Studies about women and money often find that we prioritize spending on our kids. That is certainly true for me. Although I loathe acquiring stuff for my children (I stop at H&M or Old Navy two or three times per year to stock up on kids’ clothes, and there is no such thing as randomly had gifts — those are saved for holidays and birthdays), I rarely hesitate when it comes to family fun.
A trip to the circus? What childhood is complete without the annual event — even if it sets me back more than $300, including popcorn and parking? Sure, movie theater tickets have gotten so expensive, but what is $50 for some family bonding over Pixar? And how about museum visits — which can cost as much as a semester’s worth of college tuition if we go often — but are one of the reasons we choose to live in New York City?
Until a couple months ago, I thought little of forking over this kind of money each and every weekend. A glance at my bank accounts made it clear I was spending a lot of cash entertaining my kids. On one hand, I felt OK about this money spent. After all, this is cash paid for experiences, and studies show that experiences are what give us pleasure, not objects. Plus, as a single parent, I only have my kids for half the weekend, so our Saturdays together seem extra precious, and I feel the urge to make them extra special. I also recognize that since I am single, as well as a self-employed writer who works from home, I can feel isolated. All these weekend outings are at least as much about my own urge to be out in the world as they are about creating family memories.
But the fact is: Some months these experiences and fun were difficult to afford. Something had to give. So I began challenging my impulses to spend big bucks on family activities and replacing them with lower-cost outings. Here’s what I did.
Instead of this: Trip to the zoo
Growing up we went to the zoo once per year. It was an hour’s drive from where I grew up, we spent the whole day there and it was a really big deal. In New York City where I live, there are four zoos within an hour’s drive from my home — a couple of them within 20 minutes. But the reason we tend to visit the zoo so often is that we have all come to expect special things all the time. So shelling out $84 for “Total Experience” tickets at the Bronx Zoo, plus parking and overpriced tourist food would have set me back close to $150.
We did this: Nature hike
I quenched my urge to spend time with animals by visiting a bird sanctuary in Westchester County. We hiked around the preserve, chatted with some fisherman about the day’s catch (blue fish), spotted a couple sandpipers and a horseshoe crab and ate a snack of homemade PB&J sandwiches, cheese and carrots while overlooking the sound, choppy with wind. We also created a memory when I decided to off-road.
While walking around the perfectly safe path, Indiana Mom landed the three of us in a thorny thicket — from which our escape would have been made easier with a machete — that required me to take enormously high steps with my riding boots to stomp down the prickly growth. For this experience we gave a $10 donation. This was followed by a trip to the town where we strolled through the cute shops and lunched at the local pizza parlor.
Spendy activity price: $150
Budget activity price: $22
Verdict: Sure it can be scary — in a fun way! — to see snakes behind a glass wall. But it is even more scary — in a questionable way — to wonder if your children will be ensnared in thistles.
Plus, time in a quiet, unpopulated preserve on a beautiful fall day was far more refreshing than battling weekend crowds at one of the biggest zoos in the country. Exploring the underside of upturned logs and the rocky beach at low tide did far more to connect us as a family than pointing at encaged animals.
Instead of this: Recently some friends from out of town invited us to join them on a tour to the top of the Empire State Building. I initially thought that my kids must experience this landmark New York City experience! What mother would deprive them?! Then I checked the prices: nearly $70 for the basic viewing deck experience. Cue sound of tires squealing to a stop.
We did this: Every month or two my kids and I repeat one of our favorite adventures: We drive from our home in Astoria, Queens, to Roosevelt Island — a sliver of land in the East River between Queens and Manhattan — and use a Metrocard to take the tram to the city, drinking in the gorgeous views for $2.75 per trip (kids under 44” tall ride free). From there, we walk two blocks to Dylan’s Candy Bar, a mammoth purveyor of all things sweet and delicious, and get a treat, the kids opting for a variety of gummy animals priced by the pound. I suggested our friends join on this outing, which few tourists know about. They were thrilled to get an insider’s look at the city and joined along.
Spendy activity price: $70
Budget activity price: $12
Verdict: I believe strongly in trying new things. But it is perhaps even more important to embrace ritual. My kids are far more likely to remember our tram tradition as adults since they will have done it dozens of times. Added bonus when we can share our special experience with people we care for. Plus, it’s way cheaper.
Instead of this: On the subject of tradition, I find apple picking to be pretty awesome. It’s fun, it takes us out of the city, it has the agro-education element and it reminds me of my rural Midwestern childhood. But even this quaint ritual can comes at a steep price if you go to a farm anywhere near New York City. There the experience can come with the temptation to spend multiple Andrew Jacksons on bouncy houses, corn mazes, pony rides and pumpkin painting.
We did this: We still went apple picking. The outfit charged a flat $25 for a half-bushel bag, which we were invited to fill to the brim. The kids and I tried to hunt down as many varieties as we could find. We plucked a gigantic Macintosh — seriously, the largest I’ve ever seen — and wondered if it was delicious. We munched on cider doughnuts — 75 cents each — because they were right out of the fryer and only a miser would say no. Same for two corn dogs, which were steep at $4 each, but really our only lunch option. But I did say no to the bouncy house and instead focused the kids’ attention on the bluegrass band playing. Then we visited the chickens in their coop. Because, as I said before, pointing at caged animals is a family bonding experience.
Spendy activity price: If I’d agree to all the activities on offer, my wallet would be $100 lighter
Budget activity price: $35
Verdict: When we came home, my kids told their friends, “We went apple picking.” That was a big deal for children ages 3 and 5. Why would it have been better if their answer was, “We went on a hayride and bouncy house and corn maze and ate kettle corn and a giant barbequed turkey leg that cost $10 and, oh yea, we also picked some apples”? Sometimes, less is more. And when I couldn’t figure out what to do with all those apples, I filled little sacks and sent the kids around to neighbors in our apartment building to give them away. And so the experience grew far beyond our Saturday afternoon. It grew into a memory which we shared with each other and those around us.