Vacations are great for your mental and physical health, but not so much for your bank account. So check out these cheap entertainment alternatives instead!
Summer is a time to enjoy the nice weather and take some time for yourself to unwind and relax. For some, that means annual summer sojourns to distant countries or all-inclusive cruises to tropical islands. But for those of us on a budget or working to save for things like weddings or emergency funds a destination vacation is just not in the cards.
While that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun this summer. Plus, taking some time to enjoy your summer is important because vacations from work have been shown to improve our mental and physical health. The average American takes only eight days off a year, even when their employers offer more paid time off than that. According to an NPR poll, less than half of American workers with paid time off have used the majority of their days!
We’re here to encourage you to take a few days this summer to take a thrifty (often free!) staycation, one of the best ways to enjoy yourself and still save money. You don’t have to travel far to discover the best of what your area has to offer. And don’t worry. We realize that many people don’t get paid time off—according to that NPR poll, this disproportionally affects low-wage workers, only 53% of whom report received paid time off.
That’s why many of these suggestions can be enjoyed on the weekends or whatever day of the week you’re off the clock!
1. Enjoy your community’s free entertainment.
Whether you live in a big city or a small town, most communities have free summer programming. We are lucky that our headquarters is in Chicago, where there are free neighborhood festivals almost every weekend as well as free city-wide programming like Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, Movies in the Park, the Millenium Park Summer Music Series—not to mention the big summer festivals like the Chicago Blues Festival, Printers Row Lit Fest, and the Taste of Chicago.
But you need not live in or near a big city to get your festival on—you may not even realize how many events your town puts on. This writer, for one, was surprised to learn that in addition to the car cruises and corn festivals she attended as a youth, her small hometown now offers a craft beer fest, movies in the park, farmers markets, and outdoor concerts featuring local talent all summer long.
And don’t forget state and county fairs! And if you happen to live near a fairgrounds, it’s likely that they also host free or inexpensive programming—circuses, antiques and flea markets, dog and cat shows, motocross, demolition derbies, charitable marathons, and more! Choose something you’d never think to do. This can be the summer of new experiences. All you need is a sense of humor.
If there is an expensive festival or concert that you’d love to attend in your area but cannot afford to, look into volunteering. These types of events often offer discounted tickets or free admission for volunteers, as long as they put in the hours.
2. Learn about the history of your area.
While we’re on the subject of your community, you can also take some time to get to know its history a little better. Local historical societies and neighborhood associations often host walking tours (or have self-guided tours on their websites) of their areas.
Pick a nice day, and take a stroll through the town (or one nearby) you thought you had a pretty good fix on. Chances are, you’ll learn something you never knew before. These same organizations often have free- or low-admissions museums, zoos, and tours of historic buildings—a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Don’t forget to check out the offerings at your local parks. County and state parks often have their own list of free or inexpensive summer programming, whether its a festival or a historical re-enactment. This writer, for example, is planning to attend an authentic vintage baseball game (original 1858 rules) hosted by a nearby county park this summer.
3. Attend a sporting event.
Speaking of sports, watching a game can be a fun and thrifty way to spend a summer afternoon or evening, even if you don’t really like or pay attention to sports (she did not say from experience). Get your friends or family together and make a day of it! It might not be as expensive as you think.
Let’s take baseball, America’s favorite pastime, for example. Many areas have minor league or farm teams, which you can watch for a fraction of the price of your local professional team. These places frequently have promotional nights with cheaper tickets and/or concessions, so plan your trip ahead.
If you happen to live in an area where the sports team is—um—less than popular, you may be able to snag seats for a steal. At White Sox games, for instance, tickets start at around seven bucks. Seven bucks! Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have fun in the nosebleeds.
Plus, if your local stadium is like the White Sox’s, they’ll let you tailgate AND bring in food and water, as long as you follow their guidelines. Sometimes, it pays to support the underdog.
4. Give nature a chance.
You know those state and county parks we mentioned earlier? You can enjoy them even if you don’t attend their programming. Many have nature centers to learn about the environment, but you can also hike, ride a bike, rent a kayak, fish, camp, pack a picnic, and more. The forest, streams, and lakes are nature’s television. Binge on that this summer!
Take a day trip to explore your area’s unique environment, whether it’s a beach, the forest, giant sand dunes, the desert, the prairie, or the swamp. Learn about the plants and animals that live there and go on a scavenger hunt of sorts. While you are in nature, consider looking upward: Plan to view a sunrise, sunset, the starry night sky, or a meteor shower.
As an added bonus, spending time in nature is proven to have health benefits—such as lowering blood pressure, improving mental health, decreasing cancer risk, and more.
Remember, if a multiday destination vacation is not in the budget for you this summer, there are still plenty of fun, thrifty, and free things to do right where you live. Don’t forget the sunscreen!
Jessica Easto is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Her primary areas of expertise include personal finance, risk management, and small business. Her book Craft Coffee: A Manual teaches you how to make cafe-quality coffee at home on a budget.
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