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.Sitting around like bumps on a log

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?



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  1. Fabulous ideas! Game nights with friends (and frozen pizza) are a particular favorite of ours–we love Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride too! Also, obsessed with the card game Canasta. I’m always baffled by how much I hear people spending on entertainment when so much is free! And, as you mention, the outdoors is probably the best source of recreation–hiking, walking, exploring…plus, who wants to pay to be entertained when you can create your own fun.

      1. Canasta is awesome–but be forewarned of its addictive properties! It’s best played with 4 people in partners and you can just combine two regular decks of cards (no need to buy a special deck). Your kiddos would probably pick it up quite well–it’s a great game of strategy and teamwork. My parents roped my siblings and me into playing when we were quite young because they needed us as partners! Rules vary by family/region, but here’s a good overview: http://www.hoylegaming.com/rules/showrule.aspx?RuleID=204

    1. I just recently discovered how much fun our family can have playing card or board games. Not only is it cheap, but it requires more interaction and strategic thinking than just playing a video game (in my opinion). A good deck of cards can provide a cheap evening of entertainment. We plan on making it a point to have a routine game night at our house.

  2. My family loves the nature reserve and park options (especially if there’s a playground). We can spend an entire evening walking around, riding bikes, and picnicking without spending much at all. Good roundup of options!

  3. For the kids our local library has tons of events, including free movie days multiple times per week. Even our local cineplex hosts free showings of movies that they advertise well in advance, some geared to kids and others to adults. And even though we are in a small town (9K people) both businesses are first class operations, so we are blessed in that regard.

    Personally nothing gives me more of a thrill than getting books that cost nothing (the book just seems to be that much better). These include those from the library of course, but also good selections offered for free at Amazon and other websites. Oftentimes I can get a free download of a good book from a financial author I follow, usually for a 24 hour period. Now that I am recuperating from ankle surgery it is time to catch up on many of these on the Kindle.

    1. Sounds nice! I love getting free library books, too. Saving $5 to $20 per book AND I don’t have the books cluttering up my shelves at home when I’m done with them.

    2. If we have the urge to go to a movie theater, we have a theater that plays movies for about $2 per ticket. The movies are those that have already rotated out of the main theaters and the cheap theater is a bit run down but once we’re in our seats watching the movie, our kids have never complained.

  4. How do you feel about pets? I know MMM has written them off, but the family absolutely loves being outside with our now 1 y.o. kitten. Overall she has seemed fairly low cost, being a rescue, and adds to our home life immensely.

    1. I’m not personally a fan of pets, but they don’t really have to be that expensive. We have a cat that we adopted when a family member couldn’t keep it any longer. Food is the biggest expense.

      End of life issues for pets can make or break a budget. So far we haven’t had to face the difficult choice of expensive interventions with uncertain chances to extend quantity or quality of life.

      The biggest expense I see others incurring (possibly after vet bills) is pet sitting or boarding expenses. Particularly if you want to spend weeks or months traveling during early retirement (which we do). We invited family to house sit and they will feed the cat, water the garden, and mow the grass so the pet sitting was free for us. Other people can pay hundreds per week. If we head out of town for a weekend, our neighbor or family don’t mind putting out a plate of food and changing the water.

      1. I’m not a pet fan but I’ve surrendered to the rest of the family on this point. While food isn’t overly expensive (unless you want it to be), vet visits or finding someone to care for your pet if you’re on trip can be costly.

      2. I hear you there. It’s the killer, kennel care when we go away. We always have to budget for that, which means getting less expensive hotels..it was so easy back in the States, no shortage of friends to house sit..

  5. I like to think back to my best memories were as a child. Some of them were family board games (Sorry! and Scrabble), sitting around a campfire, rare visits with relatives and taking epic bikes rides with my dad and sister. None of the best memories involved expensive entertainment. It was always the simple stuff and you echo this mentality. It’s a bit sad that parents thing they have to enroll their kids in all kinds of expensive adventures to make them happy. It’s quite the opposite.

    One theme I’ve notice lately among FI blogger are the Ticket to Ride and Settlers games. I have played neither, but am going to pick both up soon.

    Maybe FinCon should have a game night?

    1. Ticket to Ride and Settlers are both cool games and have a lot of replay value. Our kids love Ticket to Ride Europe (the only one we have) and they are 7 and 9. They also make great Christmas gifts to yourself and the whole family.

      As for most memorable experiences as a kid – I don’t hardly recall Disney World at all. I do remember riding bikes, going to the library, and hikes in the mountains while camping.

      1. Concur. Our kids have just much or more fun going camping than they do at expensive theme parks. Luckily, we have many state parks within a 3-hour drive from which to choose.

      2. Christmas, good idea. Lots of birthdays too in the 2nd half of the year. Can’t wait to give these a try.

        Risk and Stratego were always favorites too. Perhaps when the kids are older…

  6. My favorite cheap thing to do is work on my car. Maybe if I had a kid, he/she would enjoy helping as well. A project car can be had for under $1k and it can provide for hours and hours of engineering and mechanical training.

  7. Me and my toddler go to the toy store and she browses through everything but at the end she will put everything back for a 1$ worth of candy lol.

    Another cheap activity is the free waterparks! Also kids love goin to the beach!

    1. Free waterparks sound pretty fun!

      Our kids are great at economizing at the dollar store, too. And yes, they sometimes get the $1 candy instead of a junky toy.

  8. We love to take 30-40 mile bike rides, reward ourselves with a great lunch (which we always split) and then burn off every calorie and more by biking back to the car. There’s something cool about seeing a town or region from a bike. It also takes up 4 or 5 hours on the weekends when we’d both be eating and/or shopping – 2 things we don’t really need to be doing more than we already do.

    1. Wow! I misread that as 30-40 minute bike rides. 30-40 miles is quite a long ride. Good way to avoid spending money.

      FYI, I changed your website url you put in the comment box. It was broken, but I think I got the right one. I can change if it’s not right.

      1. Thanks for fixing it, you’re right it was broken…the remnants of a rock and roll career starting in college (Go Noles)

        The bike rides are a lot of fun. Here in Calif the beaches have miles and miles of amazing bike paths. you wouldn’t believe how entertaining and uh…stimulating bike rides can be in the summertime!!

        Love your blog. I’ve been doing the frugal financial mambo since I was a wee lad and it’s paid off big time. I’m happy to see I’m not the only numbskull who thinks it’s cool to live almost off the grid while maintaining a healthy balance sheet!

        1. Living off the grid while maintaining a healthy balance sheet – I like it!

          That’s a good way of looking at what we are doing. Growing our own wealth to enable us to live how we want without worrying about what’s happening on the grid.

  9. I agree, the parks around Raleigh are great. We live closer to downtown, and have 3 mini-parks within 5 minute walks. It is great.

    We also go to events on the weekends downtown & at North Hills. There are tons of free concerts, art events, and other festival-type deals. North Hills also has really good children events (free) during the week.

    For the hottest/rainiest summer days (and coldest/rainiest in winter), we have joined Marbles – a fantastic children’s museum. It’s $100 for a family annually, and is an incredible time for kids (probably through age 5-6). My wife will probably go 50-75 times this year, so a good value to us.

    1. I always overlook N. Hills. Just saw a cool pic of my neighbor over there at a kids program today.

      We aren’t big fans of Marbles. It drives us crazy. Too many kids and too hard to watch where they are when they wander off. I guess our older kids have aged out of it since last time we went they weren’t too interested. Great value though if you go as often as you do!

      1. I’m in Raleigh, and we are in desperate need of a body of Water for swimming, thanks for the tip on public pools. We have not figured out the lay of the land at all yet.

        1. No problem! If your little one is still a little one, the City of Raleigh pools have Spraygrounds at most of the locations. No chance the kid will drown, but they still get to enjoy the water. Also check out Shelley Lake and Lake Johnson for fun walks around the water and cheap boat/canoe rentals ($3-5/hr I think).

  10. Play with cardboard box! Yea, I have an almost 1 year old, and there really is no reason to buy toys when he’d prefer to play with the box or anything other than his toys. He also loves the swing…and my wife and I like taking walks…the little one comes along in the stroller and he loves being outside. Hope the nice weather continues!

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