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Fun for under $1 -- no, really

Plenty of cheap entertainment options abound.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 1, 2009 3:02AM

A good time doesn't have to cost a good piece of your paycheck. Some readers of the Smart Spending message board listed scores of ways to enjoy life on the cheap -- specifically, for $1 or less. 


Although some of the pleasures on this thread are best enjoyed by families with young children, many will also translate to singles or couples. Unleash your inner kid by flying a kite. Invite your significant other to a picnic in the town park when there's a free evening concert. Walk your new girlfriend from gallery opening to gallery opening -- you get props for having an artistic soul, and the two of you can enjoy the free snacks that many galleries offer. 

The point is that you don't have to give up having fun just because the economy is dicey. The best things in life are free, but the addition of as little as 19 cents can make the best things even better.


Photo opportunities
That 19-cent suggestion comes from reader "SC CDF," who spent some time in the park with her family and a digital camera. She got several photos to e-mail along with Mother's Day greetings Since her favorite photo processor charges only 19 cents, "I could get five (prints) made for $1." If your kid is old enough to trust with a camera, put him in charge of chronicling a family day out.


Whether it's a backyard barbecue or dog days at the dog park, it could be interesting to see what your child thinks are the most important memories.


While you're at the park, how about a picnic? Since you'd be eating lunch anyway, technically you're not spending a dime. You can also have a picnic in your backyard, in someone else's backyard (sandwiches taste better when shared with a friend) or in the middle of downtown.


Picnics can also be a romantic way to entertain a significant other, especially if you remember to pack a bud vase and a flower.


Walk it off
Garage the car -- hoofing it is a free and healthy form of entertainment. Walk the dogs. Walk your kids. Walk behind your kids as they learn to ride their bikes. Reader "cheapmom" suggests "trash walks," in which the first kid to fill his litter bag wins. "Maybe you could give them a $1 prize," she suggests. 


She and her kids also loved "thing-finding walks," during which they competed to find the most interesting stuff. "Once we found a baseball bat that had washed downstream and an old tennis ball, and had a great impromptu baseball game."


Or how about walking to neighborhood open houses? Reader "Alwayslookingforfree" says this gives "new decorating perspectives at no cost" -- after all, aren't a lot of these places professionally staged to attract buyers? Real estate agents may inwardly curse the "looky loos," but that's a hazard of the business. Who knows: You may find the home of your dreams.


Walking tours of historical sites or naturalist walks can teach you more about your hometown or its ecosystem. If your city doesn't offer these things, then create your own with brochures from the Chamber of Commerce and a library book on local flora and fauna. 


Books and more
The public library was the most frequently cited suggestion. Books, DVDs, story times, lectures, research and reference materials, and Internet access make libraries "the single greatest resource in almost any community," according to reader "MelindaAllen." 


Maybe your library presents author visits and summer reading programs. The library system where I grew up loaned art prints. Some libraries subscribe to numerous magazines, both mainstream and obscure -- catching up on celebrity misadventures or reading fine fiction in a literary journal is a great way to lose yourself for a few hours.


Oh, and about those free DVDs: Turn them into a drive-in movie. Reader "Bee Dance" has friends who set up an old TV in the driveway and watch movies outdoors at night. "We even did it on Halloween last year, and handed out candy while we watched 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.'" 


The lively arts
Is there an open-mike night at your local coffeehouse or bookstore? Bookstores often host visiting authors who read from their works and/or answer questions from fans. If your local arts groups have a volunteer usher program, you can see shows for free.


"Snoozematchit1" suggests searching out lectures, concerts or plays at local colleges. "Frequently it is lab theater or experimental or a student-produced/written play, but you might find something free." 


Colleges offer a variety of other special events to the public. For example, the University of Washington currently has a Black Panthers photo exhibit and film series. Recently I took part in the university's Undergraduate Research Symposium, an event open to all, that provides dozens of presentations on a huge variety of topics -- and free snacks.


No college in your area? Another way to find cheap culture is to "make friends with musicians," according to reader "Sunset Hiker," whose husband takes his guitar everywhere. "We had a campfire singalong in a friend's backyard. It sounds childish, but it's not when you're singing Black Sabbath." 


Fire and water
A (legal) bonfire can be lots of fun either in your backyard or on a camping trip, and it's free if you scavenge the wood. Can't sing? Tell ghost stories. Cook a hot dog supper. Make s'mores.


Who else remembers running through the sprinkler? If you're going to water the lawn or garden, tell the kids to put on their bathing suits. Put yours on, too, and revisit your childhood.


Wash the car. It's a good excuse to squirt each other with the hose on a warm summer day. (Use an environmentally friendly soap.) If your kids get good at it, they might make a few bucks washing neighbors' cars. A reader named "Cheaper than you" suggests buying balloons at the dollar store, filling them with water and throwing them at your vehicle "for a fun car wash." Well, a fun rinse.


It's not just about you
Reader "Tessss" suggests you visit a nursing home with a book or flowers, and "make someone's day." That dovetails nicely with a suggestion by SC CDF about giving away free weekend cell phone minutes. She lets her parents use her phone, and "Dad thinks he is putting something over on the phone company to talk for free."


This is a kind gesture toward someone on a fixed income or with limited mobility. Check with the social workers at a nursing home,  long-term care center or veterans hospital and see if you could bring your phone in -- a resident might want to talk to kids, grandkids or old friends but be unable to afford it.


You could also offer to rake leaves or mow the grass for a neighbor who can't manage these chores. Somehow these things seem less onerous when they're done for others, and it's a chance to model the idea of community service to youngsters. Even a small child could, say, put a few daffodil or crocus bulbs in the ground -- what kid doesn't love to dig in the dirt?


Gardening, whether in someone else's yard or your own, can be a fairly cheap pastime if you're resourceful. Beautification groups and master-gardener programs sometimes give away seeds. I've found seed packets at yard sales and thrift shops (even a couple of years past their expiration date, seeds will likely sprout), and as coupon specials at drugstores. Even when they're not on sale, you can usually find seeds for 99 cents or so. A plant can be grown in any container, even an old shoe, if you provide proper drainage. You may even end up with stuff you can eat


Old-fashioned fun
Play hopscotch with a pattern drawn in the dirt or on a sidewalk with chalk. Jump rope; if you don't remember any rhymes, look them up on the Internet. Have a chalk-art competition on the sidewalk.


Blow bubbles with soapy water or a solution you buy at the dollar store. Buy a dollar-store kite and fly it, or make your own with a dry-cleaning bag or plastic grocery sack. Mix up some mud pies. Write a letter to a relative or friend.


MelindaAllen suggested a slew of ideas that don't cost a dime. Among them: "Dream the afternoon away on a riverbank. Enjoy a memory from the past. Fall asleep on the lawn. Get up early to watch the sunrise. Have a paper-airplane distance contest."


And while you're looking for paper-airplane templates online, type in the phrase "money origami." You'll find ways to turn a dollar bill into a pyramid, wiener dog, four-leaf clover and many other shapes. "You can easily waste a few hours playing with your dollar" but never spending it, notes reader "Kbetty8."


Kbetty8 also had the most fiendish idea, which starts with a package of super glue from the dollar store. If you luck into a two-for-$1 deal, buy one and get your change in pennies and nickels; otherwise, raid the spare-change jar at home. "Then spend an afternoon/evening supergluing pennies to the sidewalk in highly visible areas," the reader says. "Be sure to use plenty of superglue (to) make sure it sticks. My neighbor's kids had to beat it with a rock to get that nickel!"


To those of us who can't resist picking up dropped change, that's just mean. But funny.

Published May 28, 2008
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