Carrying on from last week’s posts about the cost of school holidays and what I ended up spending, I wanted to share a bit more on what we actually did. I also shared activities and ideas throughout the holidays on this blog’s Instagram account: come and join us!
There was a big shift in my thinking this year for a couple of reasons. One of these is just the age of kids – a lot of my suggestions don’t work if you have younger kids who need a lot more supervision. I would say though that ages about 4-8 are the best for frugal holidays as long as you can take time off work to hang out with them (and that’s a big, big if). Now mine are 9 and 13, they have different needs and opportunities.
The other thing that changed for me was taking an active decision to let my kids get bored.
I have always been clear with them that their boredom is not my responsibility. But there is also tremendous pressure to fill our kids’ time with endless opportunity and stimulation. So much of the insistence that we have our children do so much outside of school is a concern that they will get left behind: without all the extra tutoring, music, sports blahdy blah they will somehow be less rounded, less competitive and overall less successful. If you are in a country where yours it not the majority culture, there might also be language or religious classes or community events which are important in making sure your kids feel their roots. That’s a lot of expectations we’re putting on our kids, and they are exhausted. And so are we.
An article in Psychology Today is clear that parental expectations, and a zombie apocolypse view of the world where missing out on the right college means Your Life Is Over is pushing parents to put too much pressure on their kids. As the article notes, whilst extra-curricular pursuits were a hobby or a chance to try new things,“each activity is now one more area for social comparison and thus one more possible source of stress and anxiety“. Another article sounded the alarm for the impact of this on children in terms of squeezing out valuable family time. A survey in the UK found that 90% of children went to after school activities 4-5 times per week often getting home as late as 8 or 9pm, meaning chances of meaningful family conversation, or a relaxed dinner where you chat through the day, are slim.
Aside from the existentialist question as to the future of Higher Education (which is a whoooole other conversation), cramming in so much to our kids’ days is putting huge pressure on them, but also onto us as parents emotionally, financially and in terms logistics and organisational skills. Especially when there is only one parent and no family around. I don’t want to spend all my weekends watching football or basketball matches (as a side note – don’t attend U11 basketball matches with a hangover. The noise will make you wish you were dead) or schlepping children across town for various activities. Often both of my kids will need me to take them somewhere, attend or support them or whatever, at the same time. And I just can’t.
So with all this in mind, I decided that we all needed a break over the summer. And this meant cancelling a long held plan to go to Kenya for four weeks (there were other reasons for this but actually it was something of a relief in terms of money and having to organise All The Things) and then sitting down with the kids to talk about what a more relaxed and frugal summer meant. I also had to work all but two weeks of the holiday, and travelled for work for parts of three weeks.
So this is what we did:
Use holiday clubs when you have to. In previous years I used clubs to keep the kids entertained and busy. This year I only used them for when I was travelling, since they will have a nanny around to keep them safe and fed, but they need more in terms of things to do. My daughter did three clubs which were actually great – explorers, where they went out every day on the train and poked about Copenhagen; analogue photography where they learned to use cameras and to take and develop their own pictures and had an exhibition; and, more randomly, badminton and origami. She loved them, made some friends who then came to play at the weekend, and got out of the house. But the three weeks were definitely enough.
Take a chance to use what you already have. I feel like in spite of general frugality, we have a LOT of stuff. We got out a bunch of things which have been sitting around since we moved, putting up gymnastics rings and a ladder into a convenient tree, and finding badminton and tennis racquets for games in the garden. I threw all our ‘sand toys’ into the back of the car so they would always be on hand. We also spent a few days of my holidays going through all the stuff in my daughter’s room to get rid of clothes, books and toys which she has grown out of. This all went on Freecycle so other families will get to enjoy them, whislt she has a clearer view of things she actually likes. I also encouraged her to get out things she hasn’t used for a while or made time to play with: sticker and activity books, craft kits and so on, many of which were good fun over the holidays.
Help them think of projects. We also sat down and came up with ideas of things they can work on when I am not there, using what’s around. We thought about things they can do when bored (reading, drawing, small craft things), and projects where I did buy some additional bits and pieces. My son worked his way through some focused phsyics and maths work (yeah, no idea where he gets it from), worked out how to set up a telescope he had for Christmas and spent evenings star gazing and looking up astronomy facts, and practiced his clarinet. My daughter learnt how to use our sewing machine and made clothes for her Barbies, looked after the vegetable patch in the garden, and researched and made bee and insect houses.
Think of stuff to do as a family. We did a lot this summer, but most of it free and none of it ‘thrilling’. We went to the beach many many times. Whilst we used to go for an hour or so we got in the habit of packing a picnic, rugs and books and making a whole morning of it. We walked in forests, around lakes, and all through the centre of Copenhagen which is a great place to explore. I have a couple of memberships we buy annually (to the Danish Architecture Museum which is super cheap and gives you free coffee and to an amusement park which is super expensive but definitely exciting) and we made use of them. We researched and cooked recipes which we hadn’t made before – I recommend doing this with one kid at a time if they are like mine – played boardgames, watched all the Marvel films we hadn’t seen before, and got into a podcast about political systems. It’s all individual, but my point here is that fun doesn’t have to be novel, or fresh or expensive. Treats and time together can be pretty simple.
Spend on things that do make a difference. Brunch or dinner out; a book or a two-month subscription; decent coffee – whatever it is that you will appreciate, do it. The flipside of recognising that throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them is realising that when you do spend mindfully, on things that make a difference to you, it feels that much sweeter.
That was our summer! We had a lot of fun, and saw a lot more of our city. The kids got bored, and got creative. I think we read about 20 books each (either from the local library where we visited weekly, or things which had sat on shelves unread for a while. We cooked, baked, gardened, sewed and played games. And saved a ton of money.