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Stay Connected: Family Fun That Doesn’t Cost a Fortune

Today was a fun day out with my family. And amazingly, I spent only $8.00 on parking, $4.11 on water and snacks, and however much gas driving seventeen miles to the California Science Center uses. I live in Los Angeles, where it’s quite easy to spend a lot of money when embarking on fun activities with kids. (Can you say “Disney World”?) But really, there’s no need to fall into the trap of squandering cash when you’re trying to create special moments with your family. In fact, sometimes the events you and your children will always remember come from activities that were free—or close to it. In today’s economy, we’re all watching our spending; this can create stress not only for you, but also for your children, who can sense the tension. With that in mind, I’ve come up with some wonderful ideas that can help you save money, get back to the basics, and relax with your kids. 

Take a Hike
Instead of going to an underwhelming children’s movie—where you can easily spend $70 for two adults, two kids, and some popcorn and drinks—go for a hike instead. Yes, I know this is easy for Californians to do year-round. (On Christmas Eve, my family hiked to a cove and looked for shells and sea anemones.) But if you live in colder climates, bundle up the kiddos, fill a thermos with hot chocolate, and go for a short nature walk. If it’s snowing, go sledding or make snow angels or snowmen. Just get out and breathe some fresh air!

Go to a Museum
Check out your local science or history museum. My eight-year-old son loved going to the California Science Center (where admission is free), and, surprisingly, he enjoyed playing with his one-year-old brother there the most. The center has a toddler area where the two kids had a blast together, playing with blocks, climbing on structures, looking at snakes and turtles, and so on. It was wonderful to see the two of them having fun and playing together in a learning environment. If you live in a smaller city, do a little research—my sister lives in a very small town in North Carolina, and I was surprised to find an animal safari, train museum, and air and space museum there.

Plan a Game Night
Kids love game night. It’s simple and timeless, and just good, clean fun. My rules, however, are no TVs, laptop computers, BlackBerries, iPhones, or cell phones on. Pull out the Scrabble or Monopoly board, pop some popcorn, and enjoy!

Host an International Night
Just because you can’t afford to jet-set with your family this year doesn’t mean you can’t experience different cultures. Once a month, explore another country’s cuisine and traditions. For instance, if it’s French night, plan a typical French dinner and dessert and have the whole family help you cook. Learn a few French phrases, pull out the map, discuss various traditions, look at old photos if you and your partner have ever been to France, and later watch a French film—one that’s approved for the kids, of course. This activity will range in cost, depending on what you decide to cook and how many ingredients you have in your pantry, but rest assured, it will be much cheaper than going to a nice restaurant and the theater, which can easily set you back more $150 for a family of four.

Create a Photo Album Together
In this day of online albums, it’s still nice to create brag books for grandparents or cherished-memory books. Take out your boxes of printed photos and ask your kids and your partner to help you sort through baby pictures, silly vacation pictures, holiday pictures, and so on. You’ll be amazed at how much you find to celebrate. Little girls especially love scrapbooking, but I find that boys also like to see photos from their childhood and fun times—perhaps inspiring Dad to go on another camping trip. The cost of this project is typically how much you want to spend on photo albums (if you don’t have any lying around the house), as well as on printing photos if all of yours are online. I’d suggest going to Target or Walmart, where you can find attractive photo albums for less than $20 each.

Have a Sunday Picnic
Weather permitting, of course, pack the picnic basket with goodies and bring a Frisbee, football, coloring books, and the newspaper, and just enjoy being together at a local park or other favorite spot.

Take a Group Class/Lesson
Sign the whole family up for a class that involves something new for everyone. If you’re a member of the YMCA, for example, you could sign up for an inexpensive family rock-climbing lesson. Your local library may have free classes and events as well. For instance, mine hosts free concerts, story times, classic-film clubs, and book clubs. 

Organize a Movie Night
Although it may seem simple and not terribly unique, kids love movie night. Debbie Lieberthal of Thousand Oaks, California, says her two children, ages three and six, adore going to the store and picking out a film and buying candy and desserts. “At home we make popcorn, get into our pajamas, light the fireplace, and cuddle under one or two big blankets while watching a movie. The kids love it, and we really enjoy the cuddle time. The whole thing costs maybe $15 total; the movie is $5, plus desserts.”

Volunteer with Your Church or a Local Charity
This is a fun way to connect with your family and help others who may be struggling more than you are. It’s also a healthy reminder to your children of what they have to be thankful for.

Go Camping
If you already have a tent and the other required gear, a weekend camping getaway will cost you the price of the campsite, travel, and food. I reserved a spot at Joshua Tree National Park for a weekend, and the total reservation fee was $30. We’ll drive there from Los Angeles, with enough food for two days, and expect to spend $150 total. For a weekend away, that’s not too shabby.

I hope these ideas inspire you to think of other ways to spend quality time with your family without breaking the bank. Please feel free to share your favorites with us.

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