Four Frugal Memorial Day Celebrations

Traditionally, Memorial Day is the official kickoff of summer, more revered in some circles than Christmas. As a young professional on the East Coast, I learned that there was absolutely no work done during Memorial or Labor Day weekends; these were sacrosanct, meant for mysterious managing director rituals involving expensive sunny vacation homes and actual time spent within 100 yards of their wife and children.

Memorial Day was also the one holiday when my friends -- young investment bankers and attorneys and consultants -- could schedule a party utterly without fear it would be pre-empted for a client crisis or sleepless weekend preparing for a merger. And so, we went all out: weekends in Charleston or the Hamptons, catered barbecues, road trips to New Orleans for jazz or Montreal for sightseeing or Chicago for baseball.

But times and careers have changed, and frugality is the new buzzword in my circles today. Memorial Day may be the kickoff of summer, but it's also a great time to cut costs and save money for whatever will be the expenses of summer -- camp for kids, family trips, in-season fruit for canning, the inevitable splurges on sunny-weather house projects and garden investments.

You can still celebrate and enjoy, though, without spending more than the $20 you have in your wallet. Here are four common Memorial Day celebrations that cost big -- and how to do it the WalletPop way.The ballgame. We read this piece in and thought, Don't you dare take me out to the ball game! For a family of four, the average cost for a Major League ballpark trip is $197.35, according to Team Marketing Report -- and that only includes two draft beers and nothing for the travel to and from the park or the inevitable post-game celebration (or sorrows-drowning) at a restaurant or pub. Plenty of parks, like the legendary Fenway, cost way more -- tickets there average almost $60 each, and beers are $7.25 apiece.

Let's do this better, shall we? It's Little League playoff season, and I'll bet your family knows at least a half-dozen budding major leaguers who would love to have you in the bleachers cheering them on and sporting the team colors. Volunteer to make cupcakes to celebrate the team's season of hard work, or bring a picnic complete with house-made hot dogs from a local butcher shop ($6 or $7 a pound, even for the great stuff) and a bottle of your favorite mustard ($3). Ride your bikes to the ballgame (we bungee a picnic basket to the bike rack) and, if you're into that sort of thing, bring your own six-pack of microbrews ($9 if you splurge). Your costs are still under $20, and no Major League fan's fare will even come close to your feast.

If you want to step up the spending just a little, head to a local, minor league park. The average minor league ticket price for an adult is $8, and most local businesses hold regular specials for dollars-off or buy-one-get-one-free coupons. Even if you get the same meal-deal as the Major Leagues -- sodas, beers, hot dogs, programs and parking -- it'll cost you less than $60 average for a family of four.

The day at the beach. You could fill up on gas, pack your family in the car and head out Friday afternoon with all the rest of the vacationers to an ocean hotel or house, soaking up the sun -- and some credit card debt. Of course, you'll sit in traffic for hours, argue over who forgot the sunscreen and whose music to plug in the speakers, eat a late junk food dinner at a truck stop, and end up exhausted and broke come Monday night. Or you could try something far less stressful and closer to home.

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have two rivers running through or adjacent to our city, both which offer ample open spaces and sunny spots. All these spaces are public parks -- free! -- and can easily be reached by public transportation or bicycle or, if you're in the mood for a little conspicuous consumption, a few dollars of gas. The parking is free, too.

So grab an old blanket and sun hats for all, make your famous potato salad and Grandma's fudgy brownies. Pick up a bucket of fried chicken or (if you're like me and into that sort of thing) fry your own. It'll cost you $15 for the chicken and $5 for transportation and there'll be no noxious exhaust to breathe in, and you'll actually get to enjoy that book you picked out for summer beach reading.

The volleyball tourney. All through my teen and young adult years, I can't remember a single Memorial Day without volleyball or badminton: It seems to be indelibly linked with the celebration. When my family moved to Montana for a few years in my childhood, we were beyond broke, but the first purchase I remember making when we arrived was an all-in-one badminton & volleyball setup. It must have cost $10 or $15, and it immediately became the go-to entertainment for all our visitors.

If you're of like mind, you could go to an Olympic-style beach volleyball tournament for hundreds of dollars...or you could play your own way. If you don't have poles in your yard or a place to put them, you can find space in public parks, at church lawns or in school playgrounds. That combo set we bought when I was nine years old is a little more expensive now -- I found a $39.99 special online, but you should check local sporting goods stores for sales -- but you could go in with another family or consider it a capital investment. They're portable and can be set up anywhere and with any group, and you'll find it's way better of a family activity than an indoor round of Wii tennis because you actually get to get outside and mingle with other families! (And, as an aside, this is a fantastic way to meet other people in a clean fun environment.)

The cookout. I can't think of a single summer movie, family drama or sitcom that doesn't have at least one (maybe several) scenes in which the patriarch is standing over a gas grill, canvas apron on and spatula in hand. If you're like me, your eyes widen at the thought: How much did those groceries cost? Meat has gotten really expensive, and feeding several families means a lot of meat, buns, potato chips, coleslaw, marshmallow-fruit salad, soda, ketchup, mustard, relish, paper plates...It could easily cost you a few hundred dollars in groceries to host a backyard barbecue shindig.

Chill out, man! Go potluck. Invite your friends over to enjoy your gas grill (if you have one) or get a permit from the local fire department to make a fire pit (with recycled concrete pieces, like mine, or rocks) -- it's safer than charcoal as it doesn't get nearly as hot -- and make it a BYOM/V (bring your own meat or vegetables). Assign every family one big side dish, and experiment with some different things, like whole grain salads and roasted vegetable dishes, so that the expensive parts of the meal will go farther.

I usually pick this opportunity to use up a bunch of my pickles from last season's preserving to make room on my pantry shelves and whet my appetite for the coming summer. And my herbs are in their most vigorous growth stage, making it a perfect time for tabbouleh and chutneys, which can be a really cheap way of making your cookout sparkle.

Remember, as the summer party season approaches, DIY celebrations may be more work in the kitchen, but they're going to cost you far less in terms of coordination and stress than travel and going out to eat.

Collaborating with your friends on picnics and cookouts or just a casual meal together can be a celebration in and of itself -- no memorabilia or traffic jams or insultingly expensive cheap beer necessary. And when it's all over, you don't have to drive home. That may be the best part of all.
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