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Carefully planned frugal activities can help you find some balance between your bigger financial goals and your desire for family bonding. It’s a tricky line to walk, but it can be done with intentionality and creativity.
Note: the availability of some of these programs may vary due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Lower expectations to make frugal activities part of life
Help your child(ren) learn to expect less – less extravagant birthday parties, less expensive vacations, less elaborate family activities.
When your kids are old enough, discuss why you are spending less money, why you’re being intentional with your money:
- Saving for retirement
- Paying off debt
- To save for their college education
- Or other reasons they can understand
Involve your children in financial discussions in an age-appropriate manner. It’s important that kids learn about money, and the best way to learn is through real-world experience.
I’m not creative or super social, so my kids have never had elaborate birthday parties. Things may change as they get older, but right now a cake, a special meal with friends & family, and a few decorations are enough. When they’re older, I plan to do some kind of experience birthday celebration.
It’s harder to walk back expectations after your children have experienced big parties or expensive vacations, but I think it’s important to try regardless. You can provide a good life for your kids without sacrificing your own financial future.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library
My younger daughter LOVES books. She could look at books for hours on end. She’s not quite 2, so she can’t read yet, but she’s already picked up a lot from just looking at books and asking questions.
We don’t have unlimited funds (or space!), so we can’t buy new books constantly to keep her engaged and happy. Luckily, Dolly Parton has my back.
Dolly Parton created the Imagination Library in 1995 to provide free books to children in her home county in Tennesee. Today, the organization covers the entire United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland.
Children 0 to 5 are able to receive one free, age-appropriate book a month. The child has to live in an area with a funding source, like the United Way, so not everyone is eligible (but you can help get a local program started).
Check the availability of this amazing program in your area here. My daughter absolutely loves getting a book each month, and I know your little one will too. When my older daughter turned 5, she automatically stopped receiving the books (because she was too old), so the whole process is super easy. Just sign up once & receive books until your child ages out.
Children with visual impairments can also receive braille or audiobooks, making literacy accessible to even more kids.
Plan ahead for frugal activities
Buy the next size of clothing or gear frugally, especially when you’re buying things that will be used for just a short period of time. Baseball pants, football cleats, soccer socks, etc. are only worn for a few months during the season. That means you can watch for sales from retailers or buy second-hand, barely worn items for much less.
This spring, I’ve already noticed multiple posts in local mom Facebook groups offering or seeking used baseball pants. Take advantage of opportunities like that, then pay it forward next year when your kid is too big.
If you have older cousins or friends’ kids, ask for hand-me-downs too. Maybe you buy the new gear every other year with the expectation of receiving the used equipment for your kid down the road.
Museum in a smart way
My local museum offers a membership affiliated with the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) Travel Passport Program.
Basically, you buy a membership to a participating museum and you can gain access to other associated museums, often for FREE. There are limitations and rules, which you can view on their website, but it’s still a good deal if you’re already planning to buy a membership to a local museum.
When you travel beyond your local area, just look into whether museums at your destination or along the way are ASTC members as well. Free or reduced admission will definitely help keep travel costs down.
Also, make sure to check out the extra offerings of your local museum. Ours has a main exhibit that changes periodically, a children’s playroom, planetarium 4K displays, and various kid activities. With a membership, most of those are at no additional cost.
Travel more frugally
Proper planning & preparation are key to saving money on travel, especially family vacations. There are so many ways to vacation, which means there are even more ways to save.
Top tips for a frugal family vacation:
- Be flexible about your travel dates
- Fly on off-peak days
- Travel during the off-season
- Pack food for road trips
- Buy packages to get admission to multiple attractions for less
I have a whole guide on frugal travel and another on saving money on medical travel in the FREE Frugal Year Challenge. This course is free during 2021 and focuses on one area of saving money each month, so you can implement tips and not get overwhelmed.
Look for different ways to make activities frugal
Early bird discounts
Often, after-school activities and sports leagues will offer discounts for signing up early. You run the risk of your kid deciding not to participate, but if you know your child is excited to participate you may be able to save some money through an early bird discount.
When parents volunteer as a coach or in another capacity, their children may be offered a discount on participation fees. Even if you can’t get a discount on fees, volunteering helps keep the overall cost of programs lower (and makes you a nice person).
Participate in cheaper programs
Your local parks & recreation department or YMCA may offer various sports programs and other activities. Usually, these programs are more affordable or lower commitment than other options. They’re great for commitmentphobic kids or those who are just testing out the waters of the activity.
Look at your library
Many local libraries offer programs for free. There are two great libraries close to me, offering things like baby and toddler story-time, child and adult book clubs, music classes, gardening classes, STEM activities, and more.
Even if you don’t attend activities at the public library, you can borrow a huge variety of books, e-books, audiobooks, and DVDs to keep your kids entertained. Download the Libby app to access library e-books and audiobooks on your phone or Kindle.
I personally love my Kindle Oasis because it’s backlit (so I can read in the dark) and has a warmth adjustment option (so the light is warmer in the evening to reduce my blue light exposure). It’s expensive for a kid, but mama’s got to spoil herself sometimes.
Make frugal activities part of your life
The highlight of my younger daughter’s day is our morning walks (my sassy 5-year-old has lots of eye-rolls for me, but she still likes getting outside most days). I know expectations are different with older kids, but an evening walk is a good chance to really talk to more reluctant pre-teens. The chance to avoid eye contact can really open up a quiet kid.
Hiking, biking, walking, skateboarding… these are all fairly cheap, healthy family activities.
Boardgames, movie nights, cooking together, and playing cards are also lower-cost options.
Visit a local farm to see the animals (ask permission before entering their property or just view the animals from the road). Walk down a country road and discuss what you see. Buy some cheap board games and institute a weekly game night tradition.
I know it’s not easy to just “make” your family enjoy time together, but I also know it’s important to strengthen those bonds. There’s nothing more important than a healthy family, and it’s up to the parents to attempt to create that.