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Frugal living tip #30. July 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Silence Dogood here. It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Today, I want to talk about car games.

Say what? In today’s world of backseat TVs with DVD players, iPods, laptops, and the like, “Are we there yet?” may be history, gone the way of the superhighway. (And soon, we fear, the rest area.) But what if your car (or kid) isn’t equipped with all this expensive, high-tech gadgetry? What if it’s just, well, a car?

How to keep your kids entertained through the hours of travel? Okay, there’s the radio, CD player, and audiobooks. But the arguments that can break out over what to hear can be excruciating to adults, however engrossing they are to the backseat bunch. And once the argument’s been won, the results can be even more excruciating. (“Can we play that Eurotech CD again? And check out these dance moves… I am NOT blocking the rear window!” “NO! Lynyrd Skynyrd! Put on that retro station!!!” “Hit 5, would you?” “I want to listen to the Barney book again!” “No, Walter the Farting Dog!!!” “Owww!!! Stop pinching me!” “BARNEY!!!!” “Mommy, he’s still pinching me!” “WAAAHHHH!!!!”) Ugh.

I remember my mama’s elaborate preparations for our long, looong road trips from Nashville to Pensacola every summer, and for the shorter but more frequent trips from Nashville up to Springfield, Kentucky to see our beloved grandparents. With three kids less than four years apart total jostling around in the back seat, keeping the peace wasn’t a trivial matter, especially since our father wasn’t about to tolerate any backseat fighting.

Amazingly, in retrospect, Mama never loaded up on junk food for our trips—I don’t remember any road food at all, I think we just stopped for lunch or whatever as we went along—but she made sure to drop into the five and dime, the dollar store of the day, to get lots of little handheld games that we could play while we were on the road. And she was also enthusiastic about involving us in playing family road games, such as trying to spot license plates from all 50 states (we never managed this) or calling out the names of any animals we saw along the way. (My father, no country boy and nearsighted besides, was not exactly an ace at this; I still recall the time he said “Look at those nice horses!” while indicating a field of cows. I suspect he remembers it also, after all the ribbing he took for the rest of the ride.)

Believe it or not, our friend Ben and I still play the “call out the animals” game on our road trips. We also call out favorite landmarks, ludicrous billboards, and other entertaining roadside phenomena. Unlike my mama, I’m a big believer in road-trip junk food; it’s the only time OFB and I actually eat it, and it makes long hours in the car much more enticing when you can anticipate sour cream and chives potato chips, cream-filled chocolate rolls, or almond M&Ms en route, knowing that you won’t set eyes on them again until the next vacation rolls around. (I do bring along trail mix, pepitos, aka roasted pumpkin seeds, cheese sticks, and other healthier snacks so we don’t keel over from cholesterol and sugar overload before we reach our destination. And yes, we even eat them.) But if you’re travelling with kids, I have to say, do as I say, not as I do: no junk food or sugar- and caffeine-laden drinks.

You may not find tiny puzzles with hatpin-sized silver balls or the infamous Etch-a-Sketch at your local dollar store. But fortunately, you can still find low-tech, road-friendly games for kids that will help eat up the miles without eating up your budget in the process. Two of our favorite mail-order sources are The Vermont Country Store (www.vermontcountrystore.com) and Lehman’s (www.lehmans.com). The Vermont Country Store offers two kinds of old-style solitaire puzzles in wood with marbles that you can store inside the puzzle when not playing, a handheld pinball machine, three pioneer pocket puzzles, a handheld “Fifteen Puzzle” (the Rubik’s Cube of its day), and a wooden tic-tac-toe game. Lehman’s also has the Fifteen Puzzle, tavern puzzles, a farm cube puzzle, the original Etch-a-Sketch (gasp), magnet sets, and its own wooden tic-tac-toe set. 

Speaking of Rubik’s Cubes, if you can find some, you can always keep your kids occupied (or drive them crazy) with those. Or play a version of the alphabet game: Have the kids take turns finding the letters of the alphabet at the beginning of the state’s name on license plates or on billboards. You can also play a game where the kids recite the funniest bumper stickers on passing cars. (Admittedly, bumper stickers aren’t as common as they used to be, but there are always personalized license plates.)

Here’s a way to encourage creativity on the road: Ask each kid to describe the ongoing adventures of their favorite toy, either left at home or brought along. Or ask them to create an adventure that the family dog or cat is going on while the family is on the road. (Our friend Ben and I actually do this to this day when we’re travelling and have to leave our beloved pets at home or board them. “What do you think Linoose is doing right now?” “Oh, he’s opened the deck door and is enjoying a barbecue down the road after having a beer over at Ollie’s.”)

Any of these options costs chump change compared to an electronic device. And many of them will involve everyone in the family in a lively game. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s worth more than any amount of money. The memories you’ll build on those trips are priceless.

              ‘Til next time,




1. Jen - July 27, 2009

thanks for all these great ideas. I think I have that catalog here somewhere -I will did it out, since we’re going camping in a couple of weeks and I’m anticipating lots of long hours of “mom, I’m bored”. When my kids were little I remember reading a tip that said I should wrap up little presents and treats to keep them busy. I spent more time getting the entertainment together than I did packing!

My husband has the same road trip junk food policy that you do. He even has a special name for road trip junk food: “geedonk”.

Ha! That’s priceless, Jen! I like the idea of little presents, too. And I know my mama spent more time getting our bag of toys and games together than she spent packing, too. (Ditto here for road food, vacation books, and CDs. Ten minutes to pack, but at least an hour to pull everything else together!)

2. Daphne Gould - July 28, 2009

We used to play the ABC game. You had to find all the letters of the alphabet in order. You can use signs and license plates. First person to Z wins. I remember Qs were really hard to find, but you could always count on liquor stores to supply them. I suppose it was a bit amusing for a couple of young kids hoping to find the liquor store first (you couldn’t use the same letter someone else used).

Hi Daphne! Great idea, especially since it would require everyone’s full concentration for quite a while!

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