“31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar. You might want to start this series from the beginning!
Last time, we continued looking at the average American family budget, going through each category and examining how one could trim the cost of typical expenses in that category. Here’s the “average American family budget” that we’re looking at, along with links back to the earlier entries on those specific areas:
Housing – $10,080
Transportation – $9,004
Taxes – $7,432
Utilities – $7,068
Food – $6,602
Insurance (including things like pensions) – $5,528
Debt Payments – $5,252
Healthcare – $3,631
Entertainment – $2,564
Cash Contributions – $1,834
Apparel and Services – $1,604
Education – $1,138
Vices – $775
Miscellaneous – $664
Personal Care – $608
TOTAL – $63,784
As you can see from the budget above, the average American family spends $2,564 per year on entertainment. That averages out to a little over $200 per month. Remember, however, that this “average American family” includes single adults, married couples without children, and families with children, too. In other words, a single person is probably coming in below that, whereas a large family (like ours) is probably coming in above that.
Exercise #14 – Trim Your Entertainment Spending
The rest of this article consists of a long list of specific tactics that you can use to trim your entertainment costs. As with the other savings articles in this series, it’s important to remember that everyone lives a somewhat different life and thus some of these tactics are going to seem useful and sensible to you, while others will seem like a stretch to you, and still others won’t apply at all. That’s okay. Ignore the ones that don’t apply. Make an effort to adopt the most sensible ones. Then, give the others a trial run and see if it’s something that can work for you. Commit to some of the challenging ones for thirty days and see if they work, or apply them during the relatively rare situations when those costs come up.
Remember, your overall goal is to cut back hard on the areas of life that are less important to you – the shallows – so that you can afford the “deep” areas of your life both today and tomorrow. Keep that in mind as you read each tip. Is this tip cutting back on something that’s really important to me, that amounts to a core life value? If not, why not cut it so that I can afford those things that really matter?
Let’s dig in.
Cut the cable cord. The average American family spends more than $100 a month on their cable bill. Imagine if that cable bill just vanished. Instantly, you’d have more than $100 a month more to work with in your budget. That money can cover a car payment on a low-end car. It can pay down a credit card debt surprisingly rapidly. It can make life emergencies much easier to handle.
So, how do you do it? The key isn’t to simply eliminate television viewing from your life, but replace it with other services. For example, you can get over-the-air television channels for free (see the next tip) and you can watch a service like Netflix, with almost infinite on-demand options, for just a few bucks a month. Sports can be tricky (at least those not broadcast on over-the-air networks), but if there’s a particular sport you love, buying a streaming package for just that sport is far less expensive than paying for cable or satellite just to keep watching that sport.
Install an over-the-air antenna. Over-the-air antennas are one of the best entertainment bargains out there, as they provide access to local ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and PBS stations for free as well as many ancillary stations that provide things like constant weather updates. In our area, for example, we have an over-the-air free children’s channel, an over-the-air free weather channel, and approximately a dozen different channels featuring all kinds of family- and adult-appropriate entertainment. We get tons of live sports events, strong local and national news coverage, and more programs than we can ever watch.
Installing such an antenna is easy. You can install a small one near your television by simply mounting it on the wall and running the cord to the back of your television set. If you live in or close to a major city, you should be able to pick up a lot of signals that way. You can get a bit better reception by mounting it on your roof, but that’s a bigger project.
Learn about and go to free events. Almost every community has a number of free events that go on throughout the year, many of which people don’t hear about simply because they’re not in touch with community events. It’s time to fix that.
Visit your community’s website and look for the community calendar. It will provide a very long listing of free and low-cost events in your community, most of which will be things that you never heard of or thought of before. If you can simply find one event a week or even one event a month to engage in, then you’ve got a steady source of free entertainment for yourself and your family. You’ll find free performances, free concerts, free activities, free movie nights, and so on.
Start using the library for movies, music, books, and other things. The local public library is one of the best resources available to you in terms of providing free entertainment. The library has thousands of books of all varieties and access to many more through interlibrary loan programs.
But it’s not just books you’ll find there. Many libraries have extensive selections of DVDs, audiobooks, CDs, and even equipment of various types that people can check out or use on site. It’s basically a giant warehouse of free entertainment that you can access if you’re willing to walk in the front door.
Reconsider your subscriptions to magazines and newspapers. Do you really read these every time they come in? Or do they just pile up on the table, forming a mountain of “things you’d like to look at someday” while you’re twiddling with your smartphone? If you’re finding that you’re paying for periodicals that you don’t read, then cut those subscriptions and save yourself some money.
Learn about and explore other free resources in your community. The free entertainment options in your community don’t just end with a concert in the park and the local library, either. Many communities offer a wide variety of programs and resources that people can tap for free entertainment.
Communities often have lakes, hiking trails, nature preserves, bicycling trails, tennis courts, book clubs, discussion forums, regular guest speakers, and on and on and on. The only way you’ll find out about all of these things is to explore your community’s website. Look for lists of civic organizations and check out what they each have to offer. You might be surprised to find some wonderful things on offer for free in your community.
Check out adjacent communities as well. These searches shouldn’t be limited to just the town you live in, either. The towns and cities near you, as well as universities and colleges near you, often have many resources that you’re entirely welcome to partake in. It’s just a matter of discovering them.
So visit the websites of the cities, towns, colleges, and universities near where you live. Find out what kind of things they have on offer and try out some of them. Try doing something new or dabbling in something that seems interesting that you’ve always thought about trying. Go to a free play or listen to a free concert or join a volunteering project. There are many options out there if you look.
Volunteer. Speaking of volunteering, volunteer work is a wonderful way to spend time doing something that really matters, investing your time and your energy and your skills to make some slice of the world a bit better.
See if there’s a Habitat for Humanity organization in your community and sign up to volunteer. You’ll spend a day meeting people and learning some carpentry skills. Sign up to help out with the local food pantry, stocking shelves or helping people who show up. Volunteer to coach a youth soccer team or a youth baseball team. Volunteer to help clean up a park. There are many ways you can volunteer and help out your community, so embrace those opportunities and add one to your life. You’ll meet people and get to engage in something bigger than yourself that helps people in your community and maybe learn a skill or two in the process. What could be better than that?
Move some of your “nights out” into your home. Once a month or so, move an event that would have been “out on the town” into your home. Have a date night in your family room with a big bowl of popcorn and a binge-watching of some new series from Netflix. Make a romantic dinner and serve it at your own dinner table with a candle and the lights low and some soft music playing.
It doesn’t have to be an everytime thing, but if you simply make it into a sometimes thing, you’re going to end up saving a lot of money in the long run while still having an entertaining and enjoyable social life.
Host dinner parties (preferably potlucks) instead of going out. Instead of simply going out to dinner or going out to a club with friends, invite them over for a dinner party instead. Have them bring something with them and the cost of the meal will get very, very low for everyone involved.
It doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy. Just have a simple main course that everyone will enjoy, like a big pot of soup, and maybe have your guests bring appropriate side dishes. Enjoy a wonderful dinner together and maybe a simple after-dinner activity around the table like a game of cards or a board game or retire to the next room for a movie or maybe just simple conversation.
Research discount days at attractions. While there are likely many attractions – museums, amusement parks, baseball stadiums, wineries, and so on – in your area that you might enjoy visiting, you can usually get a lot more value for your dollar if you put in a little bit of research in advance as to when to go and where to buy tickets.
For example, you can often find discounted tickets to the attractions you’re interested in by buying them from other retailers. You might also find days where the ticket prices are discounted – or completely free – at the door, or you might discover days where there are special perks for attendance, such as bobblehead days.
Identify an interesting free hobby and dig into it. There are an almost infinite number of free hobbies out there that you can dig into and explore with your leisure time. I identify a “free hobby” as being one that you can engage in with minimal equipment, that doesn’t require a constant outlay of money to participate, and doesn’t require constant equipment upgrades. For example, trail hiking is a hobby that I define as a “free” hobby, since there are countless trails and places to hike within an hour or so of my home.
I have friends who have all kinds of “free” hobbies, from mushroom collecting to card trading, from rock collecting to reading, from film watching (from the library’s DVD collection and community movie nights) to soccer playing. All of these things can absorb countless hours and provide tons of fulfillment, and those just scratch the surface.
Dig into your media collection and enjoy what you have. Many people have extensive media collections in their homes: piles of DVDs, CDs, video games, books, and other media elements that just sit on shelves, gathering dust. Instead of letting all of that stuff that you love gather dust, use it. Watch those movies. Read those books.
If you find that none of them are appealing to you, then why do you have them? Sell them off and make yourself some money that way. A shelf full of DVDs or a shelf full of books have some value, so extract that value. Hit Craigslist and turn that unwanted media into cash.
Refresh your media collection by trading. Another option for those media items that you don’t want is to simply trade them to your friends and family. Put those items in the hands of people who might enjoy them, and then at the same time receive some media items in exchange that you’ll be excited to read or listen to or watch.
You might even want to organize a book swap meet or a DVD swap meet with your friends. Everyone brings a box of books or DVDs to trade and then everyone does a bunch of one-for-one swaps so that you’re trading something you don’t want to watch or read to a friend who does want to watch or read that item. Not only do you refresh your own media collection for free, you’re also spending a few hours with friends shooting the breeze.
Check the website of your destination before you leave. This is such a simple money-saving step! Whenever you’re about to go somewhere, whether it’s a restaurant or a movie theater or a store, check the website of that destination before you leave. You’ll often find a coupon or some other discount right on that website that will directly save you money on the thing you were already about to do.
For example, let’s say you were about to go to a restaurant for dinner and then shopping at a couple of stores to look for a particular book. Check the restaurant’s website and you might find a coupon for $2 off your entree. Check the store’s website and you might find that one store has that book for 40% off while another store only has it for 20% off, making it sensible to go to the store with the bigger discount. Right there, you just saved $10 and didn’t adjust your evening plans at all.
It’s probably also worth your while to check their social media feeds, too. Check out the Facebook page and Twitter profile of the places you’re about to visit and see whether or not they’re offering any special discounts there.
Just make this online check a matter of course when you’re going anywhere – even to the grocery store – and you’ll find yourself stumbling into discounts.
Eat dinner after the show, rather than before. This is another great “date” strategy that can save some serious cash. Rather than going to dinner and then going to the theater, do it the other way around. That way, you can often snag a ticket at a matinee price at the theater which will save you some cash.
Another advantage: matinee shows are often less crowded, which means you’re more likely to get a great seat and you’re less likely to be pressed into an uncomfortable chair right next to someone else.
As was stated at the start of this article, it’s important to remember that everyone lives a somewhat different life and thus some of these tactics are going to seem useful and sensible to you, while others will seem like a stretch to you, and still others won’t apply at all. That’s okay. Ignore the ones that don’t apply. Make an effort to adopt the most sensible ones. Then, give the others a trial run and see if it’s something that can work for you. Commit to some of the challenging ones for thirty days and see if they work, or apply them during the relatively rare situations when those costs come up.
If you do that, you’ll find yourself using the strategies that really click to save money, and that’s the goal of a list like this.
Next time, we’ll take a look at strategies to save money on clothing!