Frugal Families, Part 2

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Are Family ski trips just too expensive? We turned to our readers for advice on how to do it on the cheap. The stories of five penny-pinching families who have raised skiing on a budget to an art form. Use their tips to cut your family's tab in half.Cathline Bridges, 35; Elliot Liveoak, 4 Denver, Colo.

Skiing may seem like a poor choice of activities for a single mom saving up for a house. But for Cathline Bridges it's worth it, and she's willing to hit all the sales and seek out all the discounts to make sure that she and her 4-year-old son Elliot have plenty of "slide time."

Bridges is an Alabama transplant who works as a corporate training-and-development Webmaster in Denver. Because she lives in a townhome with no backyard, she typically takes Elliot to the playground so he can burn off energy. After only a few days on skis, however, Bridges decided that a day in the mountain air was far better for her son than any playground. It helped with his physical coordination and self-esteem, she says, and he took to it like a Labrador to water.

Because she lives less than 2 hours away from Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, Bridges last year took advantage of the "Buddy Pass," which allowed four non-related friends to go in on a season pass for $795. "Two hundred dollars for all the skiing I could do in a season? I'd be a fool to pass that up," Bridges says.

Next, Bridges diligently hit all the pre- and post-season sales in her area in search of equipment. She dug in deep at sports clearance centers, where brand-name products are sold substantially below cost. Her "sales receipt" for last season included $200 for her skis, boots and bindings, $35 for her son's helmet, $15 for his hooded ski jacket and a few bucks at a thrift store for ski pants. She considered buying her son skis at the clearance sale, then discovered it only cost $5 a day to rent children's equipment at a local ski shop. (This year she'll spend $50 at Gart's to lease her son's equipment for the season.)

To make sure Elliot had a feel for the sport, Bridges enrolled him in the Children's Museum's KidSlope program, which teaches kids to ski on an artificial slope in Denver. Last season the program included three lessons at the museum and a full-day lesson at one of several participating resorts for $50. Not bad when you consider a full-day child's lesson is usually $70 or more.

Of course, Bridges brings her own food to the mountain to avoid the sticker shock of $8 hot dogs and $4 brownies, and chooses to ski half-days in order to keep her son's interest level high (and whining level low). "We get up in time for the lift opening at 8 am, ski until 11 or 12, then drive back home before the crowds get too heavy for my son to handle," says Bridges. "He naps on the way home and still has a full afternoon left to play in town."

Layne Russell, 37; Cathy Russell, 37; David, 11; Mary Elayne, 10; Nate, 6Liberty, Pa.

Layne Russell is one of those "do-it-now" kind of guys. When his house recently burned to the ground, he made a snap decision to rebuild. When he was told he might have multiple sclerosis seven years ago, he decided he'd learn to ski instead of giving into the diagnosis (which turned out to be wrong). When the ski club he belonged to folded, he got on the computer and started a new one.

A southerner from Tennessee, Russell admits he got a late start in his skiing career. But since taking that first lesson seven years ago, he's become addicted; both to the sport and to making it affordable for his family, which includes his wife, Cathy, and three children, David, Mary Elayne and Nate.

For several years Russell, a professor and business consultant, benefited from a ski club membership. He took advantage of the lift ticket discounts, ski equipment swaps, social events and vacations the club offered, and wondered why anyone would pay full price for a ticket or equipment. When the club disbanded four years ago, a representative from his local ski resort suggested he organize his own club. He did, and the Wildcat Ski Club was born.

Compared to clubs that host happy hours, singles' weekends and monthly social gatherings, the Wildcat Ski Club is fairly minimalist. It's shhort on extra-curricular activities and long on skiing. "I wanted to keep this as simple as possible," said Russell, who minimizes labor and time investment by organizing ski swaps, assigning duties and planning trips via e-mail. The club does a few ski swaps each year, passes along information about ski shops offering good deals and shares information on ski repair and maintenance. But its members gather for one thing and one thing only: to ski. "We're definitely discount oriented, not socially oriented. If you offer the discounts and not all the social events, people will join to ski first."

The time and effort he puts into the club pays off. He buys tickets for club members in bulk (as much as 50 percent off), and manages to get a season's pass for himself and one of his children (one of the other kids still skis free at the local resort) for buying so many tickets. He researches vacation deals and has offered weekend trips to Jay Peak and Killington for as little as $47 for five nights lodging and half-price lift tickets. As the trip leader, he generally gets free lodging and skiing for his efforts.

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