Raising a child is expensive. Raising a child in lower Fairfield County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, is almost prohibitively so. This area is known as Connecticut’s “Gold Coast” and counts many celebrities, Wall Street executives, TV stars, writers and artists among its residents. Although I enjoy living amongst the glitterati, our little family will never live like them; my husband is a tenured middle school teacher and I work for a non-profit. We rent our home. We pay for day care, student loans (the new “mortgage”), the upkeep of my jittery jalopy and the same cost-of-living expenses that everyone is subject to. On any given day our pockets are lined with more lint than coin, so we have to be creative when finding inexpensive ways to care for and entertain our spirited two-year-old son.
When we were first looking at day cares in the area, we were shocked by how expensive they were—some were close to $500 a week! A friend at work turned me on to 2-1-1 Childcare, a wonderful site run by the United Way of Connecticut that lists available child care by town. Here you can find a fairly up-to-date listing of weekly rates and educational backgrounds of providers. We found our first in-home day care this way, but when it came time to move our boy to a more challenging, preschool-like program, I also reached out to local church day cares myself. I eventually found one that agreed to take us at a reduced rate, which helped us a lot.
One of my favorite places in the area to visit with my son is the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk. It consists of two floors of fishy, furry fun and is modestly priced at $12.95 for adults, and $9.95 for children aged two to 12. (Kids under two are free). The second floor also boasts a padded play area for younger kids, which, unfortunately, doesn’t hold my son’s attention as raptly as the adjacent elevator. But it’s a nice area where parents can relax after cruising with (or in my case, chasing) their little ones through all the exhibits. And the Aquarium’s adjacent IMAX theater, which is the largest in Connecticut (their website boasts a “screen as tall as a six-story building!”), is also a popular destination.
My son’s need for speed and mischief knows no bounds: he is not above bolting toward a busy street while I trail behind him with heart palpitations, or shoving a fistful of beach sand (or other things I won’t mention out of good “taste”—pun intended) into his mouth quicker than Kim Kardashian can say “I do.” Like most young boys, he has a short attention span and boundless energy, so we don’t like to keep him cooped up in the house watching Khloe and Lamar for very long (although that sounds like my idea of a good day).
On weekends, we go to nearby parks (read: free!), and when the weather is nice, we love visiting local carnivals, which pop up like weeds this time of year and are often held in church and mall parking lots. The tickets don’t cost much, and there’s a good sense of community we feel there. One bonus: we have twice been photographed by local newspapers on kiddie rides together (I am only five feet tall and, if you ignore my crows feet, can sometimes pass for a small child), with Jack looking his adorable self while I appear to be in the Witness Protection Program, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap (The Norwalk Hour, August, 2011), or desperately in need of make-up (The Connecticut Post, April, 2012). I love that we have these newspaper clippings for our photo album.
Bridgeport’s Beardley Zoo is another modestly-priced location your child (and your wallet) is sure to love. Adult admission is only $12, children aged three to 11 get in for $10, and kids under three are free—that’s amazing savings, compared to some popular kid destinations that charge the same high fee for both kids and adults, with only children under one getting free admission. The Zoo is open 362 days a year and is small enough not to feel overwhelming, but still an oasis that makes you forget how close by it is.
Another good source of information is the local library: bulletin boards always feature upcoming events in town. And I’ve found that just chatting up other thrifty parents at the local park (in between failed attempts at stopping my son from licking the ground or his bubble wand) is a good way to find out about inexpensive family fun in my area. Although Fairfield County is an expensive place to live, there are plenty of good deals to be found. One just has to know where to look.