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What it takes to get through a day at the State Fair on a $30 budget

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The Minnesota State Fair is one of those times when it's OK to splurge a little. But every time I go I end up spending upwards of $100 and all I have to show for it is an extra 6 pounds.

And while I very much enjoy myself, I thought I'd try doing the State Fair with a more modest budget.

The challenge: Get through the fair on $30 (not including ticket cost), and not have a terrible time. I set some rules for myself:

  • I could buy as much food and drink as I want.
  • That had to include a craft beer, and something on a stick.
  • I had to pick up some souvenirs for my family.
  • And for entertainment, seeing some events and going on a ride were required.

Here's how I did.

First thing: Coffee

I get to the State Fair early on Monday and my first port of call is for coffee. The cheapest I can find is the famous "egg coffee" at the Salem Lutheran Church cafe on Cosgrove, by the Eco Experience.

At 8 oz it's not the biggest coffee but it's enough for me, even after I manage to spill some on my wallet while taking a picture of my drink.

Cost: $1.50

Total remaining: $28.50

Breakfast club

There are plenty of breakfast options around but they tend to cost north of $5, so I took the advice of a Star Tribune guide from last year about a $4 breakfast taco can from Lulu's Public House at the West End Market.

It's a bad decision for two reasons: It could not have been further away from the Lutheran cafe; and though it's a tasty taco, it's also pretty small and I am still hungry.

Cost: $4

Remaining: $24.50

Entertain me!

While food and drink will cost you, entertainment is almost always free, and I am heading through the sheep barn while it's still empty.

After stroking a sheep like ewe wouldn't believe, I am just in time for the sheepdog trials at the Warner Coliseum – which for 9 a.m. has a pretty impressive crowd. The skills of the trainers are exceptional, though one of them has serious trouble getting the stubborn fluff-balls into the pen.

Later on in the day I take in some youth skateboarding and a lumberjack/jill display at the North Woods.

Cost: Free

Remaining: $24.50

I need a drink

No, not a beer – yet – but that breakfast taco left me parched, so I head to the All You Can Drink Milk Stand at the corner of Judson and Clough, hoping to take advantage of the $2 bottomless cup.

What I didn't realize is you have to stay around the booth if you want refills, and I don't want to be restricted in that way. So I head down Judson St. to SnoBiz, where they are offering an 8 oz root beer for $1. Sorry, milk.

Cost: $1

Remaining: $23.50

Free stuff = acceptable gifts, right?

Rather than buy gifts, I decide to save money by picking up as many freebies as I can to give to my family – namely my wife, who loves State Fair freebies. In the space of 20 minutes I pick up a tote bag from the Health Fair at Dan Patch and Cooper, and a pair of Gophers sunglasses from the U of M unit next door.

By the end of the day I had a cup, a back scratcher, a calendar (with a picture of me), a pine sapling, a clip magnet, and a water bottle.

Cost: ...Free

Remaining: $23.50

A hot dog bargain

Monday at the State Fair is Seniors' Day, so there are loads of deals across the fair available to all. One of them is a $2 hot dog at Coasters at the Commissary Building at Carnes and Liggitt.

I am heading that way when I notice the Frontier Saloon right next door, which has hot dogs for just $1 – bonus find! I take advantage greedily. It's not the best hot dog ... but you know, it's a hot dog, they're all good.

Cost: $1

Remaining: $22.50

Beer time

To break up the day I grab a beer from the Summit brewery stand at the International Bazaar. It's $4.50 for 12 oz, which is 25 cents more expensive than I've seen at other outlets across the fairground, but it's next to our Go Media stand so convenience trumps cost in this instance.

Best thing about the fair for me is it's my first chance to drink Oktoberfest beer before it's back in stores for the fall – I've waited six months for this.

Cost: $4.50

Remaining: $18

Just desserts

It's pretty hot at lunchtime, so I head to the Dairy Building to take advantage of a Seniors Day offer from the Dairy Goodness Bar. Unfortunately I misread the offer so tried to argue for 50 percent off my cone, when in fact the offer is 50 cents off.

Either way, their chocolate soft serve ice cream cones are glorious.

Cost: $2.50

Remaining: $15.50

I'll have a Giant Slider

One of my stipulations was I go on a ride, and the cheapest I can find that still provides a modicum of fun is the giant slide. I'm not a big fairground ride guy anyway so this is perfect for me.

I'm the only man over the age of 30 on the slide without their children. I feel a little embarrassed, but it's a fun slide ...

Cost: $2.50

Remaining: $13

Finding a cheap burger

I'm off exploring the park, watching the skateboarding at the north end of Underwood St., before perusing the Pet Building, the Education Building (grabbing much of the aforementioned free stuff) and walking through the packed Food Building (on a hot day, it's not nice).

I'm searching for something substantial for dinner when I notice an inexpensive burger at Mike's on the corner of Carnes and Nelson. It's cheap, and it tastes like it – I'm beginning to understand that if you don't spend much on food, you're compromising somewhat on size and quality.

Cost: $2.50

Remaining: $10.50

I find my 'on a stick' requirement

I'd searched across the fairground looking for something as reasonable and appetizing on a stick as a Pronto Pup, but I was unsuccessful. So I ended up just biting the bullet – and by the bullet, I mean the corndog.

It's on a stick, it's a Minnesota State Fair tradition, and it's $4. I'm happy.

Cost: $4

Remaining: $6.50

One last refresher

It's still really hot here, so I go to find one last treat before I'm done, and I find it in the Agriculture and Horticulture building where an Apple Cider Freeze Pop costs just $1.50.

They're one of Andrew Zimmern's "Top Picks" for State Fair foods, and they're just the thing for a hot summer's day.

Cost: $1.50

Remaining: $5

Hey, I've got $5 still!

I've been at the fair for more than 9 hours and I'm exhausted. But I think I've accomplished everything I'd planned, saw everything I wanted to see, and have kept things cheap.

In fact, I've come in $5 under my budget, which is a total bonus. Methinks another beer is in order ...

Would I do it again?

While this shows it's possible to keep things cheap at the State Fair, I probably would have done things differently if I went through it again. For example, I'd have plumped for something more expensive, larger and tastier food-wise, instead of just buying more of the cheapest foods.

That said, there are plenty of things that are inexpensive at the fair I'll be trying every year – the ice cream at the Dairy Building for example, is awesome.

It's worth checking up as well on the daily offer pamphlet you can pick up from the information booths. It saved me a couple of bucks by buying smart.

And I made a conscious decision not to buy a Blue Ribbon Bargain Book to help me on my way to make it more of a challenge, but if you're planning on eating and drinking a lot at the fair, are part of a large group/family, or going to visit the fair more than once, it's worth the $5 price of purchase because it's packed with decent offers.

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