Teaching Kids Life Lessons at the Circus: Thriftiness & Tightwadiness

by Sally Matheny
Balancing between thriftiness and
tightwadiness is a delicate act.
     Not long ago, we took our nine-year-old son to see his first Ringling Brothers Circus. The tickets were expensive, so I tried to think of ways we could save money during the event. Walking the tightrope of thriftiness is not easy, but it produced valuable life lessons at the circus.
     There’s a thin line between thriftiness and tightwadiness. Balancing between the two is a delicate act requiring great skill. Some may think it’s embarrassing to eat snacks out of a Ziploc bag at a public event. I do not. Our homemade goody bags are usually healthier than their offerings and definitely cheaper.
     Also, prior to our trip, we had several conversations with our son about souvenirs. Our gift to him was a night out to the circus. If he wanted a souvenir, he’d have to use his own money. He insisted circus souvenirs were not desired and his savings were allotted for Legos. I encouraged him to take some money, just in case he changed his mind.
     When the big night finally arrived, we got a late start, and barely had time to hit a drive-thru for dinner. Being the frugal mom, I offered desserts from the snack box we keep packed in the van. Not bothering to turn on the light, I fumbled around for the treats. After the distribution, I enjoyed one of the three chocolate peanut butter squares of my new, Skinny Cow candy and placed the rest in my purse for later.

Saving Money
     The late start also forced us to pay ten dollars for a nice uphill hike to the Civic Center. We didn’t mind. Our excitement and the chilly air brought us to the entrance quickly. I didn’t see a sign mentioning no outside food. The security officer checked my handbag and didn’t say a word about my bagged snacks. She’s probably a thrifty mom, too.
     Herded inside, we smelled buttered popcorn and pepperoni pizza. Thankfully, our bellies were full so we searched for our seats. Up, up, up we climbed. Shortly after locating our seats, the show began. Lively music came from the mini orchestra. The ringmaster’s enthusiasm ignited a rush of applause. After a parade of animals and clowns, various acts appeared in the arena. My husband asked for his snack bag but our son was too excited to eat. He dared not take his eyes off the roaring tigers and their tamer, or the eight dirt bikes zipping inside a metal sphere all at once.
     After an exciting first half, the ringmaster announced an intermission. The guys were quite thirsty by then so they set off to find a drink. Occasionally, a vendor meandered through the crowd shouting, ““Popcorn, popcorn! Who wants popcorn?” or "Get your snow cones, here!"
I bet those snow cones cost five dollars. I bet they’ll splurge on one. 
     Reaching in my purse for the rest of my chocolate candy, only one square emerged. After a thorough search for the other square, I determined it must have fallen on the van floor. Oh, what a waste, I thought, making a mental reminder to search for it later.

Free Flowing Water
     Meanwhile, the guys were weaving in and out of the crowd in search of liquid refreshment. Those tiny snow cones demanded eleven dollars! Our son deemed the red, white, and blue ice worthy of eleven dollars, but his dad did not. During their thirsty search, they found nothing less expensive. Finally, my husband said they would quench their thirst with the free flowing water fountain. A scowl darkened our son’s face. Dad declared the cool water delicious but the boy kept his distance, shaking his head no. Dad drank until content and then mentioned they better get back to their seats. Dryly, our son said, “Wait a minute,” and bent down to partake of the water.
     Zigzagging through the crowd again, this time the brilliant colors and buzzing sounds of circus trinkets beckoned the boy. They paused to look at a few of the overpriced plastics before moving on. Other kids’ holding their mementos made the boy consider using the cash in his pocket. He preferred using his dad’s cash but knew that was inconceivable. Suddenly, the ringmaster’s shout was heard and the band’s music blared. Pondering time ran out and they hurried back to their seats.
     Memory of the shiny trinkets faded as sequined gymnasts propelled high in the air, spiraling through hoops as they leapt. The tricks of the elephants, dogs, and even a pig captured our full attention. Then, to all the kids’ amazement, a wooly mammoth appeared. His long tusks and brown hair swayed above his familiar-looking feet. Funny how my son knew the real identity of the mammoth, but insisted I needed to take a photo of the “unicorn” and the “Pegasus.” I guess some of the high costs of circus attendance go toward intricate, believable costume designs.

Wooly Mammoth with Revealing Feet
     The finale showcased lots of beautiful costumes, talented animals, and hard-working entertainers. Then, the cheerful crowd bubbled out of their seats and made their way to their cars. The vendors made their last attempts to entice sales. However, our son had grown content with the experience and decided he didn’t need any of their gizmos.
     On our way home, we stopped at a QT gas station. My husband treated everyone to frozen ice drinks. The colorful QT cup was twice the size of the one at the circus and cost only sixty-nine cents!
     Whenever our son recounts his fun night at the circus, there is no mention of tightwadiness. He tells about all his favorite circus acts. And with equal enthusiasm, he always shares about how the circus drinks cost eleven dollars but he got one twice as big at QT for sixty-nine cents. He’s very proud of his QT cup!
     The circus tickets were well worth the money. The life lessons learned were priceless. My son learned the benefit of delayed gratification, the value of a dollar, and the sweet satisfaction of a fun, circus experience with his family.
     I learned a lesson as well. If you drop chocolate candy in a dark van, immediately find its whereabouts. Otherwise, you may give Candy Crush a whole new meaning. Apparently, my missing candy did accompany me to the circus.
Ahem. Sometimes, being frugal can have an embarrassing end.
Share ways you teach children to be frugal!


  1. Love it! Good lessons for all of us.

  2. Thanks for stopping by! Seems like I learn many of life's lessons the hard way, or the funny way, or the messy way! :)


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