10 Things to do on a Cheap Vacation.

This summer, my family  took a six-day cheap vacation.  Technically, it was a “stay-cation”, but I hate that word.  Our goal was a fun time, on a budget, for 3 kids–one, two, and nine–without driving the adults nuts.   Obviously, if you’re not herding small children, some of these choices may not be for you.

  1. Zoo.  In St. Paul, there is a free zoo that is more fun than the paid zoo in the area.  There’s a small amusement park, a playground,  lots of picnic benches, and even animals.  We packed a cooler full of food and drinks and hauled the kids to Como Zoo for a day.  If there isn’t a free zoo near you, find a local petting zoo.  They are good for a few hours.
  2. Go Antiquing. Make sure you stay on a budget.  It can be more fun to feel the history in antique stores than to feel the fleeting thrill of an off-budget purchase.  This isn’t much fun for small children.
  3. Children’s Museums. We have access to a “Museum Adventure Pass“.   We used one to go to The Works Museum, which is a hands-on science exhibit not far from our home.  It wasn’t busy and the kids had a blast.  Most metropolitan areas have a wide variety of childre-friendly museums.
  4. Municipal Pool. We spent an afternoon at the city pool.  Aside from gas, this was one of the most expensive events for our vacation.   Residents get a discount, but it was still $30.   I discovered that my two-year-old loves big waterslides.  She comes out of them with a death-grip on the inner tube and a huge smile on her face.  It was a double tube and she sat in my lap.
  5. Game Day. Spend a day with the TV off and games on the table.  Make some snacks and prepare for some of the best quality time you can have as a family.
  6. Picnic. Pack a lunch and go somewhere quiet.   Go to the park.  Go to the country.  Grab a bench on a sidewalk somewhere.  Just have a leisurely lunch and take the opportunity to connect with your family.
  7. Hike. Find a trail somewhere and just walk.  I’ve found that it easy to have deep or sometimes even awkward conversations while walking.  You may find out things you never would have guessed.
  8. Visit Family. Hotel on the go?  My parents live more than 2 hours away, so they are always thrilled to have us visit with the grandchildren.   Be nice, bring some food to help out.
  9. Bike. The final day of our vacation, my wife and I left the kids in daycare and kept the day to ourselves.  We had breakfast in a nice little cafe.  We went antiquing.  Then we went out to the park where we were married, had a picnic lunch and went for a bike ride together.  It was our anniversary.
  10. Apple Orchard.  Around here, they are everywhere.  Pick-you-own apples, a petting zoo, pony rides.  If you go in the fall, there is usually a corn maze.  You can by real apple cider and any number of baked goods.
  11. University Exhibits.  Check your local colleges, especially the public universities.  Most of them have a PR program to maintain public interest and funding.  Even the private schools will usually have fund-raisers for some programs.  We recently attended the raptor show at the University of Minnesota for free with our Adventure Pass.

Vacations don’t have to be expensive to be fun.  Counting gas, food, and the occasional souvenir, we took a 6 day cheap vacation packed with activities for well under $400, possibly even under $300.

How do you save money on a vacation?

Update: This post has been included in the Money Hacks Carnivals XCV.

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Birthdays on the Cheap

Birthdays are expensive. Shoot, I’ve said that before. It’s usually true, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are five ways to cut birthday party costs.   Note:  If you’re trying to cut costs on an adult party, just replace the word “kid” with “guest of honor”.

1. Location, location, location. The amusement park/pizza place is nice if you like bad pizza, but it’s certainly not cheap. The inflatable playground may be the talk of the school for a day or two, but it’ll flex your debit card in ways it’s just not used to. Why? Kids, being kids, are capable of entertaining themselves. They’ve got imaginations that should make most adults weep with envy. If that fails, make them play a board game or in the worst case, some video games. Lock the wild young’ns in the basement and let ’em go nuts for a couple of hours. It’ll be a blast, I promise.

2. Why invite the world? How many friends does your kid actually have? I’m not talking about all of the kids in school he’s not fighting with or every kid on the block that hasn’t TP’d your house. I mean actual friendship. If they don’t play together regularly, nobody will be offended about missing an invitation. Invite the entire class? That’s just nuts. Thirty ankle-biters smearing cupcakes on the wall? No thank you. You kid will have more fun with 2-3 close friends than 20-30 acquaintances.

3. Toy flood. What was the last toy your kid played with? The last 10? How many toys have been completely neglected for months or years? How many stuffed animals are buried so deep in the pile in the corner that they are wishing for a fluffy Grim Reaper to come put them out of their misery? Don’t buy your kid clutter. It’s a hassle to clean up–and you will–and it trains them into bad habits for a lifetime. One or two things that they will treasure(or, better yet, wear!) will work our much better for everyone than a dozen things to forget in a toy box. Too many toys guarantees that the kid won’t get attached to any of them.  Down with kid-clutter!

4. Designer Cake. Who needs a fancy cake? Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you going to start a fire on the thing, then cut it up and give it to a dozen little runts to rub in their hair? If you can’t bake it yourself, a quarter sheet is cheap at the big box grocery stores and will guarantee leftovers. Nothing starts the week better than chocolate marble cake for breakfast on Monday.

5. Food. Don’t. That was easy. Scheduling is an important way to keep costs down. Don’t have the party at lunch time. For small children, 1:30 PM is about perfect. The parents won’t stick around once the kids are ready for a nap. For older kids, 4PM means they will need to be home for dinner. That cuts the menu down to kool-aid, light snack food, and cake. It also ensures that the party won’t drag on forever.

It’s possible to have a budget birthday party without being totally lame.  Give it a shot.  Your kids won’t mind.

This post is a blast from the past.

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Experiences v. Stuff

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Image by hunterseakerhk via Flickr

On Friday, I went to see Evil Dead: The Musical with some friends. The play obviously isn’t a good match for everyone, but we are all horror movie fans, I’m a Bruce Campbell fan, and all of us had seen and enjoyed at least Army of Darkness. It was a good fit for us.

The play, followed by a late dinner and drinks with people I care about, was easily the most money my wife and I have spent on a night out in years. That’s including an overnight trip for my cousin’s wedding.

Now, several days later, I keep thinking about that night, but not with regret about the price. I keep thinking about the fun I had with my wife and some of our closest friends. We saw a great play that had us in stitches. We had a few hours of good conversation. We had a good time. I would happily do it all over again. In fact, I would happily reorganize our budget to make something similar happen every month.

I don’t remember the last time I spent 3 or 4 days happily thinking about something I bought.

I look around my house at the years of accumulated crap we own and I see a big rock tied around my neck. Even after a major purge this spring, we’ve got more stuff than we can effectively store, let alone use. When something new comes in the house, we spend days discussing whether we really need it or if it should get returned. When we plan a big purchase, we debate it, sometimes for weeks.

Getting stuff is all about stress.

My wife and I are both familiar with the addictive endorphin rush that comes with some forms of shopping. I wish the rational recognition of a shopping addiction was enough to make it go away. Buying stuff makes us feel good for a few minutes, while high-quality experiences make us feel good for days or weeks, and gives us things to talk about for years to come.

It’s really not a fair competition between experiences and stuff. Experiences are the hands-down winner for where we should be spending our money.

Why then, does stuff always seem to come out ahead when it comes to where our money actually goes?

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