Note: this article was originally posted on a different site and written prior to the Coronavirus global pandemic that caused the vast majority of people to significantly reduce their entertainment expenses. But I think it’s still valuable content, especially for when we get back to “normal times” (whatever those will look like). Also note that some of the comments below are from that original post (thus the older comment dates).
When you’re getting started down the more frugal path, it can be challenging to figure out where to start when it comes to cutting your expenses. Some folks will argue you should start with the biggest expenses, just like mathematically it makes sense to pay off your highest-interest debt first (versus loans with smaller balances as part of the standard “snowball” approach). For example, work on moving to a more affordable area or house first.
While I am a proponent of paying off your highest-interest debt first (regardless of the balance), when it comes to expenses I definitely encourage folks to start with the easiest effort items and work your way up as your frugality muscles gain strength. Cutting expenses is more challenging (in general) than just picking which card to pay off next. And hopefully credit card debt won’t be a problem for you for very long if you work hard on reducing your expenses!
Perhaps the easiest effort expense to cut: entertainment. The reason? Here in the year 2020 (and likely all following years) it is supremely easy to find high quality entertainment for free or close to free. Below are some ideas of what entertainment expenses to cut and some low-cost alternatives.
Cut the Cord
First things first: if you haven’t cut the cord, now is the time. Paying for cable is one of the worst ways to waste money: endless content you’ll never watch, and almost entirely filled with awful ads that pollute your mind. Even if your internet rate goes up without the bundling of TV, it’s still worth cutting this immediately.
One common concern I hear about cutting cable is losing access to sports. Two points regarding sports: 1) there are now streaming services that give you access to most any games you might want and that cost way less than cable; you can also easily subscribe to those services for only the months you want them (far less of a pain than calling up the cable company to add and drop cable TV repeatedly) 2) I think it’s a good idea to cut back on watching sports anyways because they are usually filled with ads and they take up way too much of your time. And watching sports can easily lead to feeling crappy if your team loses (something you have no control over). In general losing feels worse than winning feels good, a well-known psychological effect known as loss aversion.
Movie theaters charge an arm and a leg to see a movie these days (the 2018 national average ticket price was $9.11), and for that significant expense you must deal with people kicking your chair and hogging the arm rest, sticky floors, crying kids, and no ability to stop the movie to go to the bathroom or grab a drink. Yuck. If you just wait a few months, you can watch any movie in the comfort of your home and without any of those movie theater disadvantages. AND you save big bucks!
You know those red box vending machines that are at the front of nearly every grocery store now? If you haven’t seen them, you’ve probably been living under a rock (not that there’s anything wrong with that, some of my favorite people live under rocks). Turns out they are Blockbuster reincarnated into a dramatically more efficient form (thank you capitalism). You can get tons of great movies at these kiosk devices, especially recent releases (which is what my wife and I use them for).
So how much more efficient? Well, that’s reflected in the price: right now it’s just a couple bucks to rent a movie in blu-ray format. And guess what? We almost never pay full price: we almost always have some promo code that makes it free or at least takes off something like $1. Usually we have more promo codes expire on us than we actually use. In 2019, we got nine movies for a grand total of $11.08 with tax (about the cost of a single movie theater ticket), so an average of $1.23 per movie. We paid the full $2 price only one time in 2019. If we had paid $9.11/ticket for those movies, we would have spent $9.11*2*11 = $200.42! And that’s before tax!
It’s super easy to reserve a movie with the Redbox app, relatively painless to pick it up (just bring the same credit card you used to reserve it), and then you can drop it off at any Redbox the next day. Usually I just pick up a movie at a box that’s on my way home on Friday night, and then we return it the next day at the grocery store.
You do only get one day with the movie, but that’s part of the efficiency: we rarely watch a movie more than once, so why pay for several days? Though if you do really want to watch a movie two days/nights in a row, its doesn’t cost much more to keep it a second night – you’ll just pay the nightly fee twice. Careful though – the price can then start creeping up to Blockbuster levels as a result.
Now we have experienced some technical difficulties with Redbox in the past: a least a few times we were unable to pickup or dropoff movies at any nearby box because a big rainstorm knocked the touchscreens out of commission (all nearby boxes were outdoors), and we’ve also had some scratched up discs that didn’t play correctly in our blu-ray player. But those were definitely the exception to the norm when it comes to our experience with Redbox. And from my personal anecdotal experience, it seems like Redbox has gotten better in the last year at keeping the discs in good shape and upgrading the boxes to handle rain better. But if you do experience any problems, it’s pretty painless to jump on their website and live-chat with customer support to get a refund.
I find it astounding how many people never take advantage of their local library system. Using the library, it’s actually pretty easy to take your entertainment budget down to zero if you want, which I would strongly recommend if your finances are not in great shape.
You can easily check out lots of current (or at least relatively current) TV shows and movies in modern formats like blu-ray and even 4K. For example, I’ve seen every season of Game of Thrones readily available in our local library, which is one of the smallest branches in the Austin public library system. Some might complain that the selection is limited, but I think many libraries have gotten much better about having good titles in recent years. I would also argue that you shouldn’t be watching much TV anyways, so what the library does have should provide more than enough hours of entertainment.
Modern library systems also allow you to place holds on any content available throughout the entire network of library branches, and they deliver it straight to your local branch where you can pick it up in a few seconds. It’s amazing.
And guess what else the library has? Books! I know, it’s weird, some people find books entertaining for some reason. If you’re one of those weirdos, then definitely take advantage of the library! Especially if it’s not a book you expect to need as a reference in the future.
If you already pay for Amazon Prime for fast shipping or some other purpose, the included Prime Video service has more than enough entertainment content to easily fill all your entertainment needs, without needing to pay for an additional streaming service like Netflix. You do have to be a little careful to stick to the content provided as part of Prime, as Amazon tries to trick/entice you into paying for some TV shows and movies, but it’s relatively simple to steer clear of that content. I also find it greatly irritating that they usually play promo reel ads (usually for their own shows) before each episode, but it’s not too bad to fast forward past it. And there may be a dedicated skip button for that content on Fire TV devices (haven’t confirmed, we have a Roku).
I will admit it’s a little more challenging to find top-notch shows on Prime than with other streaming services like Netflix, but it’s not too bad. Some of our favorite shows on Prime:
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
- The Expanse
- Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (for the kids)
- Rick Steves’ Europe
- Mr. Robot
- Comrade Detective
- Red Oaks
- The Good Wife
- Frasier (the first few seasons, jumps the shark about halfway through)
- John Adams
You’ll note some shows on Prime Video are also PBS shows (e.g. Victoria and Rick Steves). But we discovered that PBS requires you to “donate” $60/year in order to obtain a membership that gives you access to these shows on demand within the PBS streaming app. But that’s half the cost of Amazon Prime, so if you don’t have Amazon Prime for other reasons and you are just interested in the PBS shows like Victoria, that’s actually a pretty decent deal. And you’re also supporting public television, a worthwhile cause.
A bit further up the scale of entertainment expense, and the highest my wife and I are willing to spend directly on recurring entertainment, is the new Disney+ service. We are big Marvel/Pixar/Star Wars fans, and we have a toddler that is obsessed with the Cars movies, so it was a relatively easy decision for us. But if we were tight on money, we would definitely be doing without this service.
Disney has a much lower price than other dedicated streaming services as well, at $6.99/month for HD/4K content instead of $12.99/$15.99 for HD/4K content on Netflix. They also have a nice lower annual purchase option (not available on Netflix at this time) for $69.99 for the year (so $5.83/month), which we took advantage of, saving $14 for the year over the monthly plan, and $86 for the year over the HD Netflix plan we had previously (or $122 if we had subscribed to the 4K plan).
You may be wondering why I left the mother-of-all free entertainment option for last. Well, while I think YouTube is an incredible source of free and amazing information and instructions on how to do nearly anything, it does have some significant downsides. First, most of the content traditionally associated with entertainment is riddled with ads. While these ads can sometimes be skipped, they are still pervasive usually. Remember: ads are way more effective than you think, and you’re not immune (even if you think you are).
The second (and probably bigger) reason to be cautious about spending time on YouTube is the highly addictive nature of the platform – it’s super easy to get sucked into endless rabbit holes of content. When you watch a show on a paid service like Disney+ or Amazon Prime, there is usually a clear end which your brain can use to disengage. But with YouTube, they have done a masterful job of preventing that natural disengagement and keeping you sucked in.
Third, there is also a great deal of hate-mongering content that you have to be really weary of, especially as compared to paid curated services. YouTube’s algorithms are designed to keep you watching, so it will usually always show the most compelling content in your “Up Next” section – which happens to be some pretty awful content much of the time.
As an example of the power and perils of YouTube, our 3.5 year old son regularly asks to watch YouTube because of the highly addictive toy videos that exist in near infinite quantity on the site. I do not know how they make these shows so incredibly compelling and absorbing for young kids, but our son has a (usually huge) tantrum almost every time we force him to stop watching. As a result, we now mostly stick to Disney+ or Prime Video content (which we still try to keep to a minimum) unless we need something extremely absorbing (e.g. when we have to dig out several splinters from his hand).
What We Pay For
Right now my wife and I have Amazon Prime (which includes Prime Video) and Disney+ (which we got via the annual package that brought down the cost to $5.83/month). We never go to the movies. Instead we just rent anything we want to see on Redbox when it comes out on Blu-ray a few months later.
As a result, we spent $223.12 in 2019 on media entertainment: $136.28 for Netflix, $75.76 for an annual subscription to Disney+, and $11.08 for movies from Redbox. And since we’ve cancelled Netflix now, next year we expect to spend $75.76 for Disney+ and ~$10.00 for Redbox movies = $86.76 (almost 1/3 our 2019 expenses!)
I don’t count the $120 we spent on an Amazon Prime membership because we got that primarily for the free / fast shipping, but I wouldn’t argue with you if you said that should also be part of our entertainment expense total (at least partially). We also spent $59.42 on a Pandora Plus, primarily to have an ad-free music source that I can use to stay focused at work and drown out the noise of co-workers. But again I wouldn’t strongly argue if you insisted that should be part of our entertainment budget (rather than a work expense).
We also had a number of entertainment “experiences”, nearly all of which took place on trips we took. I would nominally argue these probably belong under the “travel” expense category rather than “entertainment”, as we wouldn’t have paid for those experiences if we hadn’t taken the trip. But I could see plenty of folks arguing that just because we took the trip doesn’t mean we had to pay for those specific experiences. SO, here’s what we spent on “experiences” (not including flights, hotels, restaurants, etc.):
- $68.25 on cave entrance tickets (Natural Bridge Caverns, near San Antonio, TX)
- $40 on a summer membership to our local pool
- California Trip:
- San Diego Zoo: $102 (our last opportunity to go before our son became old enough to require a ticket!)
- Wineries: $23.55 + $24.84
- Aquarium of the Pacific: $18.95+$37.95
- Minnesota Trip:
- Minnesota State Fair: $24
- Mirror Maze: $6.75
- Breweries: $26.52 + $15
- Minnesota Children’s Museum: $38.85
So we spent a total of $426.66 on entertainment “experiences”. If you add these expenses and the quasi-entertainment expenses (Amazon and Pandora) to our media entertainment budget, the total for 2019 increases to $829.20.
The average amount an American family spent on entertainment in 2018 was $3,226. Thus we spent $2397 less than this average value, despite taking two cross-country trips (which accounted for 51% of our entertainment expenses). If you took that savings and invested it in a low cost total stock market index fund and assumed 7% annual return, that money would be worth $4715 in 10 years and $18247 in 30 years! And that’s just for that one year’s savings! If you save that much money every year, you’re looking at $40,152 savings after 10 years and $260,518 savings after 30 years!
While I include experience expenses in our total entertainment budget of $829.20, I believe buying experiences (especially while traveling) is usually a more powerful way to translate your dollars to real, long-term happiness in your life than paying for sedentary activities like cable television and movie tickets. Especially those activities that get you moving and active (e.g. a zoo or children’s museum). So I kinda think of them as preventative health care instead of just entertainment (though I know that may be a bit of stretch).
I also believe paying for one-off experiences is better because you are forced to think carefully about the expense each time – versus a monthly cable bill you pay no attention to. Recurring costs like these are a powerful drain on people’s finances, as they tend to think of the monthly cost (only $10!) instead of the yearly cost ($120! whoa!) or decadal cost ($1200!!! And that’s without investment opportunity cost!).
In general I strongly recommend focusing on free or cheap forms of entertainment, especially if you’re still struggling with money: books from the library, walks through your local park or hikes on local trails, taking your kids to the playground, etc. If and when you have a bit more money and would like to spend a bit more on entertainment, follow the advice above to keep your entertainment budget to a minimum while still having almost limitless super-high-quality entertainment at your fingertips.
Do you have any frugal entertainment tips / tricks? Feel free to post in the comments below!