11 Things To Add To Your Summer To-Do List That Won't Cost A Fortune

Summer is in full swing and you're probably itching for some serious fun, especially the kind that involves sun, lounge chairs, and some cold beverages. But when you're an adult, summer doesn't mean vacation or random adventures unless you've got the money to pay for all that fun, and the time to take off work. A beach vacation? Forget about it. Not even Airbnbs make that affordable these days. And when you factor in parking, food, and entry fees, even a day trip to a local beach can be too expensive.

But don't despair! There are still plenty of ways to have fun in and out of the sun without racking up charges on your credit card or draining your savings account (if you're lucky enough to have one). Here are some of our favorite ways to make the most of summer even when there's no cash to spare.

Find a free (or almost free) beach

Though many of the most popular beaches around the country charge a ridiculous amount for parking, and sometimes even an entry fee, a visit to a smaller, tucked-away beach won't cost you a cent. You just need to find out where those beaches are hiding.

Head to Google Maps and scout out the areas around the official beaches. Is there another section of the beach that isn't part of the main beach? Maybe you can find free parking closer to that section of the beach and just walk in for free. Are there hiking trails to the water? Parking at trailheads is usually free, and you can get some cardio in before you cool down in the water. While you're researching, just make sure to check whether sections of the waterfront are private or on private property so you don't get chased off the beach by the people who have enough money for waterfront property.

Of course, these off-the-beaten-path beaches don't have things like lifeguards or snack bars, so you'll need to be safe and come prepared. But if you pack food, a cooler, a good chair or beach blanket, and a first aid kit (just in case!) you can have a stellar beach day without any of the typical costs. If the only beach around charges for parking but not entry, follow the example of Monmouth Beach locals, and bike or walk to the beach. Just be sure to avoid those damaging "summer body" trends.

Go for a hike

When you have a few hours of free time, heading out for a hike is always a good option — and most of the time, it's completely free! Unlike some other outdoor activities, hiking doesn't require any special gear. As long as you have sturdy shoes and a water bottle, you can tackle pretty much any day hike, regardless of how long or difficult, without buying any gear.

Accessing hiking trails is usually free as well. The only exception is when the trailhead is in a national or state park. Some of these parks charge a small entry fee for access to trails and amenities like swimming, boat rentals, and restrooms. If you've got a few bucks to spare, checking out the trails in these parks (and taking advantage of the other activities in the park) is totally worth the minimal fee.

But if you really don't want to spend any money, there are plenty of trails you can access without paying a cent. Most of these trails have small, free parking lots at the trailhead or close enough that you can easily walk to the trailhead. Emily and Jake, the couple behind the travel blog Two Roaming Souls, suggest downloading a free trail-finder app like AllTrails or Hiking Project to find hiking trails in your area. Or, you can just open up Google Maps! Though smaller trails might not show up on Google Maps, the more popular trails in your area should be displayed. 

Create your own bike tour

If you already have a bike, a DIY bike tour is pretty much free. But even if you don't have a bike, you can still do your own bike tour for relatively cheap. Most major cities have bike rental programs, and both Lyft and Uber offer bike rentals in certain areas as well.

This adventure requires a solid amount of planning, but if you're willing to put in the time, you can have an amazing experience. Start by choosing a destination that's a reasonable driving distance from your place. Is there a city near you that you've always wanted to explore? Or a landmark you want to visit? Research all the things you want to see in that area and start planning a route. The Adventure Cycling Association suggests using an app that allows you to create a cycling route. If you use an app with GPS enabled, like MapMyRide, you can even use your phone to follow your planned route while you're cycling (although take precautions to prevent saddle sores for a long ride). 

The only other expenses involved in a DIY bike tour are gas and food. Make sure to pack a fanny pack, small backpack, or saddlebag — whatever you've got at home — with easy-to-eat snacks. If you don't have anything in your pantry, you'll need to spend a few bucks at the grocery store, but it's much cheaper than eating out during your adventure.

Try car camping

Snagging a campsite at a local campground is way more expensive than it used to be, and unless you're an experienced camper, pitching a tent in the backcountry isn't a great choice. But that doesn't mean you can't go camping this summer! You just have to get creative.

Car camping is exactly what it sounds like — camping in your car instead of a tent. Transform your car into a mobile bedroom by folding down the back seats and making a comfy little nest. If you already have an air mattress that will fit in the back of your car, you're all set for a luxurious car camping trip. If not, you don't have to splurge on one. A mattress topper, body pillow, or even a thick stack of comfy blankets will work. Roll a sleeping bag out on top of that and you're set for a snug night in your car.

Lauren, one half of the travel blog Trip of a Lifestyle, says national forests and land managed by the Bureau of Land Management are the best places for car camping. Some of these wilderness areas are part of established parks, which will charge a fee. But if you do your research, you can find sections that aren't part of the park. Drive your car into those sections and find a place to park. Trailhead parking lots are a great choice. Just make sure long-term parking isn't prohibited before you head out.

Go on a spur of the moment day trip

The best summer days are the ones where you don't have any plans, because it means you can choose your own adventure, like a last-minute day trip! If you don't mind heading out without a clear idea of where you're going and what you're doing, pack a cooler with some snacks, a lunch, and some beverages, hop in the car, and just go! You can find some really interesting new places by just following the road in front of you. Maybe hop out at a park or two, or stop by a kitschy downtown area. But you can always just enjoy the sights from your car.

If you're not the kind of person who can just hit the open road, that's fine. Last-minute day trips don't require a ton of planning because you can't pack too much into a single trip. The experts at Roadtrippers suggest choosing a destination within a three-hour drive of your house so you can maximize the time you spend actually doing things on your day trip. Remember to keep your itinerary relatively small so you have time to enjoy each activity or location. Pack food so you don't have to buy it on the road, and finally, look up directions, download them for offline mode in case you lose service, and hit the road! And, of course, make sure you have your favorite tunes or episodes of your latest podcast binge downloaded before you head out.

Have a picnic, outdoors or in

Picnics are a staple of summer fun for a reason. They're easy to organize, you get to be in nature without exerting too much energy, and they're cheap! If your pantry and fridge are well stocked, you don't need to buy anything to put together a perfect picnic. Sandwiches, snack foods, and fruit make a wonderful picnic lunch. Or if you're feeling fancy, you could throw together a charcuterie plate with some meat, cheese, crackers, and fruit. Toss it all in a cooler with some beverages, and you're all set! No fancy picnic basket required.

If you don't have a cooler, the experts at Living on the Cheap suggest lining any cardboard box with a plastic trash bag, tossing some ice or ice packs in the box, and packing your food and drinks on top of them. For extra utility, use frozen water bottles as your ice packs so they can double as beverages as the ice melts.

If you have one of those fancy, water-resistant, outdoor blankets, that's perfect for a picnic. But if you don't, no big deal. Any blanket or beach towel will do. If the weather threatens to ruin your perfect picnic, don't despair! An indoor picnic is just as fun as an outdoor one. Toss a blanket on the living room floor or, better yet, on a covered porch or deck if you have one, and have your picnic in the comfort of your home.

Go to an outdoor concert

You probably associate concerts with dropping a massive amount of cash on tickets, travel, and maybe even a hotel, but there are much less expensive ways to enjoy live music during the summer. In fact, there's a good chance there are free concerts happening somewhere near you all summer long. During summer's concert and festival season, local organizations, businesses, and city or town governments often host free, outdoor concerts at local parks, town greens, or other outdoor venues. A simple Google search can show you what's happening in your particular area.

These concerts typically feature local bands or performers. They may not be playing any songs you recognize and the music may not be a genre you particularly love, but these concerts are an awesome way to discover new music and styles and support local artists. They're also a great excuse to get outside, breathe fresh air, and hang out with your friends. Just grab a blanket or beach towel, some snacks and beverages, and a few friends to enjoy some music and community!

Head to the drive-in for a movie

It's wild how much a trip to the movie theater costs these days! According to The New York Times, the average movie ticket cost $11.75 in 2022. That can really add up when you're buying tickets with your friends or family. For roughly half that amount, you can head to the drive-in.

Drive-in movie theaters have been a summer treat for decades, and there's a reason they're still pretty popular. You get more bang for your buck in pretty much every way possible – two movies for the price of one, all the snacks and you can pack into your car so you don't have to pay for concessions, and a unique moviegoing experience. Because the drive-in isn't just about seeing movies. It's about packing all your friends or your whole family into a car, putting out your camp chairs or a giant blanket, and seeing a movie against the backdrop of the starry night sky.

To maximize your savings, check your local drive-in's website to see if they have discount days or special offers. Some drive-ins will offer discounted tickets during the week, so if your schedule allows you to stay up late on a weekday, you could do a night out for super cheap. "Carload nights," where everyone who can (reasonably) fit in one car gets in for a flat rate instead of per person, are common offerings as well.

Head to a free (or cheap) amusement park

You're probably thinking, "Amusement parks aren't a cheap summer activity," but hear us out. Though you definitely can't get into a Six Flags park for free unless you win some kind of contest, there are plenty of ways to get into other amusement parks at a major discount. The Thrifty Couple suggests checking with businesses and restaurants around the theme park to see if they have deal programs, like coupons on their products or local coupon books. You can also check to see if any of the services you have memberships with, like AAA, offer discounted tickets. 

Some amusement parks also have "discount days" with various offers like buy-one-get-one-free tickets or discounted tickets if you bring canned foods. You can also check to see if certain hours, like the first or last few hours of the day, are cheaper than a pass for the whole day.

If you really can't splurge on discounted tickets, the experts at Trip Savvy compiled an awesome list of amusement parks and theme parks that offer free admission. Yes, many of these parks still charge for games or rides, but many of them also offer free entertainment throughout the park. And most allow you to purchase tickets per ride or a punch card so you don't have to commit to an expensive entry fee when you just want to do a few rides or games.

Check out a local arcade

Arcades aren't just for kids. Just check out the trendy barcades are thriving all over the country. To avoid accumulating a massive tab paying for hip cocktails at one of these arcade bars, skip the drinks and head to a regular arcade. Trust us, those old-school arcade games, pinball machines, and foosball and air hockey tables aren't fun because of the drinks. They're fun all by themselves.

The vast majority of arcades don't have entrance fees, so all you have to pay for is the tokens to play the games. And arcades are one place where $10 still goes a long way. How long depends on the arcade and its location. Like everything else, visiting an arcade will be more expensive in a big city than in a small town. But wherever you are, you'll still get at least a few games out of your limited funds. And if you're really good at some of the classic games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Tetris, just a few tokens can mean hours of entertainment.

The superfans over at We Love the Arcade have an extensive database of arcades across the country, so just plug in your location and find out where to go!

Go to the museum during free/discount admission hours

Most museums charge entrance fees, and they're usually not cheap. However, there are multiple ways to get into museums for free or pretty cheap. For those in or around the D.C. area, there are the Smithsonian museums, which are always free. If you're nowhere near the nation's capital, you'll have to get a bit more creative, like Gina over at Moneywise Moms.

Gina suggests checking if services you already use offer free museum admission, like Museums on Us by Bank of America. If you use Bank of America, Merrill, or US Trust services, your card can get you into museums all over the country for free. Usually, free admission is limited to certain days of the month, so be sure to check the website of the museum you want to visit first. If you or a family member are an active duty member of the U.S. military, you can also take advantage of the Blue Star Museums Initiative. From Armed Forces Day in May to Labor Day in September, admission to over 2,000 museums around the country is free for active service members and their families, with the proper identification. 

Many museums also do their own free admissions programs as well. Some will offer free admission on certain days of the month, while others offer free admission during certain hours, like the last few hours the museum is open. Check your local museums' websites to see what they offer.