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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyDecember 15, 2023

The most fun you can have for under $20

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

In the midst of a cost-of-fun crisis, is it still possible to have a good time with a solitary green note?

With housing in crisis, the cost of living in crisis, and you probably in crisis too, it can be hard to have any money left over for fun. Yet without fun, living is a little difficult. We can’t trudge on forever, endlessly tightening our belts and trying to find side hustles. We must find ways to have fun on a budget.

I know your mum says the beach is free, but once you get there, there’s not much to do apart from getting sunburnt, which is not that fun. She has probably also tried to convince you that doing the dishes or vacuuming is fun, so we know we can’t trust her. Still, I have included some free activities to appease her (realistically, they will probably cost $20 because your Hop/Oyster/whatever card needs to be topped up, or you will get hungry and dehydrated, or you will suddenly remember you need to buy a lightbulb and dishwashing liquid).

So without further ado, here are my top 10 picks for fun within a budget of $20, to help get you through the holiday season and life in general.

If there are adult sized skates for hire, that means it’s for adults, right?

Your local skate rink that is also a disco

Beside Auckland’s big Mount Wellington, but not opposite the big McDonald’s, is a concrete and corrugated iron warehouse, and inside is the wonder of Skateland. The entry fee for an adult is just $10, and if you didn’t fall into the skating craze last summer, skate hire is $4, which means you can also buy some snacks within your $20 budget. 

Inside, it smells like children’s feet, and the only lighting is rotating disco lights. The playlist (open to requests) is accompanied by music videos projected on the far wall, complete with lyrics at the bottom, so it’s basically a giant karaoke room where everyone is on wheels. 

Yes, there are lots of children, and most of them are wobbly. But the adults are worse. The fun ends when someone’s dad tries to use you for support when he’s falling, causing you to also fall, since there are wheels on your feet.

Feed pigeons

Feeding pigeons costs only one loaf of bread, and the cheapest one will do. Head along to your local public space and start chucking chunks of bread around, and the pigeons will surprise and delight you. Will they scratch? Jump on your hand? Give you a disease? Bestow good luck via a poo on your shoe? We’re really living life on the edge here, and it is very exciting. 

If you’re lucky, you might get some little cuties (sparrows), and if you’re unlucky, the seagulls will come squawking, in which case I recommend tsunami etiquette, ie hiding your bread and relocating somewhere further inland.

Dead birds at Te Papa.

Go to the museum and look at the stuffed dead things

Probably free! Cute and creepy! Ponder the human drive to kill and preserve! Be enriched! 

Drive through… something

Let’s not forget the novelty that is experiencing life through car windows. It makes life distant and more poignant, like vague poetry. At the more affordable end, there’s the streets in the rich areas with lots of Christmas lights (free), then there’s McDonald’s, where the best burger in the world will set you back $9(ish) and feel like a hot bowling ball in your stomach for hours to come. 

Right at the highest end of in-car entertainment are car washes, and how much fun you want to have determines the price. At BP there’s $12, $15, and $18 options. All are immersive and sensorial experiences – the swishing of brushes, smell of detergents, trickles of water and gushing of fans come from all directions. To enhance the mood pop on some ambient orchestral music or heavy metal – it’s up to you.

A car is not $20, you may say. I agree. Most cars are much more than $20. I am just hoping you know someone with a car, and can trade borrowing it for its clean return.

How much for the doggy with the shell ears?

Make shell art

There are many ways to approach shell art. You might like to make a hanging chandelier (gorgeous) but you will either need a drill (not under $20, to my knowledge) or shells which already have holes in them. A low-tech option is a beshelled mirror frame. All you need for that is shells (free), a mini hot glue gun ($9.99) and the mirror (approximately $5 at an op-shop). If you don’t care too much for your own reflection, you can gift it to a loved one, saving money on Christmas gifts in the process. 

Collect a very specific thing

The most important thing about being a collector is defining your specific lane of collecting. If you’re on a budget, I would recommend making it an extremely narrow lane, and restricting yourself to op-shops and Trade Me. The great thing is you will hardly ever find the thing, so you will hardly ever have to spend any money.

Some recommendations: blue-tinted drinking glasses, star-shaped candle holders, rainbow socks, scissors for left-handed people.

Watch one dance at a strip club

On a night that entry is free, slide in for one dance. Whoever is on stage at the time you slide in can have your $20, then you can slide right on out if you don’t have any more money. Yes, it will only last a song or two, but the anticipation and memories will be worth it. Afterwards, you can wistfully walk around town, thinking about tall, sparkly shoes. 

Alex Casey’s song of choice in the coin-operated karaoke booth.


This one can be done for free anywhere, or you can pay for it at select locations. Paying for it will give you a bit of a boost, as you will get a backing track, lyrics, and no-one staring at you thinking you’ve lost it. These privileges are worth paying for, especially if they only cost $2. No, I did not forget the zero: in the Newmarket mall, there are coin-operated karaoke booths, recommended by Alex Casey as “Auckland’s best thing.”

Watch a building site

I know this one isn’t a hot scoop. Retired Italian men do this activity so often they earned a special name (Umarell), but this only serves to credit my claim that it’s a great bit of low-budget fun. There’s a lot going on at building sites: people doing stuff with power tools; diggers and cranes moving things around; a symphony of banging and clanging. If you’re feeling very brave, you could shout out, “I wouldn’t have done it like that!” It’s sure to have a heart-quickening outcome.

Destroy the base with your peow-peows.

Laser strike

What’s better than running around in the dark with a peow-peow laser to zap your friends? At the moment, Laserforce has a school holiday special. You can get three games, a $10 arcade card and a 600ml drink, all for $20. It’s very good value, although you have to bring your own friends, and they have to pay too.

Are most of the things on this list activities lucky children got to do for their birthday parties? Maybe. But is this a bad thing? The best thing about being an adult is that, apart from all your responsibilities and constraints, you can do what you want. And what’s better than going back to being a child?

Keep going!