Every Christmas, my mom would pick out a holiday performance for the family. Over the years, we have enjoyed some real gems and endured some truly boring events. But I can’t blame my mom for getting us together and trying to cram some culture down our throats. I want to do the same thing for my family, but I’ll admit that the price of just one Nutcracker ticket makes me cringe.
It’s a challenge to find inexpensive holiday activities for the entire family. Although $25 per ticket sounds frugal, when you’re done paying for a family of four and all the ticketing fees, it really adds up.
In our effort to both (1) enjoy the holiday spirit as a family and (2) cram some culture down our son’s throat, we have sought out age-appropriate activities for Little Stapler to file away into his memories. Once, we paid $18 a person to go to the local zoo on a freezing evening, only to discover that the real draw to the event was not just the lights around the animals’ pens, but the $2 rides and mile-long line to sit on Santa’s lap. Little Stapler was only interested in seeing the animals, though, and most of those exhibits were blocked off. We didn’t go again.
Another … interesting … experience was going to the local tree farm to pick out our tree. It boasted crafts for kids, Santa, a ride on a little train, cider donuts, and of course trees. $80 later, we had a beautiful tree, a crappy craft, and one ride on a little train that was essentially a tractor towing wagons with seats. I really didn’t feel like the experience was worth the cost, so the next year we went to Lowe’s and got a $20 tree. After setting it up and stringing lights during Little Stapler’s naptime, we heated up hot cocoa, turned on the holiday tunes, and decorated it together. It was a much more cost-effective way for us to spend time as a family.
One event that has withstood the test of time — and the price of a ticket — is a local museum’s Christmas tree display. Each tree is decorated with the theme of a different children’s book. Little Stapler’s grandmother loves taking him to this event, and I love being able to pay for my ticket with a coupon. Every year, I’ve been able to find a “buy one ticket, get one ticket free” coupon to this museum and I save it all year for the Christmas tree display. Each year, the trees are different and each year, Little Stapler sits down with us to read at least a dozen books. He is in heaven! Family time? Check. Cultural? Check. Frugal? Check.
We continue to search for those holiday gems that are free or reasonably priced. We don’t have a budget for them; we just use the “reasonably priced” test. If you’re on a strict holiday diet, you may want to set a spending limit for your family and challenge yourselves to meet it this year. With that in mind, I compiled a list of the things we do look for in a holiday activity.
Frugal Holiday Activities:
- Christmas Light Displays: Whether it’s taking an extra 5 minutes on the way home from school to cruise around a neighborhood with good displays, or taking an hour-long walk through a local park, no one is going to charge you for sightseeing some of the best light displays around.
- Snowshoeing, Cross-Country Skiing, or Hiking: I can’t be only one who enjoys disappearing into a woodsy winter wonderland and crunching around in snow for an hour or two. If you live in a cold climate, you might be surprised at how many hidden paths are open during the winter for just this very activity. And you’ll never fight to find a good parking space. You may not even need special equipment if the snow isn’t too deep. But, hiking poles are always useful — snow or no snow.
- Decorating the Christmas Tree: Please, for the love of all that is important, try to take the stress out of this tension-fraught event by planning ahead. Set up the tree, string it with lights, water it, and get the decorations down from the attic days before you finally heat up the hot cocoa and put on the Christmas music. Let’s promise to make this a good memory for our kids, not one full of angst and frustration!
- Caroling: One of my fondest Christmastime memories is of singing Christmas carols at church after the Sunday sermon. Now that I’m a parent, I love sharing that with Little Stapler. And now that I’m deep in debt, I appreciate that it’s free!
- Make a Family Craft Together: If your children are old enough to give gifts to their friends, set up a handmade gift night for the family to get together and all participate in creating the gift. I have a lot of ideas in my Frugal Giving Pinterest board, and a quick look on other Pinterest boards is going to spark a lot of ideas. Although I didn’t make this holiday activity with Little Stapler, I did make him a felt Christmas tree that he can decorate and redecorate (and redecorate) with felt ornaments.
- Baking Together: There’s nothing like warming up the house with the smells of sugar cookies and gingerbread around the holidays, and you don’t have to wait until the night before to bake a cake or cookies. You can bake them ahead of time — even decorate them — and pop them into the freezer until the night before the event. Little Stapler loves to use cookie cutters, so sugar cookies are on our Holiday Baking Together list. A new addition to our Baking Together list will be to decorate a cake for Christmas Eve. After seeing my cake decorating creations, my mother buys me novelty cake pans whenever she sees them at garage sales. The last one she brought home carried with it a BIG hint as to what she wants me to bring to her Christmas Eve Party . . . I plan to have Little Stapler help decorate it like a tree — using Twizzler ropes for a garland, those little edible silver balls for lights, etc.
Where to Find Discounts on Holiday Activities:
On the flip side of finding truly frugal activities is the challenge of making expensive activities frugal. I deploy a host of maneuvers to find discounts on activities. Here are a few of them.
- Library Passes: Browse through the free and discounted tickets your library provides to members. Ours has a lot of options, from half-priced children’s museum passes to free boat rentals on the local lake.
- Entertainment Book Coupons: If you already know of activities at local venues, look them up in your local Entertainment Book to see if they offer admission discount coupons (if you don’t have one, buy through ebates for cashback)
- Crafting Coupons: All the major craft stores — Michael’s, JoAnn, AC Moore — have weekly coupons, and usually match competitors’ coupons. Be sure to use them whenever you buy crafting supplies.
- Black Friday: Even holiday events and venues have sales on their tickets on Black Friday — if there is something you’re eyeing, sign up for the email list and take a look at their site on Black Friday to see if you can get a good deal. If you want to do a holiday craft, stock up on your supplies during Black Friday. For example, this year Michaels has a coupon for 30% off your entire purchase, including sale items, on Thankgiving and the morning of Black Friday.
- Groupon, Living Social, and other Deal Sites: Sign up for the local deals in November, and you may find some deep discounts on holiday events in your area.
What are your goals when choosing a frugal holiday activity? What are your plans this year?