My budget guide to good times with kids in and around New York City

Because apple picking is about apple picking. Also: about being cute.

Studies about women and money often find that we prioritize spending on our kids. That is certainly true for me. Although I loathe acquiring stuff for my children (I stop at H&M or Old Navy two or three times per year to stock up on kids’ clothes, and there is no such thing as randomly had gifts — those are saved for holidays and birthdays), I rarely hesitate when it comes to family fun.

A trip to the circus? What childhood is complete without the annual event — even if it sets me back more than $300, including popcorn and parking? Sure, movie theater tickets have gotten so expensive, but what is $50 for some family bonding over Pixar? And how about museum visits — which can cost as much as a semester’s worth of college tuition if we go often — but are one of the reasons we choose to live in New York City?

Until a couple months ago, I thought little of forking over this kind of money each and every weekend. A glance at my bank accounts made it clear I was spending a lot of cash entertaining my kids. On one hand, I felt OK about this money spent. After all, this is cash paid for experiences, and studies show that experiences are what give us pleasure, not objects. Plus, as a single parent, I only have my kids for half the weekend, so our Saturdays together seem extra precious, and I feel the urge to make them extra special. I also recognize that since I am single, as well as a self-employed writer who works from home, I can feel isolated. All these weekend outings are at least as much about my own urge to be out in the world as they are about creating family memories.

But the fact is: Some months these experiences and fun were difficult to afford. Something had to give. So I began challenging my impulses to spend big bucks on family activities and replacing them with lower-cost outings. Here’s what I did.

Instead of this: Trip to the zoo

Growing up we went to the zoo once per year. It was an hour’s drive from where I grew up, we spent the whole day there and it was a really big deal. In New York City where I live, there are four zoos within an hour’s drive from my home — a couple of them within 20 minutes. But the reason we tend to visit the zoo so often is that we have all come to expect special things all the time. So shelling out $84 for “Total Experience” tickets at the Bronx Zoo, plus parking and overpriced tourist food would have set me back close to $150.

We did this: Nature hike I quenched my urge to spend time with animals by visiting a bird sanctuary in Westchester County. We hiked around the preserve, chatted with some fisherman about the day’s catch (blue fish), spotted a couple sandpipers and a horseshoe crab and ate a snack of homemade PB&J sandwiches, cheese and carrots while overlooking the sound, choppy with wind. We also created a memory when I decided to off-road.

While walking around the perfectly safe path, Indiana Mom landed the three of us in a thorny thicket — from which our escape would have been made easier with a machete — that required me to take enormously high steps with my riding boots to stomp down the prickly growth. For this experience we gave a $10 donation. This was followed by a trip to the town where we strolled through the cute shops and lunched at the local pizza parlor.

Spendy activity price: $150

Budget activity price: $22

Verdict: Sure it can be scary — in a fun way! — to see snakes behind a glass wall. But it is even more scary — in a questionable way — to wonder if your children will be ensnared in thistles. Plus, time in a quiet, unpopulated preserve on a beautiful fall day was far more refreshing than battling weekend crowds at one of the biggest zoos in the country. Exploring the underside of upturned logs and the rocky beach at low tide did far more to connect us as a family than pointing at encaged animals.

Instead of this: Recently some friends from out of town invited us to join them on a tour to the top of the Empire State Building. I initially thought that my kids must experience this landmark New York City experience! What mother would deprive them?! Then I checked  the prices: nearly $70 for the basic viewing deck experience. Cue sound of tires squealing to a stop.

We did this: Every month or two my kids and I repeat one of our favorite adventures: We drive from our home in Astoria, Queens, to Roosevelt Island — a sliver of land in the East River between Queens and Manhattan — and use a Metrocard to take the tram to the city, drinking in the gorgeous views for $2.75 per trip (kids under 44” tall ride free). From there, we walk two blocks to Dylan’s Candy Bar, a mammoth purveyor of all things sweet and delicious, and get a treat, the kids opting for a variety of gummy animals priced by the pound. I suggested our friends join on this outing, which few tourists know about. They were thrilled to get an insider’s look at the city and joined along.

Spendy activity price: $70

Budget activity price: $12

Verdict: I believe strongly in trying new things. But it is perhaps even more important to embrace ritual. My kids are far more likely to remember our tram tradition as adults since they will have done it dozens of times. Added bonus when we can share our special experience with people we care for. Plus, it’s way cheaper.

Instead of this: On the subject of tradition, I find apple picking to be pretty awesome. It’s fun, it takes us out of the city, it has the agro-education element and it reminds me of my rural Midwestern childhood. But even this quaint ritual can comes at a steep price if you go to a farm anywhere near New York City. There the experience can come with the temptation to spend multiple Andrew Jacksons on bouncy houses, corn mazes, pony rides and pumpkin painting.

We did this: We still went apple picking. The outfit charged a flat $25 for a half-bushel bag, which we were invited to fill to the brim. The kids and I tried to hunt down as many varieties as we could find. We plucked a gigantic Macintosh — seriously, the largest I’ve ever seen — and wondered if it was delicious. We munched on cider doughnuts — 75 cents each — because they were right out of the fryer and only a miser would say no. Same for two corn dogs, which were steep at $4 each, but really our only lunch option. But I did say no to the bouncy house and instead focused the kids’ attention on the bluegrass band playing. Then we visited the chickens in their coop. Because, as I said before, pointing at caged animals is a family bonding experience.

Spendy activity price: If I’d agree to all the activities on offer, my wallet would be $100 lighter

Budget activity price: $35

Verdict: When we came home, my kids told their friends, “We went apple picking.” That was a big deal for children ages 3 and 5. Why would it have been better if their answer was, “We went on a hayride and bouncy house and corn maze and ate kettle corn and a giant barbequed turkey leg that cost $10 and, oh yea, we also picked some apples”? Sometimes, less is more. And when I couldn’t figure out what to do with all those apples, I filled little sacks and sent the kids around to neighbors in our apartment building to give them away. And so the experience grew far beyond our Saturday afternoon. It grew into a memory which we shared with each other and those around us.

A version of this post originally appeared on DailyWorth.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Kelly on August 1, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Love this post! I’m always looking for cheap and fun things to do with the kids. Groupon and the other deal sites have also allowed us to do some fun things, including activities that would have never occurred to me otherwise :)

    • Emma on August 1, 2014 at 4:25 pm

      I love that – let the deals guide your good times.

  2. Valerie on August 1, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    These are great Emma- I agree! I have been looking for experiences for us that also don’t make me cry later when looking at my bank balance.

    For the Chicagoland crowd-In Chicago some of things we’ve done on a budget:
    1) Lincoln Park Zoo-it’s FREE
    2) City of Chicago sponsored Shakespeare in the Parks, movies in the parks and concerts(FREE and high quality!)
    3)Museum memberships on Groupon-great way to save money and get us through the long winter(The Nature Museum is a repeat offer).
    4)Midnight Circus in the parks-$20 adult, $15 for kids(2-15)-not a lot of goodies for sale to break your bank and the profits benefit the Chicago parks. In my opinion better than B&Bailey circus, in my local neighborhood(no paying for parking!) and is budget friendly. Also-it’s in the French style-no animals-only super cool human tricks.
    5) Nature stuff: Cook County forest preserve-picnic, hike, bike ride-free. North Park Village and Emily Oaks Nature Center in Skokie have beautiful trails and NP offers free kid and family activities.
    6) Downtown: Family Fun Festival in Millennium Park-kids activities, daily concerts and the famous fountain for splashing-Free.

    • Emma on August 1, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      LOVE IT! – will bookmark this for next year’s visit, Val :)

  3. Jennifer leigh on August 1, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    For the upstate NY crowd, particularly the Catskill mountain and capital district area;
    1) New York State museum is free! And huge and tons of fun. I remember going all the time with the school and having returned as an adult with young one in tow, I can say that yes, it is still fun!
    2) Hiking. Always free and always interesting on some level!
    3) North-South Lake. During the weekend, it is $5-8 per car, but I’ve gone off-season and midweek for free. Playgrounds, hiking trails, a ‘beach’ and swimming area, plus some of the greatest views from the Catskill Mountain House clearing. From north to south, its a 180 degree view of the Hudson river. There is also a very easy walking trail to the top of Kaaterskill Falls on the road leading to the lake.
    4) Fairs, festivals, street parties, historical reenactments and misc other town sponsored events throughout the year. All free.
    5) Good ole picnic and playground fun. Gets old for me personally, but I think my son would live at the playground if given the choice.

    • Emma on August 1, 2014 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks Jennifer Leigh – I’ve never heard of N-S Lake. Will check it out!

  4. Kristin on August 1, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Queens County Farm is another free option. It does not have the bells and whistles, but it’s nice to walk around and feed the animals. You have to pay for the food, but it’s very inexpensive. In the fall and during the holiday season, Hicks Nursery on Long Island is a fun place to take the kids. There is no admission fee and they have different animals, Otto the Ghost walks around, hay rides (costs extra but still cheap), etc.

    • Emma on August 8, 2014 at 6:42 pm

      Love the farm! They sell produce and meat from hogs they butcher, which is nice, too.

  5. DarthW on August 3, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    “Why would it have been better if their answer was, “We went on a hayride and bouncy house and corn maze and ate kettle corn and a giant barbequed turkey leg that cost $10 and, oh yea, we also picked some apples”? Sometimes, less is more.” -LMAO. That’s a hilarious thought…and very true.

    I have to agree with Jennifer Leigh on hiking. In my middle age I’ve taken up hiking, and getting deep into some trails takes me back to my childhood when I thought climbing hills, getting into dark woods, etc. was really cool. It’s still cool as an adult….although now I do it partly with the idea of exercise in mind, so my pace through the hike is much faster.

  6. Eve in Silver Spring on August 5, 2014 at 10:26 am

    This posting came at the perfect time for us! Next weekend, I’ll be in NYC with my 3 kids, and I was hoping to take them to see some very New York-type things. I already figured out that I can do the Staten Island Ferry instead of the Statue of Liberty. I was going to take them to the Bronx Zoo, but now that I’ve read your posting I certainly won’t (and we live in the DC area, which has the best free zoo in the country). Instead, I think we’ll do the tramway to Roosevelt Island. My kids will be thrilled by Dylan’s Candy Bar.

    I totally feel your pain, since I experience it as well. Outings like movies can be a killer for me, and I’ve embarrassed my kids by storming out of an ice cream place that charged $5 per cone. At least in DC, we’re spoiled by tons of tax-payer funded “free” museums. Be sure to bring your kids down here when they get older. So…thanks so much!

    • Emma on August 8, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      Oh great, Eve! Dylan’s and the tram are great favorites.

  7. Lee @ on August 7, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Hi Emma, thanks for the great tips on NYC. These will come in handy the next time I bring my 3-year old son with me. I saw that you’re also attending the ASE14 for bloggers meeting. I am too and am looking forward to networking with you.


    • Emma on August 8, 2014 at 6:36 pm

      Oh great, Lee! Please find me if I don’t find you first!

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