By Dawn Van Osdell
Just a few short years ago, Nicole Luke was working for the Archbishop Desmond Tutu's now defunct Tutu Institute, where she organized pilgrimages to South Africa for those seeking spiritual renewal, and even met the Dalai Lama. Today, she’s the mom behind the popular community blog, DC Thrifty Mom, continuing what she calls her “civic responsibility” by helping parents find rewarding experiences to enjoy with their kids—without blowing the family budget or even leaving town. You’re likely to find her; her husband Orin, a local real estate agent; and their 9- and 4-year-old daughters, taking advantage of DC’s incredible parks or tinkering on a project at a free workshop. “It’s just about knowing how to find enriching family experiences,” she says.
Here, Luke talks to us about making the transition to a one-income household before starting her blog and discovering that kids don’t care about expensive stuff nearly as much as they care about spending time together as a family. She shares tips for stretching the family dollar in one of the country’s most expensive cites, and gives advice on where to look for inexpensive family fun no matter where you live.
Which DC neighborhood do you call home? We live in North Petworth, a gem of a neighborhood that borders Petworth and Takoma Park, in Northwest DC. It has a wonderful community feel in an urban environment. We truly know our neighbors, which is something we never expected when we moved here 15 years ago. We don’t have our own families here, but we have a lovely 90-year-old neighbor—Aunt Georgia, as my kids call her—who’s always available to help with the kids.
What else does North Petworth bring to family life? We live on the same block as the Takoma Park Recreation Center, which we visit often. We even held our daughter’s third birthday party there. Thanks to a DC initiative to get kids moving and encourage outdoor play, all city parks have been renovated, many with pools and spray grounds—outdoor play spaces with sprinklers and water features. They are beautiful and a lot of people have no idea just how much they offer. For instance, at Tacoma Park, this fall my daughters will take swim lessons, ballet, no-cook cooking classes, and art classes—and I’ve paid just $150 for it all.
Wow! What other local finds have you discovered? We’re between branches of the DC Public Library, so we’re able to enjoy programming—which is often free—at both. When my girls were younger, we attended story time. Now we take advantage of week-long programming. My oldest attended an amazing science camp held by Glaxo Smith Klein at the Georgetown library branch, and has also done make-and-tinker camps. We’ve also enjoyed free tickets to the Nationals game by each child logging just eight hours of reading over the summer. And we have the Smithsonian in our backyard, which offers loads of incredible programming.
Did discovering all these incredible deals inspire you to start your blog? Yes, I started it two and a half years ago when I became a stay-at-home parent. My job as director of operations for the Tutu Institute was relocating, and while I had the opportunity to move with it to South Africa, I had a three-month-old infant and the time just wasn’t right; I decided to stay home with my children.
I had been used to simply writing a check without much thought when we wanted to do a family activity. When we moved to being a one-income household, I had to make an intentional effort to find and choose activities to fit our budget. I was amazed at what I found, and wanted to share it with others. I had a goal of acquiring 1,500 followers in the first year. I exceeded that goal in our first quarter, and today the blog has nearly 15,000 followers. People want to know what’s available, and I want them to share what they know, too. A thrifty friend—as I call my readers— recently told me that the National Park Service offers free roller skating. Wouldn’t you know—we went to Anacostia Park and found a skating pavilion that even offered free skate rentals!
Are you also thrifty travelers? We love going to Shenandoah Valley, which happens to have a lot to offer. We fish and go to the indoor/outdoor water park. We also love Bengie’s Drive-In Movie Theater outside of Baltimore, where my sister lives; and White Oak Duck Pin Bowling.
For our readers who live outside of DC and the surrounding area, what do you recommend for finding inexpensive family fun? There are tons of free family workshops at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and craft stores like Michael's and Lakeshore Learning, where each kid can make a craft. Barnes & Noble offers free story time and activities every Saturday. Lego stores offer mini-builds. The National Park Service is also an incredible resource for families. Right now, they are offering free park passes for all fourth graders.
You tell your readers to find a balance. Where does your family balance out its thriftiness by making a splurge? I tell people to splurge on what your family thinks is fun and worth it. For us, it’s dining out, attending exhibits, such as the recent BEACH Exhibit—an awesome exhibit with an ocean made with a million plastic balls—at the National Building Museum; and taking the Boomerang Boat Tour in Georgetown. A lot of families will splurge on tickets to the circus or Disney on Ice, which is great because it’s all about the experience that kids will remember forever. It’s the time that really matters—that’s what makes kids the happiest. They really don’t care how much you’ve spent.
Photographs by Jeffrey Morris