Finding Free Fun

Today, my daughters asked me when we are going to the zoo again. They have amazing memories. My three-year-old Emily was recalling the un-caged parrot that was sitting in the tree, able to fly wherever he chose, as well as the butterflies in the insect pavilion that crawled from nearby flowers to drink from a pool of nectar in her palm.

I stalled. The zoo is a couple hours’ drive away, and the cost of gas coupled with the admission for everyone to get into the facility, is an impractical use of our “extra” money while preparing for the costs of a new baby coming.

Then Rachel, five, suggested that maybe we go to the zoo after the baby gets here so he can see the animals, too. I smiled and said, yes, that sounds like a great idea. I didn’t say that it would probably be at least a year after the baby comes before that would happen.

It’s difficult for me to say “no” to my children, but I’ve found that I say that word far more often as a parent than I thought I would. I’m not talking about dealing with child behavior but rather when it comes to something that would cost money, whether it’s going somewhere special like the zoo, buying a book or toy, or getting a treat like an ice cream cone. Rather than say an outright “no,” I try to steer the conversation a different way, involving the children in thinking of cost-free ways of having fun.

Nothing can blow my budget faster than unwise decisions in finding ways to entertain the family. And perhaps nothing in sticking to a budget is more difficult for me and requires so much brain work. Just this past weekend, my husband mentioned a family music festival, which instantly got the kids excited. But when we checked it out, the admission cost was a little high and we would have to buy food on top of that (the festival didn’t allow food brought in). The girls were visibly disappointed with the decision to not go, until it was suggested that we go fishing instead – and because the fishing pond was in the same town as where I shop, and I indeed needed to pick up some groceries, there was no extra gas money involved. A win-win situation for all.

We are constantly trying to think of ways to have fun for free. Unfortunately, both my husband and my first thoughts are to do something that costs money, like going to a museum, zoo, movie theater, or festival. We then have to talk ourselves out of it, so to speak, without denying ourselves a little fun and family time. Here are some ways we have found free fun this summer:

  • “Eating out-”side the house – I love going to eat out at restaurants, but it’s easy to rack up a big bill (and not get very much nutrition out of it at the same time). After examining why I love eating out so much, I find it’s more for the social aspect than anything and a little for a break from the work of making and cleaning up after a meal. So I make lunch dates at friends’ houses instead. One time, I’ll go to a friend’s house, and the next time, I’ll invite her over to mine. Each time, both of us contribute to the meal so no one is stuck with the full responsibility – for example, I might bring a fruit or pasta salad – and then we both help the other one clean up afterwards. It may not be the totally carefree atmosphere of a restaurant, but it’s cost-free and still has the social aspect.
  • Free boarding – If you’re looking for an overnight trip, try to find an activity or event near where a close friend or family member lives so you don’t have to spend money on a hotel. Just be sure to schedule some time for visiting with your hosts, as you don’t want them to get the feeling they’re being taken advantage of.
  • No-admission activities – Summers are ripe with county fairs, small town festivals, and other events. Many of these activities do not have an admission but may charge for food and games. Even without spending money, there are often many things to see and do free of charge, such as parades or listening to musicians, that make it worthwhile to stop and take a look.
  • Plan ahead for food – It’s easy to spend a lot of money on food, even when you’re looking at the dollar menu, so try instead to plan your activities around meals or bring them along. Often, I don’t feel like spending an entire day away from home, so I’ll suggest that we eat lunch before going somewhere and get back in time for supper. All I’ll need to do is pack a snack for everyone. And if I do need to plan for lunch or supper, the kids always love a picnic, even if it’s just sandwiches and chips.
  • Stay home – When we think of entertainment, it’s often about going somewhere. But there are lots of fun things to do at home; it may be just a matter of changing things up a bit. Invite friends and family over for supper. Rather than keeping an activity out for the kids all the time, which can bore them after a while, only pull out the Slip ‘N Slide sprinkler once a week. Have a spontaneous movie night. Set up a tent in the backyard and camp out every once in a while. Create family traditions around holidays and birthdays. The list of ideas is endless. It’s about spending enjoyable time as a family doing something together.
  • Splurge a little bit – You have to allow a little money in your budget for entertainment, or you’ll never be able to stick with your budget. You just have to be smart about what you spend that money on. If you seek out no- and low-cost fun activities, you’ll be able to treat the family with more throughout the month, rather than if you spend all your budgeted entertainment money on one activity and end up feeling restricted the rest of the month. And perhaps you can save up some money for a nice vacation or outing a couple times a year.
  • Treat yourself in other ways – Realizing that eating out at a restaurant just isn’t going to happen that often – in fact, the only time we go to a restaurant is for anniversaries, birthdays, and other special occasions – I budget a little more each month for groceries to ensure that we can have a wide variety of food. I would feel too restricted if I couldn’t go out to eat AND had to eat the same types of food every day. I like to be able to cook Mexican, Chinese, Italian, etc. and some of those ingredients are more costly than for the basic American meal. But eating well helps stave off the desire to put down a wad of cash at a local restaurant.

What ways does your family have fun with little to no cost?

Rita Brhel

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