Happy 4th of July everyone! I mentioned earlier this week that the county fair is going on right now where we live. I don’t know about everywhere else in the country, but here in the midwest county fairs are a pretty big deal.
County fairs are generally viewed as an essential summer activity. Even before the fair starts, the children work hard on their 4-H projects and raise their animals so they’ll be ready to show them at the fair in hopes of impressing the judges. During fair week, everyone can come out and see all the exhibits, ride the rides, play the games, and get their fill of fair food. For countless families, taking the kids to the fair is an annual summer tradition.
We went to the fair today and had a good time. However, I have to point out that it is quite hot, with high temperatures in the upper 90′s. In fact, the high temperature for the next three days are supposedly going to reach triple digits. We didn’t ride any rides, but we looked at the exhibits and ate our share of fair food. As we were walking along looking at all the food vendors, I got to wondering if county fairs are really a good value for families anymore.
To get into our county fair, it costs $8 a person ($5 for senior citizens). For an average family of four, that’s $32 just to step inside the fairgrounds.
However, there are several special offers to lower this cost. On Sunday, you could get in for free if you came before 10:00 am because they were offering a church service in the morning. The entire week, if you come to the fair for lunch (arrive after 11:00 am and leave before 1:30 pm) you can get free admission. You pay upfront and they give you a token. Then if you leave by 1:30 and present your token, they’ll give you your money back (we actually did this today).
Let’s admit it: eating fair food is probably the biggest reason many people go to the fair. Fair food is far from healthy, but it gives us an excuse to eat some of the greasiest, most unhealthy foods we can think of (deep-fried twinkies, taco-in-a-bucket, etc.). But fair food is far from cheap. My wife and I had lunch today at the fair. I had a tenderloin sandwich ($4.50), onion rings ($6.00), and bottle of water ($1.50). My wife had port-a-pit chicken ($3.50), fried mushrooms ($3.75), and had her bottle of water that she brought from home. A little while later we each had some ice cream ($2 each). Our total money spent on food was $23.25. I think this was at the low-end of what people spend, since we were only there for two hours over lunch time. Most people spend more time than that at the fair, which gives them time to eat more desert items (elephant ears, funnel cake, mini-donuts, etc.) and drink more water/pop. So, for an average family of four that spends the better part of the day at the fair, you’re looking at $20 to $25 a person for food and drink (around $100).
There isn’t a whole lot you can do to lower this cost besides not ordering food. But it does pay to really look around at the different vendors. There are usually some non-profit groups (Lions club, churches, FOP club, etc.) selling food for less than some of the other vendors. We found that ice cream was generally several dollars less expensive than things like elephant ears and funnel cakes (and more satisfying since it was so hot out). Also, bring some water along from home (my wife had the right idea with this). For a family of four, bringing four waters from home will easily save you $6 to $8 (not a whole lot, but every little bit counts when you’re a family on a budget).
If you have kids and take them to the fair, they are going to want to go on some rides. I know I liked the rides as a kid. Our little boy isn’t old enough for them yet, but I’m sure we’ll hear it when he gets older. Most rides cost a couple dollars, and I’d put the average ride at $3. Let’s do some quick math: you bring two children to the fair, and they each go on five rides. Five rides multiplied by $3 a ride comes to $15 in rides per child, or $30 combined for two children.
Are there any ways around this? At least at our fair (and I would imagine most others), they offer two “Dollar Days” where all rides are only $1. In addition, if your children just love going on rides and would ride them all day, they offer a wristband for $23 that gives the wearer unlimited rides.
Fair games are just like carnival games. Skeeball, ring toss, water cannon games, etc. Personally, I see these games as the biggest waste of money at the fair, and they run several dollars a game. Kids like them because they have a chance to win a “prize”, which is exactly what the people running the games love. The thing is, there are plenty of other things at the fair to do for entertainment besides play carnival games. Most fairs offer several entertaining shows and performances throughout the day for free that are very children/family oriented. I know our fair had a monkey show and duck races, which seem like a lot more fun than playing carnival games anyway.
The Bottom Line
The fair is still a very entertaining summer activity for many families, but it can easily cost a significant amount of money if you aren’t paying attention. Using the averages from above, it can easily cost a family of four $162 for a day at the fair ($32 on admission, $100 on food/drink, and $30 on rides). But if you plan in advance, you can get in on a day with free admission or a day where rides are really cheap. Bringing a few bottles of water from home and comparing the food options at the various vendors can also help bring the cost down.