11 ideas for frugal entertainment

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You don’t have to drop the Benjamins or pull out your credit card to have a fun night out, despite what advertisers would have you believe. Nor do you have to stay home reading or watching old movies on the weekends when you can’t afford to splurge on recreation.

Frugally savvy folks argue you aren’t limited to boring activities when money is tight.

“You either spend money you don’t have, which is credit, or you exercise your creativity,” says Steve Economides, co-author of “America’s Cheapest Family Gets You Right On the Money” and the HomeEconomiser newsletter, with his wife, Annette. “We are sometimes so lazy in America, we think we can just pull out the credit card and that’s going to create the happiness and the fun times we want, and the truth is, if we put a little mental energy into it, we’re going to have more fun, spend less money and probably learn more. It’s being resourceful.”

With that mind-set, get ready to rediscover your locality and the resources it has to offer. You might be surprised to learn how much you can do while spending very little.

How to get started

You can find a treasure trove of things to do without traveling out of state.

“How many people live in a state and think they need to vacation some other place and never do the touristy things in their own town or in their own state?” asks Annette Economides.

The frugal husband-and-wife team suggests finding out what’s available in your own town by contacting the visitor and convention bureau and asking for some literature, or checking the AAA TourBook travel guide for your state. Annette Economides points out that because historical places don’t tend to go out of business, it may prove smart to buy an old copy from a thrift store. You’ll get an idea of what’s nearby and you can always double-check prices and hours with establishments.

1. Take advantage of community events.

Get added onto your local city or county newsletter list for upcoming community events. “A lot of times, if you look through community calendars, you can find events that are either free or very cheap to start with,” says Shel Horowitz, author of the e-book ” The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant’s Pocketbook,” and owner of FrugalFun.com. He says you can find activities such as lectures, concerts, plays and performances for free or as little as $5.

Area high schools, community colleges or universities likely have music or drama programs and sporting events, points out Steve Economides. A lot of these student performances and recitals are free and open to the public.

Tip: Contact the parks and recreation department of your city or county to find out how to stay abreast of community events.

2. Get low-cost admission to museums.

General admission can cost a lot at some museums. People need not let their wallets inhibit their love for art or history, though. “A lot of museums under their charter either with the city, state or county are required to provide a free day of access for the public, or at least a discounted day,” says Steve Economides.

Museums may also offer discounted or free admission for residents or members of certain organizations on certain days during the month, says Fatima Mehdikarimi, founder of the shopping guide and coupon site, ShoppingQueen.com.

Tip: Annette Economides suggests people check the museum’s Web site to find out when the discounted and free days happen. Some museums, such as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., don’t charge for admission.

3. Volunteer at concerts, games and performances.

Volunteer to usher or help at shows and sporting events and you can sometimes catch a free viewing. Some organizers won’t let you watch while you work, but may give you a pass to come back for free at a later date, or let you watch the program if you’ve signed up for preshow or postshow shifts, says Mehdikarimi.

Tip: Mehdikarimi advises calling the organizer two months in advance of the event you want to see so that you can get more choices in terms of your shift and duty.

4. Tour factories and local businesses.

Another frugal adventure involves touring nearby factories and businesses with your family. “Depending on where you live, there’s usually some kind of industry in your area where you can tour a factory,” says Annette Economides. Some places may charge nothing for entry, while others may charge a nominal fee.

If the company requires a certain size group to take a tour, invite a couple of your friends’ families along to meet the requirements.

Tip: The Economides suggest looking in the Yellow Pages under “manufacturing” to see if there are any factories in your area.

If factories don’t dazzle your children, consider their interests and research applicable businesses. In their book, “America’s Cheapest Family,” the Economides’ suggest other possible destinations, such as airplane hangars, dairy farms, courthouses and radio stations.

5. Visit pick-your-own farms.

Grab your kids and head to these farms that allow you to pick your own fresh fruit and vegetables and buy them in bulk at low prices. Some farms will have corn mazes, hayrides, face painting and other family-friendly activities.

Tip: Find a pick-your-own farm using a site such as PickYourOwn.org or simply do an Internet search for nearby “U-pick” farms.

6. Enjoy local parks.

Don’t forget about local parks. They make for soothing walks, scenic bike rides and pretty picnics. Best of all, you don’t have to pay to enjoy them.

Don’t rule out theme parks or water parks in your area if you can find good deals on season or annual passes or coupons making them affordable.

Tip: Contact your local parks and recreation department to find nearby parks. Keep an eye out for theme park coupons at fast food restaurants, in coupon books and on soda cans, or do Internet searches for the word “coupon” plus the name of the theme park.

7. Research cheap fare for the fair.

When your county or state fair is in town, do some research to find the cheapest days to go. Steve Economides says a radio station always sponsors the first day at his state fair and admission is either free or a dollar.

Tip: Research your county or state fair online and look under “admissions information” to see if there are discounted admission days or information on how to find coupons. Some fairs may provide free shuttle rides for those willing to park at designated offsite locations.

8. Love the library.

Public libraries offer entertainment possibilities for kids and adults.

“Now many public libraries have reading programs for kids during the summer because they want to encourage them to read. A lot of those programs provide prizes,” says Steve Economides. He and his wife say their kids have won tickets to Major League Baseball games, movie passes and vouchers for free restaurant meals.

Of course, adults can save money on books and movies by borrowing them from the library for free. Don’t let a skimpy selection prompt you to pay money to rent or buy these items, however. Make use of the library’s hold system and interlibrary loans.

Comparing the hold system to building a queue of flicks with online movie rental services, Kim Danger, family savings expert for Coupons.com, says when items from her library wish list become available, the library holds the item and calls to tell her as much. “I usually have 10 things on my hold list. I kind of load up on everything that sounds interesting to me and that way when I do go to the library chances are something will be in that I’ve requested,” she says.

Interlibrary loans allow you to request items from other libraries if yours doesn’t have a copy. As with the hold system, the library will contact you when the item becomes available.

Tip: Visit your library in person or go to its Web site to see what services it offers.

9. Go on a letterboxing treasure hunt.

If you have young kids who would enjoy treasure hunting, consider looking into an activity called letterboxing. “Besides the cost of a notebook and a rubber stamp, it’s absolutely free,” Danger says.

Danger describes letterboxing as “a modern-day treasure hunt” where you print clues from the Letterboxing North America’s Web site to find small boxes hidden in public areas in certain cities. The boxes each contain a notebook, inkpad and a stamp. She says the idea is to follow the clues, taking a notebook and stamp with you so that when you find the box you can stamp the person’s notebook with your stamp and use theirs to stamp your notebook.

“It’s kind of like trading stamps,” she explains. “After you’ve done it a little while, you’ve got this book, which is kind of like a collection of all the stamps that you’ve been to, all the letterboxes that you’ve seen. It’s a really family-friendly activity because your kids can do it with you, and my husband and I were really getting involved with it and having fun with it as well.”

Tip: Learn more about letterboxing by going to Letterboxing North America’s Web site.

10. See movies for less.

Look for discount theaters in your area, cheap seasonal passes, discounted admission for certain days of the week or bulk movie ticket purchases.

AMC Theatres, for example, offers discounted tickets for weekend showtimes before noon at some locations. “If you’re willing to go see a movie earlier in the day then you can get it almost at half-price, depending on what the local movie rates are in your area,” says Mehdikarimi.

Another movie theater chain called Harkins Theatres offers a summer movie pass for kids that costs $5 to $7 for 10 movies spread out over 10 weeks. “Even if you don’t even like all 10 of the movies, even if you went to half of them, it still would be worth it to buy the pass,” says Annette Economides.

Movie theaters may also allow you to buy passes in bulk. If you frequent the box office, bulk passes could provide significant savings throughout the year.

Also consider signing up for movie clubs, which allow you to earn points from the purchase of movie tickets to score freebies such as free popcorn, drinks and tickets. To avoid junk mail when you sign up, supply an e-mail address you seldom use.

Tip: Call your local movie complex or look on its Web site to find out about discounted tickets, passes and movie clubs.

11. Kick it at home.

You don’t have to go out to have a good time. Experiment in the kitchen with a new recipe, play board games or do art projects with your kids.

The ol’ potluck dinner with friends also provides a fun, cheap night at home. “With kids, it’s nice to share a baby sitter,” says Danger. “If you’re having a few couples over, maybe hire a baby sitter and all pitch in on it and share the cost. You can enjoy some adult conversation and your kids get to have fun, too, with each other.”

Or allow everyone to get into the act with some comedy improv. Horowitz says all you do is “you throw out a situation, a relationship and you let people act out that situation or relationship.” On his Web site, he offers a slew of starter ideas for improv games.

Tip: Dig in your closet for those old board games and challenge your family, friends or the neighbors. Try improv games if you’re feeling adventurous.