Although I’m having trouble believing it, seeing as I’m looking out over a landscape of snow (and actually we’re in the middle of an ice storm at the moment… ) summer is coming! For the first time since way back when I was in school, summer has an actual meaning this year. Now that our oldest daughter is almost 2-and-a-half, she has a fairly packed schedule during the year. She goes to preschool two mornings a week, to several different free playgroups throughout the week, and we have playdates with friends all the time.
We love this diversity to our days and Babywoods thrives on these social encounters (as do I!). The problem, I’ve recently learned, is that all of this stuff STOPS in the summer! Le eek!!! Preschool stops, the free playgroups run by the elementary school AND the library stop, and a lot of our friends are headed off on vacation! Oh noes! I naively assumed this lovely schedule would continue year-round and am now mildly panicked at the prospect of a wide open, gaping summertime with nary a scheduled activity. I am ALL FOR unstructured, unscheduled, free play for kids (that’s what Babywoods does when we’re at home), but I have learned that she can’t do that all day every day. Plus, she enjoys spending time with other little kids and I enjoy spending time with the parents of other little kids.
Finding myself in this minor quandary, I realized that this is the exact quandary every parent faces every single year when the end of school looms. As a kid, summer was a vast expanse of sprinklers on lawns, popsicles, and bare foot bike riding. Never occurred to me the childcare nightmare it must have been for my parents! And for all parents! To combat this treachery of summertime activity cessation, I turned to the best resource there is for frugal fun… the readers of Frugalwoods!
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!
What We’ll Do This Summer (I think)
This is my first summer of needing to actually think things through for my kids, so I’m still a bit hazy on the details. In past summers, Babywoods was young enough to just hang out with me and Mr. Frugalwoods while we gardened, hiked, and picked blackberries.
And while she will certainly do her fair share of that this summer, she craves time with other small people, so I’ll need to be proactive in making that happen. Of course there’s also Babywoods’ little sister to consider, but at two months old, she generally goes with the flow and snoozes in her carrier on my chest wherever we go. Very portable, infants.
Our plans for the summer thus far include:
- Hiking, playing, and otherwise roaming around our woods
- Playing in the creek behind our house
- Terrorizing the plants in the vegetable garden
- Picking berries in our yard
- Going to our town’s playground (Babywoods can now do the “big” slide!)
- Playdates with friends
- Visiting our neighbors’ farms to see their baby animals (!!!!!)
My challenge with Babywoods right now is that she’s too young for most formal lessons or programs, but too old to not do anything. Most structured activities in our area start at age three, but Babywoods is ready NOW! It’s an interesting age, I find, as she is so ready to learn, to play, to spend time away from her parents, and to explore, but just isn’t old enough for any of the fabulous summer programs I keep reading about and salivating over… I imagine most parents of two-year-olds face this dilemma, so I was thrilled to hear all of the great ideas for summer activities from Frugalwoods readers!
How Frugalwoods Readers Plan To Spend The Summer
Tracey wrote, “We live in New Zealand and our summer is December to March. Our favourite thing to do is a great walk each summer! We book around May and walk it in December right before Christmas. Currently there are nine great walks but these will grow soon. People come from all around the world to walk these. If you are into tramping have a look here and click on the walking and great walk links.”
Chantal shared, “We love camping in the state park. Permits cost us $8 a night. We have a lot of camping gear that we have slowly accumulated over the years so our only real cost is fuel and food. Although our daughter is getting bigger I fear we may have to upgrade to a larger tent soon, but I am already scouring the internet for a good used one. If a great deal pops up, Ill be ready! My husband is in the military and next month they are relocating us to the other side of the country. We have elected to drive and make a road trip holiday out of it! Accommodation, meals and fuel are all paid for. Obviously not many people can do this, but for us we are treating it as our vacation.”
Jennifer is, “Working! I am learning a new job that will increase our income substantially and allow my hubby and I to invest my entire income for the next 5 years with the dream goal of us living the F.I.R.E. lifestyle at age 52.”
Deborah suggested, “Make a water slide in your yard using a tarp and a water hose. My kids spent all day long playing and keeping cool! Beach, lake or river vacations that kids will never tire of. Outside fun in the fresh air and unplugged!”
Lisa said, “We are homeschoolers, so we have our kids all year… Some things are slip and slide, lots of chalk art. Also a ‘kids go bowling free’ program… we pay for shoe rental and bowling is free… Also, looking into the Every Kid in a Park program where kids and family get big discounts for national parks. Making kids learn how to be creative and frugal too–don’t need lots of money for fun activities…Park and library too, to name a few.”
Beth wrote, “In the last couple years, I have begun what I call ‘vacation pooling’ with my friends. We go on a group vacation and split the cost. This year’s trip is to Pensacola, FL. We are driving from St. Louis down there. We rented an affordable Airbnb that will fit us all, buy groceries so we aren’t eating out, and get to stay on the beach. While we are there we will go to the Naval Aviation museum which is free and watch the Blue Angels practice plus see all the planes and helicopters on display. This makes for a fun and affordable trip, plus the two kids on the trip (5 & 7) have someone to play with that they would not have if we went as individual families.”
Nancy recommends, “Hiking, hiking, and hiking. If overnight or weekend [there are] some expense in fuel, food, cabin rental but we budget everything using the every dollar app so no stress… ”
Jen plans on, “Camping in our favorite State Parks! Frugal family fun. Campfires, creekwalking, swimming, hiking, and reading in the sunshine.”
Carly shared, “Most libraries have great children’s programming during the summer. In addition to story time and summer reading programs where kids can win prizes, ours puts on something different each week, from a person who brings in hawks and owls to meet, to dance groups, to mini museum exhibits. My favorite last year was taking my then 3-year-old to a clown show put on by the library in a local park. While we waited for it to start we walked the beach and found a sand dollar. Afterwards they handed out free sack lunches for all the kids. In our area the school system provides free lunch for anyone under 18 every day of the summer. It is usually held at parks or libraries in the area, and one day a week they will often combine it with activities like games, art projects, etc. We also participate in a children’s program put on by the community garden. For $1 per child they get to help water and harvest, they do an art project, a garden project like making a bird feeder, and have a story. They also get a sticker for each snail they find and remove from the garden lol.
My husband is in the military so we are fortunate to benefit from the Blue Star program, which provides active duty military and their dependents free access to all kinds of museums throughout the summer. In our area that includes a children’s museum that we try to visit once a week all summer long.
Many places waive fishing license requirements for kids too. For us I think it’s waived for anyone under 12, so my son was able to fish at a pond close to our house for the price of a little fishing pole and bait. He actually managed to catch one tiny bluegill last year and was super proud! I also think it’s really fun foraging with kids. Everywhere has something edible you can go out and pick even if it’s just cactus lol. We’re lucky enough to have wild blackberries, but we have lots of lesser known edible plants as well that we look for. It teaches kids about their own natural landscape and builds a meaningful connection for them.
One really important thing is to always have lots of snacks and water on hand, and it helps to have easy lunches to pack along, otherwise free activities can end up costing a lot! Also, if I know we’re going somewhere we will be tempted to buy expensive junk food (like the zoo) I make sure to bring our own junk food, because I dare you to try to give a 4-year-old an apple next to a funnel cake stand!
Movie theaters, bowling, and skating venues also often have at least one day a week with heavy discounts during the summer. Good sites to check for local events and programs are Red Tricycle and Macaroni Kid. I’m sure there are others but those are the 2 I have used. Libraries often have a lot of useful community information as well.”
Erin wrote, “I live in Arizona where it is HOT in the summer. I plan to work on some indoor projects with the AC on like going through old papers to shred (not fun) and catching up on scrapbooking (fun!).”
Debbi suggests, “Mom Camp: We get 6-8 mothers together whose school age children are friends. Each mom has camp at her house for a day. Mom Camp can, for example, be every Tuesday or every Tuesday and Thursday, depending on the number of families and how many weeks of camp you would like to have. The children all arrive in mid-morning and have unstructured play until lunch. That week’s camp mom feeds everyone lunch and then has a planned activity. Some activities we have done are decorating flip flops, swimming in the backyard pool (with a couple of extra moms coming over to help supervise the pool time), walking to a nearby park or playground, making bath bombs, tie dying T-shirts (yes, that was definitely one of our braver moms), and painting terra cotta flower pots and planting seeds in them. After the activity, we have more unstructured play time until around 3:00 when parents pick up their children again. When we have done this, moms with three or more children attending have always wanted to take an extra day as camp mom. While not necessary, this does help ensure that no one feels taken advantage of. The children all need to be close enough in age that similar activities work for everyone but, once they are school age, this isn’t usually a problem. The cost of Mom Camp is minimal since our planned activities range from completely free to inexpensive. Also, I am not trying to leave dads out. Among my friends, all the stay at home parents and parents with flexible work schedules are moms so they end up running camp.” Ok I think Debbi wins! This is pretty much the best, the most frugal, and the most fun idea ever!
Nadine wrote, “Our summer vacation starts at the end of May. My father-in-law, [who is] former military, gave us a free, seasonal pass to a Florida state park beach. I take the kids there a few times. We find a cozy spot under a tree. The water is calm and a clear blue. On a few occasions, we’ll see a gopher tortoise walking along the roads leading up to the island.
Evenings, we might attend a concert at a park or the beach. The kids love to play in the water and catch hermit crabs while we sit and listen to local musicians. My older son is taking the trip of a lifetime in July. He and his Boy Scout troop will be traveling to Iceland. The trip is not cheap, but the troop made it affordable by providing fundraising opportunities.
I recently took up photography. I went to free classes at the local nature center. The class is taught by award-winning photographers once a month. I plan to continue with this into the summer and beyond.
Our community pools are rather inexpensive. One pool only charges $3 per person and that pass is good for the day.”
Ann shared, “We have a Vacation Wallet that we save up all year. We plan the budget. We save daily receipts & keep up with daily totals. We eat a late lunch out, not dinner. Last year, we were $400 under budget. A fun game.”
Carol wrote, “In Australia the local libraries have school holiday programmes and activities which are excellent. The museum and art gallery are also free here so take them there to enjoy displays that are on.”
Caroline suggests that, “The beach is always free for those who live vaguely approximate to the ocean or a large lake/body of water. Age-appropriate hikes or walks in local parks, along cycle tracks in nature reserves, where, if anything, only a nominal fee is payable. Summers in Cape Town are loooooonnngggg and hooootttttt… ”
Marion plans on, “My screen porch, a stack of library books, and a pitcher of iced tea.”
Mel will host, “Lots of neighborhood pot lucks. Clean the freezer nights where we grill what we need to use up.”
Helen says, “We love to go camping, the fees are minimal compared to a hotel and we cook at our campsite, we will do several different campgrounds in our area – not world-famous parks, but great places to go hiking, swimming, biking, etc.”
Siera suggests, “Anything outside! Hiking, biking, walking the dogs, exploring natural areas & looking for interesting plants and wildlife, or just spending a relaxing day at the beach/lake/river (whatever is closest). For weekend trips & longer road trips, we tent camp, mostly in National or State Parks, National Forests, Monuments & Preserves, at State Beaches, etc. (Here in California, there are so many options!) To keep food costs on the road almost as low as they are when at home, we shop at grocery stores, keep an ice chest well-stocked in the car, and prepare simple meals (plus snacks) along the way and in camp. At home, we prefer the simple, quiet (and incidentally frugal/free) things in life anyway: gardening, reading, playing board games or lawn games outside, picnicking. As a kid, local summer outings included trips to the library or neighborhood parks, and projects like making ice cream!”
Amanda says, “We do summer camp because my husband and I both work. But for closure weeks when we are at home, we organize play dates with friends from church, our neighborhood, and family. We also take advantage of toddler deals. $7 for three hours of jump time, free library read and puppet days, and take a bag of outdoor toys to the park! Plus splash pads at the rec center are a blast!”
Brian shared, “One of my favorites was a short bike trip I took up north in Wisconsin, to a town called Minocqua. Parked my car at someone’s house I know, biked up, stayed in an Airbnb, got to know the Airbnb owners who were really cool, played in the northwoods, and biked the 38 miles back. I enjoyed small treats, getting to know some interesting folks (two people different people called Dancing Bob, somehow) and had a great time for not a ton of money. This year I’m looking at doing something similar in another area of Wisconsin or the UP. BikeVentures!”
Crystal says, “I do not have kids but have littles in my life that I like to take on outings. I love to camp with them…we go to a state-run campground in NH – it’s $22 a night but we have a Federal Access Pass (disabled pass) and it is half price – $11 a night!? Yes, please! 🙂 I try to go camping at least 5 times during the summer!”
Pauline shared, “Family usually visits – 3 or 4 people at a time for a couple of weeks – last year we visited state parks –waterfalls, hiking, swimming, and went to our All-Star Softball player’s games (free!) – she went on to the regionals (NOT FREE!) had to help raise money for that :). We are looking forward to 4 greatgrands visiting for a month this summer and going swimming, picnics, etc. We will set up the croquet and play – sprinklers, going to the lake, etc. Free movies at the park if we can remember to go :). I personally take 10-14 days each summer for myself (I am Mom’s caregiver and need a break!) to go somewhere. Last summer I camped at Rocky Mountain National Park for 10 days – it was wonderful, quiet, and relaxing. This summer I am taking a road trip from Colorado to the Great Lakes. I usually switch up from a cheap trip to a more expensive one on alternating years. I pay for the motels, car rental etc ahead of time and don’t have so many expenses during the actual trip.”
Laurie suggests making a, “Summer bucket list!! Buy ice cream and sundae fixings and make our own sundaes, Summer reading program at the library, kiddie pool in the yard, sprinkler fun, buy parking pass for $10 so we can go to the lake in town all summer, movie nights with popcorn and candy, set up the tent in the yard with a bon fire and make s’mores and ‘camp’ out, hiking, sign-up for kids free bowling and go to the dollar movies. Most days we just enjoy spending time together no matter what we are doing.”
Jessica wrote, “We sign up for the summer reading program at the local library. We read together every night, even when we go on vacation. We usually go camping for vacation and pack our camper with a ton of food to save on food costs so we don’t have to eat out.”
Celeste said, “We have 4 kids so for us our summer and family vacations are road trips. Plane tickets for this many of us, then a rental car that fits all of us goes way out of the budget. Plus road trips are pretty fun and it allows us to go at our own pace, stop for unintended adventures and more. We generally plan a trip with National Parks in mind because we buy the annual pass which is super reasonable and a great investment! In fact my youngest son is autistic and I am working on next year securing him a pass for his lifetime at no cost. FYI parents of kids with Special Needs: you can get obtain a National Parks Pass for your child for their lifetime and it’s a beautiful thing. My son LOVES nature and it’s really a calming space for him and really good for him. That is other reason we plan around road trips and national parks, having an autistic child means you need to be flexible all the time and you have to factor in sensory needs to everything. This summer we are heading to Joshua Tree and staying at an Air BnB called Moon Camp. Price point is great for our size family and we get the whole thing to ourselves, it’s near the Joshua Tree National Park so we use our park pass. Full kitchen so we pack and bring our own food saving a ton from eating out all the time and once again, autistic child so we always need to bring our own food everywhere we go because FYI it’s really hard to find banana yogurts and that is the only flavor he will eat and he really loves yogurt so… :-). Souvenirs our kids like are a new field journal and pencils for each of them. They like to hike and draw pictures of what they find and see and take their own notes and then save them. I also love having them and saving them over the years. They all use my phone to take photos and then after the trip we turn their photos into a photo book through Snapfish. Looking into planning another trip to Northern NM late summer/early fall and staying in an awesome Casita we’ve stayed in before that has a great price point and is full stocked house which saves us a ton of money on our trip. For us it’s all about the journey more than the destination.”
Stephanie said, “We do a lot of weekend backpacking trips. This usually entails making our own dehydrated or cheap meals to take out in the woods with us. We make things like ramen, instant mashed potatoes, and trail mix. We usually add our own spice mixtures and dehydrated veggies. We also make sure to look for places where we can camp for free or cheap in areas that we would already like to visit. This means we can do the hiking and camping we love but also visit spend a couple hours in a new town.”
Jessica said, “Our son is at the age that he loves the sprinkler so a water party in the backyard will be our go-to. We also like to go to the park and have a picnic. For an actual vacation, we meet family from Texas every year at a beach in Alabama and share a huge rental house off the beach and walk to the beach every day. This lessens the financial burden for everyone and we have a kitchen to cook and eat meals together.”
Laura writes, “I have got into house sitting (trustedhousesitters.com) and am seeing lots of my country (although it is worldwide!) I have also always had a theme to our holidays (I am a deputy head teacher and so have the school holidays off with my children). One years theme was around the world. Each week we moved (theoretically) continent. We learnt how to write welcome in languages from that continent and decorated our house with the flags from those countries. We ate food from those countries and played games inspired by those continents e.g jumping races with a backpack on their front with a teddy in for Australia and a huge Home drawn map in the wall with no countries named. The kids ran around the garden finding country names and pinned them on the map according to where they thought they went. Other themes we have done are sport, Europe, history and science. All cost me very little but we have so much fun!”
Melissa suggests, “Be a tourist in your hometown! Many libraries have passes that you can ‘check out’ for free admission to various local attractions, such as museums, etc.”
Sarah said, “I read a book by Laura Vanderkam a while back that suggested keeping a list of 100 things you can see/do within a ~2 hour radius of your home. I started one and we’ll be mining it for activities this summer: local historical sites, parks, bike rides, gourmet ice cream shops and special places like ice skating or visiting a train museum. I created my list with help from a 50-cent copy of ‘Things to do in Northern California with kids’ from a library book sale. If all else fails, our apartment complex has a pool, so we try to utilize tit frequently during our hot summers!”
Diana wrote, “We travel by car with our 2 sons from our home in Romania to one small Greek island, Thasos, in the North Egean Sea, we rent a studio with a small kitchen and outside barbeque place in a small villa on the beach and enjoy it! We eat fresh fruit from the local market for breakfast, Greek pastry from the local bakery shops. We can cook and grill for lunch and dinner, but we also enjoy very much the local tavernas for fish and sea food and Greek cuisine, which are affordable. The island is more for tourist enjoying nature, the pine forests, for mountain hiling and not for luxury tourism, there are no big hotels or fancy restaurants. This summer will be out 4th time there, in the same spot and we are looking forward to!”
Elizabeth said, “The kids like to ride the dirtbikes, practice archery, play on the trampoline, set up the sprinkler, we go swimming at a lake or pool at least once a week, gardening, ride bikes, lots of friend time, parks, staying with out of state family when visiting, hiking, and napping :).”
Jessica wrote, “We pick a destination midway between families so no one has a greater burden of travel costs. Then we split a vacation rental with a kitchen that allows us to eat meals in.”
Laura shared, “I try to get my kids out of the house for at least one activity a day. A few of our favorites are :
- Cinemark Kids Movie Club. The movies are at like 10 or 11 am and are $1 each, but if you buy the whole series in advance it’s $5 TOTAL which works out to like $0.50 each!
- Story time & playtime at the library and then we stick around for a bit after to pick a new book for the week as we do a bunch of different summer reading challenges.
- Swimming. We bought an annual pass to our local Rec center. It was an investment but it works out being cheaper than paying each time and it has added perks of indoor swimming in the winter and free fitness classes, etc.
- Hiking we usually do on the weekends. It’s essentially free unless you need to pay an entrance fee for a state or national park but we bought an Annual interagency pass for $80. Something fun to do is print off scavenger hunt checklists (you can find them on Pinterest) and make it a game to see who can find things first.
- And of course, don’t underestimate your local park. Take a simple picnic lunch and let them run wild! My kids can play at our local park (which is super basic, just a big field with a small play set) for HOURS.”
Sarah said, “We make a summer bucket list with the kids and most of the things they want to do are pretty low cost. Last year they included: having a picnic, going to the library, playing outside, going out for ice cream, having a movie night with popcorn (at our house), going to the beach, swimming at the lake, blowing bubbles, coloring, and having a ‘vacation’ at my sister’s house. Oh and we have some annual traditions- we go a local hot air balloon festival and a book sale. The balloon festival is free entry and we have breakfast put on by the local rotary club. The book sale is $1 for hard covers and .50 for soft covers- they also have puzzles. There are so many things that are low cost that kids love to do.”
Mallory wrote, “Kiddie pool in the backyard, lots of hiking/beach time (lucky to live in the beautiful PNW), free books and movies from the library, city parks and splash pads, grilling and eating outside. If we travel it’s usually to visit family so lodging and food are free/cheap, but as I’ll be very pregnant this summer we might not get very far away.”
Maluna plans on, “Gardening, walks in the woods, dinners on the porch, kids come home to visit, grandson’s baseball games!”
Simplicity Is Joy (in so many things)
Thank you, fabulous readers of Frugalwoods, for all of your inspiring and frugal summer ideas! A commonality among almost all of these suggestions is simplicity. Most of these ideas are not complex and are not expensive, but they are glorious in their simplicity. This list is also a salient reminder of how easily amused kids are. Mine recently found a large grocery bag and proceeded to have a one-person sack race around our house (many times). Another recent favorite activity was sitting in an empty cardboard box pretending it was a “boat going down the stream.” Would that we were all so easily amused.
My favorite illustration of the simplicity of childhood joy was Sarah’s description of her kids’ summer bucket list, which included among other things, “coloring and blowing bubbles.” Even I can handle that! I will say that many of the above suggestions require some parental creativity and organization and I can confidently say that I possess one of those skills (organization).
The creativity side of things is not my forte (as many of you know I abhor crafting), but for the sake of my children I’m going to really try (or I’m going to try and con one of my friends into doing it for me… ). My drawing skills are on par with my two-year-old’s and my idea of a craft is stacking up pinecones outside in the yard… but I’m going to read blogs about doing kid crafts, I swear!! I can learn (maybe).
Look For Frugal Efficiencies
Another theme threading through these suggestions is that of frugal efficiency. Many of you highlighted the wisdom of finding coupons, deals, free passes, and other ways of making summer outings less expensive. From packing your own snacks and lunches to checking out free museum passes from the public library to seeking out which days are half off at the local swimming pool, there are ways to engineer cheaper–but no less thrilling–experiences. I plan to create a list of all the free days, free festivals, free playgroups, and more that we can visit this summer. I’m a big fan of Sarah’s suggestion to make a bucket list of things to do within a several hour radius of your home. I need to do that!
Many of you also had fabulous advice on how to reduce the cost of vacationing–from taking roadtrips to camping to splitting Airbnb rentals with family to using credit card points for airfare and hotels. You all drove home the point that there are ways to save while on vacation too!
And of course, the best, the cheapest, and the most accessible suggestion is to get outside! When we lived in the city, Mr. Frugalwoods and I used to take Frugal Hound on lengthy walks around town on the weekends. We’d chart a route and roam for hours on end. Now, we hike through our woods or just make circuits around the yard (toddlers will do that to you). Wherever you live, in whatever climate or environment, there’s probably an opportunity to get out and enjoy the fresh air. Plus it really tires kids out. We plan to check out every playground within striking distance and get Babywoods running around as much as humanly possible. I need to
chase after her run with her to ensure she doesn’t eat grass is having fun, so there’s my summer fitness goal.