14 insanely cheap ways to have fun this summer.

So the economy’s not so great. That’s no reason to give up recreation.

The best things in life are free. Some of the other things are cheap — say, a dollar or less.

Just off the top of my head:

Wash your car. Use an environmentally friendly soap. It’s a good excuse to squirt each other with the hose on a sticky day.

Hit the dollar store. Buy sidewalk chalk, a kite, some bubble-blowing stuff or a generic Frisbee. Then take it to the park. OK, so you may have to add a few cents in sales tax. You’re still spending a dollar, but being charged tax. (Not to split hairs.)

Create your own “drive-in.” Weather permitting, set up a TV in your driveway and screen movies outdoors. Kids are especially delighted by anything out of the ordinary. But don’t be surprised if grown-up neighbors also walk over to see what’s on.

Picture this. Chronicle a day with your family, or a date with your S.O. Vote on the best two or three photos, then make prints at the cheapest place you can find. For extra frugality points: Save the images until Walgreens runs another free-print promotion.

Have a picnic. In the park, in your yard, in your neighbor’s yard if they have better play equipment. Peanut butter always tastes better al fresco.

Magazine afternoon. Many libraries subscribe to numerous magazines, both mainstream and obscure. Lose yourself for a few hours while reading short stories in a hoity-toity literary journal or catching up on celebrity didoes. Note: Libraries are generally air-conditioned.

Run through the sprinkler. Put your bathing suit on, and revisit your childhood.

Lemonade stand. I found sugar-free lemonade for a buck at the drugstore; the package makes six quarts total. Set up shop with a “pay what you can” sign and see if you can make your dollar back.

Go to school. Thanks to the magic of “summer quarter” there may be lectures, concerts, one-act plays, art exhibits or other activities at local colleges/universities.

Garden. Yes, it’s practically July – but that means that seeds and starts are being discounted. Plant a container or a small patch of dirt with flowers. Start a crop of spinach, lettuce or kale. Give those root-bound cabbage seedlings a chance to wiggle their toes.  It’s fun to watch your plants progress.

Burn, baby, burn. If it’s legal to have a backyard fire, that is, and not too stinkin’ hot to build one. (Late August in cooler states, maybe?) Cook a hot dog supper and then tell ghost stories. Have a backyard camp-out afterwards. If you take music lessons, grab your guitar and have singalongs around the fire.

Open mike. Is there a coffeehouse, bar or bookstore in your area that has music or readings? You might see the next Springsteen playing a Kmart guitar and get bragging rights when he hits it big.

Walk. Walk to the store, if you can; you’ll save wear and tear on your car and get free exercise to boot. Walk behind your kids while they learn to ride their bicycles. Walk with your family along local trails and compete to find the most interesting rock, bug or butterfly; extra citizenship points for bringing along bags and picking up litter, or recyclables. Walk the dog. Don’t have a dog? Borrow somebody else’s. (Regular exercise is a component in dog training, and it’s in your best interests to have the neighbor’s pooch learn good behavior.

Money origami. Type that phrase into an Internet search engine. Soon you’ll be able to turn a greenback into a weiner dog, four-leaf clover, engagement ring or pyramid. Good fun on a rainy afternoon – and when you’re done, you’ll still have your dollar.

OK, readers, how about it: What are YOUR favorite insanely cheap amusements? (Please don’t answer “sex” because it is rarely, if ever, truly cheap in the strictest sense of the word.)

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  1. Free concerts. Every large city I’ve ever lived in and some really ones, too, have had a series of free concerts in the summer. Usually classical music. Anchorage used to have lunchtime ones in the downtown and midtown parks. Chicago had evening ones in the park along the lake. Here we have lunchtime concerts in parks and coffee shops.

    And while not exactly free, since you’re trading time, you can often offer to take tickets at summer commmunity theatre productions in return for seeing the show.

  2. 4th of July city fireworks. Except of course in Alaska, which is too bright for fireworks except in winter.

  3. Concerts, volunteer at movies or plays to get free tickets, have a block party, go to the free or 99 cent movie events, get into your car and check out the natural wonders in your own area, if you live in the east or south, look for events like battlefield re-entacments, peruse your local paper and recreation department flyer for all the free events-mine had the fourth of july all day event, a flea market, a summer blood drive that includes a dance, a free all day health fair, a dog event at the local pool, and movies at the pool for teens. Check your library for the same.

  4. Debbie C.

    Great examples! I especially already use the Library suggestion. Sometimes when I want a little quiet time and privacy I go to the Library and get lost in the shelves! I can literally spend hours there and I get to bring stuff home! Before I got more computer involved it was really one of my favorite Frugal activities!
    Walking too, is another big one for me.
    Something else that we like to do is to Play Tourist for the Day. We look at the local free sights, like the Beach, Parks, Cliffs and many other places. Almost every town has local curiosities or things that maybe even the locals don’t see all the time. We can get outside and be together and spend little money.
    Most of the things that I do as a family or by myself, are done without dipping into the wallet too much.

  5. We took your suggestion and made a fire in the fire pit last night, and roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. For entertainment, we watched the 3-yr old sing and dance to ABBA, then played card games. So nice to sit outside where it’s cooler than in the house… Thanks for the ideas!

    Some other things I do are visit the pick-your-own farms, some of which have kid-friendly activities, and invite a friend over to make applesauce or jam, which we may or may not can, depending on the heat.

  6. Swimming in the backyard pool. Which ain’t cheap, strictly speaking: you do have to keep it clean, sanitized, and full of water. But it’s the best way to get through Arizona’s answer to Alaska’s winter.


    Hanging out at a chain bookstore that sells coffee: browsing the books and magazines over a cafe Americana (which is nothing but a decent cup of plain coffee, hold the sugar, hold the cream, hold the weird flavors), and then putting all the reading material back on the shelves.

    Going to a movie at 10 in the morning. They practically give away the tickets.

    Art walks. The gallery district has evening artwalks once a week. Long as you don’t buy anything (a big “if”), it’s free.

    Hike in the nearby mountain park. Bring coffee and breakfast coffee cake to eat when you get as far from the madding crowd as possible.


  7. build a fort out of loose branches or twigs

    • Donna Freedman

      @Lucia: Funny you should mention this — my nephews and some neighborhood kids did exactly that. The result is part teepee and part rubble pile, but it kept them busy for an afternoon and made them happy. Win-win!

  8. We live in Rio Linda-near Sacramento, CA…they have Bowling over on Madison ave.-it’s 8.00$ from either 9am. or 10am until 5pm!! the drinks are around 2.00$ free refills!! the 8.00$ also includes shoe rental!! This is Monday- Friday, There is a movie theater at Sunrise mall=4.00$ movies ALL day!! These are 2 REALLY good places to go & cheap!!


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