Frugal parents can find fun on a budget at annual event, too

It was against my better judgment to venture solo with a 2-year-old on a hot day through the Indiana State Fairgrounds. But years later, I am so glad I did.

I had been to the fair, but I didn’t grow up going to it regularly. So when my son won a ticket through the library’s summer reading club, I wasn’t sure I wanted to attempt that outing while my husband was at work.

But it was free. It would get us out of the house. And there was a troupe of acrobats from China (where my son was born) performing.

So we went. He pointed at tractors. I took a few pictures.

We quit winning free tickets, but over the years since that initial outing, I’ve picked up a few pointers on how to frugally enjoy the state fair with a child. I’m hoping they’ll come in handy once again; my husband and I have welcomed another son, and there are new chapters of state fair memories waiting to be made.

Set some priorities: Let me be up-front: I don’t go to the state fair for rides or the deep-fried food-of-the-moment. Maybe you do, and that’s fine; just make sure you plan and budget for that. Log on to and select “Tickets” to find the “Promotions/Discounted Offers” section for admission deals and the “Midway” section for wristband specials. The site is full of information, including the entire state fair program, and it’s going to help you save money. Still, there are some other, unmentioned freebies your kids might like that I’ve just found by being there. Read on.

•Don’t go hungry: Again, fair food is an attraction for some. If that’s you, you might want to take advantage of the $2 servings food vendors will offer on Tuesdays of the fair, or of food discounts on Foodie Friday (Aug. 21).

Sometimes I’ve taken advantage of the $2 deals. Other years, I’ve planned a drive-thru stop right before or right after our fair outing.

If you’re trying to last until that next meal, there’s free popcorn in the Indiana Farm Bureau building. You might even be lucky enough to be near the east end of the grandstand or in front of Dow Agrisciences Celebration Park when a company is handing out samples; we’ve happened on ice cream in those places a couple of times.

If your child goes through Little Hands on the Farm, he or she will get to choose a drink or snack item at the end. A little refreshment goes a long way.

If you’re going to the fair on Aug. 18, stop by the Farm Bureau Building between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. for Taste from Indiana Farms, where you can sample foods grown/produced in Indiana, ranging from watermelon to venison sausage. The offerings are different each year, but there’s always something tasty.

Stay hydrated: Several buildings have water fountains. I often pack a cup, lid and straw in a baggie so it will be easy to get a cold drink. Stop by the Pathways to Water Quality exhibit, and you might be able to fill a pointy paper cup from a fountain there.

In years past, I’ve noticed a sign that the Dairy Bar will refill a baby’s bottle for free. I don’t know if that’s still on or if that fits your baby’s regimen, but now you know. I’ve also bought chocolate milk for 50 cents at the Dairy Bar.

•Remember little feet: My younger son, at 4, doesn’t use or need a stroller. But when I take him to the state fair for the first time, I will probably pack a lightweight, easily foldable stroller. On fair-visiting days, I widen the parameters of who can ride a stroller a little. I also set aside a little change for a shuttle ride or two.

Find freebies: Again, the stair fair website and program will help you find a wealth of free kid-friendly shows, the Lego exhibit (Harvest Pavilion), Little Hands on the Farm, and stops on the Wonder Trail to win a prize. But I’ll mention some other attractions and freebies I’ve noticed in past years.

Stop by the greenhouse next to the Normandy Barn for a seed-related activity and some free seeds with a theme, such as pizza garden, herb garden or flower garden. Stop by Centennial Hall next to the 4-H Exhibit Hall; youth help your child build a small wooden car or train engine. The program is free but does accept donations to cover the cost of materials.

Stop by the Exposition Hall. Last year, the Indiana Department of Education’s Hoosier Family of Readers program had a table there with a stash of gently used books. My son got to choose one for free, along with a bookmark.

Bring a bag. These are not all the chances your child will have to win a hat or some other item. You’ll probably walk out with some recipes and other freebies yourself.

Take pictures: Finally, the FFA pavilion has miniature golf and a small playground. The latter is a great way for grown-ups to catch a break while the children stay close playing.

In the building is a painting of a ruler. On that first state fair visit with my older son, I took a photo of him next to it. I have done that every year since, and I’ll keep on as long as he’ll let me. Because these yearly visits are not really about attractions or free stuff. They’re about time spent together, moments captured and memories made.

State Fair Weekend Highlights


6:15 a.m.– Hot air balloon launch at the infield

10 a.m. and 2 p.m.— Calgary Stampede Show band at the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand

7:30 p.m.— The Indigo Girls at the free stage

9 p.m. — Light Up the Night Tractor Parade at the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand


9 a.m. to 8 p.m. — Indiana State Fair Band Day at the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand

7:30 p.m. — Morris Day and the Time at the free stage


12 noon to 8 p.m. — Hispanic and Latino Music Festival at the free stage

1 p.m. and 7 p.m. — Lucas Oil Indy Super Pull at the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand

2 p.m. ns 4 p.m. — Virtual Farmer Chat at the glass barn

Find a full schedule of events at

Author photo
Anne Smith is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at