“90 Days of Summer” isn’t just a movie. Summer fun can come with a high price tag, but it doesn’t have to. You can do summer on a budget without your wallet taking any heat.
Summer lasts only 93 days but has a fiery spirit unlike any other season of the year. From barbecues, beaches, and bicycles to picnics, parties, and packing (for vacation), summer is a time for dropping clothes and wiggling your toes. But fun-in-the-sun doesn’t have to come with a high price tag if you take the time to find low-cost and/or free-is-for-me activities. Here’s how to do summer on a budget:
1. Check out your town’s outdoor summer stage and summer concert series.
Many towns and cities sponsor free summer concerts throughout the season. These can be held at beaches, parks, or other large public spaces. (Central Park/NYC free summer concerts and summer stage series; LA’s free summer concert guide; Valley Forge, PA outdoor summer concerts; Milwaukee summer festival guide; Boston Jazz in the Park Summer Concert Series; and Wichita Summer Concert Series are just a few.) Check for local signs or look online at your town’s community calendar to find town-sponsored summer concerts and other shows for the public. Bring a few folding chairs, a beach blanket, and a picnic basket (we’re not telling you WHAT to place in it) so that you can enjoy a free evening of live local music and entertainment.
2. Look for “localploration” (it’s the fetch new staycation).
If you look around your own locale, you might see (hiding right under your nose) some great experiences that will make you feel like you are on a summer vacation. Check out sites like Meetup, which offers hand-picked, small-group experiences from surfing, rock climbing, and salsa dancing to cooking, painting, and game nights. Whatever you might spend on these part-day or full-day experiences will be a lot less than what you would spend for lodging away from home.
3. See if your city has a summer “Restaurant Week” to try out fancy restaurants on the cheap.
Many cities have an organized “Restaurant Week” at different times throughout the year. During these special times, fancy (as in, expensive) restaurants offer a prix fixe lunch or dinner menu at a significantly reduced price. This allows new customers to try out the restaurant without having to pay exorbitant prices. If your city is organizing a restaurant week during the summer, take advantage of it.
4. Do the summer classics: beaches, parks, lakes, mountains, rivers, waterways, ponds, trails — hiking, walking, swimming, boating, running, relaxing . . . all free.
Whether you live in a big city or small town, on the coast or inland, you probably have parks and other public spaces available to you and within reach. Most of these beautiful public parks and spaces are free of charge, and others might require a local summer pass or day pass (which usually is not very expensive). Be sure to check out the America the Beautiful Passes (there are also certain discounts for students and seniors, which could make financial cents . . . yes, we did that).
Take advantage of these public spaces. Plan a hike, a day of swimming, or an outdoor picnic (much cheaper than eating in a restaurant and more fun). Summer comes only once a year. Enjoy the outdoors. (But wear that sunscreen!)
5. Throw a potluck barbecue.
Hosting a BBQ doesn’t have to mean that you pay for all the burgers, hotdogs, chicken (or whatever you are grilling—looking at you, meatless burgers), side dishes, and desserts. Assign your guests (or let them choose) a dish to bring and voilà: barbecue on a budget. As the host, you can provide eco-friendly, recyclable plates or, heck, ones that can be easily washed. Just no straws.
6. Explore a city on foot by taking a walking tour (or try a food tour).
Many towns and cities have organized walking tours for both tourists and locals. (And take a look at our list of walking tour apps.) You can also create your own walking tour just by doing a little research and planning your own itinerary (check your local tourism sites). Whether you’re walking the Freedom Trail in Boston, the High Line in NYC, or one of the thousands of other great routes all across the country (in big and small cities and towns), you can plan a great day outside with nothing but a smartphone, a bottle of water, and a good pair of sneakers. Every town has its history. Find yours.
You can also find low-cost food tours in many cities in the US. Deep-dish pizza tours in Chicago, South Beach food (and art deco) tours, Southern cooking tours in Atlanta, Philly cheesesteak, Texas chili, Nashville barbecue, NYC knishes, Maine lobster . . . . There is no shortage of local cuisine to sample (and there are plenty of tours out there for the taking). You can also look for local food and drink experiences like wine and cheese tasting, chocolate tours, ice cream sampling, or tours to neighborhood hot spots that feature the local delicacies.
7. Visit your closest seasonal ice cream shop (and make it an alcohol-free night with your friends).
Many towns have ice cream shops and ice cream stands that only open during the summer months. Find one that has an old tyme-y feel to it (Ted Drewes in Saint Louis for some frozen custard, anyone?) and watch them channel their best 1950s ice cream parlour. It isn’t summer without an ice cream sundae—hot fudge and whipped cream included! (And speaking of old-fashioned ice cream sundaes, consider yourself lucky if you can find an ice cream shop that will make a dusty road sundae: coffee ice cream, hot fudge, and malt powder on top. [The malt powder is the “dust” in “dusty road.”] A true classic and worth every calorie! Some ice cream shops will make it with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream—not needed IMO—but the telltale sign of a true dusty road sundae is the malt powder. Without that, it’s just a sundae.)
8. Take a short road trip with your friends or family to a historical city that you’ve never been to before.
Plan a day trip or even a long weekend getaway with your friends or family to explore a city that none of you has been to before. If your trip involves staying overnight, sharing an Airbnb or Vrbo with friends is one way to keep the cost of lodging down. Think about places like Charleston, SC; Philadelphia, PA; Williamsburg, VA; Sante Fe, NM; Savannah, GA; New Orleans, LA . . . or lots of others. It’s a big country with great historical sites. Go out and explore.
9. Sleep under the stars . . . in your backyard.
Have you ever tried camping out in your own backyard? (Apartments won’t work . . . unless your landlord gives you roof access.) Pull out some sleeping bags and a tent (if you don’t have one, try to borrow one), and set up camp in your backyard. The same yard will look and feel very different at night when the sky is dark and the stars are out. For an added plus, get up in time to watch the sunrise (or at least to see the sky change from darkness to daylight).
If you have friends who are into camping, you can also share the cost of renting gear and go to a “real” campsite. Add some s’mores and you’re all set.
10. Find a last-minute shared vacation rental.
If the cost of a summer vacation house share is too high, you can always try waiting until the last minute and hope to luck into a reduced rate. You might think that waiting it out sounds backward, but if you weren’t going to be able to afford the share at the regular rate anyway, you might as well see if you can get a good deal at the last minute. That’s the logic behind sites like Hotels Tonight, but it also works for more niche communities.
11. Public monuments, attractions, museums, gardens, fountains, squares . . .
If you live in a place that is popular with tourists, think about where the tourists like to go, and go there (if you’ve never been “there” before). Like the New Yorker who’s never seen the Statue of Liberty or walked across the Brooklyn Bridge . . . the Californian who’s never driven the PCH (“Pacific Coast Highway”) . . . or the Down Easter (from Maine) who’s never seen Portland Head Light. . . . Put some of the main (no pun intended there) tourist attractions on your summer bucket list. There’s a reason they are so popular. Ignore the crowds and go check them out. (Better yet, go off-season when they will be cheaper. Does Mount Rushmore take a winter vacation?)
And while you’re at it, you also have the benefit of local knowledge about the lesser-known (and less crowded) places to go. Get in the car (or subway or bicycle or on foot) and spend some time walking around the back roads and back streets of whatever place you call home. You may surprise yourself by the beautiful vistas you never noticed or the great new restaurants or shops you’ve never stumbled upon before.
12. Explore your local farmers market.
Summer fruits are delicious, and farmers market produce can show you what a tomato should taste like. Summer fruits from a farmers market are the best of the best. Many towns and even big cities have designated spots for weekly farmers markets. Strolling through aisles of fresh produce is a fun outdoor activity and a great way to score some amazing deals on the best fruits and veggies. Some markets also have flower stands as well as homemade goods like pies, doughnuts, and even wine (depending on where the market is). If you get to the market later in the day, you might find even better deals. Some vendors lower prices toward the end of the day so they don’t have to load up the truck to take anything back.
13. Plant your own fruits, vegetables, or herbs.
A great summer activity that will save you money at the grocery store is to plant fruits (strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries work well in many areas); veggies (peas, cucumbers, tomatoes—yes, we know they’re a fruit, but we’re calling them a vegetable anyway); or herbs (instead of buying basil leaves or using dried basil, buy a full plant). If you live in an apartment and have a terrace or balcony, you can keep small planters outside. If you live in a house, find a spot in your yard (no matter how small) and start your own garden. Local weather conditions in the summer will be a factor, so talk to someone at a local garden store for advice for your particular area.
14. Do exercise or yoga in the park.
Some local parks have actual outdoor exercise equipment for adults (pull-up bars, push-up inclines, rowers, stationary bicycles, ellipticals, etc.). So in addition to running or walking on actual public tracks and trails, you might find some real gym equipment outside.
You can also check your local community calendar for events such as yoga in the park. New York City, for instance, offers free Yoga in the Park once a week from May until September.
15. Visit street fairs, food festivals, and outdoor craft shows.
You can find some of the best local food, music, and artists/crafters at street fairs. Look for listings in local media or even on signs throughout town. Walking along local street fairs is a great summer activity with no admission fee, and the local dishes from all those food trucks and vendors usually cost a lot less than what you can get in a restaurant.
NYC has an annual street food competition called “The Vendy’s” (Vendy Awards), as in “street vendor.” There are also street-cart festivals and food festivals in lots of cities and towns across the country, especially during the summer. (Street Eats Food Truck Festival in Scottsdale, AZ; LAfoodFEST; Chicago Food Festivals; Eat the Street Hawaii; Seattle Street Food Festival; Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, CO; Gilmore Garlic Festival in Gilmore, CA; and Maine Lobster Festival are just a few.) There’s probably a summer food festival happening in a town by you.
If you love craft shows, look for outdoor summer craft shows in parks, under tents, along boardwalks, or in other public venues. Most of these shows charge a nominal (or no) fee, and you can spend a few hours shopping for (or just admiring) beautiful artwork and other handmade crafts. As an added bonus, you’ll be supporting the work of local artists and craftspeople.
16. Attend a minor league or summer league game.
Major league tickets can get very pricey. The minor league games can be just as much fun for a fraction of the price (or more fun because you are in a smaller setting where you can sit much closer to the game). Check out:
- Cape Cod Baseball League which runs from June through August. This league attracts many of tomorrow’s Major League stars.
- Official Minor League Baseball for the official Minor League teams affiliated with Major League Baseball (See here for American League and National League affiliated teams.)
- Summer Collegiate Leagues for amateur college baseball league games.
- 2019 NBA Summer League for an 11-day 83-game competition with 30 NBA teams and 2 international teams.
17. Mark your calendar for the free July 4th fireworks in your city/town.
There’s no better free show than the local fireworks display put on by many cities and towns throughout the country on July 4th weekend. Stake out a great spot (on a beach or waterfront, in a high-rise building with a good view, on a hill or other spot with an open view of the fireworks) and treat yourself to one of the best free shows of the year. Fireworks have been around for a long time, and it’s a shame to miss your local fireworks display. It’s also one of the few shows that both grown-ups and kids can marvel at with the same degree of wonder. Take some pictures, too. You can get some great photos if you snap at the right time.
18. Look for a seasonal side gig to help even out your summer budget.
If you are looking for a side hustle to help pay for some of your summer splurges, here are a few options:
- Are you a trained/certified lifeguard? If so, public and private pools might need your services.
- Do you love gardening? Offer to take care of other people’s yards (watering plants in dry weather, mowing the lawn, weeding, trimming hedges, etc.).
- Do you love dogs and walking? Dog walking can be very lucrative, especially if you take a bunch of dogs at the same time. People will spend a lot of money for their beloved doggos to get some daily exercise.
- Do you love working with children? There may be local public or private day camps that need extra staff, either with the campers or even in other capacities (digital marketing, social media, photography, office/administrative work, etc.).
SUMMERY SUMMARY (sorry)
For lots of people, summer is the best season of the year. It offers great weather, relaxation, fun activities, and a summer vibe that the other three seasons just don’t have. But some of that fun comes with a not-so-fun price tag. With careful planning, there are ways to keep your summer fun high and your summer budget low. So weather (yeah, we did spell it that way) you’re headed to the beach, engrossed in a great summer read, or sipping a rum punch with a pink paper umbrella in it, enjoy the 93 days of summer, because they only come around once a year.