How to give your kids a great childhood for the price of a terrible childhood

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Editor’s note: Nick von Keller is a writer for The Scratch and contributor for clark.com.

This weekend my mom was in town and, after having read several of my posts for The Scratch, she announced that she wanted to submit one of her own. Here’s how the exchange went down:

Me: It’s not as easy as it looks, mom. The post has to be both funny and budget-conscious.

My Mom: How about all the cheap ways I tricked my children into thinking they were having fun?

Me: …Touché.

So, courtesy of my mother, here is my childhood served up for your own education and amusement. Enjoy it, you monsters.

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The Zoo…’s Little Brother

Sure, elephants and giraffes and, I don’t know, ibexes are majestic creatures, but kids think lizards and guinea pigs are pretty awesome, too. They like spaceships, and they also like balloons. They’re kids, and kids are stupid. Instead of costly trips to the zoo, my mother would regularly bring us to different pet stores where we could play with puppies, scream as snakes ate dead mice, drape iguanas on our shoulders, and do whatever it is you do with fish. Stare? Pet store employees tend to strike that critical balance of bored and knowledgeable, making them likely to let kids play with the animals while also teaching them at least one or two tidbits of information, such as “lizards can bite.”

Coupon Scavenger Hunt

In order to get her shopping done on a budget while also entertaining two demon children, my mother came up with coupon scavenger hunts. She would give us each the coupons for the stuff she was hoping to buy, and we would run screaming up and down the aisles in a race to find discount detergent or manager’s special soy sauce. We put the fun in “child labor isn’t fun.” Now, some might say it’s dangerous, or at the least obnoxious, to let children dash unattended through a grocery store, but it’s not like the place was full of sharp utensils, poisons, strangers, slippery floors, and multiple exits. But seriously, grow up; it’s a grocery store, not the killing fields. The kids will be fine.

Read more: See all the latest deals & savings tips

Rotating Playgrounds

Most towns have dozens, even thousands of playgrounds. You don’t need to go to the closest one every time. My mother would rotate through all the different playgrounds in town, ensuring that we didn’t get bored, while only spending extra money on gas. You’d be surprised how different they can seem with new equipment and, even more importantly, new kids to play with. Some of them have wobbly bridges, and some have those sandboxes with mini backhoes, and some have huge piles of empty tin cans. Oh, wait, that’s a landfill. Everyone back in the car.

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Homemade Lunchables

My sister and I went to school in the height of Lunchables Fever, when children everywhere became convinced that a circle of bread topped with cold marinara sauce and unmelted cheese was 1) pizza, and 2) cool. My mom was not about to pay five bucks for a plastic container of compartmentalized deli meats, but she also wanted her kids to have at least a chance at popularity (a chance I always made sure to squander). So she bought boxes of Ritz crackers, packages of cold cuts, and blocks of cheddar, and then she manufactured counterfeit Lunchables. She’d slice the meat and cheese into Ritz-sized squares, Ziploc bag them in short stacks, toss in a fun-sized generic brand bag of M&Ms she’d bought in bulk at Costco, and voila: a Lunchable.

Amusement Park White Lies

Everyone knows to lie about your children’s ages to reduce amusement park ticket costs. The trick, however, is not to lie too much. Nobody is going to think your 13-year-old son, with his shadow of a mustache, is 7. So 13 becomes 10, 10 becomes 6, 6 becomes 4, 4 becomes 0, etc. Know your limits. Also, you have to get the kids in on the action. Any park employee can hold his or her ground against, “My son is seven!” but few can resist, “Hiya, mister, I’m seven years old! That’s this many fingers!” As an added bonus, it gently ushers your children into the idea that lying to take money from a major corporation isn’t really lying.

Read more: How to save money on Disney

Thrift Store Shopping Sprees

My mom invented this game while we were waiting to meet my father and exchange custody in a shopping mall parking lot (I know, my life is a Raymond Chandler story). The rules are simple: each kid gets $5, and whoever can buy the silliest stuff in an hour at the thrift store wins. We’d rush through the stores, giggling at defective underwear, broken bun warmers, and abstract paintings so shoddy even a Days Inn lobby would reject them. The only potential downside, and I swear this happened, is wearing one of the shirts you bought to school the next day and having a friend remark, “I used to have a shirt exactly like that.”

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Read more: Items to always buy used

Exploit Freebies

We think that kids have no concept of money, but that’s not true.  Kids love free stuff even more than adults. They even have a name for them: presents. How many Baskin Robbins are in your town? Because, on Free Scoop Day, you can go to all of them. Got any furniture stores that give out tiny sodas and bags of popcorn to test out their Barcaloungers and TVs? Did you know that the samples at Costco rotate? And the logo-printed beer cozies and key chains and buttons they hand out at professional expos are a bonanza to 10-year-olds, even if they have no practical use for any of them? Why feed and entertain your own child, when with some creative planning you can get promotional offers and corporate giveaways to do it for you?

Read more: Check out Clark’s Free & Cheap List

If you’re my mom and you have any bits of budget parenting advice I overlooked, please let me know in comments.

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