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Cheap ways to enjoy the sunshine (or hide from it) this summer

"You + me + swimming date at the springs."

That was the text message I sent to my friend Kacey last week. "Are you flirting with me?" she replied. "Let's make this official."

See, every summer I solemnly swear that I'm going to spend the next several months in the water, yet I never do. (I say several months because I live in Texas, where it's summer for most of spring and fall.)

This year, however, I was serious. Since I've moved from the country and bought a house in the city, things-to-do are much closer to me. Driving time and gas expense are no longer an excuse.

But here's the thing: I want to keep my spending in check. Now that we live in the city, we save money on gas but spend more money on entertainment and eating out. For instance, when we lived in the country, we had zero interest in making a one-hour round trip to the nearest restaurant for dinner. We always preferred to cook at home because of the driving time. But now, we go out to eat every now and then. Being able to do that is part of the reason we moved.

So, I want to get out of the house more this summer, but I want to be careful about how much I'm spending. Which brings me to this list of free or nearly-free things for me/you to do this summer. I've categorized these activities by whether you're trying to enjoy the sunshine or escape the blazing heat, because sometimes a summer day outside can feel like this.

Want to soak up the vitamin D?

If you're looking to get outside, here are eight activities that'll help you accomplish that.

  1. Swimming. Community pools, lakes, springs -- most of these places are free or charge a very small fee.

  2. Kayaking, canoeing, etc. Typically, you can rent equipment for about $10 to $15 per hour. Last month I rented a tandem kayak with my niece and took her to a spring where you can see turtles swimming under the boat. (We also might have been attacked by a swan -- we're still not sure. Either way, priceless memories, people.)

  3. Festivals. My problem with festivals is that I don't ever know about them until everyone's posting photos, hashtagging #suckstonotbehere. Anyway, the simple solution is to Google "[city] summer festivals." I did just that and found an events calendar with stuff like a 5K run in July (you're drunk, runners!) and an ice cream festival in August (yes, thank you!)

  4. Concerts. Before I moved to the country, I used to go to free concerts in the park presented by our local symphony. You can bring snacks, lay in the grass, and listen to the woodwinds -- all for free. There are a lot of free or cheap outdoor concerts in the summer, though; so if classical isn't your thing, search city guides and local papers to find your scene.

  5. Picnic. Pack a lunch and a blanket and head to your nearest park for a gorgeous afternoon.

  6. Hiking. Head out to your nearest trail or take a day trip to a new park -- then, take a hike. I mean that in a nice way. :)

  7. Outdoor gardens. In my city, we have a botanical garden, a wildflower center, and a sculpture garden. All charge a pretty low admission fee, and they're a great way to spend time in nature (and learn a lot, too).

  8. Farmers markets. Most markets don't just sell produce and meat; they also bring out bands, food vendors, and activities for kids. For instance, my local market has a balloon-animal-making clown. He smiles at me and I and see this, but the kids seem to like him. Anyway, you can make a morning of a farmers market.

Need to escape the 1,000-degree weather?

A few summers ago, we had a summer of 60+ days of 100-degrees or higher. That's not the norm, thank goodness -- but still, August can be brutal. Here are some ways to get out of the house, but stay in the AC.

  1. Movies. Okay, this one is obvious, but I'm thinking beyond the regular movie theaters here. For instance, there's a historic theater that plays classic movies all summer long, so you can see Citizen Kane or The Godfather on the big screen. There's another theater that runs a "kids camp" with free movies for parents and kids. My hunch is that local, historic, or more off-beat theaters are more likely to offer these kinds of screenings.

  2. Improv show. My friend Kacey is an improv actor, so I've been to a few shows. "Tickets are usually $10," she says, making them a fairly inexpensive way to have a ton of fun. For instance, did you know that there's such a thing as musical improv? The actors make up entire songs and sing in unison right on the spot. Crazy!

  3. Museums. Many museums are either free or they have a specific day of the week when they're free.

  4. Ice skating rink. Before writing this article, I'd never thought about ice skating during the summer. But really, what a great way to cope with an insanely hot day! Especially because I'm terrible at ice skating, so my rear end will be on ice most of the time.

  5. Be a bookworm. There's the library, used bookstores, and local bookstores, which are all free or cheap. These places also host events, so look for an events calendar.

  6. Learn something new. Want to learn how to bake a peach pie or what the heck a downward dog is? "Many institutions and stores offer free classes on the weekends on all sorts of topics," writes Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar. "Stop by a local food store and catch a free cooking class, or a hardware store to learn about a home repair topic. Got kids? Try something like the Home Depot Kids Workshop, where they offer free how-to clinics for kids ages five to twelve -- these can be a lot of fun."

Of course, you'll need to Google around a bit to get the specific offerings for your hometown, but most mid-sized cities seem to offer some version of these activities and events. As for me, I'm making another date to hang out at the springs. A big pool of water is my summertime happy place.

Readers, help me out here and add to this list! What do you do when you want to get out of the house during the summer?

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