Four fun ways to cut costs as a family

Saving money as a family fun activity? It sounds suspicious, I know.

After all, “saving” isn’t the first thing you think of when you’re looking for fun things to do with your offspring. 

But you can have a good time together while also getting the whole gang on board with cutting costs. Try any of these as a family project. With older kids, you can even do some light math to figure out just how much you saved:

1. Do the shower experiment

We use a lot of water when we shower. Taking shorter showers not only saves you money on your utility bill, but it also saves water, which is good for the environment. 

Have the kids grab a wide-mouthed bucket and head for the bathroom. Bring your phone or a stopwatch. Run the shower at the rate you would when you take a shower, and start your timer. 

Collect the water in the bucket for 30 seconds, then measure how many cups of water are in the bucket. Multiply that number by two to find your cups per minute ratio, then divide that number by 16 to find out how many gallons you use per minute. 

Now, time everyone’s showers over the next few weeks and keep track of the results on a chart. 

If you shower for 10 minutes and your shower spits out a gallon a minute, you’re using 10 gallons per shower. Post the chart where everyone can see it, and make a contest out of who can cut the most gallons from their weekly usage. Take things a step further and figure how much you pay per gallon on your bill and calculate your savings. 

2. Hunt energy vampires

You know how kids (and, cough, some adults) are always forgetting to turn off the lights when they leave a room? 

The truth is, if you’re using CFLs or LEDs, the cost is really not that much. If you leave an LED bulb burning all day while you’re at work, it will cost you about a penny. 

But other electronics cost much more — like stereos, phone chargers, air conditioners and televisions — so it’s a great idea to build the habit of turning these things off. You can start with lights by letting kids draw energy vampires on some of your light switch plates. 

First, unscrew them from the wall, then give your kids markers and let them draw vampires and slogans like, “Don’t feed the energy vampire: Turn off the lights!” (These vampires suck electricity instead of blood, get it?) 

Once the habit starts to take hold, extend the discussion to other appliances: “When you’re done with the TV, turn it off so you don’t feed the energy vampire.” 

When you’ve had enough of looking at the energy vampire, it’s about a buck to get a new, plain switch plate. 

Also: Check out Belkin’s line of Conserve power switches ($6.99) that allow you to cut power to devices without unplugging them (, including some that come with timers.

3. Plant a garden

I love this idea even though I stink at gardening. Every year I get overexcited and plant more produce than I can keep up with. I can usually coax some tomatoes out of the earth, but my efforts at other veggies often fail. 

So if you’re like me, it’s OK to focus on the one or two items you’re good at cultivating, and devote your full attention to them. If you’re even marginally more talented, you can go crazy. 

Organic produce is expensive, as we all know, but not so much if you DIY. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can do a lot with window boxes, patio pots and even community gardens. 

Most kids love to be part of planning and planting. Make a ritual out of weeding and watch kids’ wonder blossom as their seeds and starts turn into flourishing, food-producing plants. 

You can put older kids in charge of a plant or the whole garden. You might even get your reluctant eaters to appreciate having green things on their plates.

4. Cook from scratch

Packaged food is typically loaded with sodium, dyes, preservatives, sugar and other stuff that’s not good for us. AND it’s expensive! 

Sure, it’s convenient to bake a frozen pizza or make a box of what-have-you when you’re tired and/or lazy. I’m not suggesting you never do that again. 

But cooking with ingredients can be a project that involves the whole family. Even preschoolers can help choose a recipe, find ingredients at the store, wash bell peppers, tear the lettuce, pass the spatula, and so on. 

You save money, have a good time with your family, and you know exactly what’s going into everyone’s body.

Eric Braun is a Minneapolis dad of two boys and the co-author of the forthcoming book for young readers, The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give (Free Spirit Publishing, September 2016). Send comments or questions to