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A Cheapskate’s Guide to the Minnesota State Fair

Here's one family’s Blue Ribbon Bargain Book strategy.

Minnesota State Fair via Instagram

The Great Minnesota Spend-Together traps many an unprepared family atop the Giant Slide of Financial Doom as they head into September. It's terrible timing, what with fall’s monetary commitments to school, holidays, and alcohol to dull the pain caused by the Twins and Vikings. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Our family doesn’t have “Duluth Cheapskates” stitched onto our reusable merch bags because we’re a roller derby team. The Matuszaks make our annual end-of-summer pilgrimage down I-35 to Falcon Heights and easily navigate those budgetary bumps that lie waiting at the Fairgrounds, along those streets cobbled with squished Sweet Martha’s cookies. It’s not because we’re prudent financial planners (I love an impulse deep-fried thing-on-a-stick purchase as much as the next bald, sweaty guy). Instead, we make the Minnesota State Fair affordable thanks to one single $5 expenditure: the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book.

Years of experience have taught us how this little blue-and-white publication, crammed with more coupons than the Pickled Pizza line’s got people, is integral to navigating the economic pitfalls of the State Fair. Through years of practical experience, trial-and-error, and just plain luck, we’ve developed some sure-fire Blue Ribbon Book Strategies, Pitfalls, and Opportunities to help us get through the fair financially unscathed. Take it from Brian, Sue, and recent Racket dive bar guide Kaylee Matuszak, the family that’s pinched so many pennies, our thumbs are pockmarked with profiles of Abe Lincoln.

Strategies

It’s vital that you plan out exactly where you’re going to be on the Fairgrounds and approximately what time you’ll be there. Wandering aimlessly from 4-H Building to Ye Old Mill, only partaking when the mood strikes you (somehow it’s always when you pass the most colorful—and expensive—food cart) is reckless. You might as well toss your wallet off the SkyGlider ride and let it mingle with all the underwear on the Little Farm Hands metal roof.

The first page of the Blue Ribbon book has a super-handy Landmark Index that shows the Fairgrounds laid out into six creatively named Map Areas. One glance reveals the location of all the food and drink vendors with coupons. And if you don’t feel all Nicolas Cagey with your map-reading skills, when you turn over each individual coupon, there’s a tinier map with a giant blue arrow pointing out exactly where to find the bargain.

Decades of attendance have allowed us to craft a specific route to maximize our coupon utilization. For instance, in the morning we have $3 off a fruit-filled scone at French Meadow Bakery, $2.25 off a mocha frappe at the Farmers Union Coffee Shop… and lookee here: THE BOOK HAS PAID FOR ITSELF AND IT’S NOT EVEN 7:15 a.m.! (Pro tip: if you're an early bird like us, buy your book ahead of time anywhere pre-fair tickets are sold; they’re not for sale on the Fairgrounds until 9 a.m.).

Be flexible, though. You may find yourself unexpectedly needing something ice-cold if the sun is blazing on your fair day. Luckily, the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book contains several coupons for relief: from lemonade to pop to shaved ice stands, all scattered throughout the Fairgrounds. The only thing to watch out for here are the hornets that continually buzz around the sticky sweetness of these locations, but that’s a small price to pay for paying such a small price.

Pitfalls

Sometimes an offer will look so good, you’ll be tempted to try it just for the savings, but beware. Just because you can save a buck on a bacon breakfast quesadilla doesn’t mean you should. Only you know the early morning constitution of your lower colon.

Also, the vendors don’t always repeat their offers, which means even though Kaylee is now hooked on the delicious hot dogs at Mike’s Hamburgers after years of enjoying them for a buck, they’re no longer in the book and she’ll have to pay full price to chase that particular dragon. Such are the risks you run with the Blue Ribbon “One and Dones.” Couple years back, a coupon enticed me to try the Yosemite SAMwich at The Frontier—taco meat, barbecue sauce, nacho cheese, and crispy onions piled high on a sesame seed hamburger bun. (The sandwich wasn’t the only thing rootin’ and tootin’.) But the next year, that coupon vamoosed. Delicious sandwich, to be sure, just not worth the full price, in my cheapskated estimation.

You can find every single coupon for 2023 here.   

Opportunities

Sometimes, you may find the gamble is worth it. The chance to experience culinary delights you might have shied away from is now affordable with the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book. Bonus points if you end up loving it and it becomes your personal State Fair staple. And bonus bonus points if they remain in the coupon book for years after that. That was our experience with the El Sol Mexican Foods burrito. We had seen their booth outside the Food Building every year, but never ventured in. But then, in 2018, Blue Ribbon coupon in hand, we dared to dream. Sue and I have been splitting it as a satisfying lunch ever since.

Additionally, the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book may lead you to a part of the State Fair that you’ve never experienced. One year, a coupon for a Minnesota-shaped necklace lured us to the Warner Coliseum. In addition to jewelry, we discovered a perfect place to take a break from the day’s activities, get out of the sun and recharge while horses jump over various hedges and sticks.

Cheapskate Extra

Stick a Post-It note on the inside back cover of your coupon book—don’t worry, you’re just hiding an advertisement on how to become a Friend of the Fair, which you already accomplished by purchasing the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book. Then make two columns on it: one for the value of the coupon, and one for what you actually spent on that specific purchase. At the end of the day, check and see the exact moment your coupon book paid for itself (usually within the first two purchases, AS NOTED EARLIER!). Plus, you now have tangible proof of how much moola you saved at this year’s Great Minnesota Save-Together.

By following our Duluth Cheapskate plan of action with your Blue Ribbon Bargain Book, you’ll make this year’s State Fair the most economical, and fun, it’s ever been for your family. Maybe you’ll even have a couple of bucks left over to drown your sorrows for that upcoming Twins playoff exit you know is coming in October.

This was written in collaboration with Brian's wife Sue, a fellow State Fair aficionado.

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