Cheap family activities will keep everyone entertained and engaged with one another, all while saving that money in your wallet.
As an adult, I occasionally daydream about certain times during my childhood.
When I’m in my cubicle on a summer afternoon, it’s not nostalgia for Nintendo, Gameboy, or shows from TGIF that puts a smile on my face; it’s the more homegrown fun we had.
I can remember my father playing badminton with us in that tantalizing late evening dusk when the sky is halfway between nighttime and day — the playful flicker of lightning bugs all around us captures this moment with their flash photography.
There were many a baitcaster fishing reel in our cabin in the mountains, and diving in our swimming pool one last time before sitting out in the grass to eat Mom’s strawberry shortcake.
On our vacations in Ocean City, MD our parents were not busied by jobs and everyday chores so instead they could focus on a game of Scrabble with us, keeping us engaged and thrilled for hours.
Cheap family activities are not only good for the wallet; they're good for your kid's souls. These are the types of activities that will remain with them throughout the rest of their lives — the ones they'll daydream about from time to time as they entertain their own kids.
What Should My Family Do Today?
Ever wake up on a weekend or a summer day and wonder, what should my family do today?
Don't worry — I've got you covered. The lists below are your go-to resource for finding cheap, memorable activities to not just keep your family entertained, but to really bond with them.
On days when you don't know what you should do with your family, choose from several of the ideas below, then rotate which family member gets to pick from that curated list of yours.
You could also use the list as a way to reward your child for a good report card (especially if you don't want to splurge on taking the whole family out to dinner).
Fun Family Activities at Home: What Can You Do with Your Family at Home?
Great, and almost-free entertainment ideas start at home — books, Mad Libs (you can make your own), bike riding, badminton nets (I used to love playing this with my father), crossword puzzles in the newspaper, toys, video games, coloring books, board games, swimming; the list depends on what you all ready have in your possession or what you can borrow.
Supplement your out-of-home entertainment each week by incorporating one free activity at home, such as:
- Play a Round of Pudding Pictionary: This is such a fun game! We played it with our 2 year old (yes…lots of the pudding ended up in his mouth and on his face — but he also actually attempted to draw the items!).
- Hold a Pantry-Cooking Competition: Divide your family into two teams. One team gets to root through the cupboards and pantry to cook a complete meal on Friday night, and the other gets to do it for Saturday night. Choose how you guys will pick the winning team.
- Family Murder Mystery Game Night: Here are 9 free murder mysteries you and your family can have fun with (all free!).
- Family Tournament Night: Forget about family board game nights; instead, hold a family tournament night. This includes playing at least 3 rounds of a particular game — any one you have on hand.
- Play Glow-in-the-Dark Volleyball Out Back: Wow, this adds a whole new level of fun to that volleyball net that's sitting in the garage.
- Give Home Manis and Pedis: Play spa-at-home and let everyone take turns handing out the manicures and pedicures. Bonus: kids get to choose what color goes on Mom!
- Camp Out in Your Backyard: My sister, brother and I used to love to doing this! Pitch your tent in the backyard, load it up with sleeping bags, books to read, flashlights, snacks, etc. And let the kids (and you guys, too) all sleep under the stars. Beware of any timed sprinklers!
- Pass Down a Family Cooking Lesson: Teach your children how to cook a favorite meal of yours, or cook something that takes hours and is only meant for special occasions.
- Roast Dinner in the Backyard: Make a campfire and let the kids roast dinner on a stick. Whittle away the hours with ghost stories.
- Force Bulbs Inside: Last winter I took the time to force bulbs in our home. I can’t describe to you the pleasure of smelling sweet, fresh, hyacinths in our kitchen. Plus, it was really exciting to watch the bulbs first grow roots, then breakout into stalks, and finally produce lovely little flowers. We happened to have a gorgeous piece of pottery that our aunt gave to us as a gift, and smooth river rocks leftover from our fish tank, so we only needed to spend less than $10 on bulbs. You can use any container you’d like and could even gather rocks from outside or from your landscaping.
- Make Cake Pops: Have I mentioned my love affair with cake pops? It began about two years ago when I first stumbled upon this woman’s blog. I even found a deal on a social-buying website for half off a great cake pops class that I took with my friend Helen (photos below). The great thing about making cake pops is that the ingredients are super cheap (lollipop sticks can be found on Amazon.com or in your local craft store). You can also make several cake batter batches and freeze them in single-size bags to make cake pops throughout the rest of the year. Here’s a video + tips and tricks on how to make your own.
Cheap Family Dates
We are all about the family dates in our household. And cheap ones? Well, those are even better.
Some cheap family dates for you:
- Meet Daddy for Lunch: Depending on the age of your kids, or you can swing this over school holidays, surprise Dad by taking everyone into his workplace cafeteria, or a nearby cafeteria for lunch! If funds are really tight, bag lunches and meet at a local park for 40 minutes of watching the kids play.
- Go for Pokemon Go Walks: Have you heard of Pokemon Go? It's fun to pair a walk with this free game — this is definitely a long walk the kids will want to be part of. Just download it on your phone, or someone's phone, and get going!
- Work Out at the Gym: If you've got a gym or a YMCA/community center membership, then make your next family date a gym outing. You've already paid for it!
- Take a Free Factory Tour: Many factory tours are free, and at the end, you might just get to sample the product (specifically if it's a food factory tour).
- Complete a Family Challenge: This can be a 5K walk for a cause, where you can also ask family and friends to sponsor your team (with donations going to the cause).
Cheap Family Fun Places
There's plenty of free entertainment to be had in this world, even when you get restless enough to venture out of your house. Check out your local museums, theaters, libraries, bookstores, nature centers and community centers for free events (also, google the phrase, “free event near fill-in-your-location”).
For example, here in Houston, we've got several free museums + free nights at other museums, such as:
- the Menil Collection
- the Holocaust Museum
- Thursday nights are free at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts
- Thursday night is free family night at the Children’s Museum
- first Tuesday of the month is free at the Houston Zoo
- the Miller Outdoor Theater which hosts free theater productions and free concerts
Also check out your local high school and colleges for sports events, free movie viewings (my college had these and allowed the community to come as well), etc.
Volunteering can serve the dual purpose of helping others in need and providing entertainment. You can volunteer for things such as Habitat for Humanity or at local nature centers for a great time outdoors. There are any number of events that need your help in planning, organizing, and executing that will get you out of the house and feeling great. Find something you are passionate about, and champion for it
Cheap Outdoor Spring Activities
Both the warmth and my sinuses have alerts me each year that spring has returned.
What a beautiful time of year!
Since I grew up in PA, spring to me has always meant a break from the bleak winter, a tease of the warmth to come, and brilliant colors to gaze upon after several months of mind-numbing browns and grays.
Oh yes, and it has also always meant a lot of sneezing as well. *sigh*.
Here are some ways to take advantage of this fresh and vibrant time of year:
- Take a Yoga or Meditation Routine Outdoors: It might completely change your practice by changing locations to your backyard, in the middle of a park, on the beach, etc. You might even be able to find a group that offers this so that you won’t be alone. Here in Houston, Discovery Green offers free yoga outdoors on Saturdays at 9:00 a.m and Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m, while Meditations are on Mondays at 12:00 p.m .
- Hunt for Four-Leaf Clovers: Four-leaf clovers are caused by a mutation on a normal, three-leaf clover plant. This mutation typically occurs once in every 10,000 clovers, which means this could either be the best activity to keep your kids busy ever, or a very discouraging one. There are some plants who imitate true clovers, but you can tell that you have found a legitimate four-leaf clover if the fourth leaf is smaller than the others. If you are lucky enough to find one, press it for keeping or make yourself a charm by drying it and placing it in a clear charm holder from a craft store. If you want to send the kids out to find their own, offer them a pot of gold at the end of their long journey by making a copycat version of McDonald’s Shamrock milkshake.
- Go for a Hike: Not only will this give you a great exercise session, but you can spot all of the beautiful new greenery and blooms. Nature will be unfolding before your very eyes!
- Take a Photo in a Field of Wildflowers: Bluebonnets are famous in Texas, and so is getting your picture taken in a field of them . If you want to skip the possibility of snake bites and the potential hazards of parking on the side of a road, check out Mercer Arboretum which offers free admission and a spot to take photos. If you are not in Texas, use this U.S. Forest Service to find wildflower viewing in your own area.
- Pick Strawberries: Strawberry season has begun here in Houston. If you want to pick your own, check out Froberg’s Vegetable and Fruit Farm in Alvin, about 26 miles outside of Houston. Paul and I picked our own last week and made Strawberry Shortcake with our sweet finds. Use this resource to find pick-your-own farms in your area.
Cartoon courtesy of Cartoon Resource.
Outdoor Summer Activities
Summer is a time of relaxed schedules, longer days, thunderstorms, and berries. Who doesn’t want summer to last?
- Wildlife Spotting: This is such a fun pastime. Here in Houston, I love alligator spotting. Also, you can watch the bat colony emerge from under Waugh Bridge! We did this several years ago. When I lived in Florida I also went alligator spotting, and got to see iguanas and lots of exotic birds. In Maryland, I went birding (spotted a Kingfisher once, which was probably the coolest bird sighting I have ever had). In PA, I loved watching the lightning bugs come out at night and going deer spotting near my family’s cabin in the mountains.
- Go to the Park: Paul and I had a sleepover for two of our nieces this past weekend and we took them to see ducks, turtles (we spotted almost 20!), the Japanese gardens and koi fish all for free at the Hermann Memorial Park. We even showed them the huge gemstone geodes and the dinosaur skeleton in the lobby of the Houston Museum of Natural Science while Paul picked up the car. Parks are a wonderful way to enjoy time with children and adults. You never know what kind of wildlife you might spot, or what surprises are in store for you. If nothing else, spending some time outside is always wonderful (though in smaller increments in the humid Houston air!).
- Glow in the Dark Magic (From Woman’s Day, April Issue): Buy tubes of glow-in-the-dark sticks ($1 each for a tube of 15 at Michael’s) and let your kids run around in the backyard at night. Try a game of nighttime freeze tag!
- Paintball in the Backyard: Ever notice how cheap water guns are? Purchase one each for every member in your family, and then dye the water a different color for each member. Fill up the water guns, put on old clothing, and play a game of “paintball” in your backyard.
- Night Under the Stars: Buy a map of the stars you can see with your naked eyes (I personally have the Klutz Guide), and grab a blanket. Check out the following summer nights when there will be meteor showers: the June Bootids shower on June 22nd and the Perseids Meteor Shower on August 12 (for more information, check out MeteorBlog). For even more fun, pitch your tent and camp out for the night.
- S’Mores: Have a fire pit, chiminea, or can you make a fire pit? Have your kids hunt for their own sticks, break out the graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows and take the dessert outside. For more stick-friendly foods, try wrapping sausage or hot dogs in crescent rolls, roasting apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, bannock, or kebabs.
- Friday Night Sparklers: Or Tuesday night sparklers…or Sunday night sparklers. Who said sparklers were just for once a year on July 4th? Sparklers are inexpensive, and will light up your child’s face.
- Go Treasure Hunting: Grab a compass, and try out Letterboxing, or borrow someone’s metal detector and take it outback with your kids.
- Start a Family Collection: The idea with this is to have a collective goal to bring your family together. This family goes on walks and collects change to donate to charities. If you live near the ocean or water of any kind, purchase a fish net to hang on your wall (perhaps in your family room) and go on walks to gather things to nestle into the netting, such as shells, driftwood, etc. Collect neat-looking stones and look them up on the internet.
- Pick Your Own Food: Almost nothing is more fun and immediately rewarding than gathering your own food. Try picking strawberries, peaches, apples, etc. Check out this website to find a pick-your-own farm near you.
- Feeding Ducks (if it's allowed): This is still one of my favorite activities, even as an adult. I save the ends of my bread loaves and put them into the freezer. When I have enough, I find a duck pond and spend a half an hour or so engaged in nature.
What are some of your favorite summer activities, either ones you remember, or ones you enjoy with your own family?
Halloween + Fall Activities for Families
Fall is that beautiful time of year when the leaves begin to turn different colors, kids go back to school, football season starts (my husband made me put that one in), and our electricity bill drops back down to a non eye-popping level (YAS!).
Can you feel the excitement everywhere — that cyclical and welcomed change perched all around for the taking?
I thought it would be fun to list some great fall activities for families that are also quite affordable.
- Make a Set of Family Scarecrows: Got some old clothes you haven’t donated yet? Get each family member to pick out an outfit (long sleeved shirt and pants) and purchase one or two bails of straw from a local farmer or feed store. Stuff the shirt and pants with straw, tuck in the shirt, and use either the cut bailer twine or a belt to cinch the shirt and pants together. Fill an old pillowcase up with straw and use markers to make a face (secure into a face-like shape with a rubberband), or use a pumpkin for the head. Use an old fence post or other scrap of long wood to stake each member up and display in your front yard!
- Make Peanut Butter Bird Feeders: Visit a local park or go on a walk and collect pine cones. When you get home, slather the pine cones in peanut butter, then roll each in birdseed (hint: if you are in Houston, the cheapest wild bird seed I have found is at Kroger’s). Tie to a tree with a piece of string.
- Enjoy the Harvest: In our backyard the lemon tree is beginning to drop beautiful Meyer lemons. We are not sure what we will use these for, but they will not go wasted in our kitchen. Visiting farmer’s markets and seeing all of the fresh produce is a joy this time of year. Apple orchards may be hours away from us, but many of you live around an orchard where you can partake in the harvest and pick your own fruit. If you don’t live within driving distance, instead try making homemade apple cider doughnuts, apple cider donut holes, canning homemade applesauce (my friend Aurora does this every year!), or making other apple baked goods. Heat up the leftover apple cider from the doughnut making and enjoy a cup outside.
- Go to a Local Football Game: Can’t or don’t want to afford a ticket to an NFL game? Take your family to a Friday night high school one instead. Be sure to bring a blanket that you all can snuggle under!
- Make Homemade Creepy Crawlers: I was a creepy crawler kid. Forget about an Easy Bake Oven; I wanted my oven to make spindly and rubbery creatures of all sorts. Here is a recipe for homemade creepy crawlers that you don’t need to bake. Or visit a craft store and find insect molds to fill.
- Go Antiquing: Paul and I have an incredible amount of fun going antiquing without spending a dime. Now that it is a little bit cooler out, go to a location with a cluster of antique stores (for us, we recently went to Westheimer), and putz around indoors on a lazy afternoon. What treasures can you find?
- Pick Pumpkins: Many people purchase pumpkins this time of year, so take it one step further, and find a pumpkin patch where you get to choose your own. Everyone will have a great time picking out the one, and then you can all go home and think about how you will carve them.
- Carve Pumpkins + Fruits: Why just carve a pumpkin when you can carve Halloween designs onto fruit and even vegetables to add some festivity all month long? Who knows, maybe your children will be more apt to eat fruits and vegetables after they have worked on them. It would also be super cute and thoughtful to carve a piece of fruit that you stick in your children’s lunchbox as a surprise. Here are some free templates you can print out (obviously the large ones will not work on a pear or apple). Speaking of carving pumpkins, there are many great free pumpkin designs available on the web (here are 27 kid-friendly free ones, and 16 that are a little higher-skill level). You can print out to add some flare to your typical triangle eyes and toothless mouths. Don’t forget to bake the seeds with a little bit of salt for a healthy snack.
- Turn Off the TV and Tell Ghost Stories: My Aunt and Uncle got us the series “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” which I still treasure today. With nighttime creeping in earlier and earlier, take advantage of the dark. Turn off the t.v., light some candles, and share some of your own ghost stories from childhood (or make one up as you go).
- Drive by a Haunted Location and Share Mysterious Local Folklore: There used to be a gang near our farm that allegedly stole farming equipment and diesel fuel during the night (they are the reason why my grandfather always made sure the equipment found its way to the shed at the end of the day). I didn’t know anything about this gang or other mysteries surrounding their lives until our tennis practice was cancelled one rainy autumn morning. My sister was my transportation, and she decided that instead of going straight home she would drive me and her friend down this creepy, wooded path to where this gang used to live. She told us the tidbits she knew, and how there might be a body buried on the very ground we were driving over. It was so spooky! I don’t know what is or is not true of everything that was said, but the memory remains with me. You can find out about folklore and alleged hauntings in your own area by doing a search, asking around, or visiting your local library. Who knows what you might find. Also…how fun would it be to check out a kid's scary audiobook and listen to it on the way?
- Host a Family S'Mores Cookout: Get the kids excited about a Friday night roast by having them collect their s'mores stick at a local park or forest during the day. Then at night, start up your fire pit in the backyard and let everyone make their own s'mores.
One Final Thought — Are Family Memberships Worth it?
I've never actually purchased a membership to somewhere, save for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts when the price was $10 for one year (who could resist that cost?).
But you know what? It could make sense for you to buy a family membership to certain attractions.
So, how do you determine if memberships are worth it? I think it depends on several variables, only one of which is the cost of membership itself.
Can You Afford the Cost Upfront?
Being able to purchase things upfront can save you money later. But if you truly cannot afford it, then it is no bargain for you.
Try to displace costs elsewhere, such as your current month’s entertainment budget (if you have one). You can find free things to do for one month in order to pay the cost of a family membership that will last a year.
Perhaps you have a vacation fund and can use part of it to purchase a membership.
Can you do a week of freezer/cupboard eating and take that week’s grocery budget to pay for membership?
Can Guests and/or Others Use your Pass?
It is more likely you will reap the financial benefits of a membership in terms of savings if the membership comes with a guest pass and/or someone other than you can use the membership.
For the first, if you have friends in town it will cut down on costs.
And if someone else can use your pass, then you could even split the cost of membership.
Does the Membership Replace other Entertainment Costs?
If you know that purchasing this membership means you will cut down on the costs of entertaining you and your family (because you will go to this place instead of somewhere else when you are bored or looking for something to do), then a membership can be a great tool for you.
Are there Convenient Free Days?
Did you check and see if the museum/attraction you want to see has a free day? Is it on a day where you can go with your family, even if just meeting up after work for a few hours? Paul and I met up once last year at the Museum of Fine Arts and had a lovely Thursday evening near the end of a workweek. If you cannot make it to any free days available, then perhaps a membership is a way for you to save some money.
Will You Use the Passes Past the ‘Break Even” Point?
Here’s a rundown of the cost of membership versus the cost of a one-time ticket for Houston museums/attractions:
|Museum/Attraction||Cost of Single Ticket (purchased online)||Cost of Membership||Frugal Alternative|
|NASA||$17.95 adult, $13.95 child||Family of four, $94.80 (one year)|
|Houston Zoo||$13.00 adult, $9.00 child||two adults and up to three dependent children plus 1 single guess pass, $94; individual plus one guest pass, $65||Free First Tuesday of the Month|
|The Health Museum||$8.00 adult, $6.00 child||Five family members, $60; Individual Plus One, $45||Free Thursdays 2:00-5:00 p.m.|
|Houston Museum of Fine Art||$10.00 adult, $5.00 child||Family membership for two adults and all children under 18 in household, $85; Individual membership, $50||Free Thursdays|
|Houston Museum of Natural Science||$15.00 adult, $10.00 child||Two Adults and up to 4 children, $115; Individual, $60||Free Tuesdays after 2:00 (main exhibit halls)|
|Children’s Museum||$9.00||Up to three individuals and one adult $85;||Free Thursdays 5:00-8:00 p.m.|
|Splashtown||$30.99 48” and taller; $27.99 48” and smaller ($5 processing fee per ticket ordered)||$59.99 per person||The beach?|
Do you have family memberships? Have you made use of them as much as you wanted?
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