Five Cheap Activities that Got Us through the Summer


It’s August: the thrills associated with the end of the school year, which felt so exciting back at the start of summer, are no longer exciting. The thrill of not packing lunches, not helping with homework, not having to donate tissues and dry erase markers, not waiting in the school pick up line, not filling out forms and becoming an approved field trip driver, not rushing kids out the door and constantly worrying about running late—those thrills are totally worn off, and I’m ready for the school year to start.

This summer was more fun than ever, but also harder than ever. For a set of triplets, one day of camp costs $140 for five hours—after negotiating a sibling discount. Because our summer work schedules were more flexible this year, my husband and I didn’t need to put the kids in camp, which gave us a chance to save money. It also meant we had to actively look for ways to engage the kids over the summer. It wasn’t easy, and there were a few bumps along the way (we went through a period of too much television and learned after watching an inordinate number of pharmaceutical ads we experienced an uptick of complaints involving bloating, constipation and depression). Most days were a lot of fun, however, and there were a few activities we discovered that we’ve decided not to throw out, even when we’re not specifically trying to save money.

Libraries are Cool: Literally and Figuratively

I loved the library as a kid, worked in the library in high school and slept in the library in college. After that, I stopped going. Having kids led me back to the library. Story time was the first place we took our children, the first place they learned to socialize with other children, the first place they were told by someone other than a parent to be quiet, and the first place they were surrounded by books. Now, they are avid readers and still love going to the library. The library is a calm, quiet, air-conditioned place to hang out and not spend a cent, while learning about all sorts of odd things that kids tend to be fascinated with. This summer they’ve discovered everything from ghost towns, to presidential lines of succession, to things to do in New Hampshire.

Drive-Ins Still Exist, and They are Still Fun and Cheap as Heck

Halfway through the summer, we rediscovered drive-ins. The last movie I saw at a drive-in was Minority Report. My husband and I had a great time. Well, he mostly slept and snored, but I loved sitting in the car late at night watching Tom Cruise zoom around in a futuristic world littered with Precogs. I had forgotten all about drive-ins until one of the kids asked me about the huge screens off the side of the road. It turns out, there are still a lot of drive-ins out there, they still work about the same (load up in the car, bring some snacks and a blanket and watch two movies for the price of one). They get going too late for small kids, but hey, it’s not the end of the world if the kids fall asleep and mom and dad get to watch a movie.

Camping Is a Lot of Fun—After Your Kids are Fully Toilet-Trained

We made the horrible mistake one year of taking triplets camping within a year after they’d been potty-trained. They still weren’t that great at being able to control when they went to the bathroom, they had extreme stage-fright when bathrooms were loud, dark or dirty (campgrounds usually fall into all three categories), and they had a lot of false alarms. My recollections of the camping trip include nothing but making lots of trips to the campground restrooms, with most of those trips occurring throughout the night. We finally gave it another shot this summer, and we fell in love with it. To be sure, there’s a lot of packing, setting up, tearing down and putting away, but there’s also a lot to keep kids occupied. Whether it’s blowing up air mattresses, exploring the campground, playing cards or being introduced to the thrill of starting a bonfire with used paper plates, camping is much different than what the average kid does at home. It’s hard work, but it’s easy to save money on lodging, meals and entertainment. Campgrounds are cheap compared to hotels, campfire meals are less expensive than restaurants and playing the Scattergories game that I bought 20 years ago costs nothing.

Teach Kids How to Window Shop

Kids aren’t even familiar with that term. There will probably came a day when we can no longer even do it, because stores won’t have windows, they’ll just be warehouses for internet orders, but for now we do still have malls, and even a few bookstores and downtowns. The probably is, we never go to those places unless we’ve already decided to buy something. We’ve looked at it on the internet, read the reviews and compared prices. This summer, we’ve familiarized our children with the concept of window shopping. I looked them in the eyes and said, without blinking, “you will go in stores and look, and we will leave without buying anything.” It was a shocking concept, but it turns out, they are quite good at it. They now have a list of things they want and are saving for, they’ve learned to think before they buy (sorry, one-click shopping), and they are more excited than ever to buy new school shoes. After all, they have now looked at those shoes for weeks, thought about their decision and they are full of anticipation.

Television and Video Games Are Not Evil

As hard as we worked to find cheap, educational, interesting things to engage our kids this summer, the truth of the matter is they spent more time watching television and playing video games than any of these other activities. My one regret from the early days of parenting is not having watched MORE Baby Einstein videos. It was the one time of day when I was relaxed and the babies were relaxed. It may not be the subject of years of analysis, but I can tell you: there is value in mothers and babies being relaxed at the same time. This summer, we’ve watched the original Ghostbusters movie, the updated $100,000 Pyramid, a couple of Naked and Afraid marathons, and a whole lot of really, really useless stuff like SpongeBob, We Bare Bears and Uncle Grandpa. We also read, we took hikes, practiced handstands in the swimming pool and successfully learned to fly a $20 helicopter. It was okay to watch Baby Einsteins back then, and it was okay to watch T.V. and play video games this summer.

The start of the school year is always bittersweet. I can’t wait to be back to my normal routine. To be working more, to have more privacy, to enjoy the daily separation from the kids so that I can more fully enjoy the time together. Still, I’ll miss the camping, quiet afternoons in the library and morning discussions about whether the most important tool to take to the Amazon is a fire starter or an axe.


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