Wallet Bustin’ at the Western Montana Fair


Well, you’ve heard of Mutton Bustin’ at Western Montana Fair, but have you heard of Wallet Bustin’?  Probably not, but all of you have probably participated in this wild event at any fair you have attended!

Many of you may be Grand Champions of Wallet Bustin’…especially if you have kids!  It’s the event where your wallet is completely out of action after carnival rides, cotton candy, 3 tater pigs, 4 Vikings, 2 large Lemondairys, 3 Fried Cheese Curds, 10 tickets for carnival games, 5 games of bingo, 5 orders of Fry Bread with honey, 5 rodeo passes and oh, don’t forget 3 Big Sky Nachos with drinks!  (and probably a bottle of Pepto-Bismal for the ride home!)  Cha-ching$$$$$!!!

We avoided the Western Montana Fair when we were first married because of the cost and a lack of interest.  When we began having kids, I wanted them to have memories of the county fair like I did from my childhood.  County fairs are at the core of who we are as America.  One hundred years ago, county fairs were the highlight of the summer and everyone from near and far would gather for various events and competitions.

County fairs are as American as it gets and they are an important part of our history and culture and I want to share it with my children. But I just wasn’t ready for the “mini-loan” I needed in order to get three kids into the fair for even a day!  After about 2 years of going to the fair and coming home with such guilt about the amount of money we spent, my husband and I scratched our heads about how to overcome this dilemma.

We tried limiting our visit to just one day.  That worked okay until the kids got a little older and wanted to go more and see more.   We knew there had to be a solution to this problem so we thought a little more and came up with the idea of setting a budget for the fair each year.  So, that is exactly what we have done.  We budget a certain amount just as we would a vacation or a large purchase.  This way, we know the money we are spending is intended for the Western Montana Fair and there is no more guilt involved.

We now have 2 of our 3 kids in 4-H and they have livestock at the fair so we are there everyday, all day!  Needless to say, we are grateful for our pre-established budget.  We also have our kids save some of their allowances for the fair too.  This way when they want to play those silly carnival games (which Jon and I roll our eyes at) then they can spend their own money and everyone is happy.

Now, setting a budget doesn’t mean we are depriving ourselves of ANY fair food (believe me!) or events.  It just means we are conscious about where and how we spend our cash.  Set a limit on how much you want to spend for food and entertainment.  Be sure to communicate those amounts to everyone in your family, too.

Our kids aren’t die-hard carnival ride goers, so it isn’t worth it for us to purchase a “Pay One Price” stamp.  Instead we buy individual tickets (usually 10 per kid) and that seems to satisfy them.  Doing it this way saves us about half the cost of the hand stamp.  If your kids love rides, I would suggest purchasing the advanced carnival P.O.P tickets from the Fair Office for $20.  These are only on sale until August 9th at 2pm so act fast!

Being alert to the various “theme days” at the fair may help you save money on your admission fees.  Here is a list of the discounted admissions throughout the week:

  • Tuesday: ½ price gate admission
  • Wednesday: Senior (55 yrs+) and Military Free Admission
  • Thursday: Kids Day (ages 0-17) Free admission until 6pm
  • Sunday: Free Gate Admission for all ages
  • Wednesday-Friday: Business Person’s Lunch (free admission from 11:30-1pm with your business card)
  • Active Duty Military gets free admission all week.

There aren’t coupons or punch cards for any of the food vendors at the fair.  This is because all the vendors are organizations in Missoula who depend on the Western Montana Fair as their major fundraiser for the year.  This realization helped my husband and me when we were trying to sort through the money we spent each year at the fair.  Realizing our money was not only buying delightful, “once-a-year” food (can you say “Fried Cheese Curds!?”) but it was also helping organizations who do wonderful things in Missoula.

Take time to stroll through the exhibit buildings and all the animal barns.  These are the things which have sustained county fairs for over a century!  Most people don’t realize or appreciate the time, hard work, tears, heartache and dedication which go into many of the projects and animals on exhibit at the fair.

As a 4-H mom, I know firsthand how proud my boys are when the general public stroll through see their hogs which they have worked so hard to get to the fair.  Don’t hesitate to ask these kids some questions about their animals!  They will surprise you with their knowledge and poise, plus you will thrill them with your interest.  Remember these exhibits are all free to the general public and are great family entertainment.

If you are really savvy, you might want to consider entering items in the judging competitions.  If you win a ribbon, then you can collect premium money at the end of the fair.  Our entire family enters items like eggs, honey, vegetables, legos, photos and lots of baked goods.  The money we win helps offset some of our spending.  Plus, it is just plain fun to enter something and win a ribbon.

Attending the Western Montana Fair is now an event that our family looks forward to all year long.  By setting a budget and saving year round for the fair, we enjoy our fair week so much more and we no longer have feelings of guilt or remorse.  Realistically, there is no way around not spending money during fair season but with a budget set and an understanding that your money is supporting various organizations and the historic Western Montana Fair, you can go and enjoy all the great things the fair has to offer without having to enter the wild and wooly ride of “Wallet Bustin”.


Enjoy this blog?  You might also like Erin’s previous posts on Tips for Frugal Camping,  Discount Shopping Deals…Even on Vacation,  Orchard Homes Country Life Club Celebrates 100 Years, and  Saving Money with Christmas is July.   AND, be sure to check out the “Missoula Save it Club”  on the home page of MakeItMissoula.com (See the Daily Missoula Fix buttons in the left navigation bar) for savings updates throughout the week!

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Erin Eisenman-Turner is proud to be a native Missoulian.  Along with her husband and three sons, they raise chickens, pigs, rabbits, and vegetables at Turner Family Farms in the Orchard Homes area. When the farm chores are done, the coupons clipped and the blog written, you can find Erin exploring Montana, collecting antiques and trying to maintain a well-run, happy and organized home for her family.