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Crafting rich experiences for our children on a frugal budget

In the last two years I quit my corporate job, became a full-time mom, and immersed myself in a start-up — and it has not been financially easy on the family. While we have embraced a frugal life,  my kids seem to notice nothing.  Occasionally,  they complain about being bored. My kids act up when they have nothing to do.  But as long as they are sufficiently stimulated, they are happy little humans.

Over the past year,  I have learned that money is completely a non-issue when it comes to rich experiences for our children. There are a few other things that seem to matter.

What is a RICH Experience?

A rich experience for a child involves some basic characteristics:

1. Learning

Every new experience is a great learning opportunity for kids. As a mom, I try my best to wave some learning into every new experience – like talking about the seasons, or the color of the rain clouds while we are on a walk.

Photo by Woodley Wonderworks

2. Immersion

A child needs to have her heart and mind engaged in order to learn from an experience. When my kids seem bored or insufficiently engaged, I change it up. Completely new activities are hard for kids to get immersed in right away, so I will often get involved first, and then watch their curiosity slowly build.  Adding a fun factor always helps with immersion, like learning a language or a musical instrument.

3. Takeaways

The best experiences for my girls come from the simplest moments we can talk about all week long. Finding a takeaway in an experience gone bad is also a great lesson in transforming a bad experience into a good one.

4. Lots of Smiles and Happiness

Hearing squeals of joy and happiness makes me immensely proud. Even if my kids aren’t learning a direct lesson or skill, having fun means their little minds are soaking up life and learning wonderful things we’ll discover later.

How do you create a RICH Experience?

Rich experiences  for my kids consist of two basic characteristics — predictability and surprise. It sounds simple, because it really is. So far, it has worked wonderfully for me.

Photo by Rick Kennedy


Children love predictability in their routines. Predictable events are grounding for little kids that have no control over their schedules. And for parents, it takes away from the stress of having to plan week after week. I have a number of recurring activities for the kids spread over the week. The particular activity doesn’t really matter, but anticipating one is immensely exciting for a child.


An element of surprise is the real secret to rich experiences. The surprise element creates just enough of a fun stimulation to keep the kids involved. It is like a little catalyst that will snap the kids into the moment and get them to engage. Friday evenings get so dark and boring when my husband travels because we miss him. But all I need is a new table setting or a little “make our own napkin rings” activity that will get the girls all perked up about dinner.

5 Simple Ideas to Create a RICH Experience on a Frugal Budget

1. Picnics

Photo by Aimee of Under the Highchair

Picnics in the backyard, in the living room, or at a playdate. And sometimes in the bedroom. We love picnics. It’s really the same everyday food but prepped, cooked, packed, laid out, and enjoyed by the whole family.

We do our picnic and movie night every Friday evening. Before dad gets home, the kids and I plan a little picnic with a board game, snack, fancy drinks, a light dinner, and a movie. We spread out in the living room — it’s the only time we don’t eat at the dinner table. We often top the evening off with a little family dance to a Bollywood number.

The girls love making the decisions about the food, drink, game and movie each week. For them, it’s a real sense of pride and accomplishment.

2. Virtue-based storytime

Our Sunday storytime with a virtue-based song, story, and a craft are a big hit when our kids are around two to eight years old. They take away little gems (fancy beads) for their participation at storytime. They get to see friends, play, and snack.

Back home, we focus on the virtue all week long while we talk about the story and apply it to our lives. Children always have more fun with stories they can apply to their daily lives.

3. Weekly exploration time

Photo by Josh Pesavento

Every week, my girls and I set aside a two-hour slot out and label it “exploration.” All we know is that we will explore something new at each exploration. Referring to the event as “exploration time” puts the kids in an adventurous state of mind.

Sometimes we choose a new park, try pottery, or visit an animal shelter and play with the animals. The whole idea is to try something completely new. Exposing my kids to a new adventure is a big learning experience for me. I was amazed as my three-year-old followed the instructions, learned and explored while she crafted a little bowl on the pottery wheel.

4. Travel right at home

Travel is hard on a frugal budget. But then, there is no shortage of resources online and in the real world for us to learn anything we want to.

Every week (or every two weeks), my kids and I choose a new country to talk about. We find foods from the country, talk about their language, and find friends who have family back in the country. We live in a city that is very diverse, and we can always find friends from all the different countries. A must for my girls is exploring the country’s music and dance.

5. Bonding time

Every Saturday, my kids go away for a few hours with my husband. We call this “bonding time”. My kids absolutely treasure it. It is their special time with Dad, and what they do then is almost immaterial. They have their favorites – the museums, the book stores, aquarium, and the zoo. Whatever it is, It is a special time that they plan and look forward to all week, and it has been the best setup to give me some productive time with work while my kids enjoy time with dad.

I am amazed at the richness in life when we take our minds off money. I love our frugal life because it helps me focus on real and rich experiences. And by finding enough rich experiences with my children, I’m helping them grow and find happiness, irrespective of how well-off they are.

How do YOU create richness in your lives and for your kids? What is YOUR formula to create special experiences?

by Maya

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Pot Luck Mama

    Nice post, Maya. I laughed out loud when you mentioned squeals…you clearly have girls:)
    One thing I do with my son is a little bit of a mind game. Instead of asking him “do you like this game?” or “are you having fun?” I’ll say “I like this game” and “I’m having fun.” This is almost always followed by a “yeah, me too!” from him. In doing this, I’ve established the activities’ value right up front instead of leaving it to him to assign.
    .-= Pot Luck Mama´s last blog ..Frugal Fever =-.

    • Maya

      Yeah, it is so true. The children are but a reflection of us in terms of energy.
      Getting excited about the activity ourselves completely changes their approach 🙂

      • Vina

        I really like the idea of reflecting our energy back. Hmmmm. I probably do this without thinking about it but would have to be more intentional about doing this. Great tips! And great post Maya. This SO resonates with me! My toddler is only 18 months old and we’ve done a picnic by the beach earlier this year, cold as it was and it was so simple and frugal but I had a blast. And perhaps without even planning to, it was one of the best times we had together.
        .-= Vina´s last blog ..Goodness of Fit: Why Nurturing our Child’s Nature Matters =-.

  2. Intentionally Katie

    I think frugal experiences are the richest. Certain “big” events will stick with kids (like Build a Bear or Disneyland) but they generally don’t understand or appreciate how much money is spent. Hence the joke about kids playing with the box that the expensive toy came in! 🙂

  3. Eva

    Can I ask your favorite Bollywood songs (for dancing)?

  4. Trisha

    My favorite new free thing to do with the kids is awesome – it’s called geocaching! Terribly fun and engaging for kids and grownups alike. We can’t wait to do it again. There’s a website if you google it, and an iphone download – terrifically helpful. But if you already have a Garmin you’re set.
    .-= Trisha´s last blog ..Throw Me Down Week – Day Two: Ugly Afghan Contest =-.

  5. Julie

    I am a bit of a planner too. I like to “timetable” my week with “rich” experiences so I know they will happen (e.g. outside activities such as play-group and mother’s group, art/ craft time, cooking together, walk and explore etc). As my children are only 21 months and 7 months, I think the predictability is most important at the moment. I will add more surprise as they get a bit bigger.

    I think the key to a rich experience is togetherness. Sometimes we forget to engage with our children and are either too busy, or we have too much our own agenda for the activity we have planned and don’t let them take it where they want to (within reason of course)

    Thanks for a great post.
    .-= Julie´s last blog ..Love Language #5 – Acts of Service =-.

  6. Wendy

    I starred this post in my Google reader. Loved it! Especially appreciated the concrete examples of predictable activities you do. Maybe you could do a future post expanding on how you’ve created surprise for your kids–this list-making Mama could then predictably (for herself) “surprise” her kids. (: If I write it down it has a better chance of happening!
    .-= Wendy´s last blog ..Maine Morning Mitts—Pair 1 =-.

  7. Kara

    You’re so right – a surprise doesn’t have to be elaborate and a rich experience doesn’t have to cost a cent.

    🙂 love the dancing (thanks for the links in the comments, too – we’ll have to take a peek)

    Fantastic post!
    .-= Kara´s last blog ..Head of the Class: Eco-Friendly Lunch Containers for a Smarter Planet =-.

    • Maya

      Thanks Kara!

      I am loving Simplekids btw 🙂 you are doing SUCH a great job.
      It is also wonderful to see you on twitter !

  8. Angela @ Homegrown Mom

    We have a weekly one-on-one tea time at our house. I also find that little personal touches, like you mentioned with the napkin rings make a big difference. Sometimes I’ll ask my little one to “decorate” our dinner table, and I love to see what she comes up with. We like to leave little notes or surprises next to each plate once in a while, too. Great post 🙂
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom´s last blog ..Routines, Rituals, and Traditions =-.

  9. Random Thoughts of a Jersey Mom

    Thank you for all those wonderful ideas!! Something my kids and I enjoy is throwing snowballs at each other while they wait for the school bus =)
    .-= Random Thoughts of a Jersey Mom´s last blog ..My $50 Wedding =-.

  10. Diana Willis

    Thanks for the great ideas! Simple in my opinion is a good thing but I will say that more importantly it is about the time we spend with our children. Being in that moment and activity. There are so many things we can do with our children that don’t cost a penny as I have found and enjoyed with both my girls this past year such as going to the library, renting family movies from the library, walking as a famil to list a few. Our favorite activity is having game night on Sundays to wind down from the weekend and move us in the direction of a new week. Again thanks for all the ideas from you and the ladies who left great ideas and links to their blogs!!
    .-= Diana Willis´s last blog ..My "Snow Day" Layout again… =-.

  11. Annie @ PhD in Parenting

    This is a beautiful post Maya with lots of wonderful ideas. Thank you so much for sharing what has worked for your family. I’m sure I’ll be drawing on it quite a bit this spring/summer.
    .-= Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog ..Healthier Olympic Sponsorship Videos =-.

  12. Kaylea

    I think our greatest successes in this area have been those experiences where we really took it slow — when there’s no where we need to be at a particular time, no external expectations to meet, no mental clock watching, no stress or rush, and we can seek to follow everyone’s wishes and interests equally. We just follow our noses. We’re mid-hike and the sweet toddler wants to sit by the lake and throw rocks for half an hour? No problem — we’ll take turns keeping an eye on her while the rest snack, stretch, take pictures, read books from our packs, snooze, etc. and she enjoys the place in her own way. We call ourselves slacker parents for a reason, I guess!
    .-= Kaylea´s last blog ..All Our Little Rituals =-.

  13. grace

    great post. We live off of frugal experiences. And honestly, I’ve come to think that those are honestly the best ones out there.
    .-= grace´s last blog ..Unschooling in the form of a cake =-.

  14. Deon

    Great thoughts Maya. We recently took a rare not-so-frugal vacation with our children and I learned once again that a swimming pool is just as exciting to them in the neighborhood as it is in a foreign resort. Our best and richest moments were the quiet times we sat together and pondered and discussed. It truly is the time not the location that provides for the richness.
    .-= Deon´s last blog ..Kate Becoming =-.

  15. lovelyn

    Thanks for sharing your ideas Maya. I grew up in a family environment where our parents made us see that we don’t have to spend so much to be happy. I hope to teach the same thing to my son. 🙂
    .-= lovelyn´s last blog ..winter and Robert Frost =-.

  16. Megan

    I like this – thanks!

  17. Melissa Gorzelanczyk

    The element of surprise is so true. My son handles a change in plans very poorly, so now we just surprise him with the things he wants to do. When he wants to plan an elaborate evening, we just say, “Well we’ll consider all those things and let it be a surprise.”

  18. Tiffany

    This is the 1st time I have read your blog, I was lead here by “The Confident Mom”. I love creating time for my kids where we experience a special time. We have done this by carving out a day, once a month, that the child chooses a parent to do something with (usually free or at least under $10). It is predictable because it is scheduled, it is on the birthday day each month. My son was born 1.8.03 so his day is the 8th of each month and my daughters is the 17th. They get to choose the activity and the parent to hang out with. We have done starbucks before school (they love walking into their classrooms with a starbucks cup, lol), ice cream after school, walk on the trail, driving range or even an hour walking around our local pet store and just soaking in all they have. We have found they really open up to us on those days, and in turn, the also open up to us at other times during the month but that day is so special to them. It has an element of surprise because they get to choose what they want to do but it is scheduled each month. There was one time we could not do it because of a funeral and a trip and they were not happy, they were compassionate and understanding, but they don’t like skipping it.

    We also love to do carpet picnics. We did one in front of the TV last week to watch the Olympics and they thought it was so special!

  19. Maggie

    Thank you for this awesome post! I read it thinking, wow, all of this is so true. The really important things in life are not material things. The really important things are spending time with the ones you love, making memories for a lifetime and taking an ordinary day and making it extraordinary. Thanks again, I enjoy your blog!

  20. Quinn

    I loved the ideas in this post. It really got me thinking about some new things to incorporate into our weeks. I’m crazy about the Daddy time every Saturday – such a great idea! I also would love to hear more about your Virtue Story Time and what stories you talk about, since I think that’s a brilliant idea as well. Thank you for sharing this! I really gleaned some great ideas that have me excited to start creating more “richness” in our family life.

    My kids and I do have regular “artistic time” scheduled each day for us to paint, color and get creative together. We all really look forward to it and it brings our family closer together.
    .-= Quinn´s last blog ..Free Zoo Day: The Legacy =-.

  21. ~M

    Today we had a respite from rain…so, we put on our rain gear and had a water-balloon “fight” in the driveway…the kids had a blast! Free and memorable.

  22. Hcline

    This is a great post! I’m trying to think of how I can apply it to playtime with my 9 month old. Amazing how out of all the toys we have purchased, his favorite things are basically free – cupboards, boxes, leaves. I am forced to be creative when thinking up new activities for him – and I love it!

  23. Kristy

    Such a great reminder that all of us, as human beings, are LIFE LONG learners. It is far more satisfying to do something than to watch it (t.v., video games, etc.). Learning something new is like a nutritious meal. It stays with you. The habits you highlighted will last a lifetime in the kids!
    .-= Kristy´s last blog ..Pull Me Along =-.

  24. Christy B.

    I enjoyed your post and appreciated your message. I wonder, where do you find the energy? I am not blessed with energy, and my lack often makes me grumpy and impatient with myself–not a pleasant combination. 🙁

    I homeschool six children ages 1 to 13 and my husband has a home business and a music mission that do not follow a neat, packaged schedule. Because there are such diverse ages here, as well as the number of things that “need” to get done in a day, I often struggle with coming to the end of a day and wondering what on earth my children did all day, even thought I WAS WITH THEM THE ENTIRE TIME!

    Therefore, I now schedule the special moments into our school day instead of hoping there is something of me left over at the end of the regular day to get these things done. Now, as part of school, we learn a handicraft together (currently knitting, but next month we are braiding a rug), have read-alouds from books we WANT to read, not just feel we should read, have a daily tea time, play sports outside (had a track meet two days ago and I’m still in pain–ha ha), art, singing, and listening to music. I also assign my girls duet parts to learn so it forces me to sit and play duets with them. It adds a little time to our school day, but because the activities are varied and fun, it is time pleasantly spent.

    I’ve also stopped saying, “Later,” and started saying “Okay!” or “Hey, does anybody wanna _______ RIGHT NOW?” They are blown over that I seriously mean RIGHT NOW. They grow up MUCH too fast. I look at all the missed opportunities and just want to cry. Really, parents, take the time! Take it now while you can!
    .-= Christy B.´s last blog ..He Washes My Feet =-.

    • Maya

      All I can say is thank you for your comment . I think you are doing SO well 🙂
      I do not have THAT much energy – I also have only 2 kids and do not homeschool them.

      BUT, on the days when I am So exhausted, I will do something low key like have them paint something, a craft that consumes them or I just challenge them to play on their own too … Sometimes, I even ask them for a massage and they LOVE it 🙂

  25. Meeks

    This is inline with what I have been thinking about lately, so thank you very much! It is great when we get to share what works with our family. Then, in turn, it blesses another family!

  26. BusyWoman

    I loved your beautiful post!

    I think advertising has a lot to do with how we jump subconsciously to what we ‘should do’ with our kids – e.g. go to movies, bowling etc. I hear some ads that are so blatantly saying ‘show them you love them by…….’.

    I write a lot about old fashioned living and have come to the conclusion that what our kids really want is ‘us’. They want our quality time and that may mean kicking a ball, playing hide and seek or playing scrabble. They want our attention and our love…. and the best thing is, those things are free!
    thanks again,

    Michelle in Australia.

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  28. se7en

    I love this post, just stunning… I make a point of looking for outings for my kids that are free – not always easy, but it can be done. Obvious ones like a trip to the library and the beach but you have to delve a little deeper and explore footpaths that we normally drive past on the way somewhere… We have found so many secret spots that we claim. Also about two years ago I stopped buying all craft materials and decided to just use whatever we had in the house for crafts – it’s amazing how much you can do – we manage to do a bloggable craft each week , from stuff lying around the house!!! A little packet of pompoms, a small pack of cards, really haven’t bought anything except a set of paints because we actually finished ours (when last did you actually finish your paints!!!) and a coil of wire – we were desperate for wire!!! But that’s it – really it can be done – I can’t believe how many craft materials we used to buy!!! We still haven’t got through all the crayons we had!!!
    .-= se7en´s last blog ..Saturday Spot: Noordhoek Village and the Foodbarn… =-.

    • Maya

      I am right there with you! SO much we can do with just things around the house …I even get suggestions from my girls about what materials we could possibly use from our recycle bin 🙂

  29. Kidshomefitness

    Great post Maya! I like all your ideas. Another great idea is getting them involved in a good fitness program that is fun.

  30. Dena Dyer

    I love this post! Thanks for sharing. My hubby and I have a box we call the “Imagination Station” which has all sorts of fun, creative goodies–most of them cheap or free–to make and create things with. We also have a jar called the “What Can I Do Jar?” with tons of slips of paper, on which are written ideas that the kids can do (with us or alone) when they get bored.

    Those two things have saved many a rainy day or a no-more-media afternoon, and have encouraged our boys to use their brains and creativity, and to make something out of nothing.
    .-= Dena Dyer´s last blog ..It’s All Too Much =-.

  31. Tina @ Ride On Toys

    Great post! It’s so true that you can have quality and enriching time with your children without spending a lot of money. Picnics are a personal favorite of mine during the summer months. I also love to explore different countries and I’ve found some great puzzles to use while we do that. I have one of African animals and one with the Switz Alps. They’re a fun way to initiate extra conversation while having something extra to put together.
    .-= Tina @ Ride On Toys´s last blog ..Fast Power Wheels? You Betcha! =-.

  32. Hannah

    Thank you for this post. These are the types of experiences I want to create for my son as he grows up.
    .-= Hannah´s last blog ..a desire to {grow} =-.

  33. Carla

    I really enjoyed this post! Thanks so much!
    .-= Carla´s last blog ..Follow a blog… =-.

  34. Phil

    My dad used to teach me all kinds of things when we had little money, truth be told we never had any money at all but what he did have was intelligence and a storytelling way, before I was 6 I could name almost every one of England flowers and plants, mushrooms and insects as well as all the “old world” uses for them.

    I never got bored in the summers that I spent talking with him lol

    People always underestimated knowledge handed from one generation to the next, especially nowadays, much preferring to leave that job to David Beckham and Paris Hilton :p

  35. lynda

    I love you ideas and many of us are living frugal now a days so being more creative is important. We do a family movie night from red box and I have started doing upcycling projects with the kids 🙂

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