Welcome to "Frugal Fridays" where we share money saving tips, discuss living frugally and generally talk about personal finance issues. Today I wanted to turn toward the lighter side of life and look at how you can save money while keeping yourself and your family entertained. This started out as a diary about books, but as I'd like to hear your ideas on all sorts of entertainment: movies, music, live entertainment, video games, theme parks, you name it. If you've found a way to save money while having fun, here's the place to share.
If you are looking for free entertainment, your local public library should be your first stop. You may be surprised at all they have to offer. In addition to books, most libraries carry music CD's, movies (DVDs and videos). Some also carry software, toys and other stuff you may want to check out (pun intended). I used to live near a library where you could check out cameras for your personal use. You never know what they have until you ask. Even if you don't live near a well stocked library branch, the bookmobile and Interlibrary Loan can bring the resources of the county or state library system to you.
On a hot summer day, it's a cool place to while away an afternoon reading or surfing the web on the free internet access, which allows you to save money on your summer utility bills. Also, summer reading programs aren't just for kids anymore. Many libraries hold them for adults as well. Sign up and you can get free prizes for reading free books. What could be better than that?
Brick and Mortar Used Book Stores and Thrift Stores
Sometimes there is no substitute for owning your own copy of a book, movie, CD or game. In those cases, you may want to look into your local used books stores or thrift stores. The selection at thrift stores is somewhat limited, but the prices can't be beat. Look in the yellow pages under Thrift Stores or Books: Used to find locations near you.
Web Used Book Stores and Thrift Stores
If you are looking for a hard to find and/or cheap book, CD, DVD, video game, etc., your best resource may be right at your fingertips. Here are some places to start:
- Freecycle: the best source on the web for finding free stuff or for getting rid of stuff that you know will go to someone who really wants it.
- Craigslist: great for picking up previous generation games or electronics.
- Bookmooch: a wonderful way to trade used books over the web. You enter books you want to trade into their database. If someone requests it, you send it to them free (you pay the postage) and you get a credit. Use the credits to request books from other folks.
- Abe Books and Alibris are great sources for used and, in particular, out-of-print books.
- Amazon is a good resource for book reviews and used books in addition to the new books they sell. Here is a link I found of coupon codes you can use there. I haven't used this link myself, so I don't know how good it is or if these work for used book purchases. When I shop at Amazon, I use FreePledge so that a percentage of my purchase goes to the charity of my choice, but again, I don't know if that applies to used books.
Other Resources for Books
Here are some more links I've found that have to do with books. These aren't necessarily for used books or even for saving money, but they are kind of cool.
- If you want to know find out what book comes next in a series you are reading, What's Next is a really helpful page. (Just another resource brought to you by a local library.)
- Half Price Books is a chain of stores that sells used and remaindered books and music at a discount. Use this web page to find the store nearest you.
- Borders Books has a rewards program that is free to sign up for. They send out coupons by email weekly that are usually good for something like 20% off a single item.
- If you are looking for an independent bookstore, you can check out BookSense to find one near you.
- Powell's Books or Barnes and Nobles are recommended by many folks who aren't too happy with Amazon's politics (they donate more money to Reps than Dems).
- If you have a hardback book you don't want to keep, and you can get past the trauma of destroying a book, you can hollow it out and turn it into a place to hide valuables. You can also buy these at Secret Storage Books, but doing it yourself is a lot cheaper.
Summer is traditionally the time to go watch movies. If seeing the latest hit on the big screen is important to you, there are ways to take the whole family out without taking out a second mortgage. Keep in mind that movie theaters don't make their profit from the sale of tickets. Most of that money goes to the studios. They make their money on the concession stand and thus the markup on popcorn and soda is outrageous. This is why most theaters take a dim view of people smuggling in their own snacks. My advice is if you don't want to watch a movie without munching on something, bring your own, but be discreet. (Big purses are really helpful.)
- In general, movie theaters don't have as many cheap matinee showings as they used to, but the first show of the day is usually half-price at most places. One piece of advice: never, ever, go see any movie rated lower than NC-17 on a weekend matinee. Trust me, you won't be able to hear the soundtrack over all the children screaming and talking.
- You may be able to find a discount movie theater near you. It may not have the best sound system and it won't show big movies in the first weeks they are out, but they can be significantly cheaper than the megaplex.
- Look for discount ticket buying opportunities through your employer or other organizations you belong to. I've seen discount movie tickets for AMC theaters on sale at our local Costco. Alternatively, you may be able to get a discount if you purchase a set of gift certificates through the theater box office.
- If you live nears a college or university and you know someone who can buy you tickets, you may be able to see the very discounted movies that are sometimes shown on campus.
- Of course watching movies in your own home is much cheaper than taking the whole family out to the theater. Netflix and Blockbuster both have very affordable rental plans. I think Netflix's interface and support is a bit better, but with Blockbuster you have the added benefit of being able to pick up and drop off movies at the store (which saves the mailing time).
I'm probably not the person to ask about good sources for cheap music since I am barely out of the vinyl age and I'm not that into music to begin with, but I do have a few suggestions, other than the stores listed above.
- BMG Music Club has been mr. sarahnity's favorite source for years (I swear there is a picture of him at their corporate headquarters labeled "Our Favorite Customer"). His average cost per CD is about $5 through them. The key is to wait until they have a really good sale (about every 6 months, it seems) where you buy one at full price and the rest are some cheap price like $1.99 (plus shipping) and then stock up on all the stuff you've been eyeballing for months to fully amortize that one expensive CD. You have to be willing to indulge in delayed gratification, but you can save a bundle if you are.
- Rather than buy an entire CD when you only want one song, you can buy the single track from iTunes. Or so I hear. Some day I'm going to have to get myself one of those MP3 players and find out what all the fuss is about.
Cable TV bills can easily top $100/month. If you watch two or three hours of TV a day, this may seem worthwhile, but if you are on a strict budget, this may be an expense you want to cut down or eliminate entirely. For those of us who live in houses in relatively urban areas, we can get most network broadcasts with just an antenna on the roof, although this may not be much use for folks in apartments or in very rural settings. If you find yourself reluctant to give up your favorite show that you can only see on cable, consider this alternative: rather than watching the show in the season it is broadcast, wait a year and watch all the episodes when they come out on DVD. (Check them out of the library or rent the DVDs). You have the added benefit of knowing before you start whether the show was canceled mid-season or not. If you really can't bear to give up the post-episode discussions with your friends each week, you could consider downloading the episodes over the web. The networks are beginning to provide free streaming downloads of some shows and iTunes and Amazon Unbox offer shows for sale.
I'm not proud of this but the fact is that my cheapness is so ingrained, I have trouble spending money on live entertainment, because I keep thinking of it in terms of how many dollars I have to spend per hour of entertainment, when a single book can keep me entertained for a whole day (or more) for much less cost. It's taken me many years to realize this is a dumb way of looking at the cost of a ticket to a show. There is something magical about live entertainment that is quite memorable and unlike any other form of entertainment. I can still remember the first Broadway show I saw twenty-five years ago (Doug Henning as Merlin) , and there aren't many books I can say have stuck with me that long. That said, there are ways to save money even for this relatively expensive form of fun:
- Matinee performances of symphonies, the ballet, or theater can be significantly cheaper than then evening shows. You don't always see the principal cast in the performance, but the quality is not noticeably different in my experience. For those of you with small children you want to leave at home, it may be cheaper and easier to find a babysitter during the daytime rather than for an evening performance as well. Be warned that matinee performances are likely to have more children in the audience.
- If you live near a college or university, look into the student productions. They can be quite good and very affordable.
- Community theater (where the performers are amateurs) can also be a good source for affordable live entertainment. If you are willing to volunteer some time, you may even get free tickets.
- Music Festivals are a wonderful way to see a lot of live music all in one location. Often they are free or very low cost. Look into what annual events are held in your area.
- In New York, you can get half-priced show tickets the day of the performance at the TKTS booth in Time Square. In Las Vegas, Tix4Tonight has a similar service (be sure to print out the coupon from their website before you go to save even more).
Just as with movie tickets, you can often get discount tickets to theme parks through your employer, your credit union, wholesale clubs like Costco, promotions run at certain grocery stores, other organizations such as AAA or its more progressive competitor Better World Club. I don't think it's ever necessary to pay full price at most of these places. Ask around and you should easily save a few dollars per ticket. Some parks run promotions during the summer where you can buy a multi-month pass for the price of only a few admissions. If you live near such a place, that might be a nice treat for your kids that doesn't break your budget.