10 Great Ideas for Frugal Family Fun

Family members managed to keep each other entertained for thousands of years before the invention of $60 video games and $15 3-D movies, and there are still plenty of ways to make your own fun.
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During times of economic downturn, it's easy to decree that recreational spending allowances should be the first items axed from the family budget. And with growing dependencies on high-cost, technology-based activities, balancing entertainment with the necessity of keeping costs low can require truly heroic creativity.

If you're a parent, you'll see an even greater dent in your wallet. In America as of 2010, by the time your child reached 18 years of age you'd have shelled out anywhere between $8,480 and $23,690 every year for her expenses. In case you prefer not to do the frightening math, that's between $152,640 and $426,420 to bring your little one to adulthood [source: USDA].


So, how do you maintain a nonboring family life when neither undisciplined splurging nor total isolation are particularly appealing options? Luckily, entertaining family activities don't have to be expensive. Read on for inspiration to get creative with fun, frugal family activities.

10: Join Classes and Clubs

In addition to all the free books, DVDs and music they lend, your local library may offer classes, lectures and clubs for a range of interests and age groups.
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It's easy to think of learning as something that's limited to school hours, but as anyone with an inner (or outer) nerd can tell you, education can be a fun -- not to mention fulfilling -- recreational pursuit. With a little brochure gathering and Internet searching, you could be on your way to a new hobby or regular weekend activity for little to no cost.

Public libraries, although sometimes eclipsed by the Internet in terms of research speed and convenience, are a rich resource for recreational and practical education. Many public libraries host craft sessions, reading groups and classes on practical skills like resume writing and interview preparedness, basic and mobile technology skills, and English as a second language [source: Los Angeles Public Library, Boston Public Library]. And even better, since most libraries are public entities, their classes are usually offered free of charge.


Community centers are also a valuable resource for cheap and easy recreational activities. Classes at a community or rec center often cost more than those you'll find at a public library, but with their dedicated space and facilities, they usually also offer a much wider variety of options [source: Portland Parks and Recreation]. Want to learn to swim, dance, sculpt, whittle and karate chop -- all in one afternoon? Your local community center is the place to be.

But you want to learn new skills on the cheap and help others, you say? Read on to find out how to have fun while earning some brownie points from your fellow man.

9: Volunteer Your Time

Community-based classes aren't the only way to take advantage of low-cost recreation. Volunteering offers opportunities for you and your family to help others while furthering a passion or developing a skill, all for no more than the cost of transportation.

A great way to find volunteer opportunities is simply by contacting establishments you frequent or organizations you support. Schools and social cause groups, especially nonprofits, usually welcome volunteers, and some Web sites feature online databases with extensive lists of volunteer opportunities and matching services based on your interests [source: Volunteer Match]. Like spending time by the ocean? Get the family involved in a beach cleanup day. Wish you could learn more about history or the arts? Sign up to lead tours at a museum in your area.


And don't be afraid to use volunteer opportunities as placeholders for pricier pursuits. If the kids are begging for a dog, they can experience the joys of working with animals without the time and budgetary commitments of pet ownership by volunteering at a shelter. Additionally, organizations like the ASPCA offer volunteers opportunities to serve in roles ranging from animal socialization to veterinary assistance [source: ASPCA].

If a day volunteering in the botanical gardens always leaves you wanting more, however, you may want to make outdoor exploration a regular part of family recreation. Read on for tips on how you and your family can learn to walk on the wild side.

8: Get to Know the Great Outdoors

Your nearby parks or nature preserves will have lots of sights to see -- or you could go on a bird- or bug-watching trek through your own neighborhood.

When you're pinching pennies, the outdoors is the ultimate open-air amusement park -- and you don't even have to leave your technology at home. Many hiking and nature smartphone applications offer rich resources for outdoor adventurers. For example, apps like All Trails allow users to track their location via GPS, keep journals of their favorite hikes and even view outdoor events going on locally.

Although that 25-mile, high-altitude climb your new app told you about might seem like a fun Saturday, it's important to trek within your skill level. Many Web sites, like Local Hikes, offer directories of trails for several locations and include information on mileage, elevation gain, difficulty and hike time, plus descriptions of the trails you'll encounter and reviews by previous hikers.


If you're looking to make the outdoors a regular to-do for your family, a good nature book is also a smart investment. For example, for tips on how to get the most out of your hike or nature walk, Charles Cook's "The Essential Guide to Nature Walking in the United States" offers helpful guidelines on what to wear, where to go, and what you might see on hikes and nature walks all over the country.

Looking to stay a little closer to home? Read on for tips on how to keep your family entertained from the comfort of your couch or kitchen.

7: Make Home Exciting

Opportunities for low-cost fun abound in your community, but that doesn't mean you have to leave the house to find them. For example, your kitchen offers ample opportunities for creativity. Try ringing in an upcoming holiday by decorating cookies or cupcakes with your kids. Along with some great project-idea resources that can be found online, libraries and bookstores alike stock kid-centric cookbooks full of great ideas.

Not ready to venture into the more complicated kitchen projects? No problem. A classic graham cracker gingerbread house is easy to make without so much as turning on the oven, and it can be customized to fit any season [source: PBS].


And homemade projects don't always have to be edible; it's hard to resist playing with gooey, oozy slime at any age, and this classic toy is easy to make in your own home. Kids can also have fun with homemade playdough that comes together in minutes. Search online or on your favorite DIY site for recipes -- we tested a few for our article How Play-Doh Modeling Compound Works.

If you don't feel like making a mess, there are still plenty of other options inside the home. These days, everything old is new again: Try bringing out an old favorite board game like Monopoly or Clue that may not be familiar to younger members of the family.

But what if you just don't have the downtime for even the lowest-maintenance activities? Read on to find out how letting your kids break some rules can turn your chore-filled weekends into productive multitasking.

6: Do It Yourself

Whether your kid enjoys math, design, making a mess or a little of each, you'll find tasks for them during a DIY project.
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It's easy to dread household projects that build up during the workweek, especially when you're trying to save money by taking the DIY route. With the right attitude, however, these projects can be great opportunities for fun family time.

First, learn about your task. Check out a few books on painting from that library we talked about earlier, or consult your local hardware store for tips. No time for an in-person tutorial? Many hardware stores have online how-to pages with quick and easy tutorials on basic skills.


Second, get excited! It's easy to make what could be solitary labor a family activity by getting your kids involved. Instead of worrying about how to entertain them while you're working, let them take ownership of a set of tasks. Try setting goals or having contests to see who can peel the tape off the painted wall the best (note: not the fastest), or ask their opinion on where new decorations should be placed. They might offer some fresh ideas that you hadn't thought of before.

DIY projects are also a great opportunity to give younger family members an opportunity to break the rules -- in a safe, supervised way. If you're tearing out cabinets, give kids a pack of markers and let them draw all over them first. Allowing kids this license for controlled chaos automatically makes the task seem less like work -- and, let's face it, they'll think you're a lot cooler.

5: Find Entertainment On-screen

Between 2000 and 2010, the cost of a movie ticket rose from an average of $5.39 to $7.89; with the advent of 3-D films and luxury theaters, as of 2011 a single movie ticket might have cost up to $19.50 [source: National Association of Theatre Owners, NBC LA]. If you're trying to save some cash, it's easy to assume that the cinema is out of the question. However, frugal families have plenty of options -- if they know where to look.

By choosing a matinee instead of an evening showing, you'll save around $5 per ticket [source: Regal Entertainment Group, Mann Theatres]. If you're willing to wait to see new films, some movie theaters also show older releases for a sharply reduced price -- around $3 to $4 cheaper than matinee tickets.


Prefer to be a cinema connoisseur from the comfort of your own couch? Streaming and DVD-by-mail services offer relatively cheap, subscription-based access to movies and television shows. These subscriptions allow you to choose the level of access -- and therefore the price -- that you prefer. Or, if you're willing to sit through a few commercials, sites like Hulu.com allow free access to a catalog of television shows and movies.

But what if you get bitten by the "Bend It Like Beckham" soccer bug or "Friday Night Lights" football fever? Read on to find out how you and your family can storm the field on the cheap.

4: Get Moving

With obesity on the rise in America, pinching pennies is a great excuse for the whole family to get in shape. Try making fitness fun by learning a new sport together. Basic equipment is easy to find online or from used sporting goods stores, and schools and parks often have fields that are open to the public in the evenings and on weekends. Cheap soccer balls or footballs are easy to find -- especially if you buy secondhand or from a garage sale -- and can offer hours of fun.

If you'd prefer something more structured, many gyms offer family plans that charge cheaper rates or waive fees for members added on to an initial plan. Many gyms also offer amenities like swimming pools and expert-led classes that are included in a membership. Your local YMCA, JCC or other community center may also provide exercise opportunities along with classes and information on healthy living.


Want a really cheap way to stay fit at home? Design your own boot camp for the whole family to try. Lots of fitness sites feature a variety of exercise how-to articles and videos that you can string together into a challenging but fun routine. Look for body-weight exercises -- like pushups, squats and relay races -- that don't require any equipment [source: Livestrong].

Now that you're nice and sweaty, how about some culture? Read on to find out how to develop refined tastes without paying a refined price.

3: Explore Cultural Pursuits

If it's culture you're looking for, museums offer some of the most bang for your buck -- or no buck, as is often the case. Many museums, such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, offer free admission; others, like New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, recommend donations for admission but do not require a contribution [source: The Getty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art].

And if you or your kids thought that museums had to be boring, think again. Museums aren't just for old art pieces; with the help of an online museum directory, you can easily track down museums with specialties ranging from air and space to architecture, and from planetariums to transportation [source: American Association of Museums].


Local theatre can offer a high entertainment-to-cost ratio: Check your newspaper, library and the windows of local shops for advertisements.

If you're feeling more studious, a book club is a great way to get in your dose of culture. Many bookstores and libraries offer regular book clubs and discussion groups, often themed for a range of interests. Or, if you have a specific literary passion, consider starting your own club with friends and family. You'll find plenty of online resources to suggest books, discussion topics and general book club procedures [source: Book Clubs Resource].

If you're really hurting for pricey products, however, you're not out of luck. Check out the next page for tips on how age-old economics could save your 21st century bank account.

2: Try the Barter System

Bartering, or the exchange of one good or service for another, is one of the earliest known forms of economic exchange [source: Merriam-Webster]. Sure, it's not as modern as that newfangled capitalism thing, but it allows those who might be short on cash but long on know-how to access the same goods and services that they would with cold, hard cash.

If you're interested in bartering, established bartering networks are often the simplest to use. These networks offer access to individuals or businesses interested in making a trade; however, they also usually charge a fee [source: Barter Network].


Although formal bartering can provide a more streamlined and far-reaching bartering experience, informal bartering, as among friends or relatives, is often cheaper and easier on a smaller scale. For instance, if your neighbor is great at cooking, try setting up a time for your families to attend an impromptu cooking class. In exchange, you can offer to share a skill at which you excel.

But what happens when the movie theater won't take a home-cooked chicken dinner as payment? Read on for tips on how to lessen the load on your wallet when official currency is the only option.

1: Become a Deal Detective

These days, coupons can get you a whole lot more than a dollar off a package of chicken drumsticks. (Though those do freeze wonderfully, so if you'll eat them within three months, don't pass up a deal.)

The days of combing the Sunday paper for coupons aren't gone -- they've merely been supplemented by a veritable army of other discount-finding options. The Internet is rife with values that can help you amp up the bang you get for your buck.

In addition to physical coupons, many businesses now utilize online mailing lists that will deliver discounts and sale information straight to you via periodic e-mails. It's more convenient than actively seeking out deals, but if you're the type who hates a cluttered inbox, beware: Some companies don't give you the option to subscribe to only one type of e-mail (i.e. deals) and will also send promotional material and other unsolicited information.

As a result, sometimes it's best to deal with a third party, and daily deal sites like Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com offer some truly spectacular services in that regard. These sites offer deep discounts -- sometimes up to 90 percent off -- through prepaid gift certificates that guarantee deals for customers and revenue for participating businesses.

So what's the catch? Enough people have to purchase the discount to make it worth the business's while. If that point isn't reached, there's no deal for anyone. (You can learn more about the process in How does Groupon work?) Nevertheless, if you've promised the kids a trip to an amusement park or a nice dinner out, waiting for a deal through one of these sites could save you big bucks.

Still haven't gotten your fill of penny-pinching pointers? Check out our links to lots more information for frugal families on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • 24 Hour Fitness. "Special Offers." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.24hourfitness.com/membership/offers/specials.html
  • All Trails. (Oct. 20, 2011) http://alltrails.com/
  • American Association of Museums. "AAM Member Museums." {Oct. 21, 2011) http://iweb.aam-us.org/Membership/MemberDirectorySearch.aspx
  • ASPCA. "Volunteer With the ASPCA." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.aspca.org/aspca-nyc/volunteer/
  • Barter Network. "FAQ's." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.barternetworkinc.com/faqs.cfm
  • Book Clubs Resource. "Book Club Discussion Questions and Topics." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.book-clubs-resource.com/running/discussion-questions.php
  • Boston Public Library. "Calendar of Events." (Oct. 19, 2011) http://www.bpl.org/news/calendar.htm
  • Cook, Charles. "The Essential Guide to Nature Walking in the United States." Holt, Henry & Company, Inc. 1997.
  • Disney Family Fun. "Clay Time." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://familyfun.go.com/crafts/clay-time-709026/
  • Home Depot. "Project How-To." (Oct. 23, 2011) http://www6.homedepot.com/how-to/index.html
  • Hulu. "Why Are There Ads in Hulu Plus?" (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.hulu.com/support/article/20356372
  • J. Paul Getty Museum. "Visit the Getty." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.getty.edu/visit/
  • Livestrong. "Explore Fitness." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.livestrong.com/fitness/
  • Local Hikes. "Hiking Trails Near U.S. Metropolitan Areas." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.localhikes.com/
  • Los Angeles Public Library. "Events and Exhibits." (Oct. 19, 2011) http://www.lapl.org/events/
  • Merriam-Webster, Inc. "Barter." (Oct. 23, 2011) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/barter
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, The. "Visit." (Oct. 21, 2011) http://www.metmuseum.org/visit
  • National Association of Theatre Owners. "Average Ticket Prices." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.natoonline.org/statisticstickets.htm
  • PBS. "Graham Cracker Gingerbread House." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://pbskids.org/zoom/activities/cafe/grahamcrackergingerb.html
  • Roos, Dave. "How Does Groupon Work?" HowStuffWorks Inc. (Oct. 21, 2011) https://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/tips/groupon3.htm
  • Ross, Scott. "Movie Ticket Prices are On the Rise." NBC LA. March 26, 2010. (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.nbclosangeles.com/blogs/popcornbiz/Movie-Ticket-Prices-Are-on-the-Rise-89258087.html
  • Shoemaker-Galloway, Jane. "Slime: Homemade Slime Recipes." The Examiner. May 28, 2009. (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.examiner.com/working-moms-in-national/slime-homemade-slime-recipes
  • Tack, Karen. "Hello, Cupcake!" Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2008.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Expenditures on Children by Families, 2010." (Oct. 19, 2011) http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/CRC/crc2010.pdf
  • Volunteer Match. (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.volunteermatch.org/
  • YMCA of the USA. "Build a Healthy Family Home." (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.ymca.net/healthy-family-home/