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Few people know how to have a really great time like our family. And today I realized that you, my faithful reader, would probably like to know exactly how we do it. How do two semi-sane adults, two talkative boys, and a newborn go about having fun on a budget?

So, as a public service to you, I am pleased to bring you this blog entry. Once you read it, I’m sure that you will be inspired to take your own family time to new heights of fun and excitement. Did you know that your family can have FIVE HOURS of family bonding for only $16? Let  me show you how.

The main component of frugal family fun is not spending money on anything you don’t have to spend money on. Let me use our family’s recent trip to the Tulip Time festival in Pella, Iowa, as an example. There were only two things we had to spend money on: gas to get there and parking once we arrived. Although there are many activities at Tulip Time that cost money, there are also plenty that are free, such as the daily parades, tours of historic landmarks, and of course, endless photo opportunities with tulips.

It is always important to remind your children that you will be enjoying time as a family, not spending lots of money on activities such as buying overpriced quick-to-burst balloon animals, eating deep-fried anything, or riding animals in a circle. After a few family excursions where you buy nothing and pack a picnic, your kids will adjust. In fact, they will begin to find their own ways to have fun and enjoy your family outings.

Here’s some suggestions of how you might spend your time having frugal family fun. These are based on our own experiences at Tulip Time.

1. Spend two hours of your time in the car. (This is where $10 of your spending money goes). Family time is much more fun in the car. Think of all the things your kids can do. They can argue. They can smuggle silly putty into the vehicle and grind it into the upholstery (bonus points if the silly putty is neon orange). They can dance wildly to the Krakken song from the Pirates of the Carribbean soundtrack. They can drink an entire 16-ounce bottle of water apiece!!!

2. Which leads us to our next way to spend your time– discovering the location and condition of every porta-john at the festival you have chosen. If you give your child enough water, you can probably spend at least an hour doing this. In our situation, we used the porta-john in the parking lot (four minute jog across parking lot with stroller + five minutes in line + three minutes debating the use of the urinal vs. the actual toilet + one minute actually peeing = our shortest porta-john experience at the Tulip Festival), the porta-john near the gas station (I had to use that one and can I just say EW), and the porta-john by the big windmill not once but twice! Oh, and don’t forget to forget to make your kids use the parking lot porta-john again before you leave. That way you can stop at a convenience store on the way home and use their bathroom too. Yay!

3. Another fun, completely free activity that you can do almost anywhere is getting lost. This activity is all the more enjoyable if you have a map but are completely incapable of reading it. You can do this activity in conjunction with almost any of the other ideas listed here; it is especially exciting if you do it in conjunction with your many potty emergencies.

4. If you have a baby with you, you will find that feeding the baby  is a way to take up a good deal of your family time. We sandwiched feeding the baby in between porta-john run #3 (fifteen minutes in line!!!) and being lost #5. The boys took advantage of this time to run amok amongst the tulips, and Art got some fabulous pictures which hopefully he will post in his blog eventually. I got to feed her and listen to the college kids behind me make fun of everyone who walked by. In all fairness, the guy with the face mask a la swine flu, who was pushing a baby in a stroller but hadn’t bothered to put a mask on the baby, deserved everything they said about him.

5. One of the activities our boys really love is riding the shuttle from the parking lot. Our parking shuttle was FREE!!! After we paid the $6 to park in the lot, anyway (this is where the rest of our spending money went). It was also a school bus. If you have never tried to load a giant travel system stroller onto a school bus, you have never truly lived. My husband especially enjoyed riding from the lot to the festival with the carseat wedged between his body and the seat in front of us. I highly recommend it if you ever have the chance. This fun shuttle ride, and the waiting in line on either end of it, comprised another 45 minutes of our best afternoon ever.

6. Finally, if you run out of other fun things to do, you might want to try actually seeing what the festival planners planned. You can enjoy the parade as you try to steer your behemoth of a stroller through an unyielding mass of parade watchers. You can check out that fabulous old fire station and pretend to lock your kids in the old jail cells. You can check out the big fountain and enjoy the many beds of gorgeous tulips. But you might not have much time for those things, since you’ll be having so much fun doing the other activities I have mentioned. I find a good way to bring an end to all the fun is to have the 45th argument of the day with your six-year-old as to what is really a “nice face” for pictures. That really sets the stage for your return shuttle ride and the hour-long drive home.

And there you have it. How to have an exciting and fun family afternoon for only $16.

And about 50 new gray hairs.

But who’s counting?

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