Haircuts. That’s what broke the bank—and inspired me to go in search of free stuff.
You see, we are on a cash budget this summer. This means that every two weeks, I withdraw a large sum of money and divide it into envelopes. Each envelope is labeled with its intended use. One such envelope is marked “Kids” and it is from this envelope that I buy stuff for my children—not big things like camp registrations, bicycles, or back-to-school clothes—but little expenses that pop up, fun stuff. Lunches out, matinee tickets, a round of miniature golf—these are the types of expenses that are paid for with the cash from their envelope. And so far, it’s proven to be a great teaching tool for managing money and thinking about purchasing choices.
Haircuts? Should haircut money come from this envelope of what I like to use as mad-money, fun-money, make-our-summer-great-money? Well, technically, yes. When my husband and I first discussed our cash-only summer, we decided that the money we allocated for our children would be used for maintenance, too. Not unlike the money we have allotted for gas—we envisioned an overage that would accumulate and be used for maintenance. In the case of our car, the overage in the gas envelope could be used for oil changes, and in the case of children, overage in the kid envelope could be used for haircuts.
The problem? So far, we’ve never had an overage in the Kids envelope. In fact, I usually end up taking a little cash from the Childcare envelope or the Grocery envelope or my envelope to supplement the Kids’ cash. Clearly, we need to rethink the allotment amount for certain areas of our spending or we need to work harder at coming in under-budget.
So, there we were in the grocery store parking lot when my daughter yelled, “I want a haircut!” while pointing to the Hair Cuttery on the other side of the strip mall.
“Me, too!” my son responded.
Really? For a couple of weeks, I had been casually mentioning haircuts to them and generating no interest. Within reason, haircuts aren’t the battle I’m going to choose. I’ll let my kids get a little shaggy.
But they were open to it in that moment and so, of course, I said, “Let’s do it!”
Thirty minutes later, we left the Hair Cuttery with two fresh, new summer-dos, two lolly-pops, and a balance of $1 in the envelope marked “Kids.” It was worth it.
The next day, however, I decided that I needed to come up with some ideas on how we might spend our time without spending money. I told myself that the world is full of such opportunities if you simply look. Free outdoor fun, free indoor fun, free admission, free lunch…I just have to look for it.
That’s when I came up with a plan for Tuesday. Temperatures would be in the 90s and the pool would be closed for cleaning. Kids were out of cash for another week and a half.
We would start with a free movie. The local theater has free movies for kids every Tuesday morning. They aren’t first run. They are flicks you’ve seen a gazillion times, but so what? Admission is free, and you get that big-screen experience that is just missing when you view a movie at home.
We attend the free movie almost every week in the summer, and I’m always surprised that it isn’t the mob-scene one expects with free anything. I credit the management with using good crowd-control techniques and keeping the theater well-staffed, and I think that some people do shy away from anything advertised as free for fear that there will be some gimmick—like being required to sit through a time-share presentation. Or perhaps they think it will be too crowded and noisy because all of us free-loaders will be there. Perhaps they don’t mingle with our sort.
It’s not teeming with toddlers, moms, babysitters, and daycare groups like one might imagine. The only long, unpleasant lines of crying children and flustered care-givers are in the ladies’ restroom after the movie. If you don’t desperately need to pee immediately after the movie, you won’t feel like it is too crowded. I promise.
Then, I figured we would head to the shopping mall for free air-conditioning, free lunch, and free child-care. Free. Free. Free.
When they signed up for the library’s summer reading program, my kids were given a bag of worksheets, flyers, and coupons. One of the coupons was for a free meal at Chick-Fila. So, that’s the free meal. The mall provides a Kid-Care service. It’s supposed to give the parents a break so they will relax and spend more money, but really, it’s an activity for the kids, too—different toys, games, and friends than what they have at home. A win-win.
“And there you go! A free day. Free movie. Free lunch. Free child-care. Free air-conditioning,” I told myself and we headed out the door.
To be fair, I live in an area with an abundance of free fun for those who make an effort. With a little planning, an early start, and motivation, we could make the mountains or the beach a day-trip. We could go into the city—DC or Baltimore—and spend the day there. We’ve done all those things and we will do them again. Today, however, we would stay relatively close to home.
So, how did my day of free fun go?
The movie was great. Epic was showing. It’s one of those kid-movies that our family has seen, but since we don’t own it, we haven’t seen it repeatedly.
Was it truly free, however? No. For me, it never is. I bought the kids popcorn and soft-drinks—or “soda” as my half-Yankee children call it. The snacks aren’t a requirement for attending the free movies, but I always buy them because as I see it, these free movies are a public service that the theater doesn’t have to provide. It costs them money to be open at a time when they would otherwise be closed. The purchase of popcorn and the kiddie-size drinks is my way of saying “thank you.” This is the only place I ever buy them sodas, and I made it my treat—truly. I paid for the snacks out of my envelope.
Lunch was, um, less great. We went to the food court in the mall where they used their Chick-Fila coupons for the 4-piece nugget meals. I bought a salad for myself because I needed to eat, too. Restaurants count on that—an adult WILL accompany the children with the coupons and buy something for herself.
Oh, but what can I say about the mall food court dining experience? It IS crowded and noisy. My son covered his ears and said he couldn’t eat because it was too noisy. Is he really my child? Noise never keeps me from food. I don’t even see a connection, but apparently, for him, the noise was killing the ambiance.
And the food court Chick-Fila lacks certain things that I took for granted at its free-standing counterpart. Sure, I wasn’t expecting an in-door playground, but no trays? No helpful old lady handing out placemats and extra ketchup packets? No employees carrying my tray for me? We go to the mall so seldom that I apparently forgot these things—or maybe I never knew them. When I asked the Chick-Fila guy for a tray, he went into a long-winded explanation of why the mall was having a tray shortage. Not now, buddy. Not now. I’ve got to get drinks, kids, and food across the crowded food court IMMEDIATELY because I spy an empty table that looks almost-clean, and someone else will snatch it up if I don’t hurry!
My luck with the free childcare wasn’t any better. In the time since I last used the Kid Care service, it has gone from being free to charging $7 per child, but since I had said we were going to do this, I figured I would use the cash in the envelope marked “Childcare.” As we approached the Kid Care playroom, however, my son came to a dead stop. “I don’t want to do this,” he said.
“I don’t want to go to Kid Care.”
We talked. He really didn’t have a good reason for not wanting to go, and I didn’t have a good reason for making him. His sister seemed indifferent to the entire situation. So, we left the mall and went to an open-air farmer’s market where we bought okra, tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, squash and a watermelon using money from the Grocery envelope.
Then, we went home and made ice cream.
So, my day of free movie, free food, free childcare, and free air-conditioning didn’t turn out as I planned. I spent money, but none of it was from the Kids envelope, and no, it wasn’t a carefree, unadulterated day of out-of-the-house fun.
However, it wasn’t a failure either. I learned certain things—like the movie theater handles large groups of people much better than the mall food court, and Kid Care is no longer free. My house stayed relatively clean because we weren’t home to make a mess. I wasn’t tempted to surf the Internet while letting kids watch back-to-back Scooby-Doo episodes. We had great conversations during our car-time. So, by my low standards, it was a success.
I should write about what happens when we stay home without a plan.