Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
Here in Vermont we are finally and firmly entrenched in a lovely, snowy, cold winter season. Living out here on 66 acres in the middle of the woods, our lives are increasingly dictated by the seasonal shifts we experience. Given these weather-related imperatives, I try to appreciate and embrace each season’s nuanced joys. I want to wholeheartedly consume whatever’s on offer and not compare one season to the last.
There are remarkable opportunities provided by nature every month of the year and I find it liberating to delight in each new weather pattern. Complaining about the cold or the heat misses the point of how unique and exciting it is to have such diversity in our lives. I’m grateful for how dramatically the landscape alters itself with folds of snow or piercing rains or unadulterated sunshine. And I’m thankful for the different ways in which I can interact with my ever-changing world.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, sounds good, right?!? But what about when you’re trapped inside with a toddler on a subzero day? What do you do that’s exciting, stimulating, and cheap (or free!). Since we on Frugalwoods don’t take the easy way out of spending money to solve such wintertime conundrums, I’m dedicating this month’s Reader Suggestions to that very topic. Where does one find the sweet intersection of fun activities that are also free?
Don’t Fear The Cold
My chief approach to wintertime recreation is to not fear the cold. Except in the most dire of circumstances–extreme windchill temperatures or active blizzards–there’s no reason not to get outside daily during the winter. We do! Playing outdoors is an instant mood recalibration tactic for kids and adults alike.
Moving our bodies, breathing fresh air, and reveling in the presence of snow is, frankly, awesome! Our primary wintertime outdoor activities are hiking and snowshoeing. Both have a pretty low barrier to entry and are fairly inexpensive to do. I like the ease of strapping on snowshoes and taking off into our woods. It doesn’t require a whole lot of skill or coordination (good for me… ) and the snowshoes themselves are relatively inexpensive (we have these). I’m trying to get Babywoods into building snowmen, but so far she just wants to eat the snow. It’s a work in progress.
Before moving to the oh-so-cold Northeast corridor ten years ago, I did not understand this mentality. I considered the cold as something to avoid and a nuisance to my routine. I engineered ways to get out of it as quickly as possible and certainly didn’t seek it out. But after moving to NYC and then Boston–and living in both places without a car–I realized I could no longer avoid being outside in chilly temps. On the heels of this revelation, I realized that my primary issue with the cold was that I had the wrong clothing. The wrong coat, the wrong boots, the wrong hat. I had everything wrong. I learned, and internalized, the immortal worlds of Alfred Wainwright:
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.
Too true! Don’t brush this off, I’m not kidding! I slowly began to outfit myself properly for the cold and, the first time Mr. Frugalwoods and I took a walk around the city in my new-to-me outdoor gear, I was in awe. I wasn’t cold. I wasn’t unhappy. My toes were not froze. And I am a small person who gets cold easily, so know that I don’t say these things lightly. Plus, I’m a native of southern California, so this is all learned behavior. I’m currently wearing two sweaters inside my own house–but I’m not cold!
I did a full rundown of the gear I wear outside in last year’s post, How We Recreate In Winter: The Gear, The Mindset, and The Baby Sled, so I’ll give you the brief version here:
- Long underwear: any non-cotton (silk, spandex, etc) shirt and pants will do.
- Socks: wool is best and cotton is your worst enemy. Do not wear cotton socks in the cold (I speak from personal frozen toe experience here).
- Hat: Mr. FW and I both have a windproof fleece hat, which works wonders. It comes down low across the forehead and ears and is impervious to even the most frosty of winter gusts. Do not try to knit your own hat. It will not be warm enough (ask me how I know this… ).
- Hand coverings: I don windproof mittens with a waterproof shell and a layer of thinsulate, while Mr. FW prefers these gloves with glove liners.
- Facemask: The ultimate capitulation to form over function, I ADORE my facemask. Not an exaggeration. It keeps my nose, cheeks and chin from becoming wind-chapped. Mr. FW prefers the organic version and grows a robust beard every winter.
- Coat: Down-filled is the way to go. I found my Land’s End down-filled coat in a trash pile by the side of the road several years ago. I washed it with down wash (to preserve its waterproofed-ness) and, three winters later, it’s still keeping me roasty toasty. While wool coats are warm, they’re not waterproof and you’ll end up a soggy mess (plus you’ll smell like wet sheep… ask me how I know this).
- Snowpants: Mr. FW has full suspender snowpants (because he’s just that cool) and I have pant snowpants (not sure what the technical term is there) and both work well.
- Boots: Perhaps the holy grail of all winter garb, you MUST have warm, insulated, waterproof boots. We have these and they were worth every penny. Don’t try to find snazzy colors or prints on boots–that’s a dead giveaway they won’t be warm enough (again, ask me how I know this… ).
- For Babywoods: hand-me-down snowpants, coats, wool socks, a fleece hat, and boots work great. I did, however, actually BUY NEW (can you even believe it??!!) these SnowStoppers mittens this year because they are the only mittens that will stay on. I tried all of our hand-me-down mitts first and they all miserably flopped right off. Hence, my splurge on something new! I felt doubly good about this purchase after her preschool teacher confirmed that these are the only brand that’ll stay on small paws. You put the mittens on BEFORE putting on the coat and then they don’t come off because the sleeve of the mitten is so darn long. I bought the age 2-5 size so that she can wear them for many years.
In closing, remember that the “cuter” the clothes are, the less functional and warm they’ll be. Looking cute is nowhere near as important as staying warm.
The Cold Is Good For Babies And Kids (I swear it)
I promise you this. With the right snow gear, babies, toddlers, and kids can and will enjoy frolicking outdoors in the wintertime. And it’s good for them! Outdoor revelry promotes a healthy immune system, encourages exploration, builds confidence, provides exercise, and wears them out for great sleep. I can’t say enough about the benefits of taking kiddos out in the cold. Scandinavian countries have long touted the health benefits of taking children (including babies) out in the cold and I am such a proponent of this mentality. It just makes sense. I love that Babywoods’ preschool takes the kids outside nearly every day of the year!
We started hiking with Babywoods when she was just a few months old and, seeing as she was born in late November, that was in the middle of winter. I snuggled her into a hand-me-down Ergo carrier on my chest and we were off.
As she’s aged, we’ve adapted to several different modes of baby transit, including a jogging stroller with 20-inch wheels (purchased for $5 at a thrift store) as well as this large sled, which is actually a sled created for hunters to cart–ahem–expired animals out of the woods… works great as a toddler sled and was a lot cheaper than kids’ sleds and much, much more durable. A standard little plastic kids’ sled isn’t strong enough for serious snowshoe hikes and the special ‘hiking baby sleds’ are, like, ridiculously expensive. Hence, our game sled is ideal: it’s rugged, has high sides to prevent snow from coming in, and is large enough to snuggle in at least two kids plus blankets.
Indoor Stuff Too
We obviously don’t spend every minute outside and, as toddlers are in need of activity, I’ve mapped out a weekly schedule of activities and events that enable Babywoods to interact with other kiddos and that provide her with a change of scenery. If you too have a toddler or baby, my top recommendation is to find the free playgroups in your area. They exist, trust me.
I went to free playgroups when we lived in the city and I go to them now that I live in the actual middle of nowhere. Check your local public library, elementary school, hospital, nonprofits, organizations dedicated to family and child development–google around until you find them. Plus, you can host your own playgroups! Mr. FW and I hosted our first ever “baby potluck brunch extravaganza” last Saturday and it was a riotous success. Parents chatted and drank coffee while our kids ran wild, flinging blueberry muffins all over the place. It was wonderful. Word to the wise: don’t bother vacuuming before hosting one of these things. Save that for afterwards.
In terms of the time we spend at home alone, I find that Babywoods doesn’t require a ton of different toys, just a few good, age-appropriate items that encourage creative, do-it-yourself, imaginative play. Very popular toys in our home right now: this small trampoline (confines the desire to jump to one bouncy area!), a play kitchen, books, dress-ups, a doll, and play-doh. Hours of entertainment. No need for fancy electronics or toys that sing songs. A kid will spend a great deal more time innovating with a scarf and an empty cardboard box (Babywoods calls it her “nest”) than with a fancy gadget that drains all the creativity and imagination from their play.
Let kids innovate with household objects, don’t rob them of their innate desire to create and explore. I personally cannot believe how much mileage my child is getting out of an empty cardboard box that I accidentally left on the floor last week. It is incredible to see how many different games she has devised with this thing. I mean, it’s an empty cardboard box! But to her, it’s a portal to other worlds. The power of a child’s unbridled imagination indeed. Almost all of our baby stuff is second-hand and if you’re wondering how I source it all, check out: How To Find Anything and Everything Used: A Compendium Of Frugal Treasure Hunting.
How Frugalwoods Readers Enjoy The Long, Cold Winter
Enough from me! You came here to hear from the real experts–the readers of Frugalwoods–and they did not disappoint with their advice this month. Per usual, I received too many fabulous responses from readers to include all of them below, but you can check out the full conversation on our Frugalwoods Facebook page. And if you’d like to weigh in on next month’s topic, you can join the Frugalwoods Facebook page. The wonderful thing about these suggestions is that not all of you live in places where it’s cold during the winter (or ever), so this is a fabulous amalgamation of frugal activities to partake of no matter your climate or geography!
Jackie wrote, “My husband came up with the idea of flashlight walks. It is as simple as it sounds; walking after dark with flashlights. The kids love it (6 years old and 4 years old). We also use passes from the library to visit indoor attractions. And we borrow a lot of books and read a lot.”
Jill relayed, “We live in Phoenix, AZ. It will be 81degrees today. The best hiking/camping season is from October through April, because the weather is perfect. Summer is a bit hot here for hiking (115 degrees). Camp sites range from $5 to $30 per night. We have a goal to visit all of the Arizona State Parks as well as the National Parks in Arizona. We got a couple of free day passes from REI and will be using one this weekend. We always pack an ice chest to keep food expenses down on any trips we take. I also bought a KOA camping membership and have started staying there on our out-of-state overnight trips instead of staying at a hotel. They have teeny tiny cabins if you don’t want to tent camp or own an RV. Some of the AZ state parks have mini cabins too.”
Carly shared, “Last year with my 3 year old we made sure to get outside for at least an hour a day no matter the weather. We frequented the library and a handful of free museums in our area. This year we have a small baby who hates the car seat, stroller, and carrier, so we have been pretty homebound thus far. I have decided to embrace it and use it as an opportunity to practice contentment in what I have and where I’m at. Pinterest is a treasure trove of ideas for kids, and I try to introduce a new activity every week, but little kids are good at entertaining themselves if you give them a chance to get bored. For frugal festivities we walk our neighborhood to look at Christmas decorations, watch movies with the Christmas lights on (which is extra special because we never watch tv in the evenings), and of course take our own free pictures with Santa! We also love to do simple crafts such as putting beads on pipe cleaners to make candy cane decorations and making coffee filter snowflakes by coloring with washable markers, getting them wet so the colors run, then folding and cutting them once they’re dry. We also make little gingerbread houses with graham crackers, frosting, and leftover Halloween candy!”
Sandy explained, “I enjoy making soup, hot chocolate and cookies! We read a lot, preferably in front of the fireplace. My oldest daughter loves going outside in the snow to make snow angels and catch snowflakes on her tongue. My little one is a toddler now and I hope she enjoys winter this year. When there is no snow, we’ll look for things for building a fairy house – leaves, curled bark, moss, small branches, pine cones, etc. So many lovely winter memories. And when I look at my yearly income/expenses report, January and February are almost always our lowest spending months!”
Amy reported, “All the outdoor activities are so fun, nothing better than winter hiking, I like the slip-on spikes on hiking boots better than snow shoeing. But we also like a hard baking challenge in the winter. Currently working on improving my sour dough bread and trying and I say trying to make piped butter cookies to give as gifts from the Smitten Kitchen Blog. Last year it was croissants.”
Fernanda wrote, “Out here in Australia it’s warming up for summer but a fun activity is to tour the neighbourhood and check out everyone else’s festive decorations! I cannot be bothered myself but I appreciate those who can. My little girl is three and she loves stories and dancing. I’m sure on a bad weather day she’d love us to find Mum and dad’s favourite songs from OUR childhoods and dance to them. That would be a winner I think… YouTube connection needed, otherwise free. I keep old Xmas and birthday cards and it’s nice reading these to her and making a mess, I mean collage, from them.”
Gabby shared, “We used to blow up the air mattress and watch a movie in the living room and make popcorn, drink hot chocolate or wine… It makes a nice event out of it. I also love embroidering, playing guitar, reading, and board games for indoor activities. Homemade chai and a good book is the best ever winter activity. For outdoors, I love a good winter walk…we live near downtown, so we can go out and window shop at the stores or walk to the library.”
Leah relayed, “We can borrow snowshoes from work for weekend adventures which is a great way to avoid owning equipment we only use a couple times a year! I also love potlucks in blizzards and any excuse for a movie night in!”
Tara wrote, “Indoor: We keep allspice, nutmeg, and cloves on hand for spiced apple cider or mulled wine. Start up a pot of simmering beverage, put on some Christmas tunes or jazz, and bake with ingredients on-hand. Outdoor: As DINKS, we enjoy winter camping both to immerse ourselves in nature, and to save tons of money. The initial cost of cross country skis new or used is an investment but provide for numerous memorable outings!”
Carol reports, “Winter is the time for doing jigsaw puzzles!”
Rachael shared, “Dump a bunch of snow into a sled like the sled you have in the pic (using the sled as a shallow bin). Put a towel on the kitchen table or kitchen floor… put the snow filled sled on the towel. Let them play indoors with snow! Mittens optional! Add toys like playmobil figures or kitchen utensils! Just a heads up that when it melts, it becomes a drowning hazard for little ones. Also, for older ones, painting on snow at the table or drawing on compact snow with markers or playing with food coloring and snow is fun!”
Mandy shared a treasure trove of ideas if you happen to live in southern CA: “We have a daily schedule of free activities that are probably only good for me living in SoCal and my mega family, but hopefully gives ideas. Monday – Disneyland (annual pass holders bought as our Christmas gifts), Tuesday – library visit and Boy scouts (we volunteer when needed), Wednesday – Beach or hike, Thursday – Costco combo meals ($1.50 for hotdog and a drink) then family tennis at our HOA clubhouse (tennis rackets can be picked up second hand), Friday – walk the mall with kids then date night with hubby at the LDS temple, Saturday – local park outing and take the teenagers to arcade or trampoline house (annual passes as birthday presents) while I use the Wi-Fi. Sunday is church service, volunteerism, and board game nights with popcorn. Total cost =$18.00 + fuel for a family of 12. Monthly the local philharmonic, art and science museums, and gardens all have a FREE day that we take advantage of. And don’t forget Del Taco Tuesdays $1.29 for 3 tacos.”
Laura wrote, “We live in Canada, so no shortage of cold, dark, and snowy days/nights. Outdoor activities mostly include skiing, hiking and snowshoeing, as well as taking advantage of local, free activities (Christmas parades, light shows). We find cold snowy days can lead to isolation, so we regularly get together with friends for games and/or euchre. We throw chill in the crockpot, slice a baguette, pour some red wine, and get out the cards. We also find excuses for larger potluck gatherings. We’re not American, nor are we particularly into football, but the Super Bowl is a convenient excuse to get a larger group of friends together (hockey games, holidays, movies nights, and other sporting events also work).”
Cleo shared, “We are empty-nesters, so we sit by the fire, drink bourbon, kvetch about politics, and knit! Everyone I know gets socks for Christmas… ”
Sarah relayed, “For inside we make hot chocolate, pop popcorn, and read books. Outside, we (read: my husband), tries to build snow caves, and we just play around in the snow. Then we come in and drink more hot chocolate… My husband loves to ski, which is an expensive hobby, but he’s found ways to volunteer at ski resorts that gets him free day passes.” FRUGAL PEOPLE: did you see the part about volunteering in exchange for free ski passes??? I keep telling you these things are possible! Check out our Reader Suggestions Barter and Trade post for more on this brilliant idea.
Margaret wrote, “I live in Scotland and we have spectacular hills … therefore hill walking is my favourite pass time during the day and low level walking of an evening”
Faith shared, “You can find a local high school team to start supporting and attend inside basketball games (warm) or hockey games (cold). Start a Hike It Baby group in your area to get outside with other families on a regular basis.”
Nadine relayed, “We live in sunny, Florida, so winter temps are in the 60’s-70’s during the day. In the evenings, when the weather cools down, the family sits around the fire pit and we roast marshmallows or hot dogs. It’s a great way to spend quality time together, and we say “hi” to the neighbors who pass by. The libraries down here are excellent. I’m a big fan of the library because all the programs are free and you can learn a new skill. This year, I took some art classes and a business class about Etsy. I attended a cooking demonstration by a local chef, and received some great tips for stress-free holiday entertaining. Another one I liked was learning about herbs and vegetables from horticultural experts. They let us take home a free plant at the end.”
Mary wrote, “We see more Eagles during the winter months, so we enjoy going for short drives and counting how many Eagles we see. We enjoy viewing any and all wildlife.”
Rachel shared, “One thing I love to do when it is snowing/cold out is to have a cookie exchange. Everybody brings a batch of their favorite cookies to somebody’s house. The host usually provides hot cocoa and sometime a liquor to mix with the cocoa and mulled wine. We then eat each other’s cookies, play board games, and cuddle in big piles of blankets on couches and the floor!”
Laronda said, “We’re in NC, so outdoor isn’t such a challenge for us–it’s the usual hiking, park play, etc. with the kids praying for one good snow in which to play . We tend to get more creative on our indoor fun with our Advent Calendar activities–camping in the living room, sockball fight (just what it sounds like–socks balled up and then thrown at one another to great hilarity), shaving cream in the bath or on a cookie sheet, cookie baking and decorating, board games, etc. The holidays can get crazy, but they’re also a nice impetus for some out-of-the-box fun.”
Hannah wrote, “I try to take my 2-year-outside to the backyard everyday, rain or shine. As long as it’s safe (no thunder or high wind) we head out. As for indoors, we like board games and movie nights. The toddler likes to color, paint, and play with legos.”
Susan shared, “We bundle up and take advantage of local parks and trails. As long as you dress properly, winter walking is great. We also have a beautiful arts and culture park that has beautiful lights displayed for the holidays, so we spend a lot of time there. We also love to play Scrabble in the evenings.”
Erin wrote, ” It’s our first winter with a mobile baby, so new territory for us. I love the saying ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’ but can’t always live up to it in ruggedness! Especially when it seems like the little one grows out of winter gear every few weeks. 😮 There is an affordable co-op indoor play space in our area, but to save more $ though, I’m hoping to arrange rotating play dates with some other parents so kids and adults can all get a change of scene.”
Melissa shared, “I’m a knitter so I love winter. 😊 some herbal tea and a documentary and my knitting and I’m happy for hours. I also run outside year round so I do bundle up and head out in the snow and cold thanks to some Yak Traks and lots of layers!!
Veronica relayed, “We snow shoe and cross country ski and watch for events like candlelight ski or hike events. We’ve had our skis and snow shoes for many years! We often bundle up and walk up Rib Mountain, a local state park. The winter is so much more enjoyable when you get outside!”
Angela wrote, “There are a lot of free activities in New York City, indoors and outdoors, but personally I love braving the cold weather and heading outside for long walks with my dog. Another favorite is doing indoors volunteer work, which I always enjoy, and then going home to curl up on the couch under a throw with my dog, a good book, and something hot to drink. Maybe picking seeds out of a catalog for the summer… ”
Laura Anne shared, “Snow shoes, ice skates, sledding and cross country skiing! Our boys especially love to cross country ski and after the initial and relatively inexpensive investment with buying or being given used equipment, we can go out our back door for free! And with three kiddos we pass on the equipment as it is outgrown so we get many winters of use from them! Our oldest now has feet larger then mine so it is starting to be a more expensive investment for ski boots, but I know they will be used three times so in the end not so bad. We live in Maine so we have to embrace the winter weather as it lasts so long!”
Susan wrote, “I love being snowed in!! The thought that I can’t go anywhere and just watch the snow from my window with a cup of coffee is just awesome. I do enjoy doing indoor projects (decluttering drawers) and hosting small dinner parties- doing one next week with 4 girlfriends. The way we do it is everyone contributes and brings their own wine. I’m making chicken pot pies, someone is bringing a green salad, another an appy, last two desserts. It’s such fun! We talk for hours.”
Anna relayed, “When its not rainy we walk at Thessaloniki’s beautiful beachfront with homemade coffee in a thermos and snacks from our backpack. If the weather is bad we invite friends at home for a play date with homemade coffee and pound cake (juice for the children).”
Get Out There And Enjoy!
The winter–whether cold or warm–is no excuse to not enjoy yourself to the fullest. Embrace the season, get the right gear, and get going. One of the things I love most about my holistic frugal lifestyle is the creativity that’s inherent to everything I do. Whether it’s innovating a cheap sled solution for my daughter, or intentionally baking a lot of stuff to warm up the house on a super cold day, or finding every single free playgroup within a 20-mile radius of my house (oh yes, I have a list of them all), frugality encourages me to innovate and create.
And what I love so much about the Reader Suggestions are the incredibly thoughtful and unique ways in which all of you fine people do the same thing! It’s easy to pay money to solve a problem or to entertain ourselves, but I’d argue it’s far more fulfilling and far more interesting to brainstorm inexpensive and free ways to create your own entertainment and devise your own systems for enjoying life. Thank you all for sharing such wonderful ideas today!
P.P.S. We’re taking my Uber Frugal Month Challenge as a group during the month of January 2018! To save more money than you ever thought possible and transform your relationship with your finances, sign-up to join us. Also note that the Uber Frugal Month will go on hiatus after January, so now’s your chance!