in: Leisure, Living

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Lost Art of Cheap Recreation & Free Activities

Vintage young men riding bikes beach winter.

Last month some friends of ours invited us to be on their team for a non-stop overnight running relay race. Each member of the team would be charged with running several legs of the 200-mile course, which wound its way through a bunch of scenic state parks. The 10-person crew would be split into two vans. One van was to be the active van, in which team members jumped in and out to run their respective legs, while the other van followed behind, waiting for its turn to become the active one. Over one day and two nights, the vans would thus leapfrog their way to the finish.

The event seemed to offer both pros and cons, and I had a hard time deciding whether or not to sign up. On the pro side, the backdrop for the race was quite appealing, as was the chance to spend some (intense, sleep-deprived) time with friends. On the con side was the fact that I hate running, that it seemed like most of one’s time was spent trapped inside a stinky van rather than out in nature, and that the entry fee for each person was $100.

As I went back and forth about whether to join in the (maybe) fun, a friend sought to persuade me to the yes side by saying, “Think of it as a chance to spend time in the outdoors and have great conversations.” To which I wanted to reply, “If it’s nature and bonding we’re after, why don’t we all collectively save ourselves $1,000, and go camping together instead?”

I didn’t say that though. I didn’t want to be impolite and rain on anyone’s parade.

I actually have little against these kinds of events and their ilk, like obstacle races, GoRuck Challenges, and such. They can be a great time, and you can often certainly get your money’s worth.

It just seems sometimes that my (admittedly modest) social life revolves around invitations to well-structured, paid events — not just physical challenges, but fundraising trivia nights, concerts, water parks, festivals, sports games, and so on.

Rare it is, it seems, for folks to invite their friends for inexpensive, loosely structured, informal social gatherings. You know, something like, “Hey! Want to come over and hang out and have some pizza?”

Yes, it seems like we’ve lost the art of cheap recreation.

The Lost Art of Cheap Things & Free Events

I know, I know. Asserting the idea that we’ve forgotten the art of cheap recreation sounds like one of those wistful, nostalgic statements that’s based merely on anecdotal evidence.

But just as you should never bring a knife to a gun fight, you should never look wistfully on the past without some stats to back up your sentiments. And brother I’ve got ‘em.

First, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, since 2003 the amount of time Americans spend either attending or hosting social events has declined by 30%. And the drop is even steeper amongst the younger generation; those aged 15 to 24 are spending 40% less time hosting and attending social events than they did a decade ago. At the same time, the number of hours we spend both attending and participating in sports, culture, and arts-related events has held steady.

Yet even though we’re hosting and attending less get-togethers and parties, while participating in and watching recreational activities at the same rate, the portion of our personal consumption we spend on leisure pursuits has gone up 30% over the last four and half decades. In terms of dollars (adjusted for inflation), in 1970 the average American spent $850 on recreation each year, while today each person spends $2500. In other words, despite the fact that the overall time we spend on social/physical/cultural recreation is down, we’re spending 3X as much money on it than we did 45 years ago.

What this data suggests is that while we don’t recreate as often, when we do, we tend to choose more expensive activities to engage in — things like $40-a-plate fundraising trivia nights, $100 relay races, $85 NFL games, and $150 music festivals. Not to mention the many web-born-turned-in-the-flesh conferences and camps that are offered these days, which are sometimes business-related but often attended just for fun.

Any way you slice it, the facts bear out my nostalgia: recreation can be an expensive proposition these days.

The Rise of Paid Entertainment

So what’s behind this trend of our spending more? I’d like to suggest a few possibilities:

We’re used to pre-planned, structured activities. One thing I think my generation struggles with is knowing how to be a self-starter. Growing up as Millennial girls and boys, our schedules were often pretty structured. Rather than being left to roam and improvise games of sandlot baseball, we joined organized sports leagues and went on preplanned play dates with mom. We chose our high school classes carefully and made sure to take part in plenty of structured extracurriculars to pad our college applications. Now as adults, we’re rather lost as to how to make our own fun, and create our own activities. Accustomed to just having to show up to pre-organized events and participate, we lack much experience in planning and hosting our own shindigs. Thus, paid-for entertainment is quite appealing; we want our experiences to be turn-key. Packing up, setting up, cleaning up? Seems like a lot of hassle.

We’re acclimated to high-caliber experiences. Once you start paying a premium for seamless, hassle-free recreation, that becomes your norm for leisure. Everything else comes to feel a little shabby, even embarrassing. When The New York Times did a story on why young people weren’t throwing parties anymore, some of the Millennials they interviewed cited a perceived inflation in their peers’ expectations. Having been reared in a culture that celebrates gourmet this, and artisanal that, they felt like they couldn’t have their friends over for dinner unless they created an impressive spread. They couldn’t just make a casserole and offer a 24-pack of Natty Light; they felt they needed to put out some tri-tip and kale tacos along with special craft beer.

Unfortunately, once you’ve become acclimated to top-notch recreation, doing anything short of that can seem pointless. Perhaps that’s part of why the percentage of Americans who vacation abroad has doubled since 1970. When it comes to travel, you either go big or go home. Exploring your hometown or the next city over? Why bother?

Special events make inviting easier. Here’s another thing Millenials struggle with: socializing, off-line. Especially when it comes to making friends in adulthood. I know I’ve certainly discovered that it’s often difficult to do. You’ve got to make that leap from acquaintances at church or work, to getting together outside those institutions. But inviting someone over to just to hang out, go to happy hour,  or to have dinner can feel vulnerable and weird. Asking someone to be on a relay race team, on the other hand, is much easier and low-risk. Special events give you a clear reason for getting together with people, and thus take the pressure off making social invitations. Hence, their popularity with the socially awkward/those who struggle with making friends as adults. So, most of us.

The Case for Cheap Recreation

Vintage 1940s men sunbathing playing cards beach.

It’s clear that our tendency these days to choose premium, paid-for recreation over the cheaper, more casual variety is not without its advantages. And again, I’m not at all opposed to participating in such events. In moderation. For there are very good reasons to season our leisure time with cheap recreation too:

The cheaper the recreation, the more often you can do it. A trip to a MLB baseball game is something the average budget can only afford to indulge in occasionally, while the number of impromptu softball games people can engage in is virtually endless.

Cheap recreation can involve all of your friends, regardless of their financial status. One of the difficult things about post-college friendship is that not everyone ends up in the same financial situation, and not everyone can afford the entrance fees for all the special events they get invited to. Cheap get-togethers, on the other hand, are open to all comers.

Cheap recreation gives you the chance to improvise and create. It surely is nice to attend an event where your only job is to show up and have fun. But it’s also satisfying now and again to create an experience for others. When you’re trying to keep things as frugal as you can, you also have the opportunity to figure out how to make as much as possible out of as little as possible — in other words, to practice the manly skill of improvisation.

Cheap recreation often provides more adventure/memories. Even though a lot of paid-for events tout their risk, toughness, adventure, etc., in reality, the organizers are going to be doing all they can to make the affair as predictable and safe as they can, while still giving it a daring feeling. Such events are typically highly planned out and structured. Experiences you create yourself, however, do have a very real aspect of risk and unpredictability — the elements that create true adventure and memories!

How to Keep Cheap Things Cheap

We’ve been talking all along here about “cheap” recreation, but of course, cheap is a somewhat relative term; what’s cheap for somebody with a six-figure income may seem pricey for someone just getting by. So too, many activities are not cheap or expensive by their nature, and can in fact be executed either frugally or fancily; that is, you can have a backyard movie night where you serve escargot or one where you only offer popcorn. Likewise, hiking can be a literally dirt cheap form of recreation, but not if you decide to invest in a top-of-the-line pack and lots of other gear. Thus, the possible activities suggested on the list below should be seen as having the ready potential to be cheap, should one exercise restraint and judiciously bring them about.

Some of the surest ways of doing that are to 1) borrow all the equipment you need when possible, rather than buying it, and 2) ask everyone to chip in. If passing around the hat makes you uncomfortable, rely on the law of reciprocity. That is, you cover most of the costs of something when you’re the host, and then your friends take turns doing likewise. For example, my friends and I have a loose agreement to host each other for dinner once a month; the host for that month provides the entrée and drinks, while the other two couples bring a side dish and dessert. Thus each family takes turns taking on the bulk of the cost of our get-togethers. This arrangement also lessens the hassle and burden of one host having to whip up an entire meal themselves; potlucks for the win!

Ideas for Reclaiming the Art of Cheap Recreation

Vintage 1950s 1940s roast hot dogs campfire.

Need an idea for cheap recreation? I’ve got two words for you: weenie roast.

Recreation is a broad term; it can be engaged in solo or in a group, and includes everything from quiet indoor activities like reading and listening to music, to outdoor activities like biking and hiking, to immersive pursuits like hobbies and traveling. The focus of this post has been on social recreation, as the expenses involved in the solitary variety haven’t seen the same kind of upwards creep. It’s also generally easier to think of ways to amuse oneself, rather than a group. (If you need ideas on this front, check out this list of easy ways to entertain yourself, as well as our list of hobbies.)

Thus the following ideas for reviving the art of cheap recreation center on group activities that are low on the hassle factor and can be enjoyed by family or friends:

  • Picnic. Skip the restaurant, and dine out in nature. A ham sandwich and chips seems humdrum when eaten at home, but splendid when consumed against a bucolic backdrop. You might find the best views sitting on a blanket, enjoying food with pleasant company.
  • Board games. There are tons of reasons to gather around a good board game, including the fun of friendly competition, and the enjoyment of pressure-free conversation.
  • Biking. Bet you haven’t ridden a bike in a while, much less ridden in a pack like you did as a boy. Get some friends together and cruise around town, exploring new places and neighborhoods- maybe even a botanical garden.
  • Potluck dinner. An easy way to execute dinner parties with friends.
  • Caving. Explore the earth’s dark depths.
  • DIY obstacle course. It really doesn’t take much to build your own backyard OCR. Put one together, and invite your friends to compete for glory.
  • Free night at the museum. Lots of museums have one day a month where admission is totally free. Take advantage of it and explore an art museum or exploratorium, adventure around the fisherman’s wharf, or take a walking tour by a city guide!
  • Grill out. The absolute easiest way to host a dinner for folks, especially in the summer. Meat, buns, chips, and watermelon. There needn’t be any actual cooking involved.
  • Book club. They’re not just for ladies, and can provide ample edifying entertainment for a coed crew or group of gents.
  • Fishing. Whether or not you catch a big one, you’ll reel in plenty of conversation and peaceful relaxation.
  • Urban exploration. Natural features aren’t the only things that can be explored; search through old abandoned buildings and places in your hometown. Don’t forget to check out the local farmer’s market and buy some fresh produce!
  • Plinking. If you or a friend own some land where it’s legal to shoot guns, have some fun plinking the afternoon away. It’s also legal to target shoot in National Forests and National Parks.
  • Stargazing. Task a few people in your group with each figuring out a constellation that will be visible in your location, and how to find it. Then gather in a place away from light pollution, and have these guides try to point out the constellations to the group.
  • Hiking. People pay $100 for the chance to trudge 9 miles with their friends; do it on your own for free!
  • Backyard movie night. Have a projector (or have a friend with one)? Set up a sheet and some chairs, pop some popcorn, ask everyone to bring their favorite candy or ice cream, and host a movie night in your backyard.
  • Weenie roast. Fire, sticks, hot dogs. Stupidly simply; profoundly satisfying. You can also spice things up by introducing the many other foods you can cook on a stick.

Truly, the number of possible cheap recreational activities and surprisingly fun microadventures that save money is limited only to the imagination.

How to Make It Happen

A couple centuries ago, people thought it was a blast to gather in each other’s parlors to listen to someone read aloud, act out a dramatic monologue, recite a poem, play charades, or have a sing-a-long around live music.

These days, we’ve made recreation, particularly of the social variety, a lot more complicated. We feel we must have a big, formal, structured event around which to gather. But it just isn’t so. Think back to when you were in high school or college; young people may be throwing fewer parties these days, but they remain by necessity the masters of cheap recreation. They don’t need a big reason to get together — a swimming pool, a game of spoons, or MarioKart will suffice. Seeing each other is reason enough.

Oh, I know those freewheeling days may be over for you, and you’re busy now as a grownup (though not as much as you think). You might feel like people won’t respond well if you ask them to just hang out, absent some expensive tent pole event. But I think you’d be surprised; people are hungry to reclaim some of that old casual high school hangout and everyone loves free things. It doesn’t need to be bucket list-worthy.

Why, just this week I literally texted some friends with this exact come-on: “Would you like to come over tomorrow night for some pizza and conversation?” They responded with an enthusiastic yes.

The pizza was cheap. The conversation was great.

Long live the art of cheap recreation!

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