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21 ways to save money and still have a blast with the kids this summer

There are so many low-cost ways to keep kids happy and entertained while school is out — and the TODAY Parenting Team has figured them out.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Summer camps and summer vacations and summer sports and summer excursions can cost a LOT of money. (Ugh! Boo! Hiss!) Thankfully, though, there are so many low-cost ways to keep the kids happy and entertained while school is out — and the TODAY Parenting Team has got them figured out.

We asked contributors to share their secrets for enjoying the Best Summer Ever, and many offered up smart ways to have a blast with children without breaking the bank. We’ve compiled a bunch of them for you here.

TODAY Parenting Team logo

Please feel free to join in this ongoing conversation by becoming a member of our team, and stay connected to TODAY Parents updates on our Facebook page. If you’ve got other money-saving ideas for the summer months, we’d really love to hear them!

1. Summer vacations don’t have to be spendy. (Live Laugh Love at Ruthie's Kozi Kitchen)

“Get a tent. Visit local state parks if time is short, or gas too expensive. Get the family away from the hubbub of normal life, technology, video games, whatever — grab a pack of marshmallows, build a fire, and spin a yarn around its warmth. Let the kids collect bugs, catch butterflies, fish, swim, and climb trees. Grab a few relatives who also have kids who can keep yours company while the adults play crazy card games. Memories acquired = priceless.”

Illustration: The simple value in family vacation
"Finances may be lacking, or vacation time minimal. I understand. But for the sake of family bonding, please consider your options."Live Laugh Love at Ruthie's Kozi Kitchen

2. Reading is fundamental — and free! (Mommy Talk)

“Read. Daily. Not to me, read to yourself. If you need help with a word I will help you, but this is your time to discover and find a love of reading. This will not take place of story time at night. I swear, so don’t worry. I will always read to you, and give you a chance to read to me. But this reading time is different. Grab a book and dive into a different world. Want to be a dragon slayer for a day? Great, I’ll take you to the library and we will find a dragon slayer book just for you.”

3. Look to the stars. (Deborah Stallings Stumm)

Remember the magic of being at camp and searching for star constellations? Re-create those memories with you kids by grabbing a picnic blanket, lying down on the grass and looking to the stars on a clear night.”

Stars in the sky on a dark night
It doesn't cost anything to look up.Henri Boffin / ESO

4. Find air-conditioned venues with free or reduced-price activities.(Keeper of the Fruit Loops)

“Libraries with summer reading programs are always a huge hit, and movie theaters across the country offer free or nominally priced showings of recently released movies.”

5. (through 17!) Consult this handy list of free or inexpensive ideas. (Mary Ann Ware)

(Here are just 12 of Ware’s 100 suggestions ... see the full post for details!)

6. Create a neighborhood scavenger hunt with things to find (someone riding a bicycle, a black cat, a garden gnome, an American flag, etc.) and then take a long walk to find them. Make it a competition if you want to.

7. Play in a creek. Catch crayfish.

8. Round up all the kids in the neighborhood and meet at school for a soccer game.

9. Go bowling. Look for opportunities for kids to bowl for free.

10. Plant tomatoes. Make fresh salsa together when the tomatoes are ripe.

11. Play corn hole in the backyard.

12. Research fireflies. What makes them glow? Grab a mason jar and catch fireflies at dusk.

13. Visit a farm. Feed the chickens. Ride a horse. Talk to the farmer.

14. Play with puppies at the pet store or at an animal shelter.

15. Water fight! Fill balloons and water guns!

16. Clean out closets and toys. Decide where to donate them and deliver them together.

17. Host relay races in your backyard. Search for ideas online. Create an idea of your own.

18. Go swimming. (Thriller Mom)

“The YMCA and aquatic centers offer swim classes (and more) to the public usually at discounted rates.”

Boys swimming in a pool
Want happy kids? Just add water.This House of Boys

19. Go hiking. (Keeper of the Fruit Loops)

“My latest obsession for keeping my kids busy and active on the cheap is trail hiking. Our area is chock full of great trails to explore and it doesn’t cost me a dime to strap on some hiking shoes, load the kids in the car and tire them out with climbing and exploring. And bonus: trails are often shaded and near streams, which is a great way to cool off on hot summer day.”

20. Make fun, simple crafts with low-cost materials. (Courtney Byrne, The Chirping Moms)

Jellyfish craft project for kids.
Summer crafts for kids don't have to be complicated.Courtney Byrne / The Chirping Moms

Want to make this awesome jellyfish (and a whole bunch of other projects that are just as adorable)? Here’s how:

Supplies: Blue construction paper; orange paper or foam sheet (I used a foam sheet); white yarn cut into 10-15 strands; 2 google eyes; glue. Directions: Cut a semi-circle out of the orange foam sheet. Let the kids glue all of the yarn strings onto the back of the semi-circle. Flip the semi-circle over and let kids glue to the blue construction paper. Glue on eyes.”

21. Remember, doing nothing costs nothing — and unstructured time can be a glorious thing. (4BoysMother)

Kids jumping into a lake.
This summer, just let go!4BoysMother

“I don’t know about you, but during the school year, my family rises at dawn and goes full blast for 15 straight hours. By June I’m in a full-on ‘I can no longer keep this schedule up’-induced coma. I just want to NOT be busy anymore. I want to look you in the eye, and totally and 100 percent guilt free, answer the ‘How is your summer going’ question with a big, fat, ‘We’ve done plenty of nothing. And it’s been plenty of awesome.’”

Follow writer Laura T. Coffey on Twitter @ltcoff and Google+.

Note: This article was first published on July 8, 2015 and updated on May 27, 2016.