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How to Have Family Fun While Living on a Budget

Updated on June 14, 2012

Everyone wants to have fun with their family but society can often make it seem that the only way to have fun is to spend money. But few people have the money to spend like we see in the commercials. However, rest assured you can have fun without a lot of cash, people have been doing it for years.

When my husband and I first started getting serious about our budget it took us several months to adjust. Our culture seems to have us hardwired to think of cheap activities as uninteresting. However, when I was a child it was the inexpensive camping and rafting trips I remember best--not the expensive trips to amusement parks. Now as an adult I am rediscovering the truth that it's not the money you spend but the time together that makes for good memories.

Here are several ideas that have worked for us. Hopefully you will enjoy them too and be able to keep to your budget.

Impromptu pillow fight
Impromptu pillow fight | Source

Free Family Fun

  • Musical chairs is a great activity for younger children. (My own kids as well as my Sunday school class love it.) It only requires chairs and music both of which most people already have. If music is an issue consider singing the music yourself (a little tricky at first but you get the hang of it quick).

  • Nature walks are great fun for young children. Grab a bucket and allow them to collect bits of nature. If you wish to make the experience more educational, stop by your local library and look up some or all of their finds. My girls love this activity. Usually we identify the items as living or nonliving with a little bit more information on just a few of the pieces (mostly those that Mommy already knows about).

  • Beach combing is another activity that only requires a bucket or some other container to carry your loot. This activity is great for younger children or collectors. Again you can choose to get educational and identify the various objects of nature your discover or you can simply enjoy the beauty you find.

  • Sardines is a game that I have played for years. It is like a reverse hide and seek. One person hides while everyone else counts. Then you all spread out and look. When you find the hider instead of letting everyone else know you squish into the hiding space with them. As you begin packing in like sardines the results are often hilarious. Plus this is a great game for mixed ages because even very young children understand hiding.

  • Pillow fights are not just for slumber parties. Just make sure you have a clear space to fight in otherwise lamps and pictures may become the unintended victims.

  • Dramatic readings can be a fun way to spend a cold evening. Choose a few books from the local library. Make some warm beverages for everyone to enjoy. Then take turns sharing your favorite stories or poems. Choose a few picture books and even your non-readers can participate. It is a good way to share each others' interests.

  • Relay races are fun for elementary aged kids and if your kids are laughing and having a great time you will soon find yourself joining them. Use items you already have and create a race course or race up and down the sidewalk using different methods (i.e. hopping on one foot, bear walking, running backwards, etc).

  • The bowl game is one that we play whenever we get the extended family all together. All it requires is a bowl, some paper scraps and writing utensils. Each person receives the same number of paper scraps and a writing utensil. (The more you give them the longer the game will be.) Then you have a choice: you can play the famous people version or the random words version. Both are fun but the second adds a layer of complexity. As the names imply for the first version you right the name of a famous person (living or dead, fiction or nonfiction) on each slip of paper. For the second version you can write any words that come to your mind up to five. The slips of paper are then folded and placed in the bowl. Divide into teams. (We usually play men versus women or couples.) Members of each team take turns being the reader or the guesser. Each team will get one minute turns for the reader to give clues, drawing a new slip of paper after every correct guess by their team. However, if that person says a word on the slip of paper they return it to the bowl and forfeit the rest of that turn. Continue taking turns until all the papers are gone then count them up to see who won.

Examining nature
Examining nature | Source

Family Fun Ideas for Just a Few Dollars

  • Nature journals can be a fun activity for older children. Begin watching the wildlife around your neighborhood. What types of birds are you seeing? Can you find their nests? Do they migrate? Where do they go? When is your local squirrel active? When does he begin hibernating? Share your observations with the rest of the family. Even if your child is of a more artistic temperament she can enjoy this activity. Choose a notebook with blank spaces for drawing (or choose an artist drawing book) and begin creating nature sketches. The journals will give you something new to talk about at the dinner table. (A notebook of lined paper will run about a dollar and an artist notebook will cost about five.)
  • Splatter painting can be fun but messy. Paint will run you just a few bucks and the fun can be priceless. Water down the paint. Set up a large canvas outside. Trust me you do not want to do this inside. The canvas doesn't have to be anything fancy, a fifty cent piece of poster board will do. Start with large brushes. Dip the paint and spray it across your canvas. After you've used the brushes experiment with other things like sponges or rags. Just be sure you all have paint clothes on because you will be as paint covered as your art.
  • Day hiking requires only a picnic lunch or at least some trail mix and water. Of course the gas to get there can be pricey depending on were you live. But it is nice to get into nature and away from all the noise every now and again. Depending on were you choose to go it will also keep your teenager off the electronic devises and involved with the family. Expect some grumbling but they do enjoy it.
  • Water balloon fighting is fun at any age and for two to five dollars you can purchase a package of water balloons for a day of family fun. While they make fancy water balloon kits that cost good money a cheap three dollar package of balloons invites more creativity, lots of screaming and plenty of fun.
  • Ghost tag is fun and only requires a dark night (or a large dark building) and some flashlights. Give a little time for your ghosts to disperse, then your ghost hunter, armed with a flashlight, hunts the ghosts. Whenever a ghost is tagged by a light he must join the ghost hunter, following after him much like in follow the leader. By adding the variation of darkness and flashlights even teenagers can enjoy this game though it might be a little too scary for really young children.
  • Nertz is a card game that I've played with my family. We've be playing it so long that I don't remember who taught us. It will require a deck of cards (with different backs) for each player. Each player takes their deck and deals thirteen cards face down to their left turning over the top card. This is the Nertz pile. Next each player deals four piles to their right. The first pile has one card, the second two, the third three and the fourth four with the top card in each pile being face up. The remaining cards are the draw pile. These are your individual playing areas. The object of the game is to play all the cards in your Nertz pile. To do this you may play them to your right red on black (or black on red) in descending order (like in Solitaire). Only kings may be played in empty spaces. You may also play your cards in the center - the community play area. To start a pile in the community area you must play an ace. The cards are then played in ascending order. Depending on the speed of the game you wish you may either require people to follow suit to slow the game or simply require the appropriate number for a faster game (or you can simply follow color). We added the house rule that when you place the king in the center you must remove the pile from the play area because otherwise it got very confusing (and we would run out of space to start new piles). If you get stuck you can flip through your draw pile three at a time (like in Solitaire) with the third card being playable. The first person to play all their Nertz cards yells "Nertz" to win the game. While the only conversation tended to be trash talk we had a great time. We would often get so into the game that chairs would be shoved back to allow freedom of movement to reach (and better see) all areas of play.

What are your favorite family memories?

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Family Fun For Around Twenty-five Dollars

  • Nerf wars are great fun, but they require an initial investment. However, on the plus side, once you've made the investment you don't have to keep spending (unless one of your guns get broken or you loose all the ammunition). Wait for the sales and be last seasons guns. They might not have the latest features but they still function. Equip your family, divide into armies and go to war. The Christmas my parents bought us all Nerf guns is actually one of the clearest Christmas memories I have.
  • Picture scavenger hunts can be great fun. A couple of disposable cameras will run you about six dollars. It's the film processing that hits your wallet. But if you wait for a sale it should remain about $15 to process both cameras. When coming up with your list of items don't forget to play to your medium for maximum fun. In other words include things like someone doing a handstand, a human pyramid, etc.
  • River rafting does not have to be white water rafting to be fun. You also don't need a lot of fancy equipment if you are on a calmer river. We once went rafting on an air mattress. Whenever we went over shallows someone would shout "butts up" because otherwise we scrapped the bottom. Whenever we were in deeper water a shoving match ensued which would result in someone taking a dip and usually flooding the rest of us as he scrambled back aboard. It was great fun (although the air mattress had to be patched).

Whether you have two dollars or two hundred to spend remember the most important part is the time together. Don't feel like your children are being deprived because your can't take them to Disneyland. Stick with your budget and instead of spending money spend time. Spend time talking, laughing and making memories together.


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    • Joy M profile imageAUTHOR

      Joy M 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      Right now my girls are young enough that they beg for walks. I love how excited they get about everything they see.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      I enjoy sardines. :) Right now, walks and strolls are our favorite. As a family we try to be together even with just a simple walk around the block.

    • Joy M profile imageAUTHOR

      Joy M 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      Yes, the advertisers are really doing a good job! But those activities that can't afford advertising are still fun too.

    • lindacee profile image


      6 years ago from Arizona

      What fun ideas that require little or no $$. We are so conditioned into thinking that we're not having fun unless we're spending money. You've certainly proved that theory wrong! Nothing beats a nature walk!

    • Joy M profile imageAUTHOR

      Joy M 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      Thank you, Jill.

    • JillKostow profile image

      Jill Kostowskie 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      These are great ideas that my kids will love doing!! Voted up!!!

    • Joy M profile imageAUTHOR

      Joy M 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      We've made art out of my daughters' findings too. Also a fun activity and, depending on what you do, it can be inexpensive as well.

    • EyesStraightAhead profile image

      Shell Vera 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Great ideas. I love Nertz and nature walks. I am currently working on a hub (should be published tonight) on how to create nature art with your child. I do this with my four year old every time we take nature walks or just want to have fun in the backyard!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Goodness, I love ALL of these ideas- though dramatic readings strike me as being particularly fun. Thanks for proving that you don't need much money at all to have some great experiences with your family. :D

    • Joy M profile imageAUTHOR

      Joy M 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington


      Try adding a journal to go with your walks. Then you can keep track of were you've been and what you've seen. Plus on the days when the weather is bad you can look back and relive the memories.

    • CassyLu1981 profile image


      6 years ago from Spring Lake, NC

      Excellent ideas! We are all about doing the nature walks and beach combing :) It's always free and always changing. We will have to try some of your other ideas on here as well. Voted up and Shared :)

    • Joy M profile imageAUTHOR

      Joy M 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      I'm glad you had a good time with your kids. Now that it's finally warming up here we are going to have a water fight as well. My girls have been begging for days but it just wouldn't stop raining!

    • krsharp05 profile image

      Kristi Sharp 

      6 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      These are all great ideas. I read this yesterday and as I was reading I was thinking that it was very hot outside so I lured my kids out to the yard and we had a terrific water fight! They did not expect it at all. We ran around, and laughed. It was a nice time. Thank you for the great inspiration. -K

    • Joy M profile imageAUTHOR

      Joy M 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      We live on a single income too. When our second child came along we decided to make the switch and we real had to start getting serious about our budget! The library has been great. It is amazing how many activities are out there when you start looking.

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Great ideas, Joy - we are a family living on a single income and I always try to find ways to stretch a dollar. I make our own laundry detergent, for example. We apply the money we've saved to fun activities! We also frequent the library for their free story hour times, free DVD's, and free books. Instead of going to a water park this year, we're going to have a huge water play-date in our backyard. There are definitely ways to have fun while saving a buck!


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