Saving your sanity (and your budget) this summer vacation

I am writing this article in silence, thanks to my kids' 7 pm bedtime. And tonight is the last early bedtime night because – sob! – tomorrow is the final day of school.

While I love my children, I admit to some qualms about summer vacation. How do I keep them entertained (that means out of trouble)? How do I keep the lid on my grocery budget? (Last summer, I felt like the refrigerator door was open every time I walked into the kitchen.) Which inexpensive (free, preferably) activities can we find? And how am I going to work from home with these two little distractions?

So picture me planning every minute of my last free day and periodically wiping my sweaty palms and taking deep breaths.

Entertained, but still learning

Even though I am scared for all the reasons I mentioned above, I have big ideas for this summer. First, you know, I want the kids to avoid summer brain drain. But it's got to be inexpensive and, ideally, incorporated into real life so the kids don't know they're still learning.

1. The Kitchen. The kitchen is a great place to practice skills. Both my kids enjoy helping me in the kitchen, so I plan to talk about doubling or tripling recipes, fractions, estimating volume measurements, and calculating the least expensive food options. We'll probably even do a few experiments in the kitchen. These activities should not add anything to our budget since we have to eat anyway.

I think a lot of refrigerator-opening has to do with boredom, so — in the interest of keeping my food budget (and boredom food consumption) under control — I am considering having designated snack/meal times. Otherwise, the kitchen is closed.

2. Writing/Reading. My daughter is learning to read and write sentences, and her teacher said that she should practice writing and sounding out words ten minutes every day. I have some partially used notebooks and markers/crayons left over from the school year that she has already put in her desk at home. Another essentially free activity that she enjoys. Of course, most of her notes involve who is/is not allowed in her room, but we have to start somewhere!

Each evening, I read aloud from chapter books for about 30 minutes before bedtime. The kids love this, and it offers a great opportunity to talk about history, vocabulary, and culture. We will definitely be continuing this tradition for as long as the kids are willing. Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook gives some fantastic reviews on books that make great books to read aloud to your kids.

And you know the frugal place to get books, right? The library, of course. But more than offering free books, the libraries have summer reading programs. Our library offers prizes for meeting reading goals as well as other activities like inflatables, pool parties, and other presentations. And the best thing is it's all free!

Almost every day, we will have reading/quiet time after lunch. For half an hour, the kids look at (or read) books/magazines. It gives me some quiet time to get work done, calms them down, and gets them reading! And once again, it's free if you use books you already have or get books from the library.

3. Crafts/Art. Pinterest is the place to get crafty ideas! I have a drawer stashed with pipe cleaners, tissue paper, finger paints, glue sticks, and more that the kids can use anytime. Last summer, we did have a dedicated craft day, too, where the kids picked one thing to do each time. But crafts extend outdoors, too. My kids love drawing on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, as one example. You can even make your own sidewalk chalk!

4. Take things outside. We have four acres of pasture, trees, and a barn where the kids can run off energy. They make “forts” in our evergreen trees, and make corrals out of sticks and stones. While you may not have a playground in your backyard, most parks are free and offer plenty of space to run, discover new insects and trees, and generally avoid Nature Deficit Disorder. Also, don't overlook the summer youth programs that many parks run. While these programs generally aren't free, they are usually inexpensive. For instance, a park in my local area has an Eco-Adventures day camp that runs for one day per week for six weeks and is $35/child.

5. School camps. My kids' school got a grant for the summer. For three mornings a week for five glorious weeks, my kids will go back to school and travel the world through a new program that a couple of the teachers are running. The students will go to the library, do crafts, physical activity, and learn about other countries. And it's free!

6. Daycare decisions. Now that I work strictly from home, I don't technically need to send my children to daycare. However, for parents who are working and have school-age children, summer daycare can be a budget buster.

Finding a responsible, high school student to watch your kids may be a frugal option. Day camps may also be less expensive than sending your child to a traditional day care.

While I don't need daycare, I still worry about how I will meet my work obligations with more distractions. One way to combat this is that one friend and I are exchanging babysitting. One day, she watches my kids. Then, next time, I watch her kids. I don't get anything done on the days that I have all the kids, but I can get a lot done in the eight hours that I am kid-free! This babysitting swap doesn't cost us a thing.

Otherwise, I will have to do some work while the kids are in bed and sometimes, they will just have to learn to leave me alone while I work.

Do you dread summer vacation too? What frugal ways have you found to thrive during summer vacation?

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Beth
Beth
6 years ago

All good tips 🙂 Love that you’re working personal finance into the math lessons.

One tip for parents who live near a college: see if it offers day camps. They’re usually inexpensive and offer activities having to do with science, computers, sports and reading. (Many universities in Canada offer youth programs and camps, though I’m not sure how widespread it is in the U.S.)

Linda Vergon
Linda Vergon
6 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Great tip, Beth! I remember the drama department at our local university put on a series of plays during the summer months when I was a kid. It was great! Plus it was very interesting to go on campus and learn what a university was.

Jon @ Money Smart Guides
Jon @ Money Smart Guides
6 years ago

I don’t have kids, but I think you hit the nail on the head with boredom. By taking the time now to think about and plan fun, low cost activities for your kids, you can avoid many of the spur of the moment decisions that end up costing a lot of money.

Brian@ Debt Discipline
[email protected] Debt Discipline
6 years ago

Library, Library, Library! I know you mentioned this, but so many activities besides book. Many offer free classes, or just take a trip to play games or rent videos. Some movie theaters offer free children’s movies on a weekly basis during the summer. Check out the link – http://www.showcasecinemas.com/programs/kids-and-families/bookwormwed

Good luck!

Beth
Beth
6 years ago

Our library has passes for local museums and historic sites so families can go for free — might be worth looking into!

Some cities also do movies in the park or drama in the park. In our area, the price of admission is a donation to the food bank. Win-win, IMHO.

Aldo @ Million Dollar Ninja
Aldo @ Million Dollar Ninja
6 years ago

My parents couldn’t afford summer camps or day care for me and my two siblings so we did a lot of things that were free. We used to go to the park a lot and play or read. We also sometimes had to go to the library when it was too hot.

Every once in while they would take us to the movies to see the summer blockbuster, but we only got to see one or two movies per summer.

Even though we couldn’t afford many things, we still had a lot of fun in the summer.

mi
mi
6 years ago

I’m sorry – if you work from home, you NEED to send them to daycare. There is no way to properly work with children (nor care for them if you are preoccupied with work). I always laugh when I see someone saying “i worked while my child was home.” Either you will be doing a really bad job as mom or as a worker. There is really no way around it (unless they are older (5+ ?) – and even so – maybe).

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago
Reply to  mi

My kids are 10 and almost 7, so they can entertain themselves…sometimes. Still, I agree that it’s hard to work at home with kids around. In my case, since my husband has a somewhat flexible summer schedule, he can be home for part of the day or even take one kid to work with him. Anyway, I frequently feel that I am pulled in too many directions, but traditional daycare is not an option at this point.

mbm
mbm
6 years ago
Reply to  Lisa Aberle

How can you say you are “working from home” and then a sentence later that you “don’t get anything done”? You are NOT working from home, and in fact you are ruining it for others who actually would be able to get work done. No wonder so many managers are suspicious when employees request it.

Please don’t ruin it for those of us who would be responsible with the privilege!

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago
Reply to  mbm

Are you referring to the time I said that I don’t get anything done when I babysit for my friend’s kids? It’s a lot more difficult to get work done when I watch four kids, instead of my own two. But that’s not my daily life, even though it is more difficult to work when my kids were home. I am surprised that this part of the post inspired some commentary, and I think I might write a post about working from home – with kids! In any event, I don’t think I am going to ruin it for you… Read more »

Julie
Julie
6 years ago
Reply to  mbm

I have worked in the office 3 days per week and from home 2 days per week for the past 25 years…the entire time I was raising my children. During that time I also home schooled my 3 children for 5 years alongside my husband, who also has a flexible schedule. Sometimes I think I could write a book on the subject. In a nutshell the reality was that I worked a lot of late nights, after the kids had gone to bed. I also worked MANY weekend hours. Often I survived on very little sleep. I was fortunate in… Read more »

Jane
Jane
6 years ago
Reply to  mbm

MBM – You’re assuming that everyone’s work is the same and/or extrapolating from your own experience that it is impossible for anyone to work from home with children underfoot. I agree that it can be difficult, but I do freelance writing and editing that has set deadlines but not set hours. Plus the rates are determined by the job and not the hour. Thus, it doesn’t matter if it takes me 2 hours of somewhat interrupted work (by children asking for water or needing help) to complete something or one hour of focused work. What matters is that I get… Read more »

mi
mi
6 years ago
Reply to  Lisa Aberle

Ok Lisa- at that age (10, 7) I can totally see it working. But with babys, toddlers – they need attention every 2h minimum. I could not work with such interruptions, nor am willing to sacrifice my life (sleep – which is already scarce with small children; time with my husband, time with my child, etc). I thing people that make that sort of juggling like freelancers don’t mind being on 24/7 and not having family / work bounderies nor weekends. However, that is definetly not for me, I think you loose a lot in quality of life that way:… Read more »

Julie
Julie
6 years ago
Reply to  mi

Mi, Well it sounds like you know everything about everything. My eldest home schooled son will be graduating from the Naval Academy next year. Son #2 was a top student, is a concert pianist as well as a quarterback at his college. My daughter is also at the top of her class and is a top athlete. And we managed to get the 3 kids to all 50 states during their younger years. Many sacrifices were made, but all were well worth it. My kids grew up with the best…and sometimes the worst…of both worlds. They had a mother that… Read more »

mi
mi
6 years ago
Reply to  mi

Sure Julie, attack my ability as a mom. How classy (and oh so not judgemental). If homeschooling worked for you – more power to you. For me it is a bizarre concept. My only point here was to debate how to juggle being a mom / worker, something we all face regardless of the choice of style.

martha
martha
6 years ago

I bought a three month family pass ($200) to our neighborhood pool. I pack sack lunches to eat in the picnic area and we spend several hours a day there. The kids can swim and socialize with their friends while I sit in a lounger and work on my laptop. Yay for free WiFi!

Linda Vergon
6 years ago

This comment came from Sue, a reader of our daily newsletter. Hi, I loved my kids summer vacation. We did lots of great stuff. I liked my kids so much more that I started homeschooling them and did the last eleven years of their schooling this way. One suggestion for you is to get a digital camera and have them take lots of photos and work with the photos on the computer. It could be that they would make a booklet of a certain subject, like bugs or leaves or clouds, and they will be learning with all the research… Read more »

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago
Reply to  Linda Vergon

Great ideas, Sue! Love the digital camera idea. Even though the first few days of summer vacation have gone much better than I expected, I still think I’ll be relieved to have them go back to school again :).

IamFI
IamFI
6 years ago

Studies show that at-risk kids lose ground academically during the summer. For the rest of us, our kids may go to museums, educational vacations, good camps. It’s an outdated agriculturally based concept that is so two centuries ago. My daughter is high functioning in school but I still saw a drop off in the quality of her writing between kindergarten and first grade. Now going into second, I hired a beloved student teacher as a once a week (hour) tutor. This tutor is keeping the “we are learning every day” feeling and structure going and requires a daily journal. This… Read more »

Mrs PoP
Mrs PoP
6 years ago

My mom made us do swim team for years, even though only one of the three of us actually enjoyed it. At our neighborhood (city) pool, the cost was very low, and practice was every morning at 7am. So we had to be up, and out of the house riding our bikes to the park every weekday morning in the summer. It put structure into the day and kept us from sleeping until noon and then keeping our parents up all night. Not to mention other side benefits like the exercise, getting our sunshine in before the worst of the… Read more »

Tina
Tina
6 years ago

We buy family passes to our local zoo(which is one of the best in the country) and a local museum which allows our teenagers to go whenever they want.

We also throw a summer party and they invite their friends over to make smores and sit by the firepit, watch movies and/or play video games. Very cheap and you know where your kids are 🙂

Pool passes are good too. Sadly, they closed the pool closest to us so our kids no longer have that option.

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
6 years ago

Great ideas! Here’s some more that worked for us. 1. Snacks: one great way to handle snacks is to put their snacks for the day in a lunch bag or clear bin. When that bin is empty, that is it. They can choose when and what to snack on first, but you’ve already made the decision as to what type of snacks and how much. 2. Barnes and Noble has a free program in our neighborhood that if the children read 7 or 8 books, they get a free book from B&N. Free book and encourage reading: score! 3. Crafts:… Read more »

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago
Reply to  phoenix1920

Thanks for sharing. I especially love the snack idea :)!

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
6 years ago
Reply to  Lisa Aberle

Lisa, if you have kids as old as yours, my kids love to write on the computer–go figure! I don’t understand why this form of writing is so fun but it works for us

MamaMia
MamaMia
6 years ago

I am not sure how hiring a high school student to babysit would cost less than sending your children to daycare, unless you were paying terrible wages. Where I live the average cost of 9-5 daycare is around $1k per month, while the average cost of hiring a sitter is $13/hour. I’d have to pay the sitter less than half that rate – $6.50 – to equal the $1k I pay for daycare. I don’t think I could even find a student who would accept a rate less than $6.50. (Let’s face it, childcare can be rough!) Nor would I… Read more »

sarah
sarah
6 years ago
Reply to  MamaMia

Same here but that $13 is for a well qualified adult. Teenagers make closer to minimum wage. But then you have your kids with a teenager, which in hindsight is kind of horrifying. (Yes I babysat as a teenager and even preteen. Yes, I was reliable and trustworthy. But I realize now I didn’t know much about kids)

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago
Reply to  MamaMia

Hmmm, so this may not be a universally acceptable alternative. Our teenagers (someone who isn’t old enough to have a “real” job) don’t get $6.50 an hour. But it doesn’t sound like it’s a frugal option for you and probably many others.

chris @ Wealth Worm
chris @ Wealth Worm
6 years ago

These are all great ideas! I would add that Summer break is a great time for kids to learn the principles of money and saving! Who wouldn’t love some lemonade on a hot July day! Teaching them how to market themselves, price a product and save some of the profits – a lot can be learned from something so simple. I would also add that just simply sitting with your children and explaining the importance of saving money for a goal that they make is critical. Personal Finance principles must start at home and no time like a summer break… Read more »

Seth
Seth
6 years ago

Some good ideas here!

Depending on their age, you may consider involving your children in household projects such as gardening, painting a fence or even fixing a leaky faucet.

This not only teaches them a skill, but it also creates a sense of pride in the home. And this can have many lasting benefits.

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago
Reply to  Seth

My kids get lots of summer chores, too ;). They help with lawn care, our garden, and cooking. And more, but we are trying to teach them lots of stuff.

Teinegurl
Teinegurl
6 years ago

How about Jr. Lifeguard or Lifeguard for the preteens 13+ and up for the teenagers? You can even be Summer Fun Leader, JR Leader great way to earn money during the summer and have fun to. They also teach CPR training during this program so that might help for babysitting gigs.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

People! The World Cup is free on Univisión!!!

USA vs. Ghana in 2h22min.

mi
mi
6 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

only till 7/2

Raven
Raven
6 years ago

A couple of outside activities could include softball/t-ball, or modified versions of any sport.

cherie
cherie
6 years ago

our library offers many programs and reading groups – I have older kids – be on the lookout for volunteer opportunities – my teens are spending six weeks working to help disabled kids and adults at a special needs camp – and the bus picks them up and drops them off within walking distance of our home. Not only will my younger child have some time reading each day – but we’ll also be reviewing math with http://www.tenmarks.com/ – it’s a new free program through amazon We’re also planning to bake our way through a cookbook this summer – she’s… Read more »

IamFI
IamFI
6 years ago
Reply to  cherie

Great comment noting volunteer work – surprised this was the first one. What a learning experience they will have. We also love tenmarks but haven’t opened it yet this month!

Sally
Sally
6 years ago

I find it interesting that you are planning to work at home and not have formal daycare. My child is 2, so that is simply out of this world for me! I tried it when she was actually napping as a baby, and I found myself extremely unproductive. I hope it works for much better for you. Daycare for a toddler in my area is $2K a month. 24K/yr. I actually am looking forward to school because I will take the amount I spend on her education now, and put it directly into her college savings account. Massachusetts has a… Read more »

debt debs
debt debs
6 years ago

I think the cooking time is a great way to learn those concepts. A few other activities that may keep them busy while you work and always worked for us: – write and put on a play or small series of skits. It can be a weekly activity that they rehearse and figure out costumes for and perform for you and your husband and maybe guests on the weekend. I’m not sure how old your kids are but we used to use Mad magazine stories for some of our play scripts. – jigsaw puzzle that they can work on a… Read more »

AMW
AMW
6 years ago

One of the things I did with my kids to entertain them and avoid the brain drain is that we studied different countries. Maybe two per summer. I let them pick the countries. We would go to the library and then we would read about them and do some activities related to them (made cardboard bomerangs when we studied Australia, had a royal procession when we studied UK, a tea ceremony when we studied Japan) and then we would cook dishes associated with that country. They loved it. They did it all through elementary school and they still talk about… Read more »

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

I know this may sound silly, but what about something as simple as teaching them some basics using a deck of cards? I’m not talking about Pinochle, but perhaps crazy 8’s (which the game Uno was kind of built around), or “the memory game”. I just taught my wife and my kids how to play Nurts, which is a game that I learned when I was about 7. Then there is getting a Wiffle (sp?) ball and bat. Or possibly a bike. Tumbling on the grass if they’re too young. Drawing things they see outside … one of my son’s… Read more »

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