Monday, July 06, 2009

Money Monday: July 6, 2009

The Alameda County Fair is one of those annual traditions for us. We have only missed one season in fifteen years at this point. Like everything else, the cost of a day’s amusement at the county fair has crept steadily upward. Last year, we went the way we usually did: With a credit card and a little cash, and paying only moderate attention to the total cost as we went.

Because, you know, the good old county fair is the low cost family entertainment value deal, right?

It was a shocking surprise when all the bills came in and got totaled up. Holy smokes, the parking and entry tickets were the least of our problems! The food, and the junque, and the rides – which I’d tried to keep “cheap” by buying just a sheet of tickets instead of getting unlimited wristbands and then bought more tickets because they ran out way before the kids’ energy did…they all added up to an impressively large out of pocket.

But we had a great time so, you know, it was like a little one-day vacation, right?

This year, I was two seconds from saying Too Expensive and refusing to go at all. Because it was too expensive. We’d be in for a good four hundred bucks, minimum, by the time we did all the stuff we’d want to do…the stuff we had to do, because we always did it…

Tradition is a funny thing sometimes.

You go to the county fair one year with your new boyfriend. Gee, it’s sure fun. He loves the art, you love the animals. You do a couple rides. You try a bunch of food. It’s all good, but there are a few things that are just awesome. We should do this again next year…

The next year you go and head straight for those favorite things from last year. A corn dog and wandering through the art exhibit. A funnel cake while you look at the animals. Two beers while watching the horse racing. A plate of BBQ that could feed an army. A couple rides. Awesome. We’re totally doing this again next year…

Each year, another layer is added, another thing that was awesome and we want to do it again next time.

As time goes on, these things become not merely “one of the many fun things to do at this event,” but tradition. We always go to the right as we enter, get a funnel cake from this vendor and then we stand on this brick to eat it and then we turn around three times, stop on the left foot (don’t forget it!) and yell, “Hooka-booka-hooka-booka-Jimmy-Dean-OH! Car-nee-val, car-nee-val, go-go-GO!” before we go on this ride first…”

Yeah, I made that last one up. But you know what I mean: There is a list of “Must Do” activities, and they get longer and more complicated as time goes on. In really bad cases, dealing with the list of what-all must be done becomes the point of the journey in and of itself…and if anything on that list has to be crossed off for any reason, it puts a shadow over the whole event.

Sometimes to the point where, well, you just don’t wanna do it at all anymore.

These rough economic times are forcing a lot of us to rethink traditions like these. I know a lot of people simply aren’t going to the fair at all because they can’t afford it. We considered not going because we couldn’t afford it – not if we did things the way we did last year.

And I had this feeling that it just wouldn’t be as much fun, if we had to do without a bunch of our traditional treats. But then I told myself to quit spackling my hangups all over my kids. I’m sitting here saying “we” wouldn’t have as much fun if “we” couldn’t do all the stuff “we” usually did, but push come to shove, it was me having a problem.

I was the one having a problem with the idea of being too budget-challenged to buy all the stuff I usually bought. I was the one thinking not having a funnel cake would somehow crush my soul. I was the one sniveling about not being able to see what groovy new whizbanger I could bring home to make my housework a breeze this year.

I wanted to be able to shower the kids with junk food and t-shirts and let them try to pop balloons for exciting prizes and go on every ride the carnival had to offer.

And I wanted to do my usual thing, where I buy enough junk food to choke a horse, take two nibbles from each thing and then hand it off to someone else to finish for me. (Big eyes, little stomach – fortunately, just a nibble is satisfying for me and I have lots of kids to spread the fats and calories around…)

I went online and found a package that got us a parking pass, four general admissions and two 2-for-1 soda coupons for $25 – it would have been $48 at the gate for parking and admissions, and the sodas were $4.00 each. They also offered unlimited ride wristbands for $20 each on the pre-fair purchase, versus $28 at the fair.

I made a deal with the kids: I’d get them the wristbands and they could go on any ride the wristbands entitled them to do…and that’s it. No ponies, no stuffed animals, no fairway games, no rock wall climbing or bungee machine or dragon statues or, well, anything else. We would each get one (1) snack, one (1) wristband, and other than that if it wasn’t free, we wouldn’t get it.

I expected a lot more angst. Tradition states that a lot of funnel cake and corn dog action will be going on, and that we’ll buy one sheet of tickets (which gets each kid three or four rides), and then be talked into a second sheet maybe, plus of the pony rides and rock walls might be determined to be an acceptable expense considering that the party of the first part did not in fact buy anything from the Shopper’s Pavilion, unlike party of the second part, who is now carrying a stuffed something-or-other the size of her whole room

But apart from minor pony angst (“Why can’t they be part of the wristbands?!” Eldest fumed…loudly, and more than once) and a brief round of pleading from Danger Mouse about playing fairway games so she could get one of those REAAAAALLY! big stuffed animals (odds of actually winning: 1 in 1,000,000,000), everybody was thrilled with the new reality.

We had a great time, on about a third the cost. We ate a big breakfast before we left, brought our own water bottles and candy with us, and didn’t eat ourselves into a coma on the junk food.

Surprisingly, we survived the deprivation.

The price of everything has gone up. Back in the day, the fair cost $1 to park and $5 for an adult ticket. A ride was one dollar, not three to five bucks. And you certainly didn’t spend six dollars on a corn dog, either.

But turns out, the sheer volume of what we buy has gone up as well. What started out as a quick bite and a whirl on the Ferris wheel has somehow become a full-day extravaganza of eating, drinking and making merry…and unless you stop and really think about why, the sheer weight of because we ALWAYS do such and so! makes giving up even one single nibble of caramel apple a non-starter.

I may not be able turn back the hands of inflation on ticket prices and the cost of a corn dog ($6? Seriously?!), but I can tinker with my own willingness to pay the price demanded, and with my perception that unless I have everything I think I need, the whole experience will somehow be not-as-good as it has always been.

You don’t have to eat until you’re sick to be full. Merely having enough is as good as a feast, and less likely to lead to sour stomach and wallet-holes.

It was still expensive. If things were even a hair tighter around here, I’d’ve had to say no to the rides, too. We still would’ve had fun. It would have been a different kind of fun, just like this trip was a different kind of fun compared to last year, and the year before that.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: Most of us are having to make hard choices around what we can and can’t afford, what we will or will not pay for, what things are essential and what things are going to have to go.

And a lot of times, we are demanding all or none when we make those calls. If I can’t have everything I always had on this deal, I don’t want any of it.

I think we might want to reconsider that stance, remember that the “bad” seats are still hearing the music and that getting even just one little bite of something is better than going hungry.


Science PhD Mom said...

I love going to the county fair with my family, too. The wristbands seem to be outrageously expensive, but now that we have a child old enough to ride things repeatedly, it's a better deal. I am still searching for a deep fried candy bar, so otherwise we say no to fair food. And my favorite part is the exhibit hall, and the kids love the animals. Hey, small tip for you--a lot of times you can get free admission if you enter something for exhibition/competition. I'll bet you could throw a knitting project in there and let the kids enter some produce from the garden, and cut your admission costs still more! This is what we're doing this year, sans the knitting--but my potatoes are destined for the blue ribbon, I just know it! ;)

Steph B said...

I know what you mean. We're not taking a "vacation" this year, just doing some day trips and having some fun around home. And you know, we're all really okay with it. It actually relieves a lot of stress. Plus I get to sleep in my own bed, which is always preferable!