I love going to the fair. Yeah, it's dusty and crowded, and just the smell of the food sets me back a week on my diet.

But, it's fun. And since we have no amusement parks nearby, the fair is one of the few opportunities to take the kids on roller coasters, Ferris wheels and other rides without having to travel.

Plus, there are concerts, animals, art, displays, kids play areas and a demolition derby - all included in the price of admission.

While it is cheaper than going to places like Disneyland, the fair can easily cost a small family more than $100 by the time you pay for parking, admission, food, rides and games - unless you stick to a firm budget.

It can add up quickly. I did the math for a family of four. Admission would be $28. Parking is $5. Two kids' meals cost about $12, plus $20 for mom and dad to eat.

For the family to go on three rides, it would cost about $57. That adds up to $122.

But with a little planning - and the expert advice we've gotten for you from lots of fair-going moms - you actually don't have to spend much to have a good time.

Launa Rabago, entertainment and marketing manager for the Pima County Fair, said they've tailored the events so people can spend about five hours without going on any rides.

"My family and friends go on Monday," she said. "You get $2 admission and $2 parking. If you don't go on rides, that's a great deal."

There are a ton of things to do at the fair that don't cost extra money.

Paige Kyte, a mother of two small children, takes her kids to the petting zoo and livestock area.

"We avoid the ride area," she said. "There's a lot of free stuff to do."

That's fairly easy to do when you have small children. But if you have older kids that love the rides, the day to go is Tuesday, when rides are $2. That's a great deal, considering the average price for a ride is $4.75.

Angie McGreevy, a mother of five children, said the wristbands are the way to go if your kids love the rides. They're normally $30, but on wristband nights, which are Wednesday and Thursday, you can get them for $25 if you bring an unopened bottle of Coke or Diet Coke, which is shared with volunteers, employees or donated to a food bank.

The wristband allows unlimited rides. After you've gone on about six rides, you're basically getting the rest for free.

Speaking of free rides, the fair has a program called Read & Ride, which gives your kids the chance to get three free rides by reading three books.

This is an awesome program - one that I plan on taking advantage of.

Download the Read and Ride form from pimacountyfair.com, have your kids read the books and write a summary. If they're too young to write, they can draw pictures about the story.

Take the completed form into guest services and get a pass for three free rides. You can get only one pass per child, and your child has to be present to get the pass. It's good for kids in pre-K through 8th grade.

Three free ride passes are a savings of almost $15.

Tucson mother of two Kathleen Roman said she avoids spending too much money by bringing only the amount she wants to spend "because the games and rides are addicting."

When the cash is gone, she stops spending. The $4 ATM fees stop her from getting more money.

I can attest to that. I was going to take out $20, since the vendor selling Greek fries doesn't take plastic. I was shocked when the ATM sought a $4 fee.

I said never mind, and grabbed a $5 corn dog from a vendor who took debit cards.

Taking advantage of the fair's discounts are a great way to save. For example, McGreevy got her family in for free by donating two cans of food per person for the Community Food Bank. The next food drive day is April 28.

Ride and admission discounts are great. But food is expensive. "Food is where we get you," the fair's Rabago acknowledged.

Taking advantage of happy hour at the fair, which is from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, when vendors have $2 menu items, is a great way to lessen the blow.

If you can't make it on a happy-hour day, splurge on one thing you really want, and leave the rest alone.

"We assume we're going to splurge a little bit. It's just once a year," McGreevy said. "But we take it easy on dinner items and each have a dessert."

Sharing is also a good option. The portions are huge. I saw a woman walk away from Piggly's with a plate piled about 5 inches high with french fries. They cost about $7, but it's enough for your family to share.

Or consider ordering kids' meals. They average about $6 and come with drinks.

Domino's Pizza has a booth where you can get a small pizza for $6. Or, Island Noodles gives big portions of soba noodles with vegetables or chicken for $7 to $8. You get a lot, so it's worth the price.

Our game plan is to fill up on a big, healthy meal before we go, and get tasty treats to share.

Fair Discounts

Here are discounts offered by the Pima County Fair, broken down by day. Check www.pimacountyfair.com for more information.

• Today: Free admission until noon with Bruegger's Bagel receipt of $5 or more.

• Monday: $2 parking and $2 admission. Free wheel rides and carousel for ages 55 and over.

• Tuesday: $2 rides and games (animal rides and extreme rides excluded). From 4 to 6 p.m.: $2 menu items from all food vendors. $2 beer at the Bud Light Lime-A-Rita Cantina, Miller Lite Central Park and the Budweiser Main Stage gardens.

• Wednesday: Free admission until noon with a Wendy's combo meal receipt. Play games for $2. Get a wristband, which gives you unlimited rides, for $25 if you bring an unopened bottle of Coke or Diet Coke to donate. $2 menu items and beer from 4 to 6 p.m.

• Thursday: Get a wristband for $25 with an unopened bottle of Coke or Diet Coke. Play games for $2.

• Friday: $2 admission with military ID.

• Saturday: Free admission until noon with Bruegger's Receipt of $5 or more.

• Next Sunday: Free admission until noon if you bring two cans of food to benefit the Vail Community Food Bank.

Money-saving tips

• Bring cash. Many food vendors do not take plastic, and the fair's ATM fees are $4.

• Eat before you go.

• Stay away from souvenir stands.

• Take advantage of fair deals.

• Go when there are shows you want to see to get the most bang for your buck.

• Get three free rides for the kids through the Read and Ride program.

• Bring a water bottle or buy one and refill it at the water fountains.

• Take the kids to Kiddie Kingdom in Pima Hall and The Interactive Science and Agriculture Activity Centers in Old Pueblo Hall. Both are free.

• Sunset Cantina Bar and Grill has happy-hour specials every day from 4 to 6 p.m. Kids can go in with parents.

If You Go

The Pima County Fair is at 11300 S. Houghton Road. The main gate opens at 1 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Rides start at 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

The fair opened Thursday and runs through April 28.

"Centsible Mom" Angela Pittenger shares ideas and news on how Tucsonans can stretch their dollar. Share your tips with her at apitteng@azstarnet.com and follow her blog at azstarnet.com/centsiblemom