18 free and cheap options for family fun & outings

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Frugality does not mean a one-way ticket to the Land of No Fun At All. Even when times are tight you can generally find diversion on the cheap.

Check the local or regional newspaper on Thursday or Friday, when arts or entertainment sections highlight local goings-on. During the week look for a “today in [your city]” section for info on lunchtime concerts, library activities and the like.

Look for free trade shows in your area, too. Maybe you aren’t planning to buy an RV or remodel your house, but it’s an afternoon out. Some of these shows have giveaways and special activities for kids.

Watch for open houses and rallies, too. The fire station open house is always a huge hit. Kids get to meet real live heroes and score those plastic firefighter hats. (Besides, who doesn’t want to sit in a fire truck? I know I do.)

Read more: Mom with 13 kids reveals her secrets to making $1 meals

The silver screen

The average price of a movie ticket is now $8.61. Good grief! Some tactics for beating the cost:

Free screenings. Sign up for previews at sites like WildAboutMovies.com, AdvanceScreenings.com, GetScreening.com and Gofobo.com. You can also follow @screeningticket and @screenings on Twitter. Radio stations give away preview passes, and screenings are sometimes advertised in indie newspapers.

Cash in. Use points from sites like MyPoints and Swagbucks to get gift cards to Fandango or theater chains. If you live near an AMC theater, join the My Coke Rewards program and save up for AMC tickets. And if you’ve got a rewards credit card see if it offers gift cards to movie chains.

Engineer a discount. You can buy movie gift cards at wholesale clubs like Costco. My own favorite way to save, though, is to purchase through a discounted gift card website. I routinely save 20% or more on theater cards this way. Use the aggregator site GiftCardGranny.com to find the best deals.

Get with the program. Join the loyalty/rewards program at the theater(s) you attend. Brandish the card each time you buy and eventually you’ll get enough points for a free ticket. You might also score concessions coupons, movie contests and those advance screenings.


Summer family films. A handful of theater chains host second-run film children’s film screenings, either for free or for anywhere from 50 cents to $2. Among them: Cinemaworld, Bow Tie Cinemas, Harkins Theatres, Classic Cinemas, Cinemark, Marquee Cinemas, Georgia Theater Company, Carmike Cinemas, Regal Entertainment Group and Showcase Cinemas. (Hint: “Second-run” isn’t a bad thing if you missed the first run.)

Museums for free

Ask your local institutions about free days; generally there’s at least one per month. But that’s just one of a handful of gratis culture options:

Museum Day Live! This once-a-year gift from Smithsonian magazine includes more than 1,500 museums in all 50 states.

Museum reciprocity. Five organizations make it possible for you to join one institution and get free or discounted admission to numerous others:

Museums On Us. Anyone with a Bank of America bank account or a BofA or Merrill Lynch credit/debit card can get in for free on the first Saturday of the month (and Sundays in some areas). In addition to the fine arts you can get into some amazing places like the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Shedd Aquarium.

The great outdoors

Open the door. Walk outside. Amazing, isn’t it? All that diversion, without the need for a charging cord. Some suggestions:

Our national parks. Only 127 of the more than 400 sites and parks charge a fee ‘ and even they are free several times per year.

State and regional parks. Nature trails, interactive programs, swimming and boating areas, campsites, hiking trails, Christmas tree-cutting and more can be enjoyed for free or nearly free.

Camp out. Do a search for “free camping [your area].” No tent? Maybe you can borrow one. Leave after supper so you don’t have to cook, and pack a small cooler with bread, hard-boiled eggs, cheese and apples for breakfast. Or you could”¦

Camp in the yard. Children may find this outrageously cool: ‘We get to be outdoors in our PJs and sleep in the yard instead of our beds!‘ Bonus: Using a real toilet vs. peeing in the bushes (which your kids might want to do anyway).


Go birding. Join in local birding walks, or get a book from the library and start building that life list.

More outdoor fun

Have a picnic. That PB&J will taste entirely different eaten on a blanket in a park or near a river, lake or ocean.

Take a walk. It’s so easy not to use your feet these days. Even if your children sigh and complain, stick with it; walking together can stimulate some interesting discussions.

Bike rides. Is there a bicycle trail system in your area? Use it. Or pedal around the neighborhood with your children and then come home for lemonade or iced tea.

Photo safari. Leave the house with as many cameras or phones with cameras as you own. Suggest a specific topic such as “Today is ”˜Take A Picture Of A Dog Day’.”

Regional attractions. Is there a nature center with guided hikes? How about a historical site with costumed tour guides who explain how people lived before the Internet and flush toilets? Perhaps the municipality has swimming at public lakes and ice skating in the winter. All sorts of fun might be available right under your nose. Start looking!

Read more: How I fed my family on $50 a week

(Excerpted from “Your Playbook For Tough Times: Living Large On Small Change, For The Short Term Or The Long Haul,” by Donna Freedman ‘ a book that Clark says “can inspire hope if you feel that you’ve reached a personal or financial dead end.”)

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