Inexpensive (and Free!) Holiday Activities to Try with Your Military Family


We are officially immersed in what can quickly become the most expensive time of the year–the traditional Holiday/Christmas season. Many families get stuck in a credit card rut year after year trying to make sure their loved ones have the perfect holiday. However, there are lots of inexpensive or free ways to stay connected, have fun, and celebrate the season without adding more debt to your wallet.

The days of winter vacation can seem long and it might be tempting to try and fill them with activities and outings to keep your kids occupied, but having a fun and full winter break doesn’t have to be costly. No matter where you live, there are ways to enjoy this time of year and not dread the bills come January. Here is my list of tried and true free or inexpensive family friendly things to do for the holidays:

Bake and Take

’Tis the season for baked goods! Baking cookies, muffins, cupcakes, or rolling out some chocolate-covered peanut butter balls are an inexpensive way to spend time together. What can make this experience even more meaningful is to then deliver those homemade goodies to your local police for fire department to thank them for their devotion to duty. (Or take plates of goodies on base to those who don’t get to go “home” for the holiday).

My children absolutely love helping us roll buckeyes every year and I think they like delivering them even more. This simple act does even more than give us something to do together–it teaches my kids the true spirit of the season is giving. And if you can give something that you created with love and happiness, its that much more meaningful. Here is the recipe we use to make a true boatload of Buckeyes every Christmas:

1 28 oz jar of creamy peanut butter
3 lbs confectioners sugar (powdered sugar)
1 lb butter
semisweet chocolate chips

Allow butter to soften on counter until room temperature. Combine butter and peanut butter and gradually add sugar until the mixture is no longer sticky. Set aside to chill in the fridge. Spoon chilled peanut butter mixture in hands and roll into 1 inch balls. Chill again.

Melt chocolate chips (I find using a double boiler works best) over medium to low heat. Using a toothpick, dip each peanut butter ball into the chocolate leaving a small circle of peanut butter exposed at the top of each ball (to look like a traditional buckeye nut) Chill and enjoy!

While you’re in the baking spirit, creating simple salt dough ornaments is a great way to give the kids some crafting freedom while making something you can treasure years later! You can even create some fun inexpensive gifts for grandparents of those sweet little — often sticky — fingers or toes.

Free or Community Sponsored Activities

Local organizations, like the American Legion, usually put on fun holiday events for the whole family to enjoy! Everywhere we have been stationed we have been invited to a “Breakfast with Santa” which is usually free, but sometimes has a small associated fee. It can vary by location but in our experience we have had fun pancake breakfasts, visits with Santa and Mrs Clause, face painting, balloon animal creations and the kids each leave with some small gift or treat.

Most towns also offer a holiday parade or community holiday activities. These can be anything from a light parade or flotilla, to horse drawn carriage rides, to tree lightings, or even holiday concerts. Your town/city website or local Chamber of Commerce is an excellent source for local activities!

Every town has that one neighborhood that goes all out. You know which one I’m talking about, the one where every house has every spare inch covered with lights and inflatable Frosty the Snowmen. Take a drive (or if you’re down south, maybe a walk). Go look at the lights, let the kids point out their favorites, and make up stories about where all the decorations come from and what they would do if they could talk.

Don’t Forget the USO 

Several places have the opportunity to attend USO sponsored events that might normally be out of the regular budget. The USO typically has tickets for family events to give out as a thanks to your service member. We had the opportunity to attend a Polar Express train ride (which would have otherwise been too expensive for a large family like ours).

For the Older Kids

Most of these ideas are great if your kids are younger, but here are some ideas that might have your tweens and teenagers wanting to spend more family time together too.

Photo Scavenger Hunt: I remember being a super competitive tween-teenager. There was nothing I liked more than beating my brother at whatever. To have some free, fun family time with your older kids, create a list of things for them to find at your local mall or other place where you’d feel comfortable and safe letting them roam for a while. Distribute the list and create teams if you need to partner younger family members together. Give everyone an hour to take pictures of everything they can find on the list and then the winner gets to pick the family treat–whether its a snack from the food court or ice cream on the way home. Some ideas of things to find and take pictures of: Someone in a Santa Hat, a woman wearing a scarf, a snowman, an Elf, Christmas tree, ornaments, candy cane etc. Be as creative as you can/want to be!

Netflix the night away: So often as parents we are not interested in the same things as our older children. Give your older kids the control of the remote for the night and let them choose whatever Christmas movie they want. (It’s hard to find an inappropriate Christmas movie!) Then settle in for popcorn, hot cocoa, and maybe bring out a family game or two to see how deep the competitive streak really runs! In our house, we like Heads Up (Ellen’s app game for your phone), Life, Trash, Happy Salmon and the tried and true hours and hours games like Risk and Monopoly.

What types of low-cost family activities do you do for the holidays?

Posted by Elizabeth Allen, military spouse and National Military Family Association Volunteer

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