how to have fun with kids without breaking your budget
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How to Have Fun with Kids Without Busting the Budget

Psst, I make money on some of the links in this post at no cost to you. It keeps the lights on around here.

Hey, Picky people! Today we have a guest post from my pal Carrie over at She has some fantastic tips for having fun with the kiddos on a budget–and as a mom to 7 kids, I think she’s on to something! 

Like the Picky Pinchers, I’m died-in-the-wool frugal. My lifestyle differs from the Pinchers in that I am raising a large family – hubby and I have 7 kids, to be precise.

While my husband and I were getting out of debt a couple of years ago, we decided that we didn’t want our kids to suffer during the process, so “entertainment and fun” was a line item in the budget. We figured out a few ways to have fun with the kids on the cheap.

We’ve discovered that there is little relationship between what we pay for a good time and the enjoyment factor. A good movie is enjoyable whether it’s a free DVD from the library or a $100 (bye-bye, Benjamin!) expense at the fancy movie theater. Plus, the popcorn is so much better at home!

Things I don’t buy

First I’ll start with “fun” things I won’t buy for my kids, as a matter of principle.

I’ve never purchased an iPad, a laptop, a phone, a video game console or handheld gaming device. Ever. I believe that these devices do more harm to childhood than good, so I’m not obligated to use my income in pursuit of them.

As my kids have gotten older, they buy their own cell phones and the minutes for them. If it’s a priority, they’ll figure out a way to earn the money on their own. My 15-year-old has a penchant for drones, but a $200 RC helicopter is far less likely to get caught in a tree (or unwisely loaned to that irresponsible but fun friend) if he earned the money to pay for it himself.

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Milk the public library for all it’s worth

Everybody knows the library is where you get free books to read, but the library has so many other options for free entertainment.

Complete TV series and movies on DVD, for example. Oddly, my family can never find a decent movie at RedBox, because they’re either too vulgar or violent, and the good ones are checked out. The library always has a ton of great selections, gratis!

Some libraries have day passes to local attractions such as the zoo or aquarium. (Attractions such as these can easily set my family back $200, just to get in the door.) They also offer a huge lineup of book clubs (some for teens), classes on everything from gardening to gaming, toddler story hour and fun and educational activities for everyone in between.

A recent win was Star Wars day. A visit with the local firefighter troup was also fun (even for mom – check out the biceps on that hunky fireman!).

Explore nature

Doing things outside helps prevent the “nature deficit disorder” experts are talking about these days. Little kids who spend a few hours outside each day eat better, sleep better, and behave better. Big kids also need the mood-boosting benefits of spending time in nature. When puberty is doing its moody gyrations, a long walk or bike ride outside, especially while hanging out with a loved parent, is an easy fix.

Get to know the hiking and biking trails in your area. Go camping, the cheapest vacation of all if you do it right (I’m referring to a tent on the ground, yo. It’s character-building for the modern softie.)

Camping always reminds me of how little kids need to be happy. My kids beg to go camping and I never bring toys or anything else to “do”, yet we have a blast just being together, hiking in the woods, building fires and enjoying the great outdoors.

My husband spent an entire summer on a campground once, and it was the best season of his childhood (my suspicion is that his parents were saving for a down payment for a house – I was tempted to do the same recently!).

Think in terms of fun investments

Most toys are easily broken and discarded quickly, not to mention garish in all their plastic, out-gassing glory (notable exceptions: LEGO and wooden blocks). When thinking of where to spend your entertainment dollars, think long-term investment.

Our trampoline gets used year round, every single day, by several children. It’s one of the best purchases we’ve ever made. Good quality yard sale bikes? Ditto. Our family has purchased yearly passes to some attraction and visited over and over, maximizing the value (since who can explore the entire zoo in a day without everyone melting down?).

homemade wooden guitarA good swing set or play house (made with scrap materials or hauled away free courtesy of Craigslist) is also going to get tons of use. With teenagers, a large workspace with decent tools is great as it gives them a place to create. My eldest built a beautiful guitar from a hunk of wood.


Side point: nudge your kids towards hobbies of creation versus consumption. Crafting, writing, building things instead of shopping, gaming, watching stuff on screens. Spend money on art and other materials. Google “strewing” for more about this principle.

Get help from others

You sometimes hear parents complaining about the loud, obnoxious toys that seem to multiply in their house, courtesy of grandparents. I understand, I’m a minimalist myself and can’t stand all that clutter, but why not take advantage of their generosity? I never have to buy toys because my mom loves to do that for my young kids. If it gets to be too much, employ a toy library and rotate the stock.

If you make it known that you accept all hand-me-downs, you’ll also be inundated with good stuff (at least some of it). People love to give and often don’t want to go to the trouble of consignment shops or donating, but sometimes they’re worried about offending you. Therefore, I have a policy of never saying no. If I can’t use the bounty, I pass it along to someone else or quietly donate it. My family has received boxes and bags of good clothing, books, toys, even food, from generous souls.

Carrie Willard is a struggling minimalist in a house full of kids and husband. She writes about large family logistics, frugality, homeschooling, good books and being a wanna-be French girl walking barefoot at

13 comments on “How to Have Fun with Kids Without Busting the Budget

  1. Thanks for the post, Carrie! And thanks Picky Pinchers for having her do a guest post.

    One frugal activity I might suggest also would be volunteering. Whether at an animal shelter or even at a food bank, it’ll provide a good experience for you and the kids to learn more and give back to the community.

    1. Oooh that’s a good one! I would have had a lot of fun volunteering as a kid, too. 🙂 I don’t like it when parents use volunteering as a punishment though. My mom would always threaten to take us to volunteer at the soup kitchen when we threw fits. So it did take a while for me to get over the image of a soup kitchen as being a negative place. Volunteering is a great thing and should be a reward.

  2. We follow many of these same principles with our four, and I can tell you; they are MUCH happier than many of their material-laden friends!! We spend lots of time outdoors and lots of time together as a family and with friends too. We just don’t need to spend money to do so. Bonus: on the rare occasion we do spend money to go out to eat or to the movies, it’s all the more enjoyable for the kids.

    1. My sister, Farming Phyllis, moved out to a farm in the middle of nowhere with her girls and they are so happy just playing outside! They’re less concerned with toys and are enamored just being outside. 🙂 Nothing’s cheaper than sticks and dirt!

  3. Great tips, especially since I just welcomed a new addition to family. I’ll definitely try and have him take up creative hobbies eventually. I’ll also try and do as many outdoor stuff as possible. I remember when I was a kid I’d spend tons of time outside playing with my friends. I also still remember some of the camping trips we went on as a family. Good times!

    1. That’s what I say to Mr. Picky Pincher, too! We don’t have kiddos yet, but I loved going camping and hiking with my dad when I was a kid. I think kiddos just belong outside, playing, instead of in front of screens.

  4. I really like the line of creating things vs. consuming things. I wish as a kid I have been more diligent in trying create things. I wasn’t exactly the most imaginative kid and was terrible at creative writing. But looking back I wish I had found a hobby that aligned for a bit more creativity.

    Thanks for sharing and I definitely plan to implement these with my son 🙂

  5. Love these tips; thanks, Carrie! Creativity versus consumption, a great goal! And bravo for keeping your sanity with seven kids; my two are kicking my butt these days!

  6. Fun tips! My son is happiest outside. Although he loves his cars and dinosaurs, he’s equally happy outside with rocks and sticks.

  7. We do a lot of museums with the kids. Using a museum pass we can get into the local children’s museum and usually reciprocal museums whenever the kids need to blow off steam. It does cost money but I think we paid 80 dollars for a year.

    1. That’s a great idea! Some museums have Free Nights too; it’s usually on weekdays but it’s still a great way to get out of the house for cheap.

    2. Memberships are a great idea! We’ve done the Zoo pass in past years. As I mentioned in the post, this works out far cheaper on a “cost per use” basis. It’s almost impossible to see everything at an attraction in one day anyway, and it becomes a go-to place, instead of having to find something new (ah, decision fatigue!). It’s nice to explore one thing deeply instead of skimming a lot of things. 🙂

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