Not only is it the hap-happiest time of the year, it’s the most expensive, too. From shelling out moo-lah for holiday feasts to doing Santa’s work piling up presents under the tree, the bank account takes a hit. That doesn’t mean you need to cut back in the family time department. Here’s just a few ways to enjoy the ho-ho-ho season with a little less dough-dough-dough.

photo: Art Institute of Chicago

(1) While it’s always free to children under age 14, the world-class Art Institute of Chicago is free for ALL on Thursday evenings between 5-8 p.m. Kids especially love the Thorne Miniature Room exhibit with realistic little rooms from different periods in European and American history, filled with little furniture and little lights and little fixtures – everything is little!

(2) Fill your to-go mugs with hot cocoa from home and hit up the best outdoor German market around, Christkindlmarkt. The market’s signature wooden cabins topped with festive red-and-white-striped canopies are each packed with handmade gifts, food and drinks from around the world. Shop, eat, enjoy free entertainment, repeat – and be sure to say “guten tag” to Santa Claus.

photo: Lincoln Park ZooLights

(3) Lincoln Park Zoo is our hometown hero when it comes to offering free entertainment, all year long! It’s extra special starting Nov. 24 when they flip the switch to ZooLights‘ 2 million bulbs that create a winter wonderland. Snap a pic with Santa, enjoy food and drinks, watch ice carving demos, partake in carousel rides and go-’rounds on the Lionel Train Adventure.

photo: Millennium Park Ice Skating

(4) If you have your own skates, you can figure 8 with a view for free at Millennium Park’s rink. They even offer free ice skating lessons on select mornings, so be sure to check their schedule.

(5) Bundle up and ready your singing voices because on Friday evenings, Nov. 14-Dec. 15, Chicago choral groups will lead celebrants in belting out holiday classics at Cloud Gate.  Santa Claus will join the crowd beforehand, and after the music, head a few steps away to take a spin on the McCormick Tribune ice rink.

(6) Check “pics with Santa” off your holiday to-do list at Bass Pro Shops. Their Santa Wonderland features rustic Christmas cabins, holiday characters and live elves set amongst a dazzling backdrop of snow-covered hills and illuminated Christmas trees. If that wasn’t enough, they also have remote control trucks, laser/ foam toy arcade, Lincoln Logs building area and activity tables where kids can write a letter to Santa, color and do fun crafts, all for free.

photo: Ed Paschke Art Center

(7) Color your world at the free-admission Ed Paschke Art Center. Filled with large-scale oil paintings by the famed Chicago artist, the galleries are a great place to stimulate the senses, no matter how young or old you are. There is even a replica of the artist’s studio.

(8) Take a break from the holiday hullabaloo to spend a day immersed in the exhibits at The Field Museum. It’s Free Admission Day for Illinois residents on Dec. 2 and 24, where basic admission is free and ticketed exhibitions, like Jurassic World, and 3D films are available at a discounted price.

photo: Adler Planetarium

(9) What could be sweeter than stargazing with the fam? Adler Planetarium’s Doane Observatory provides visitors a unique opportunity to see a variety of celestial objects, like the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, using the largest aperture telescope available to the public in the Chicagoland area. Doane at Dusk invites all to a special nighttime viewing and related discussion with Astronomers Dec. 15, for free, of course!

(10) At the Lincoln Park Conservatory, you’ll find tropical plants and ancient ferns right in the heart of Lincoln Park. Designed to showcase exotic plants and grow the thousands of greens needed for use in the parks, the Conservatory offers visitors a tropical experience within its four display houses. Not only that, but it’s a great spot to snap a few holiday pics.

photo: Chicago Cultural Center’s Juicebox series

(11) The Chicago Cultural Center invites guests to their free Juicebox series, which provides engaging music and dance programming geared toward the stroller-set. Concerts are alternating Fridays at the Chicago Cultural Center and alternating Saturdays at the Garfield Park Conservatory, with upcoming shows set for Dec. 1, 2, 15 and 16.

(12) Tire the kids out before nap time at North Park Village Nature Center. When we get those random warm-for-Chicago days, you can hike through woodland, wetland, prairie and savanna; and warm up with hands-on exhibits at the adored nature center. In the Discovery Room little ones are actually encouraged to touch and feel natural objects.

Do you have any free tricks up your sleeve? We’d love to hear about them in the Comments below.

— Maria Chambers