Sometimes we just can’t afford to go out. My family has had times that were too tight to justify the gas it took to get to free outings. However, there are usually options out there for finding free and cheap entertainment on the most limited budgets. These have been some of my techniques for finding free or really cheap fun for my family. I’ve updated this list with more limited income deals below:
1. Do Obvious Free and Cheap Things Regularly
Free is good, but there is another reason to become a regular: You become known as someone who likes to do stuff with their kids. When my husband regularly attended story hours at our local library, he got to know the librarians and the local ECFE representative. When there were free passes to give out, he was on their list. We received free tickets to the State Fair and Children’s Theatre and we even received a box full of new, high-end educational preschool toys. While we were incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, we would not have been there if we weren’t taking advantage of free stuff. Start with the Free Calendar and pick some events to attend as a regular.
2. Be Flexible and Say “Yes” When Opportunity Knocks
My family doesn’t do every cool event every year. The State Fair is not a given. Neither are major sporting events. But when we are offered a chance to do something we couldn’t normally afford, we jump. We’ve even dropped everything to run to Green Bay when offered tickets to Family Night at Lambeau Field. We don’t always get to be that flexible, but the more flexible we can be, the more fun we can have.
3. Volunteer With Your Favorite Venues
Besides offering all the same benefits as getting out to the free things, volunteering often comes with free passes or tickets as a thank-you perk. I have friends who have seen every show at the Guthrie because they are volunteer ushers, but some child-friendly theaters offer this perk, too. Check the website of the place you want to visit to see if they have volunteer opportunities. This is the best way to guarantee a free visit to the State Fair as well. Sometimes volunteering is just as much fun as the event.
4. Be A Part of Your Community and Know Your Own Neighborhood Well
The easiest and least gas-guzzling outings are in your own neighborhood. Take the time to get to know your local shops, art stores, music schools, libraries, parks, and tiny hidden museums and galleries. Make sure you sign up for their e-mail lists to watch for free and cheap events. Also consider joining a nearby church or becoming part of your school PTA. Like the the first two suggestions, this just puts you on the radar of people who may know of free events or who sometimes have free tickets to give out.
5. Opening Receptions for New Exhibits
Some museums and galleries offer free admission when they have an opening reception for an exhibit. Other galleries are always free but will offer free food and good company at opening receptions. If there is a museum or gallery that you are particularly interested in, get on their mailing list. A word of caution, however, as the calendar keeper for FFTC, my emails can be overwhelming at times. I recommend choosing your mailing lists carefully or just check our calendar.
6. Apply for Limited Income Programs if You Qualify
It pays to ask if your favorite place offers special prices for limited income memberships. The list below is just a start of the places that offer free and cheap access for those who qualify. The ACT Pass at Children’s Theatre allows for families to see shows on select dates at dramatically reduced prices. It also has reduced prices for classes. The Science Museum offers its memberships at about half price and every visit includes an Omnitheatre ticket. Don’t forget to stack. Even if a venue doesn’t offer low-income memberships, it might offer a discount if you already have a membership with one of the venues that does.
- Minnesota Historical Society
- The ACT Pass Scholarship Program at the Children‘s Theatre
- The Science Museum
- The Toy Library (This is not a reduced membership, but its a pretty good deal all around)
- Bell Museum Curiosity Program (This is a phenomenal deal if you qualify)
- Minnesota Children’s Museum All Play Membership (Stricter qualifications, but completely free if you do qualify)
- Three Rivers Recreation Pass Plus: This was so easy to qualify for – you just need to let them know what government assistance programs you receive and pick your 2 free recreational passes.
- MIA Free Membership. This isn’t really a limited income deal, as it is open to everyone. Start with the free membership and give more when you can.
- The various parks systems also offer scholarships, but, where many of the above programs are available to middle class families (up to twice the poverty level), parks tend to draw the line at the poverty level since their programs are so inexpensive to begin with.
7. Take Advantage of Free and Cheap Offerings at Libraries and Parks
In my opinion, the library is the greatest invention ever. Besides free books (and free storage of those books when you are not using them), you can get free movies, free music for your device, free access to internet resources. In Minnesota, you also get one of my favorite resources – the MELSA smARTpass Program, which offers free and cheap passes to local events.
Parks, also, often offer free and cheap entertainment year round. Some years, the Minnesota Twins have paid the little league fees for Minneapolis park leagues and even given free game tickets to the players. This is another case of being at the right place at the right time because we took advantage of something that was free for anyone. Don’t forget Free Summer Meals for kids! This is like going to McDonald’s playland every lunch hour — but free, healthy and outdoors.
8. Once at the Event, Don’t Buy Food or Souvenirs
Pack Your Own Food
Food and souvenirs are the place where families can blow a perfectly budgeted outing. We try to take picnics everywhere we go. It helps to have an idea of what types of food are going to be tempting at the given event. Pack your picnic to meet your cravings (i.e. bring cookies to the State Fair, pack flavored ice into a thermos on Independence Day, bring hot cocoa to outdoor holiday events and ice skating). If you can’t carry in, eat before you leave and fill your car with snacks.
Skip the Souvenirs or Think Strategically
By now, my kids (should) know better than to ask for souvenirs. We don’t really want all that clutter anyway. If you want a really good technique for making souvenirs unattractive, visit a thrift store right before you go out. Seeing all the junk people bought and then decided to give away always turns me off to more stuff. However, If you want to come home with something, strategically buy ahead. You even might find souvenirs at the thrift shop if you know what outings you are likely to attend in the coming year. Keep an eye open for things you have planned. (ie – If you know Children’s Theatre will be performing a stage version of a book – watch for that book and maybe a corresponding toy).
9. Take Public Transportation When Parking and/or Gas Is an Issue (Maybe)
Metro Transit often offers free rides to events. If they don’t, you’ll have to do the math. It can be an affordable option – particularly when your kids are small and ride free. At some point the scales tip and it is better to take the family vehicle. For more tips, you can read my article, Get on the Bus! Public Transit With Kids.
10. When All Else Fails, Have Fun At Home
Sometimes, we can’t get out or we want to stay home. That’s when we turn to 45+ Fun Indoor Games for Kids of All Ages or 60 Fun Outdoor Games for Kids. Also, order those library books and videos. Read the book together while everyone else is watching the (not-as-good) movie version! You have to eat, so make meal times fun by learning fancy meals or copycat recipes together and having your own “restaurant”.
I started employing these techniques over 15 years ago and my family never lacks opportunities for free or cheap family fun. The real problem is finding the time to do all the things we want to do. As you can see, a lot of the strategy is just getting yourself into situations where you’ll be at the right place at the right time; being content with free fun when that is what is available; and being flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities when they are offered.
I feel I should probably add that being part owner of Family Fun Twin Cities hasn’t hurt my chances for finding (or being offered) free fun, but that was mostly a natural progression from using and sharing the techniques above. The time and effort it takes to run a successful entertainment website is its own form of payment.