In a society that values materialism over responsibility in many cases, the frugal among us get a bad rap. Some think of us as “cheapskates” who will short them on a split bill while others consider us to just be “buzzkills” who are never willing to go out and have some fun if it involves spending a few dollars. Despite these assertions, I’m here to tell you that living a frugal life doesn’t have to be boring.
Although I’ve been known to enjoy a nice quiet night in, my wife and I are hardly shut-ins. In fact, we make a point to go out for our “Together Tuesday” date nights in addition to whatever we have planned for the weekends. At the same time we’re very mindful of how much we’re spending and how that money could be put to better use. As a result, we’ve gotten to be more or less experts on the topic of finding inexpensive entertainment.
What follows is a list of activities that you can enjoy without spending a fortune or awkwardly mooching off of others. While I’ve broken down my list down into categories for whom these suggestions would likely appeal to most, the vast majority are really suitable for just about anyone — as I can attest to, having personally done all of these. I’ve also included a few things that might sound like a good idea on the surface but could actually backfire.
So without further ado, here are 20 thrifty activity ideas (and five things to avoid):
Fun Activities for Families
When you have kids, entertainment isn’t just a nice thing to have, it’s pretty much needed to maintain sanity. Of course, family outings also require a lot more cash seeing as there are more people to pay for. That’s why these ideas are some of the more expensive suggestions on my list but are still thriftier than the alternatives:
Attend free/cheap local events
Beyond the big fairs and festivals put on by states or counties, many cities host their own special events. In addition to the big gathering, be on the lookout for movies in the park, farmer’s markets, and other fun activities you can take the kids to without spending a ton. This is especially true in the summer when the need for family activities increases, but you’re likely to find events all year round.
Enjoy discounted activities
Want to take your kids somewhere fun but don’t want to pay full price? Be on the look out for discount opportunities on sites like Groupon or Living Social, especially during the “off-season” times. Plus, zoos, amusement parks, state fairs, and other local events tend to partner with grocery stores or other retailers to offer discounted tickets, so keep an eye out for those.
Bake and decorate cookies
If there are two things kids love, it’s sweets and art. With some flour, sugar, food coloring, and a few other key ingredients, you and your kids can enjoy some creative fun decorating and baking your own cookies at home. Just be sure to bake from scratch to help save money compared to box mixes and pre-made doughs — this includes making your own icings. Of course, a warning: depending on how old your children are, your kitchen will be a disaster after this… but it’s probably worth it.
Invest in a theme park passes
I know what you’re thinking — theme parks aren’t cheap. And you’re right, except that season passes can actually be a great value if you and your family enjoy amusement park rides and live close enough to take advantage of them on a regular basis. A word of warning, however: be sure to get a pass that includes parking otherwise visits will end up costing you big time. Additionally, be sure to either fill up beforehand or bring snacks with you so you can avoid the overpriced park food.
Go to a college or minor league game
Attending pro sporting events can be awfully fun but they can also cost a pretty penny. On top of the already high price of admission, food, drinks, and souvenirs are all extremely expensive. Instead consider attending college match-ups, minor league games, and other local sports events that won’t cost you as much and will still provide nearly the same level of entertainment. Plus, if you live in Florida or Arizona, MLB Spring Training games are always a good time at an affordable price.
Activities For Couples
No one wants to seem boring to their partner. That’s why we often spend hundreds on “romantic” evenings, gifts, and surprises lest our loved ones look elsewhere for excitement. However there are still several fun things that couples can do together that don’t post a major threat to your joint accounts:
Make a special dinner in
While eating out at a fancy restaurant is a go-to for many couples, it’s clearly not the most frugal way to spend an evening. Instead, take a trip to the store with your partner and plan the perfect meal to make yourselves. The Internet is rife with inspiration to help you build your menu — you can even tailor your recipe to what you have on hand. I should warn you not to get carried away with buying ingredients you’ll only use once or that are too pricey, but even with a bit of a splurge, you’ll probably still be saving compared to a restaurant (especially when tipping is considered). Plus cooking with your loved one can actually be a lot of fun!
Host a potluck
Still thinking about food? Another smart way to enjoy some culinary treats along with some great company is to host a potluck dinner at your place. If you’re somehow not familiar with the concept, a potluck is where each of your guests brings some sort of dish with them for all to enjoy. Pro tip: it’s usually advisable to figure our who’s bringing what ahead of time so that you don’t even up with just desserts or five different kinds of mashed potatoes (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In conclusion, yes the potluck party is a classic but that’s for good reason.
Check out local festivals
In the “family” section above, I mentioned that a number of cities and communities host regular festivals of various kinds. As adults, there are even more festivals that might appeal to you and your partner. From craft beer and barbecue to wine tastings and art walks, there are likely plenty of fun and frugal times you’re missing out on.
Go mall walking
Some people might think that mall walking is just for older folks… and they may have a point. However, I can tell you from experience that my wife and I love to walk to the mall for a number of reasons. For one, it allows us to get some exercise regardless of what the weather is like outside. Additionally, it affords us the opportunity to monitor prices on items we want, determine our target price, and snatch it as soon as it hits that number. Of course mall walking isn’t a great idea for the weak-willed and easily tempted but, for everyone else, it’s a nice way to spend a few hours.
Take a nature walk
This one is clearly weather dependent but never underestimate the power of nature. Whether you take a day trip to a nearby national park or forest or keep it local at a park or garden, exploring the world’s natural beauty is hardly ever boring.
Set off on a photo trip
Speaking of nature, you might also enjoy bringing along a camera and snapping some shots on your walk. In fact, you may be surprised by all the fun details you miss in your city until you explore them with a photographer’s eye. If you enjoy taking pictures and being artsy, try setting off on a photo trip to either places you go every day or somewhere you’ve been meaning to visit and see what inspires you. Also don’t feel like you need to go buy a fancy camera to get great shots — your smartphone can do pretty amazing things.
Frugal Fun For Anyone
Frugal fun isn’t just limited to families and couples. In fact, spending time alone can be enriched by learning or trying new things in addition to taking in the typical entertainment. Whether you plan on heading out alone or bringing along some friends, here are some activities anyone can enjoy:
Attend library events
As I’ve discussed before, local libraries can be really awesome. Not only do they offer hours upon hours of free entertainment in the form of books and movies but also might host special events. For example, my local branch has held conversations with authors, movie screenings open to the public, and podcast discussion groups. Still not convinced? They even have a Zombie and Donuts gathering once a month where they read comics about the undead and dine on pastries. Basically, I’m saying that, if your library is half as cool as mine, you’ll be more than hooked up.
Learn new things on YouTube
If you’re like me, once every week or so you’ll wonder “how can I do (fill in the blank)?” As it turns out, the answer is usually on YouTube. In between cat videos and auto-tuned remix clips I’ve learned to do everything from reset my “maintenance required” light on my car to performing card tricks that frustrate the heck out of my wife. Whether you’re looking to learn something fun or want to save money by fixing something yourself, falling down a YouTube rabbit hole can actually be a productive use of your time — who knew?
Write a book
Yes, you too can write your own book if you just set your mind to it! In fact, with the numerous self-publishing options available to you these days, you could not only get your work out there but perhaps make a bit of profit off of it. Clearly, this might not be for everyone but, if you’ve ever wanted to write your own book, I’m here to tell you that you can.
Enjoy a Netflix binge
There’s really no denying how Netflix has grown into a powerhouse entertainment company. At around $10 a month, subscribing to the platform isn’t free. However, as an alternative to more expensive activities (including seeing first-run films in the theatre), it could be a great deal. Of course, if you’re truly frugal you can also sign up for the free trial, binge on all the TV you’ve heard so much about, and just cancel before your month is up.
Seek out some live music
It seems that no matter where you live you’re never that far from some live music. Plus much of it is free as many bars and clubs will invite artists of all kinds to play. Every so often you may encounter a small cover charge but, otherwise, this can be a great way to enjoy some music and maybe even discover your new favorite band.
Plan your next vacation
Everyone needs a vacation from time to time and, incidentally, planning one can be half the fun. Whether you already have your trip booked and want to start filling out your travel days or are just starting to dream up your next destination, you’d be surprised how the hours can fly by when you’re researching all the fun you’ll soon be having. Plus after the trip you can spend many more fond hours looking back at your trip and sharing the highlights with others.
Host a gaming tournament for friends
As a frugal individual, chances are you don’t own the latest gaming system and games… but at least one of your friends probably does. Try talking them into bring over their system to your place for a gaming tournament everyone can enjoy. Alternatively, you could break out your retro gaming systems or older sports games, which are still just as much fun.
Have a poker night
In a similar vein, why not have a good old-fashioned poker night? The obvious objection would be that poker usually involves gambling, but it doesn’t have to! You can always have a hold em tournament where the only prize is bragging rights or, if you must gamble, keep the stakes really low — like a $1 buy in and $1 rebuy — just to make things a little more interesting.
Start learning a new language
While we’re on the topic of travel, another smart way to spend you time is to learn a new language. At this point you’re probably thinking about the expensive language learning software you’re seen or heard commercials but there are a wealth of free tools available as well. One of the most popular options is an app called Duolingo, which offers a number of languages you can learn through various lessons, chats, and more. Beyond that, a quick Google search is sure to turn up dozens of sites and tools that will help you get a basic grip on a language before your trip and, perhaps, even lead you on your way toward fluency.
Watch Out! These Activities Can Get Pricey
Sometimes something can start out as a thrifty activity and quickly snowball into much more. If you’re not careful, these things could actually end up costing you a fortune in the long run. With that said here are some things to avoid:
Picking up crafting
Crafting activities like creating scrapbooks or decorating pottery can admittedly be a lot of fun but they can also get quite expensive. In fact, while the idea of making someone a gift for a holiday or other occasion sounds smart, the truth is that it’s extremely easy to get carried away when buying supplies. For that reason you may want to reconsider picking up a crafting hobby unless you do a careful job of pricing it out first.
Throwing a party
Grab some food, put on some music, and invite some people over — that’s all there is to throwing a party right? It’s possible but all too often the “good host” gene kicks in, causing people to over plan and over spend on entertaining their guests. If you’re going to throw a party, consider making it a potluck or ask guests to chip in some other way because taking on the full burden can often prove to be financially demanding.
Getting into gardening
In another case of a hobby gone amuck, gardening sounds perfectly thrifty. Heck, you could even grow your own veggies and spices to save money on groceries! Unfortunately getting to that point takes a lot more time, effort, and, yes, money than you may be prepared for. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to rule it out entirely but you should definitely do your research.
Earlier I mentioned how Groupon and Living Social can offer some great deals on activities for the family or for individuals. Of course, this only works if you actually get around to cashing them in. Before buying one of these deals be sure to look into anything and everything that could pose a problem to you redeeming it. This includes the location, the hours of operation (and whether the deal is valid on weekends or holidays), and the expiration date. Don’t fall into the trap of buying something you’re not going to use!
Hosting a (fill-in-the-blank multi-level marketing company) party
Seriously, just stay away from that stuff.
Just because you’re trying to be thrifty doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life — it’s all about getting the most out of your entertainment dollar. From free events to small splurges that lead to big fun, there are plenty of ways activities that fit into the thrifty lifestyle. So what are some of your favorites?
This article by Kyle Burbank first appeared on Money at 30 and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.