5 Cheap Ways (and a Secret Ingredient) to Make This Summer Really Fun

Time at home with my family is my bread and butter, my pasta and tomato sauce. But to add a little zing without spending hardly any money, I like to add a little of this:  Friends.

Since most people find hanging out with friends inherently fun, why spend money to have a good time? Studies show that the good feelings created by laughing, talking, playing, and eating with others have a long-lasting effect on our well-being.

Sure, it takes a little bit more effort coordinating with another family, but to quote a saying Enrico and I used on our wedding favors:  Friendship multiplies joy.

Here are some of my favorite ways to grab that bull by the horns and add some feel-good zest to the summer.

1. Synchronize Calendars and Meet in the Middle

Don’t let those free events slip away again.  From bonfires and walking tours, to open-air concerts, boat races, fishing lessons, and air shows, every city offers way more free events than one person can take advantage of.

I find that if I don’t plan ahead with friends, I’m more likely to resort to the default local park.

To avoid letting the summer get away from you without making some memories, identify three fun things you want to do from the city’s calendar, and make plans to go to each one with a different set of friends.

2. Can’t Deal with Throwing a Party?  Go Halfway

Let’s face it: if we think we can only throw a party when we can offer tropical drinks, Martha-worthy decor, a three-course meal, and a spotless house, it’s not going to happen that often.

Don’t be shy to invite friends over for a potluck dinner. People are happy to have someone take the initiative. You offer the party spot, and maybe drinks or a salad. The rest is up to your guests.

Believe me, they’ll thank you for it — even if (and perhaps especially if) your patio is not magazine-ready.

3. Bring a Little Heat to the Picnic


A day at the park can be like a mini-vacation. But who isn’t jealous to smell somebody else’s hamburgers roasting over an open fire?  Especially when the picnic basket is stuffed with cold sandwiches.

It takes just bit more effort to pack up a bunch of patties or sausages, some buns, condiments, chips, and fruit. But the payoffs are big. If you’re with a big group, ask each family to bring a different element of the meal.

(If the smell of lighter fluid is not your favorite thing, try a charcoal starter. We love this simple and chemical-free method for firing up an old-fashioned grill.)

4. No Pool Membership? No Problem

Do as New Yorkers do, if you don’t have a big hole in your backyard. I’m not thinking of wrenching open the fire hydrant, although that sounds like good illegal fun.

I’m thinking of sprinklers, hoses, slip & slides, and water balloons. Invite friends and their kids over for popsicles and watermelon and ask them to bring their suits and water toys.

5. Look No Further than Next Door

Haven’t met your neighbors yet? What better way to do it than over a cold beer or lemonade? Seize the opportunity to introduce yourself (or smooth over a bygone tiff) by inviting everyone to gather in your front yard. Even better, get a permit to close off your street and spread out on the blacktop.

Assign each house a dish, or just be surprised. I find that potlucks always seem to work out without trying to plan who brings what.

Reaching out to others and coordinating schedules may take more effort than flying solo, but the emotional and social rewards are well worth the effort.

So what are you waiting for? Get out your calendar, fire up your phone, and start making plans. And don’t forget your camera — you’ll want to remember these times.

Photo credit: corn on grill.

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  • Anonymous June 21, 2012, 3:25 pm

    So I have been really thinking about this post, along with some other blog’s I have read about doing a Summer Bucket List, etc. and have been motivated to get off my butt and visit DC like a tourist the last few weeks while I have my younger kid in church camp, allowing me to have one on one time with my 4 year old. This area has so many FREE things to do, and I usually whine about traffic or finding parking or any reason to give up. But we have gone strawberry picking, blueberry picking, taken paddle boats by 14th Street Bridge, saw the early early movie at the theater, visited the Air & Space Museum by Dulles, went to butterfly garden at Natural History Museum on free Tuesdays and then rode the mall carousel, drove up to Baltimore and went to the aquarium, went to the Botanical Gardens to see venus flytraps, went to the American Indian Museum, went to the RFK truck touch, went to see Tangled outside at Cinema Del Ray and visited the mothership of all playgrounds, Clemijontri. Zoo was out today, too hot. Most were free, some were expensive (baltimore), some in between.Most were during the 4 hour window my 2 year old is at camp (inlcuding going back and forth to Baltmiore, which was totally worth it). We have done all of these things during the last 3 weeks, never feeling rushed and with the attitude that there are no expectations, if we go and a kid meltsdown or is bored, we just play it by ear and may leave. I think having a good attitude about it is key, not making it too much of a hassle to go, so if it doesn’t work out you aren’t too disappointed. BTW, a great frugal summer idea for kids, vacation bible school. If you go to a church or other place of worship, ask them if they have a camp or VBS. Mine does, it is $35 a week, and no family is charged more than $70 (so it is like have 4 kids, only pay for 2). Happy summer!

    • Amy June 23, 2012, 3:23 pm

      Wow, I am AMAZED, truly bowled over by how much you have done in only 3 weeks! Thank you so much for encapsulating it all for me and my readers. I think it’s so cool that you took the bull by the horns and just DID all this stuff. And I love how none of it required all-day trips, interrupted naps, or babysitters.

      The idea of a bucket list — or all the things you want to do over the summer — is a great idea. Writing things down somehow inscribes the intention better in our brains, and things are just more likely to get done.

      I recognized all the places you mention, and it was really fun to imagine you traipsing across the city — yet in a relaxed and carefree way.

      And also, your tip about finding a vacation bible school is another good one. Yours is amazingly cheap! Another option is a camp run by the parks & rec department. My son is going to a local playground and community center for only $50 a week.

      Thanks again for sharing your success with me!


      • Anonymous June 25, 2012, 7:08 am

        Thanks. I like to stay home, am a total homebody. I am a minimalist and can’t stand stressing out or getting stuck in traffic around here. However I tried to throw caution to the wind and get to know my 4 year old better by just finding a little thing for the two of us to do for a few hours, mommy/daughter camp. It was pretty fun. I don’t know about your neighborhood but in Alexandria and in Georgetown (where my son went to school so lots of friends there), there are TONS of free children and family activities during the summer. Getting on a few neighborhood listservs can keep you in the loop, bring a sandwich, some fruit, a watter bottle and make it a picnic. Also, to tag along on your community post, this is a great time of year to offer your place as an alternative to a hotel for visiting friends and family. I see you did that with your Mennonite friends. We are so close to a metro station that we often are asked to be a fre place to stay and we usually say yes, even if we are going to be out of town. Being frugal and mindful just isn’t for you, helping those about which you care is important too! Sad to see you wont be posting as often but happy you will be able to enjoy your summer the way you want!!! from your fan in the 22301

        • Amy June 25, 2012, 2:53 pm

          Hi there in the 22301!

          I loved hearing about how you are connecting with your daughter, discovering your city, and not spending much money! You are so right: there are really tons of free events and activities and a neighborhood listserv (or a site like OurKids) is a great way to find out about them.

          I also like your idea about doing a home exchange. My husband is still nervous about that idea, but I think he would be totally fine about doing it with friends. The problem is that I want to see the friends too!

          And I completely agree about how being frugal and mindful is often just as good for you as it is for the people you care about. One of the win-wins I love to write about!

          So thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and experiences. I love hearing them,

  • Courtney June 15, 2012, 9:14 pm

    What great summer ideas!

    I’ll share one from our days in DC where 10+ families met once a month in one of the local parks. As you know there are many near and not so far in Virginia and Maryland.
    Someone (?) decided which park and we all showed up with food, ball games and lots of kids of all ages.Have no idea how all of this was organized as we just showed up. And you are right, it all worked out just fine.

    And congratulations on your going “international” with the Post article. WOW!!!

    • Amy June 15, 2012, 9:42 pm

      Hi Courtney,

      I love the story of your once-a-month get-together with friends in various parks using potluck and simple games. Anyone could start something like this: it just takes one person to be the spark, and keep the emails going.

      Thanks for sharing this easy yet satisfying idea,

  • tseashore June 12, 2012, 9:53 pm

    love this post…friendship multiplies joy. so true!

    here’s my favorite regular FFF (free friendship fix):
    i am part of a zany group of women who get together every month (ish) on a sunday afternoon and play board games. we take turns hosting, everyone contributes whatever food/drink they have. it’s such an old-fashioned delight…we never fail to bring ourselves to total hysterical laughter. we all bring our kids (aged 4-11) and let ’em play their own games. even with the age disparity, it always works.


    • Amy June 12, 2012, 9:58 pm

      Hi Tina,

      First of all, I am loving FFF: free friendship fix. How cool is that?

      Your monthly board game get-together sounds like a barrel of fun. I love that you laugh so much, and that your kids come along and have a great time too. Sounds really good for the soul.

      Thank you for sharing another great idea,

  • Sara Tetreault June 12, 2012, 9:31 pm

    Amy, I’d include parks and libraries to the list. Our parks have free concerts all summer long! We love to pack a picnic dinner, grab a blanket and enjoy the music. The concerts are free and it’s always a relaxing evening. The library always has lots of books and activities around summer reading that our kids love to participate in and they’re all free. Happy summer!!

    • Amy June 12, 2012, 9:54 pm

      Hi Sara,

      You are so right! Open air concerts are The Best. Amazing how it can make any night feel special and vacation-y.

      Thank you for stopping by!