By Kevin M
Last Saturday night, we decided to go see Avatar, a highly acclaimed movie that lived up to its billing. It was the first time we’d been to the movies this year, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the reason we decided to go at all was that our daughter was at a weekend sleepover, which meant that only my wife, my son and myself would go, saving us money on the fare (OK, she wasn’t really excited about seeing the movie anyway).
Now we live in the Atlanta area, which is a region nearly famous for having a very reasonable cost of living. Despite this, here’s the run down of what it costs to take in a movie in these parts:
Movie ticket: $10.50 per person (seems to go up a dollar every year)
Medium popcorn: $7
Medium soft drink: $5
Box of candy: $5
I can only imagine what it costs to go to the movies in “high cost” areas.
If each person in the family goes for the “full package”—movie, popcorn, drink and candy, the cost is an astonishing $27.50 per person, or $110 for a family of four (a 12 year old is an “adult” at the ticket window)! And we haven’t even added dinner!
The movies weren’t always this expensive
My parents said that back in the 1940s, a quarter got them into a movie house where they would watch a double feature plus “shorts”—newsreels, cartoons and the like. Popcorn, Coke and candy could be had for a nickel or a dime each. A full afternoon or evening of entertainment—3, 4, 5 hours—for about 50 cents! Same deal today: $27.50 for the 1.5-2 hours for a typical single run movie—then we’re back out on the street looking for something to fill the rest of the time.
Back in the 1970s I remember paying a dollar and change for admission, and maybe the same amount in total for popcorn, candy and soda. It would be even less expensive at a drive-in theater, where a car full of people could watch a movie for the single price of admission for one car. Another drive-in bonus was that you could bring in your own snacks to save even more. Are there even any more drive-ins around anymore?
Let’s take a closer look at a family of four today, at the above cost of $110 for one night at the movies. If the family heads to the movies at least once a month, in the course of a full year, the family has spent upwards of $1320 on a single entertainment category, and all for something which seems so normal.
How to save money at the movies
The most typical suggestion for fighting back against high movie prices is to rent DVDs through a local movie rental store, Netflix or some other in-home viewing option. But let’s be honest, there’s something special about going to see a movie at the movies, especially for a fresh-release blockbuster. Raising a family in an era of not-so-cheap movie outings, we’ve been forced to come up with ways to do the things we enjoy, but to do them for less money.
Employer theater discounts. Sometimes theater chains will offer discount packages to large employers to encourage attendance. My wife worked for such a company, but for some reason the company didn’t publicize it. We were able to save $2-$3 per ticket, and with four tickets per movie, it made a real difference. Bug a few people in the HR department; even if they don’t have such an arrangement, maybe you can contact local theaters and see if any are willing to create one.
Matinees. You can typically save $2-3 per person by attending afternoon matinees. For a family of four, this alone will save $8-12.
Avoid combo packages. Theaters usually offer some sort of combo packages on snacks, but if you do the math (and I have while standing in some very long lines) you’ll find that you’ll typically save only a dollar per order versus the same collection purchased a la carte. The kiddy packs are appealing to small kids, but are close to a bona fide rip off: $6 for two handfuls of popcorn, a SMALL drink and a candy strip that’s just enough to tick your child off. There are better ways to handle this…
Popcorn. We typically buy the biggest size popcorn and share it, rather than buying smaller individual servings for each person. Not only will this cut popcorn costs roughly in half, but at some theaters buying the biggest serving entitles you to free refills. Ask for small popcorn bags at the counter so you can fill them for your kids, or bring some bags from home. If you want to make it really fun for your kids, you can also buy a jumbo pack of movie theater popcorn bags at Sam’s Club, and use those to divvy up the main supply.
Drinks. Same idea here, buy the biggest drink you can, and get separate straws. Variety may be a problem, as it is with my family. Me, my wife and daughter like Diet Coke, but our son won’t drink it. But rather than buy him a separate drink of his choice, and because he’s the lone dissenter, we get him a bottle of his favorite soda at the grocery store for a fraction of the cost.
Candy. The same boxes of candy they sell for five dollars can be purchased at the grocery store, chain pharmacy store or big box discounter for around a dollar! If candy for four people is purchased at the store and brought into the theater, you’ll save an average of $4 per person, or $16 for a family of four.
The theater wants you to buy their concessions and may discourage bringing in food, so be careful how you do this. We always buy our popcorn at the theater (and usually a drink too), in part because the movies aren’t the movies without it, but also because we want the theater to make money—just not so much!
Of course the easiest and most obvious way to cut back on the cost of going to the movies is to reduce the number of times you go. Instead of going every month, go every other month, or only when a blockbuster movie that everyone wants to see comes out. It may be that you need to cut movie attendance back to special occasions only.
Breaking up that most traditional of nights out, dinner and a movie, is another way. With our kids being teens, a night at the movies means dinner in.
Incomes aren’t rising, but the cost of just about everything else is–how do we continue doing the things we enjoy, without spending a fortune doing them? Do we cut activities out entirely, do less of them or find less expensive ways?