The El Cheapo Guide to Culture

An eight-step approach to entertaining yourself economically.

For outdoor concerts, set up camp just outside where you have to pay to enter.

Enough is enough. Over the past 10 years, I’ve spent far too much on concerts, scholarly lectures, flamenco performances, off-Broadway plays, and a host of other events. I recently tallied up the number of magazines to which I subscribe, and the total approached 20. Meanwhile, the guy who sells candy at the movie theater down the block is so familiar with me that he yells out “Mr. Sno Cap” upon my arrival to his sugary bazaar. I have been known to write $208 checks to Time Warner Cable for a single month’s service.

Something had to change. The tipping point came this past winter, when my wife and I decided at the last minute that it would be cool to attend the Super Bowl in Dallas. Bad idea. The monetary ramifications of that terrible decision persist to this day. The trip ran us $6,705, $4,925 of which paid for two nosebleed seats at the game in Cowboys Stadium. Upon our return to Manhattan, we became well-acquainted with numerous varieties of Nissin Top Ramen. We won’t be going on a vacation anytime soon, and myriad dings to the sides of our Subaru remain unaddressed. So I have decided my cravings for entertainment and culture need to be sated in a less expensive manner. All is not lost, though. In addition to ducking into a showing of Horrible Bosses without a ticket after watching Cowboys & Aliens, I’ve done some research that leads me to believe it’s not as difficult as you might think to get your culture fix on the cheap. This realization doesn’t do anything to change the fact that blowing more than six grand on a football game was a seriously bad call, but I prefer to look forward, not back. What’s more, I’d like to help others navigate the path to cheap culture consumption. Here are a few tips and tactics that might be of value:

Be detail-oriented, and look for loopholes:If you’re good about remembering to cancel subscription-based entertainment services before any charges kick in, free trial offers can be a boon. SiriusXM offers 30 free days of satellite radio. Rhapsody lets you download songs for two weeks free of charge, and offers up a free audiobook as part of an enticement to try out its service. The Internet is overflowing with deals like these. You can go from one free source of entertainment to the next. And sometimes acquiring cheap culture can lead to … more cheap culture. If you sign up for a no-obligation trial of the song downloading service eMusic through Fandango’s website, the latter company will email you a free movie ticket. It’s the same deal if you agree to receive eight free issues of Entertainment Weekly, check out a gratis week of Bitbop video on your phone, or sign up for a free trial month of Netflix. (Fandango offers 123 of these free movie ticket deals.) If you love movies and happen to live in Canada, even better. Register for a free Netflix trial with your Visa card and you get two free movie tickets. So, my Canadian friends, here’s the plan: 1) Sign up. 2) Go to the movies the next day with a friend for free. 3) Watch a zillion Netflix movies over the subsequent 29 days. 4) Cancel the Netflix subscription. 5) The next day, get your friend to sign up for the same deal and go out to the movies for free before heading to his or her house to watch zillions of Netflix movies. 6) Repeat with as many friends as possible. If you have enough friends, you could do this forever. If you have exactly 12 friends, and none of them currently subscribes to Netflix, you will be able to watch free movies for an entire year.

Be creative: Do you like your dentist? Or, more accurately, does she or he like you? If so, you’re well on your way to piles of free magazines. In the early-’90s, my orthodontist saved me his waiting-room copies of Sports Illustrated and People and would hand over a fresh stack of magazines each time I came in for a checkup. It was great. Sometimes the magazines will get you sick because people sneeze into them. But getting things for free often necessitates sacrifice. Plus, you’ll need to take some sick days anyway if you’re going to finish reading all those free magazines! If your dentist is a big jerk, do as I do: Read magazines at your local gigantic corporate bookstore. Make it a Sunday morning ritual. Believe me, they won’t notice you. And though you may be helping to speed the decline of print media, it’s a great way to save. (I love Wallpaper. But it’s $10 an issue. And I don’t love Wallpaper more than I love 30 packs of ramen. The Barnes & Noble magazine racks make it so I don’t have to choose.) If you have to subscribe, go with the “power in numbers” approach and split up subscriptions among friends, neighbors, or family members. If four people in your family, your six best friends, and three of your next-door neighbors all subscribe to Vanity Fair, then, well, you all messed up. Graydon Carter’s driver, four assistants, dog walker, chef, personal shopper, and masseuse say thanks. 

Be willing to compromise: For instance, when it comes to concerts and other auditory-based cultural experiences, don’t be afraid to forsake the visual side of things in order to save some dough. (After all, how much more does it really add to actually see Sting gently strumming his bass to Fields of Gold?) This tip works best for outdoor performances during the summer and fall. Set up camp just beyond where you would have to pay to enter. Bring some lawn chairs and a bag of Doritos. It works like a charm for the nonfree SummerStage shows in Central Park but is just as effective in places like, for instance, northern Ohio. (A friend in the Midwest reports that parking lots and front yards adjacent to the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre have been overrun this summer by blankets full of cheap culture denizens during shows by Steely Dan, Lady Antebellum, and others.) The sound may not be perfect, but it’s not terrible. And your sense of hearing is heightened if you close your eyes. There’s nothing to see, so do that. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker aren’t Lady Gaga or Parliament Funkadelic. No one will be setting fire to pianos or dressing up like giant moths. You’re not missing much.

Volunteer your time instead of forking over your money: This year at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, those willing to pick up trash got in free. Museums and thousands of cool regional events often need volunteers, and the perks can be inebriating. But be sure to check the fine print. The Pro Golfers’ Association of America charges people $200 to serve as volunteers during the PGA Championship. That’s cheaper than forking out $500 for tickets, but there’s something unseemly about having to pay for the privilege of spending seven straight summer days in the eyeball-melting heat of South Carolina searching through high grass for poorly hit golf balls and demanding that large crowds “please remain completely silent.”

Try being direct: It’s easy to convince yourself that you could not possibly gain free access to a movie, play, concert, or performance that others have willingly paid to attend. So most people forgo attempts to acquire cheap entertainment in the most direct way imaginable—by asking for it. Don’t discount the possibility that you’ll make your plea to someone who is exceedingly nice, sympathetic to your request, or, even better, someone who just doesn’t care all that much whether you get in for free or have to pay. If you say the right thing to the right person—that it’s your birthday, for instance, or that you are the biggest Yo-Yo Ma fan in the entire universe—you just might score some free tickets. This approach probably won’t get you into the Super Bowl, but something like the circus or, say, the upcoming Murray, Ky., performance of A Prairie Home Companion are not unrealistic possibilities. In 2007, I called up Paramount Vantage, spoke with someone in the press office who turned out to be a lovely human being, and got myself on the list for an advance screening of There Will Be Blood. I didn’t tell any lies, I just asked. The approach has worked for me on other occasions as well. There are lots of nice people out there with the capacity to hook you up.

Go back to school: If you live anywhere near a relatively large college or university and enjoy musical performances, you’re in luck. When I was in college, my school hosted lots and lots of free outdoor concerts. It was a golden era of sorts for hip-hop, so among the groups I saw perform for free were A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, The Pharcyde, and Black Sheep. No one was checking I.D.s or endeavoring to weed out townies from T.A.s. It wasn’t just students who were screaming “Yes you can” every time Q-Tip asked if he could kick it. And at many large colleges, this scenario hasn’t changed much. Some schools require that you attend bigger shows as a guest of a student, and others moved previously free outdoor concerts inside and began charging. But there’s still tons of wonderful free music to be had on campuses across the country. For instance, this past spring Lupe Fiasco and O.A.R. headlined the 37th annual Movin’ On music festival at Penn State. The event is described as “FREE TO EVERYONE,” and past years’ shows have featured Wilco, Talib Kweli, Ben Folds Five, and Run D.M.C. Also, the vast majority of on-campus concerts that don’t feature any hand waving or wafting weed smoke—classical performances, choral events, student recitals—tend to be free and open to the public.|

Don’t be too picky: Anytime you hear a radio broadcaster urging listeners to call in to win free tickets to a movie premiere, play, comic book convention, symphony performance, or anything of that sort, do it. I don’t care if you’re not into demolition derbies or don’t enjoy the raunchy glam metal stylings of Poison. If some guy on the radio is offering free tickets to a smash up show, call in and try to win those damn tickets. Dial first; think later. You can always sell the tickets down the line and use that money to attend a preferred cultural affair entirely devoid of “Unskinny Bop.” Or trade the tickets to a friend for an iTunes gift card. Remember: Even bad culture can bring about some good. Don’t bypass any opportunities.

Don’t overlook the obvious: Cheap and lazy aren’t a good mix. This should go without saying, but be sure not to miss out on the entertainment layups. Tell everyone you know that if they ever have extra tickets to anything, you’ll take them. Put a call in to that cousin of yours who works as a stagehand for the touring company of Cirque du Soleil. Type “free tickets” into Google every now and again. I just did, and it turns out that Sept. 24 is Museum Day throughout the country. Go to, download a ticket, and receive free admission to hundreds of participating museums. Accessing a lion’s share of culture and entertainment on the cheap doesn’t always require looking for loopholes, collecting trash at Bonnaroo, or scamming Nexflix. Sometimes good old-fashioned, everyday resourcefulness will do the trick.

Do you have a great technique or tip for accessing culture and entertainment on the cheap? If so, let us know about them in the comments. The commenter who provides the best, most useful cheap culture trick will win a free museum ticket redeemable on Sept. 24, 2011.