When you’re on a budget, it is important to cut back on how much you spend on nonessentials. But are there ways to do it without sacrificing the quality of your life?
American households spent an average of $2,787 on food outside home in 2014, according to the latest numbers available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey. We also dropped an average of $2,728 on entertainment.
But we can do better. With planning, creativity and some easily adopted habits, you can balance the need to save with the equally serious need for fun. Following are 17 ways to save money while having fun.
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 a similar 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 Zomato 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.
For tips on smartphone apps that can help you locate the best happy hours, check out “8 Restaurant Phone Apps That Save You Time and Money.”
3. Explore culinary school restaurants
Culinary academies and community colleges in many cities have 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 (The School) is a training ground for would-be chefs attending the International Culinary Center in New York. 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 website is a great place to learn about dinner deals, happy hour specials, coupons and promotions. Sign up for a restaurant’s emails to receive 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, which is packed with 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 Restaurant.com, you can purchase certificates that significantly reduce the cost of dining out. Pay $4 for a certificate worth $10, for example.
However, read the fine print carefully, as there may be catches, such as a minimum purchase. Get additional dining discounts by subscribing to Restaurant.com’s newsletter. Here are “6 More Tips to Save at Restaurant.com.”
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. TheStreet lists the following average ticket prices for pro sports leagues:
- Major League Baseball: Less than $30
- National Basketball Association: Just over $50
- National Hockey League: Just over $60
- National Football League: Nearly $86
Having trouble coughing up that kind of cash for your family? Save big by watching professional games at home or at a sports bar. Or become a fan of local collegiate and high school teams.
9. Try tribute bands
Love live music, but can’t afford the prices big-name acts charge? Explore the world of tribute bands. You may be able to check out a knockoff of your favorite performer for $10-$15 per show. And many of these bands are good!
10. Attend matinees and embrace local theater
Nothing can replace an electric performance by professional actors in a resident theater company. But the price of live theater can be steep.
Depending on the company, the seats and the performance, ticket prices can rocket past $100. You can enjoy live theater for less by attending cheaper weekday matinees.
Another way to enjoy live theater on a budget is to experiment with attending local amateur and student theater performances. Keep an eye on local newspapers and magazines for reviews tipping you off to the best performances.
11. 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. For example, you will find works broadcast live or taped from the Stratford Festival, the Bolshoi Ballet, the New York City Ballet and London’s National Theater Live.
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.
12. Find cheap movies
So much free quality entertainment is available 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. 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.”
For more on finding free movies — the ultimate bargain — check out “4 Ways to See Movies at a Theater for Free.”
Volunteering at local events gives you free admission to the concerts, festivals and plays you want to see. Offer your services to the sponsoring organization as an usher, ticket-seller, coat checker or program distributor.
“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.
14. Check out the library
Local libraries are a rich source of free reading, listening and viewing. Well, they are 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: One run by your city, another by your county. Among the many money-saving perks:
- If your library doesn’t have a book you want in its catalog, ask your branch to borrow the book from another library system.
- 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.
15. 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 requested 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.
16. Try a coupon site
Groupon, LivingSocial and other daily deal sites 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.
17. 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, bird watching and more.
- Some people turn hobbies into businesses. Blogging, eBay, freelance writing and some crafts have potential.
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