My little geologist-in-training loved that!
10. Toddler play time at the community center gym (free). Next door to our library is the community center that offers free open gym time for kids age zero to five twice per week. It’s a great place to set up a play date or meet other families with kids and get out of the heat. Many shopping malls have an open play area that would serve the same purpose (but might lead to expensive impulse shopping or buying a $4 cookie or ice cream cone).
11. Roller skating on Dollar Night ($4/person including skate rental; $1/person if you bring your own rollerblades or skates). A fun night out for the kids. Skip the crappy video games and food and you won’t spend much more than $10. Our skating rink also sells cheesy light up LED items for wildly inflated prices (like these finger lights you can get for under $1/set at Amazon or these light up flashing hair extensions at 6 for $2 shipped). Skip the “glow cart” at the rink and pack your own fun.
12. Play dates (free). Invite your kids’ friends over for a play date. Let them play outside. Or inside. Or watch a movie together. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. As one of my kids just remarked, “it’s so cool to see friends from school in the middle of summer!”. For bonus parenting points, host a sleepover – the ultimate play date. That might set you back $20 for a few pizzas (and a bottle of wine for the adults).
13. Play with cardboard boxes (free). This one needs no explanation. My nine year old still gets giddy when she sees a large package at our door. Who cares if there’s an awesome new computer or television inside – “can I have the box, Daddy?”. Forts were built, car race tracks where constructed, and much sledding down the stairs occurred. Empty paper towel rolls can also fill a similar role as cardboard boxes. Pirate’s telescope? Baseball bat? Megaphone?
14. Walk to the grocery store to buy a half gallon of ice cream to eat at home ($2-3). Forget spending $20 at a fancy ice cream or froyo parlor. Hit up the grocery store and get a carton of ice cream for the whole family to enjoy. Other than getting the carton home without it melting (hint: ice packs and a book bag work well if you’re on foot), the next hardest problem will be deciding on just one flavor. Good luck. We keep a stash of sprinkles and syrups on hand for these summer emergencies.
15. Board games ($10-40 once, $1-2 per play if you amortize the cost over a summer). I personally like the “European board games” like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan. Those games offer playability for younger kids starting around age six mixed with enough strategy and luck so the adults won’t always win yet won’t get bored easily. These games are also fun for adults to play on “board game night” (invite a few friends over). If you are interested in learning more about the secret culture of board gaming, check out BoardGameGeek.com (the existence of this site reinforces my belief that the internet has a niche group devoted to every possible interest known to man).
16. Jigsaw puzzles ($1 to $5). Fun for all ages. Check out the dollar store if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to spend more than a buck. The adults in our house like the 500 piece puzzles (which are impossible to complete when kids take pieces and occasionally chew on them).
17. Staycation (free?). Everyone loves traditional vacations like our five week summer road trip to Canada. For a change, give a staycation a shot. It’s like a vacation where you take off work but stay at your own house. Advantages include the low cost (free), no need to pack, and no travel required. When you get home from work on a Friday evening, you’re already at your vacation destination for the next week. It’s a great way to catch up on that stack of novels and magazines on your bedside table and clear out your Netflix queue. Or get off your lazy butt and do one of the other sixteen things on this list.
I could go on forever, but I’d like to tackle a few of these activities myself. This is but a taste of what you can do without spending more than a few bucks. If you have seen my $32,000 retirement budget, you might notice I only have $913 budgeted for “entertainment, toys, and fun”. That amount covers not just toys, but also stocking my liquor cabinet occasionally and three weeks of summer camp for two kids each year. Fun doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
For many of these activities, we set out with one goal, and end up getting nicely sidetracked. We might spot some wild animals on the way to the park and stop to observe those for a while. Or bump into friends and join them for an afternoon doing something free.
Thanks to Mr. 1500 for planting the idea for this article in my head. His post that inspired me at 1500 Days To Freedom.
What is your favorite free or cheap thing to do?