How to Save Money At The Movies

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?

( Photo courtesy of ZEDZAP-Nick )

13 Responses to How to Save Money At The Movies

  1. Good article even though I disagree with some points.

    It’s no secret that concessions at the movies are marked up 800-900% and that is where they make their money. We may not like it but its their right to do so, and also their prerogative to prohibit outside snacks. I don’t endorse smuggling in snacks and don’t judge those that do, but I don’t think it should be published as a way to save money.

    I did appreciate the math on the large bucket vs the combos…those are definitely expensive! Most of the time when I go to the movies, I don’t get snacks at all 😛

  2. Lakita – you’re raising a good point, but keep in mind, we are paying the fee to get into the movie, and we are paying for 1 popcorn and 1 drink. We are however rebelling against the 800-900% markup by refusing to pay so much of it.

    We are paying our way, just not as much of it. The alternative would be to not go to the movies at all, which wouldn’t benefit the theater or us as patrons.

    What I don’t get is why in the midst of a very poor economy, theaters and other businesses aren’t cutting their prices to attract more patrons? That’s economics 101!Instead they’re raising them and chasing people away.

    It makes for good debate doesn’t it?

  3. Or you could just skip the popcorn entirely and save money AND your aorta and other hemoglobin highways. 🙂

    I read somewhere that a large popcorn (no butter) from the movie theater had 80 grams of fat, which is equivalent to something like six Big Macs. The buttered version – or whatever that stuff really is – comes to something like 130 grams of fat (two days worth – equivalent to eight Big Macs) plus four day’s worth of cholesterol.

    Ah, who am I kidding? I’m still going to eat the stuff. Like you we buy a large one (with buttery mystery sauce) and share it. After all, what’s a movie without popcorn?

    Best,

    Len
    Len Penzo dot Com

  4. I used to work at a movie theater. Ask for no ice if you order a drink. We were required to fill the cup with 50% ice unless the customer requested no ice.

  5. Len – all that bad health crap–is why it taste’s so good, and why we’re willing to pony up a ridiculous amount of money to buy it! Somehow health goes right out the window with the temptation of the moment. The smell of it popping is downright intoxicating.

    Slackerjo – As if they aren’t making enough on the drinks with the exorbitant price! I’ve always suspected the ice ploy, not just in movie theaters either!

    To be fair, we’ve found that some theaters will allow a free refill on a large drink. It isn’t until we start thinking thrifty and really exploring our options that we find these things out!

  6. There is no chance to save some money…I can not watch the movie without popcorn and candy! Always have the biggest packages…I’m used to, which is bad of course, for wallet and deposition pounds…

  7. Tamara – You can’t save money if you’re relying exclusively on the concessions stand. That’s why we have to look for alternatives. Of course the biggest one of all is just to not go, but I don’t like the idea of withdrawing from a popular social activity wholesale. We still need to be out and about doing things with the living!

  8. We typically buy candy from the grocery store first. You are right much cheaper and exact same thing. It’s amazing how much more you can spend when you buy things at the concession stand. Another thing is to skip the 3D movies as we’ve noticed they charged an extra $2 for the glasses. Yikes!!!

  9. Hair Bow Girl – TOTALLY AGREE ON 3D MOVIES! We’ve seen 2-3 over the last 10 years, and apart from the $2 charge for the 25 cent plastic glasses, the 3D aspect is distracting and leaves me with a headache. Even my kids don’t like them.

  10. From an european point of view, eating popcorn and drinking soda at theatres are not essentials at all to enjoy a movie, so cutting back on food is easy for me. In Montreal where I live, movie theatres offer half price every tuesday for any movie and showtime, that save some bucks too.

  11. “half price every tuesday”–then Tuesday night would be my movie night! Here in suburban America, the giant multiplexes have driven out the competition so there’s no need to run discounts.

  12. pretty clever strategies! Especially sharing the drink/popcorn part. Very clever indeed!

    Oh, and certain theaters apparently have discounts at certain hours. The cineplex I go to offers a reduction on tickets during weekend mornings. 😀

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