Crafting family summer playtime that's both fun and affordable

Posted June 23

As parents contemplate what summer will look like with their children, it sometimes feels like a math equation.

"Parents are trying to figure out, do they do camps? How many weeks at home can the kids endure without activities? What activities can we do? Can we create a camp-like experience and how do we afford it?" says Katie Bugbee, senior managing editor of, which helps pair caregivers with those needing the service.

She juggles those questions, too. The Waltham, Massachusetts, mom has three children ages 1 to 7. Besides a noticeable difference in their ages when it comes to planning activities everyone in the family can enjoy, the kids also have distinct personalities and interests to consider, she said. The oldest is a "very, very, very active boy who would drive everyone bananas if he wasn't in an outdoor sports program every day." Her daughter, 5, "is very happy doing an arts and craft project on her own."

The trick is figuring how to find activities for both kids or to balance activities so each gets a turn. And that's a particular challenge when it comes to family vacation, said Bugbee. "However long you have, you want to spend it as a family. But you need everyone to come away as having an enriching, fulfilling vacation."

There might be another challenge, too, according to Mike Sullivan, a personal finance consultant in Phoenix with, a nonprofit credit counseling service. Families should be able to pay for what they decide to do — hopefully without incurring debt — and that's not always easy, either.

Planning joy

Bugbee gets her family's summer plans on track with a calendar that lets them fill in the blanks and visualize the summer. It helps her clan map out the days or weeks they're off and figure out the possibilities for those days. It also serves a peacekeeping function. "The more advanced warning everyone has, the more you can plan," she said. "The kids will look forward to certain days. If one day is full of arts and crafts, the more active kid can look forward to the next day, which is geocaching," she said.

Experts suggest parents create a list of activities, which can be culled from church bulletins, library schedules, newspaper calendars, street festivals, children's museums, parks and recreation programs and other places. Some parents will want to pick activities in advance. Others will prefer seeing what kind of mood the kids are in, as long as advance reservations aren't needed. Most parents, they say, will opt for a combination of the two activity-picking strategies, planning some out and picking others as the days unfold.

Part of the joy is in the remembering, according to Patti Barnes, an Educents blogger who offers summer survival tips for parents. "Encourage your children to document their experiences through the summer," said Barnes, who home-schools her five kids. She also thinks preparing for experiences enhances them. For instance, families going to the beach can ramp up the excitement by imagining what they might see and learning about it before they go. How is sand formed? Afterwards, drawing, writing stories and creating maps are ways to relive and retain the experiences.

Managing expenses

While many vacationers charge vacations they can't afford, nothing dilutes the pleasure of a great vacation like having to pay it off for a couple of years. Sullivan believes spending less prevents vacation from being a disaster. Save up to go somewhere, he said, and when you get back, start saving for the next trip.

While most people are "destination-oriented," he said a lot of pleasure can be had by choosing a geographic area to visit instead of a specific destination. In Washington, D.C., for example, many activities are free. And more money can be saved by staying in the suburbs and using public transportation to come into town.

Bugbee seasons her kids' summer with fun to-dos after browsing Pinterest boards for ideas. She involves other caregivers — spouse, nanny or baby sitter — in planning. And she mixes it up when it comes to activities. A trip to a store for craft supplies for projects like tie-dye shirts or making door signs or artwork gets everyone excited — especially since it will all be followed by something different, like geocaching or a scavenger hunt. The simplest neighborhood walk becomes an adventure if one puts some planning into it, she said.

She schedules play dates as much as possible over summer, in part because the kids are less likely to argue with each other if other kids are around and they can find the activities that matter to them, with friends, so they're neither bored nor joined at the hip if they like different things.

Sullivan's money-saving tips include finding two-for-one specials and being flexible on calendaring to take advantage of deals. He avoids renting a car unless the trip is actually a car trip and instead uses public transportation. He also tries to prepare one meal a day on vacation as a way to save some money. When money's tight, families can save by eating lunch out instead of dinner, he said.

Because her youngest is so little, a lot of Bugbee's planning centers around nap time. With older kids, she recommends families look for opportunities that challenge them, like being a camp counselor or a dog walker — "a way to earn money and take pride in what they're doing."

Staycationing with style

When he talks to people in financial crisis, Sullivan recommends options that allow an inexpensive vacation, like staying with family or friends. But he doesn't recommend forgoing the pleasure entirely. People need and expect recreation and relaxation.

Sometimes, when the budget's too small to splurge and go on vacation, the Bugbees "staycation" at a local hotel. Many, she notes, offer special discounts for locals. Ordering a movie and staying overnight are different when it's done at a local hotel instead of home. She tries to see that such outings include a bit of history and a little family adventure. Even using the pool and ordering room service creates a fun outing, Bugbee said.

Renting a house — for a staycation or a vacation — is often better for a family trip than a hotel, she said. She likes looking for last-minute, unexpected deals and uses online sites like or

For activities, Bugbee visits, an online auction that based on zip code finds local camps, ballpark tickets, all sorts of things. The money one spends helps support a school or charity or organization, she noted.

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