Fun for Less: 19 Strategies for Saving on Entertainment

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Best Tips: Saving on Entertainment
By Marilyn Lewis

When you're on a budget, whittling spending on non-essentials matters. But so does the quality of your life. To get a gauge of your own spending, consider that American households (of all sizes) spent an average of $2,625 on food outside home in 2013, according to the latest numbers in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey. We also dropped $2,482, on average, on entertainment.

1. Dine Out Strategically

Enjoy restaurant meals while saving serious money by eating lightly. It's easy to overeat at restaurants anyway, and ordering less is widely accepted today as a means of maintaining health.

Here's how to care for yourself and your budget:

  • Take the edge off your appetite by having a healthy snack before leaving home.
  • Share an entree, halving the cost of the most-expensive part of the meal.
  • Order appetizers and dessert and skip the main course. Or enjoy just a drink and appetizers.
  • Try pricier restaurants at lunchtime, rather than dinner. Often they offer much the same menu but with smaller portions and lower prices.
  • Planning helps you avoid ordering on impulse: Read a restaurant's menu online before leaving home. Many have menus on their websites, or check UrbanSpoon or AllMenus.
2. Embrace the Happy Hour

Happy hour, when bars and taverns offer discounted drinks and cheap or free food in the late afternoon, is enjoying a resurgence in many cities. Search online for the name of your town and "best happy hour" for reviews of the best local spots. Happy hour prices are offered during limited hours so order moderately and keep an eye on the clock. Popular Mechanics reviews five apps for locating happy hours near you.

3. Explore Culinary School Restaurants

You will find culinary academies and community colleges in many cities with restaurants that are open to the public. These allow student chefs a chance to train in a professional atmosphere. Prices can be low and the quality high. For instance, the restaurant L'Ecole is a training ground for would-be chefs attending the International Culinary Center in New York City. According to Fodor's Travel, graduates include famed chefs Jose Andres, Jacques Pepin, Emily Luchetti, Dan Barber and Wylie Dufresne.

4. Check Restaurant Websites

A restaurant's site is a great place to learn about dinner deals, happy hour specials, coupons and promotions. Sign up for restaurants' emails for special offers and notices of events. For more ideas, read 15 Ways to Cut Your Fine Dining Bill in Half.

5. Use Entertainment Books

Many cities and local charities sell books with discounted coupons for restaurant meals. Or buy The Entertainment Book for two-for-one coupons and half-off discounts at restaurants and entertainment spots. If you eat out often, you're likely to get your money's worth and then some.

6. Purchase Dining Certificates

At you can purchase certificates that can significantly reduce the cost of dining out. Pay $4 for a certificate worth $10, for example. However, read the fine print carefully. There may be catches, including a minimum purchase may be required. Get additional dining discounts by subscribing to's newsletter. Here are 6 More Tips to Save at Also, watch local newspaper ads for restaurant coupons.

7. Order to Go

Buying a restaurant's entrees to go can save you half or more on the cost of restaurant food by eliminating the cost of the tip, drinks, appetizers and dessert. Take the food home and build around the entrees to make a meal. Or pack up your food and visit a park or museum on free-entrance days (check their websites to learn when admission is free).

8. Rethink Spending on Live Sports

If you are on a budget, professional sporting events may be out of your league. Judge for yourself: Forbes contributor Maury Brown used Team Marketing Report's 2014 Fan Cost Index to get these average per-game prices for tickets, refreshments, caps and programs for a family of four: Having trouble coughing up $200 to $450 for a single outing? Save big by watching professional games at home or at a sports bar. Or become a fan of local professional, collegiate and high school teams.

9. Try Tribute Bands

"There's something magical about being there live when it happens," writes Forbes' Maury Brown of music concerts. However, as he points out, "concerts have become something that many have to pick and choose to go see, as opposed to a time when many went to each and every show that came through town." Brown's solution for those who love live music: Explore the world of tribute bands. "Many tribute concerts see reasonable prices at around an average price of $10-$15 per show, and there are lots of them to choose from of high quality," music promoter Jason Fellman tells Brown.

10. Attend Matinees

Likewise, nothing can replace an electric performance by professional actors in a resident theater company (See the League of Resident Theaters member companies by city. But the price of live theater can be steep. Depending on the company, the seats and the performance, ticket prices can range from less than $20 to more than $100. You can enjoy live theater for less by attending cheaper weekday matinees.

11. Embrace Local Theater

Another way to enjoy live theater on a budget is to experiment attending local amateur and student theater performances. Keep an eye on local newspapers and magazines for reviews tipping you off to the best performances.

12. Don't Pay Full Price for Broadway Shows

Visiting New York City? "Broadway shows often have a dip in the price of tickets for their Wednesday matinee shows," according to Find same-day box-office discounts from the Theater Development Fund. And read New York Magazine's Broadway Ticket FAQs to find the best deals.

13. Revel in HD Streaming at Local Movie Theaters

Some of the world's best plays, dance performances and opera are available in your town thanks to HD streaming in local movie theaters. You'll find, for example, works broadcast live or taped from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the Bolshoi Ballet, the New York City Ballet and London's National Theater Live.

One example: The Metropolitan Opera streams live HD performances that can be seen at participating U.S. movie theaters. Ticket prices vary by location but are a fraction of the cost of a live performance. Sophisticated camera work and upgraded sound and video give HD viewers a better vantage of the stage than even attendees at the live performances enjoy. Check local newspaper and magazine entertainment sections and websites to find performances near you. Streaming HD performances have critics. The pros and cons are discussed online at WBUR, NPR's Boston station.

14. Find Cheap Movies

So much free quality entertainment is available online (read "Where to Watch Free Movies and TV Online") that you hardly need to leave the house. But sitting around in your sweats eating homemade popcorn gets old. You can enjoy a movie house without the pain of high-priced tickets by patronizing matinees (find ticket prices on your theater's website). And many cities have "dollar theaters" that play second-run films at bargain prices. Check local newspaper and entertainment websites or search online for your city and "cheap movie theaters."

15. Volunteer

Volunteering at local events gets you into the concerts, festivals and plays you want to see free of charge. Offer your services to the sponsoring organization as an usher, ticket-seller, coat checker, program distributor or to do whatever else is needed. "In exchange, volunteers not only get to see performances for free but also may acquire backstage access," says AARP, in an article on cutting the cost of entertainment.

16. Check Out the Library

Local libraries are a rich source ;of free reading, listening and viewing. Well, not entirely free: Our taxes support them, so getting your money's worth is another reason to use the library. In fact, you may even be eligible for membership in two libraries, ones run by your city and county. Among the many money-saving perks:
  • Ask a library to borrow from another library books not in the local catalog.
  • Find sales of cheap used books and sources of free books and periodicals at library fundraisers and free book bins.
  • Library bulletin boards post free and low-cost local events.
  • Download electronic books and music.
  • Electronic database subscriptions let card-holders read popular and obscure newspapers, periodicals and journals online.
17. Find Free Ebooks and Audio Downloads

The volunteer Project Gutenberg offers free downloads of around 46,000 ebooks. These are free because the books' copyrights have expired and volunteers have digitized and proofread them. No fee or registration is required, but a small voluntary donation is asked to keep the gift going. Also, the project needs volunteers to help digitize books or read them aloud for recordings. Affiliated projects around the globe offer tens of thousands more books, including audio books, in many languages.

18. Try a Coupon Site

Groupon, Living Social and other daily deal sites -- Kiplinger reviews 15 -- sell coupons for discounted prices at restaurants and for entertainment and recreational experiences. You've got to use discipline to save money on these sites, though. It's scarily easy to buy, buy, buy, telling yourself you're getting great deals.

19. Get a (Cheap) Hobby

Find the right hobby, and you'll have hours and hours of entertainment at your fingertips. The trick is finding one that doesn't eat your budget alive. For ideas:
  • Lifehacker lists 10 inexpensive hobbies, such as hiking, blogging, ballroom dancing and making music.
  • MainStreet's list of cheap hobbies includes herb gardening, knitting, woodcarving, baking, puzzles, yoga and bird watching and more.
  • Some people turn hobbies into businesses. Blogging, eBay, freelance writing, performing and some crafts have potential.

Planning some spring or summer travel? Click here for "17 Proven Ways to Save on Vacation"

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