If you really stopped to examine your entertainment budget, you might well discover gunk there. Most people tend to overspend on entertainment.

After all, sporting events are no longer cheap, even if you can tolerate the nosebleed seats. Theater tickets can be a budget-buster, and if you have kids, taking the entire family out might simply be impossible if you're on a tight budget.

It is a quick default to get to Friday night, go online to get movie times, and drag yourself off to the show. At upwards of $9 a pop, a movie no longer qualifies as cheap entertainment.

Take someone with you, have some popcorn (costing more per pound than a nice piece of prime rib) and a drink, and now you're up in the $30-$40 range to see a movie you may or may not like. Add dinner and you've blown a big hole in a $100 bill. There goes most of your monthly entertainment budget.

Hit rewind and try again. Rent a recent movie and invite another couple to your house to watch it. Have them bring a salad and bread, make that great lasagna, and have popcorn for dessert. In fact, if you're feeling really wild, sprinkle M&M's on top of your popcorn.

You've now had movie night at home, with better food, more comfortable surroundings, and good company. What did this night cost you? The price of a movie rental, perhaps some extra food, and a quick look at the bathroom to make sure it was fit for company. So far, even with the cost of food, you've probably spent a total of $15.

There are hundreds of ways to entertain yourself for less money than you currently spend. Some of the changes you can make will involve a bit of planning, and some involve taking more notice of your entertainment options. Be creative with your entertainment choices.  

Your previous entertainment habits may be one reason your finances are gunked up. Make it a challenge to cut your costs, increase your knowledge about what's happening in your area, and learn more about having fun for little, or no, money.

Go on, now. Have fun.

Explore Your City 

Find out what is available in the city in which you live. Most cities have opportunities for entertainment that just take a little investigation to find. Our town runs a concert series in the summer months with different bands each geared toward different age groups. Take something to eat and drink, and now you have a picnic with live music.

Every week in the local paper, there are columns of things to do in our village and neighboring towns. There are at least four community theater groups in our area. As smaller, more community-based theaters continue to spring up, they are presenting a better range of options to see both famous and obscure showings of everything from magic shows to dance companies and musical groups — all without the astronomical ticket prices and $20 parking fees of going downtown.

Check out your local paper to see what's available.

Sports Teams

Is anything exciting happening with your sports teams? I am from Chicago, so this one has been tough for me in recent years, but hosting a gathering around a play-off game or championship can be a ton of fun and much cheaper than going to the local hangout to watch it there. I have a friend who dearly loves college basketball, and his home is a veritable open house through most of March Madness.

And, while ticket prices are going through the roof for most professional sports venues, there are still opportunities such as spring training and games played by foreign teams where the prices aren't nearly as sky-high. Semiprofessional teams can be a ton of fun for less money. Also, if you're a fan of college sports, there are inevitably those games to attend throughout the year, and prices and availability tend to be less competitive than for professional teams.

Neighborhood Exploration

With the renaissance of many urban core neighborhoods, the idea of "going downtown" (near Chicago, we call it "going to the City") has become a more attractive option for many people. Gentrification of many downtown urban neighborhoods has created new areas that encourage walking traffic and sightseeing. This may represent an opportunity to explore different parts of your area that you've never seen.

Go for a walk in an interesting neighborhood and stop in the local coffee shop for a nice Chai. If you're lucky, there may be some local talent on the guitar, for color. Total cost — maybe $8, even with the fancy-shmancy drinks.

A drive through your many downtown neighborhoods can be great fun. Chicago at any time of the year is interesting, but a drive along the lakeshore in the summer can net you music from the bandshell and fireworks from Navy Pier if you time it right. Gas is expensive, yes, but even at 20 miles to the gallon, a drive downtown taking in the sights and smells might cost us $5, or maybe $10 if I make my husband stop for ice cream. Compare that to an ordinary dinner at the not-so-great place up the street for $35 and the drive will win out for entertainment value, new experiences, and money in the bank.

Parks and Recreation

There are numerous recreational opportunities scattered throughout most areas of the country. Even in most urban areas, there is usually a network of parks and publicly funded recreation areas that everyone can use. All it takes is a little investigation, a few phone calls, or a search for the websites of your local park service. Especially in the large western states, many parks departments have websites that list hiking trails and provide maps for your convenience.

You might be surprised to find the range of opportunities just a 15-minute drive from your house. Take the dog and go for a hike — it will be healthy and the time spent with family or friends will probably strengthen your relationships.

Individual towns are working hard these days to get you to hang around near home. There may be a gallery walk, a house tour, or a downtown street fair right in your backyard, and though in some way it is certainly designed to make someone money, these events can be enjoyed for a minimum outlay of your entertainment dollar.

September 22, 2010

Shannon Plate is a professional budget counselor and the author of the book Degunking Your Personal Finances , from which this article is excerpted.