This post is by staff writer Honey Smith.

Maybe it’s the years of conditioning we receive as children to think of summer as an endless stretch of time to be filled with fun and relaxation. Maybe it’s the fact that my day job is at a university, and during the summer dramatically fewer students are on campus.

Whatever the case, each spring when the semester is drawing to a close, I find myself making plans. At the moment I don’t have plans to travel, but there are plenty of other fun and frugal things that I’d like to accomplish during “summer vacation.”

Use my vacation time creatively

I could conceivably take a week or two off of work entirely. However, summer is generally a low-stress time of year for me and one of the best times to get ahead on projects and the next year’s events. As a result, I don’t tend to see the point of taking that much time off simply for a stay-cation.

Two years ago, however, I hit upon a vacation-hours strategy that I simply adored, and which I think I’ll be implementing again. Rather than taking a week off, I arranged to leave work two hours early for a month. The same 40 hours, just a different configuration.

The difference? Structuring my vacation this way gives me the freedom to do several things that aren’t possible during a “normal” workweek.

1. Take care of weekday errands

Eye appointments. The dentist. Annual veterinary appointments for the pets. An oil change and new tires for my car. There are so many things that can only really be accomplished between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a weekday, and we’re not all fortunate enough to be able to literally run our errands.

It’s certainly possible to take care of these things as a one-off. However, these are also the type of errands that can pile up before you know it. Additionally, mentally it’s easier for me to keep track of my time if it’s consistent. I’m much likelier to remember to make it to my dentist appointment if it’s the same time that my eye appointment was the day before.

Some errands, like grocery shopping, have to be done more or less on a weekly basis for me. After a full day at work I’m often too exhausted or frustrated to want to spend an hour or more in the store, especially since that’s when all the other exhausted, frustrated people are in the store too! That means this task is generally relegated to a weekend. While it’s the best solution for me, I do dream of not having to spend the weekend playing catch-up.

But if I’m leaving work at 3, it feels like a party! Like I’m playing hooky, even if I did work harder throughout the day so I could leave early. I can make it to the store, beat the crowds, and free up my weekend all in one.

2. Experiment in the kitchen

Speaking of the grocery store, when you combine taking care of that errand with getting home early, you have a situation that is the perfect storm for cooking! Cooking is probably my favorite hobby, and summer is my favorite time to engage in it.

Since Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings time, it’s usually dark by the time I get home during the winter months, even if I don’t stop to run any errands. In the summer, not only am I able to get home sooner, but it will be sunny out until well after 7 p.m.! As a result, I’ll have both the time and the motivation to try some more complex recipes.

Summer is also one of my favorite times to cook because fresh ingredients are much more varied, high-quality, and less expensive than during other times of year. I just made my first batch of fresh salsa yesterday, and I can’t wait to put it on everything. So easy, and so much better than store-bought salsa.

Honey’s Easy Salsa (Hot!!!)

  • 4 Anaheim chilies, roasted and peeled, then de-seeded

  • 4 jalapenos, de-seeded and chopped into quarters

  • 5 Roma tomatoes, chopped into quarters

  • 2 habanero chilies, de-seeded (omit if the heat scares you!)

  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar

  • salt and pepper to taste

  • Directions: add all ingredients to food processor and blend. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving

Seriously, do yourself a favor and never eat store-bought salsa again. But salsa is just the beginning. Huge salads full of fresh vegetables, roasted veggies on the grill, gazpacho galore, berry and rhubarb crisps and cobblers. It’s the best time of year to learn to cook!

3. Start an exercise routine

For you lucky ducks who don’t live in a place where the weather is extreme, you may have plans to engage in outdoor sports. Here, that’s not really possible unless you leave town or hike at 5 a.m., which I don’t enjoy. However, it has come to my attention lately via the waist of my pants that I should really start exercising more.

Exercise is one of those things that is easier once it becomes a routine. It’s challenging, however, to get an action to become a habit. I figure by giving myself extra time in the evenings (I’m not going to cook every night!) I will have removed all the excuses and start something I’ll stick to. For the last few months, I’ve been using Groupon to try and find a gym that offers something I’ll enjoy enough to do every day. After trying four or five different places, the one I love the most is Bikram yoga.

Unfortunately, yoga is expensive. Fortunately, my SEO side gig has experienced a recent uptick. And I have other ways to exercise while I save. First, because I still have some Groupons to use up from places that I didn’t like as much. Additionally, it looks like I’m eligible for a settlement class with LA Fitness that will net me a 45-day free pass.

In other words, even though yoga is a luxury, I won’t buy a membership until 1) I can pay in cash without derailing my debt payment schedule and 2) I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of the other methods of exercise I’ve tried.

What about you?

I find that by taking off only two hours per day I give myself the Goldilocks of free time — an amount that’s just right for increasing my productivity, without increasing the temptation to while away entire days at the mall or movie theater.

What are your plans to have some fun without spending too much cash this summer?

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