Savvy Mom: Tips for Family Fair Going on a Budget

I skipped the Minnesota State Fair the first year I moved here. Snobbishly, I assumed it wasn’t my thing, what with animal smells, crowds, and greasy food. The following year, I went with friends who rightly guessed the way to my heart for the fair was via my stomach. I had my first fried cheese curds, mini donuts, and a cup of 1919 root beer—and I’ve been an avid fair goer ever since. One year I went days after giving birth. Exhaustion wasn’t going to stop me from getting my fair-food fix. It was too hot to take the newborn, so I ducked out between nursing sessions. He’s gone every year since, as has his little brother. Each year is different because of their ages and stages; my younger is now five, so he no longer gets in free. Here are a few things I’ve learned about taking kids to the fair:

1. Take advantage of advance tickets and Discount Days. Through Wednesday, August 24, entry tickets, game/ride tickets, and Blue Ribbon coupon booklets are available at information desks of many Cub Foods and the State Fair box office. Check the fair website for more locations. Advance tickets are $9 compared to regular admission of $12 for adults and $10 for kids and seniors. If you don’t want to commit to advance tickets or pay full price, check out weekday Discount Days. We always go on opening day, Thrifty Thursday. Adult tickets are $10; seniors and kids are only $7. Discounts plus a smaller crowd and clean streets make for a great fair trip. Discounted admission also is available to seniors and kids on Monday, August 29; military families and veterans on Tuesday, August 30; library cardholders on Wednesday, August 31; seniors on Thursday, September 1; and kids on Labor Day (the final day of the fair), Monday, September 5.

2. Organize wheels. Bring the stroller/wagon, rent one, or skip it? If you bring your own, up-close parking is easiest, but $12 a day—though pre-fair parking tickets are $9 at Cub Foods, the State Fair box office, and online. Park-n-Ride lets you park for free at a variety of locations, then bus for free to the fair. The buses are sometimes too crowded to bring your own wheels, but you can rent wheels at the fair: a wagon is $13 or a stroller is $9 a day. When my younger son turned three, I decided to skip the stroller and have the family on foot. This got the boys exercise, and when they got tired we left, which was a good limit for time and money spent. When they’re older I hope to bike to the fair; bike parking is free.

3. Plan, plan, plan. Just like you shouldn’t go the grocery store hungry and without a list, don’t go to the fair hungry and without a few ideas and a budget. Rather than being the bank this year, I’m giving the boys some money of their own so they can learn fair economics, too. I like to hit the information booth on the way in to get ID bracelets for the kids and a calendar for the day. Shows at the 3rd Lair Skatepark, North Woods, and Baldwin Park are free and allow us to sit and rest a while.

The rides and food are the real budget busters. You can save on rides by purchasing advance tickets, which are 20 for $10 instead of the 28 for $20 or $.75 each during the fair. There are four days when the number of tickets for rides or games is reduced by one ticket all day long: Thursday, Aug. 25; Monday, Aug. 29; Wednesday, Aug. 31; and Monday, Sept. 5. There is also a one-ticket discount until 1 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26; Tuesday, Aug. 30; Thursday, Sept. 1; and Friday, Sept. 2.

For food, I have two guidelines. One: If there’s a choice of sizes, we get the small. Yes, the bigger one is a better deal, but the small is always less expensive, and, well, smaller. Two: At the fair, we share. We enjoy more variety but eat less using this tapas-like approach. We also limit our exposure to the fried, fatty, but oh-so delicious foods. I try to get more flavor bang for our calories and bucks by choosing carefully. Instead of an impulse treat, we visit the Dairy Building, where we can see butter sculptures and get a berry sundae with local ice cream. For snow cones, I steer us to the Lingonberry stand by the food building, which has a sweet/tart cone we all enjoy. I skip the sharing rule on the better-for-us foods at the fair, like the roasted corn, pickle on a stick, fruit from the Produce Exchange, frozen grapes from the Food building, and apple freezies in the Agriculture building.

Finally, I try to leave with at least $5 in my pocket for a lemon-shake drink on the way out the gates. It’s a cool, not-too-sweet way to end our day at the fair. If all has gone well, I’ll be resting my feet on the free park-n-ride bus, but not clutching my stomach or fretting about a broken budget. What are your favorite tips for family fair trips on a budget?