Summertime, and the livin’ is easy — if you’ve got money to spend. All those trips to the local ice cream stand and al fresco dining spots add up, after all, and it can seem like all your friends and family want to do is go out and have some (expensive) fun. And who can blame them? You only get a few precious months of time when the kids — and maybe even you — are out of school, and even people with grown-up jobs find that the pace of life slows down and fun is on the schedule once summer rolls around.
If you’re not careful though, summer can pose a real threat to your carefully constructed budget. It’s easy to give up cooking in favor of eating out on sultry days and to drop cash on all the latest summer blockbusters, but there are all also plenty of free — or at least cheap — ways to spend you time. Try these activities on for size to have some fun and head into fall with your savings account still intact.
1. Check Out the Free Concert Scene
You don’t have to live in the big city to enjoy local entertainment. Just about every town in the country offers some sort of summer concert series or other outdoor entertainment. Check your community’s website for a calendar of upcoming events that you can take advantage of.
Pro Tip: Many of these events are outdoors, so bring a picnic lunch for a delicious — but inexpensive — meal with friends and family as you enjoy the show.
2. Grill, Baby, Grill
Cooking and eating outside is one of the true joys of summer, and you can do it every night of the week if you like — as long as you grill at home. Hit the grocery store for burgers and dogs, of course, but don’t forget that you can also grill just about any meat that exists — and a ton of vegetables, too.
Pro Tip: Make your meal a potluck barbecue and invite friends to bring the side dishes. It will cut down on everyone’s costs while providing a fun summer tradition. Repeat once per week, perhaps rotating hosts.
3. Enjoy a Minor League Ballgame
Baseball is one of the true joys of summer, but taking the whole family to a major league game can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars once you get the tickets, peanuts and Cracker Jack for everyone. Luckily, 47 states (sorry Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming) have at least one minor league ballpark, and tickets cost only a fraction of what you’ll pay at the majors. Find one near you and take your besties out to the ballgame.
Pro Tip: Minor league parks host all kinds of promotions, so keep an eye on your local team’s website to look for a deal — or just some outfield entertainment you’re interested in.
4. Go Camping
Camping is one of the best vacation bargains out there, since you’ll carry in your own room — er, tent — on your back. If you’ve never done it before, check out Craigslist for used camping equipment and research a nearby campground to give it a go for a weekend. There’s no better way to reconnect with family than in a spot where there’s no cell service.
Pro Tip: Bring along hot dogs and ingredients for s’mores. Anything you can cook over an open fire is the perfect food. Don’t forget the bug spray and ghost stories!
5. Host a Lawn Game Tournament
What’s your pleasure: croquet? Badminton? Soccer? Water balloon baseball? Get all your friends and family in on a weekend of fun when you host a friendly competition to see who will emerge victorious. This is sheer fun, and it doesn’t cost a dime.
Pro Tip: If you need a little more room, call your local parks service to see if you can score a ball field or nearby park for the day. These rental fees are way more reasonable than hosting a party at the nearest laser tag center — and sometimes it’s free.
6. Hit the Trail
When’s the last time you went for a hike? You don’t need fancy equipment to enjoy a walk in the woods — just lace up your shoes and go. Start with nearby parks and trails and bring a picnic lunch to sustain you. As you grow more confident, try making day trips to places you’ve never been before. Check your state’s list of parks and recreation areas for ideas of where to head next.
Pro Tip: Be on the lookout for fee-free days at national parks and recreation areas like seashores and museums. Your state may also sponsor discounted or free days, so fire up Google and plan accordingly.
7. See That Summer Blockbuster
Movies still offer a pretty decent bang for your buck as far as entertainment goes, especially if you choose a matinee instead of a full-price evening show. Besides, enjoying the icy chill of the Cineplex at the hottest part of the day is just good planning.
Pro Tip: Go ahead and channel your thrifty grandma by packing a purse full of grocery store candy instead of paying through the nose at the concession stand. The usher isn’t going to search your bag, I promise.
8. Read Outside
Not every summer day has to be packed with parties and people. Soak up the quiet joy of just being outside — or on a screened-in porch, if you’d rather — on a beautiful day. Hit the library for the latest best seller or that classic novel you’ve never gotten around to. Magazines are fine, too! Sit back with a tall glass of lemonade and get lost in the words while the breeze blows.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget the sunscreen and sunglasses!
Sometimes the best summer fun happens when you embrace the simple joys of the season. So grab your favorite people, cook up some simple and delicious food over an open flame, and head outside to enjoy the weather. After all, you only get so many of these days before Labor Day, so make the most of them!
What’s your favorite cheap summer activity?