How to Feed Your Soul for Cheap: 12 Ways to Enjoy High Culture for Less

The Seattle Art Museum is hosting a show called “Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musee National Picasso, Paris” through 12 January 2011. It costs $20 to see the 150 paintings, sculptures, prints and photos. This is an important show and no doubt worth the freight. But since a real frugalist just hates to pay retail, I went on “First Thursday,” when admission to the museum was free and tickets to Picasso were only $12.

Yep: I saw Picasso on sale.

“Budget” and “culture” aren't mutually exclusive. Whether you crave abstract art or an emotionally bloody Albee drama, there's often a way to get it on the cheap — or even for free. Here are a dozen different ways to try.

    • Subscribe/become a member. If I were a member of the Seattle Art Museum, I'd have been able to see Picasso (and any other special exhibit) for free as well as enjoying discounts and special events. If I buy an ACTPass from A Contemporary Theatre here in Seattle, I could see as many shows and special events I wanted for $25 a month.

 

    • Watch for specials. Yes, cultural institutions have sales. For example, I could have applied my $12 Picasso ticket toward that annual membership. The Philadelphia Orchestra gives a 15% discount and waives ticket fees to groups of 10 or more. An arts group may offer a discount to season subscribers who buy early.

 

    • Rush tickets. On Broadway you can get rush, standing-room-only, and “lottery” tickets for as little as $20 if you're an early riser who's patient and/or lucky. This article at Playbill explains how. Regional companies do rush hour, too. For example, unsold seats to the Portland Opera go on sale for $10 to $20 for students, seniors, and active military personnel 60 minutes before the curtain rises.

 

    • Package deals. Season tickets aren't necessarily bank-breakers. For example, San Francisco Opera season tickets can be had for as little as $96 for six performances.

 


Mozart's “Queen of the Night” aria (good stuff starts at 2:10) — see also

 

    • Social buying. Groupon, Living Social, Buy With Me, and other social commerce sites sometimes offer vouchers for arts events and museum memberships at 50% off. Sign up for the ones in your area and see what floats in on those e-mail deal offerings. Note: Purchase the vouchers through a cash-back site such as Ebates, Fat Wallet, or Mr. Rebates and you'll get rebates of up to 6%.

 

    • Pay-what-you-can night. This is like happy hour for the lively arts: Admission by donation at a theater company, museum or improv comedy troupe. Some theater companies have PWYC or sharply reduced tickets for the last dress rehearsal before opening night (“preview” translates to “pardon us while we work out the final glitches with the sound effects”). If you're lucky, theater companies in your area will add one or two additional PWYC nights during a run. Some museums are always PWYC and others do admission by donation once a month.

 

    • Gaga for BOGOs. The Entertainment Book has buy-one-get-one tickets for music, dance, opera and theater. It, too, can be purchased through a cash-back site; the highest rebate, 35%, is found through Mr. Rebates.

 

    • First Friday. Or First Thursday. Or Artwalk. Whatever it's called in your neighborhood, it's an increasingly common custom. Cities with more than a couple of art galleries stage openings on the same night each month, to encourage people to visit many different shows. The galleries usually put out snacks and desserts, and may even open up a fresh box of wine for all the culture vultures. This makes a terrific Frugal Date Night: You get points for being classy and there's none of that awkwardness about who pays for dinner.

 

    • Put it on your wish list. If family and friends know you'd really love to see “Lucia di Lammermoor,” maybe you'll get a ticket for your birthday. Or maybe all your sibs will chip in on that six-opera season subscription; even if the tickets are way up in the nosebleeds, at least you'll be there when the fat lady sings.

 

    • Student discounts. This is one of the three most important word pairings to college students (the others being “financial aid” and “Top Ramen”). Making culture accessible is a basic mission of most arts groups, but student discounts serve another purpose, too: building future subscriber bases. Get them in the door early and maybe they'll buy season tickets after they graduate. Some programs even embrace “non-traditional” (the new college euphemism for “old”) students: Until I graduated in 2009, at the age of 52, I could pay $10 for the best seat in Benaroya Hall to hear the Seattle Symphony. But other local arts groups limited “student” discounts to people 25 and under. To which I say: Pooh.

 


Today's symphony means more than Mozart! (Brandi Carlile with Seattle Symphony 11/29/08)

 

    • Free or reduced-price movie tickets. Not the kind of movies in which a whole bunch of stuff gets blowed up real good, but rather the arty/foreign/culturally significant flicks. I've written before about how to get free movie tickets through rewards programs such as My Coke Rewards and MyPoints. More recently I discovered discounted gift cards for movie chains such as AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. Savings of 20% are routine.

 

 

All right, not all of these are “cultural” per se, but sometimes you just wanna walk through a giant replica of a beating human heart or watch monkeys fling their poo. It's an antidote to all those arias and Picassos.

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

My wife and I live near Miami, and we’re often seeing advertisements for high-class events that we would love to attend.

Luckily, I work for a large corporation that often has special discounts for events like this – often over 50% off!

If you work for a large company, you often have these same perks as well. Make sure to ask your co-workers or even HR. You might be plesently surprised at what you find out!

dee
dee
9 years ago

For anyone in Toronto who likes the symphony The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has a program call TSOundchek that allows anyone between the ages of 15-35 to buy very good seats for $14. About a week before the performance the tickets go on sale. Typically, from my experience, they are the very expensive seats that are not quite in a perfect location, the ones that are hard to sell. The nice thing is that you only have to be 15-35 to buy the tickets, your guest can be older. My husband and I used to go on a regular basis, alas… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

Wow, I wish I live in Seattle right now. I would love to see the Picasso tour. $20 is not too bad at all, but $12 is even better. 🙂
In Portland, we always keep a lookout for free days and we’ve been to art museum, Chinese garden, Japanese garden, theaters, neighborhood art walk, ethnic festivals, zoo, and many others. I love free entertainment.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

Great ideas! I’ve taken advantage of a few of these myself. I wish I lived close enough to a major city with big museums. The membership deals are amazing, especially for families and grandparents. A couple ideas to add: – Volunteer! I used to docent for the local gallery, which not only let me see all the current shows but also teach others about them too. It was a great experience. As a volunteer, I also got free tickets to a symphony event — which turned into a great discount on a ticket package. – Join the museum/company social media… Read more »

NooraK
NooraK
9 years ago

Bank of America has a Museums On Us program that provides free admission to certain museums on the first weekend of each month to their cardholders (debit, credit or atm).

http://museums.bankofamerica.com

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Love the Night Queen Aria. I wish we lived in a city!

karyn
karyn
9 years ago

We have a great music center in our little town and the students give free performances at the library and the local college – so I get to take the kids to hear live Beethoven and such. Sometimes we also attend free performances at churches – choral societies, quartets, etc. Our little town also has the Gallery Walks you mention and sometimes the museums in the nearby city has discounted and/or free days that we take advantage of.

HollyP
HollyP
9 years ago

While I like these deals, I do like to pay full price to support worthy institutions. I consider it paying my part. OTOH, for those looking for deals, many museums have reciprocity agreements with similar museums (or zoos) in other parts of the US. Local libraries often have passes for free or reduced-fee admissions to museums. You have to plan ahead for them sometimes. My college library also offers passes to alumnae. Lucky you! I went to the Musee National Picasso years ago, and remember the trip fondly. It is in Picasso’s home, and includes the full span of his… Read more »

friend
friend
9 years ago

If you’re in North Carolina, the Museum of Art is free all the time for the permanent collection and most special exhibitions. Usually just one major ticketed show at a time (right now it’s Norman Rockwell, but Rembrandt is coming next year), and members get into those free as well.

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
9 years ago

Wow, this is one thorough, well-researched list of resources. Thank you, Donna! Like you, I love the arts. . . . . . they make us so much more alive.

Em
Em
9 years ago

Fortunately, living in Washington, DC means tons of free museums and cultural events. I know at least for the DC area there are local blogs that list free cultural events happening each week. Keep an eye out for a site like that for your area!

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

I second volunteering. A friend of mine used to volunteer for a theater company, so she got to see the shows for free (and bring guests!) I’ve volunteered for special arts events and the behind-the-scenes view you get of things is worth it too.

Brett | Investing Part Time
Brett | Investing Part Time
9 years ago

I don’t think there is anything wrong with discounted admission to museums! In fact, most of the time I don’t go to museums unless I can get a discounted ticket. Fortunately right now I’m living in DC where everything is mostly free anyway 🙂

Linda in Chicago
Linda in Chicago
9 years ago

Chicago Public Library has family passes to the most popular museums that can be checked out by any adult with a Chicago library card. It’s a great deal for families of all sizes; I have no children but have used the passes with my neice and nephew.

Julia
Julia
9 years ago

I recomment Fathom Events, they bring operas/live shows to movie theaters. I was able to see the 25th anniversity special of Les Mis for $15 on the big screen live from England.

Wade
Wade
9 years ago

This year my wife and I bought a package of tickets for 6 shows (4 traveling Broadway shows and 2 Musical acts) at the local theatre. For the two of us, the total cost was around $400 for the package. Last year, we went to two traveling Broadway shows at the same theatre for a total of $300 for the two of us. Package deals really do save money,and our seats aren’t in the rafters anymore.

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound
9 years ago

We were able to “borrow” four free passes to the Norman Rockwell Museum in the Berkshires from our local library.

Also, with my grocery store members card I was able to get $2.00 off each person to the Mark Twain House in Hartford. They have other discounts also, like to Mystic Sea Aquarium.

Gina
Gina
9 years ago

Thanks for all the ideas! I’ll be using some of them.

Jan Newbegin
Jan Newbegin
9 years ago

Here’s a plug for participatory culture. I sing in two choruses – a community chorus and a masterworks chorale that digs into the classical choral repertoire. Adult community choruses, bands, theater groups and orchestras are always looking for participants. You don’t have to be a pro to take part. There are usually membership fees but it’s well worth it.

As a bonus, once you join the performing community, you hear about dozens of free and low cost opportunities to attend recitals, concerts and events. Not all are professional quality, but many are quite good and the variety is astounding.

Steven Zussino
Steven Zussino
9 years ago

Thanks for the Entertainment book idea – we are heading to Seattle end of the month.

Steve

KZ
KZ
9 years ago

I just really liked this article. It was humorous and inspiring and while I knew about first Thursdays, it was packed full of other unique info that I hadn’t heard about or thought of before. Thanks Donna!

Bargain Babe
Bargain Babe
9 years ago

Great post, Donna. A lot of cities have free musuems and in LA there are many, many TV shows that give away free tickets. See http://www.bargainbabe.com/2010/07/08/how-to-get-free-tv-show-tickets/

Not exactly “high culture” but still a lot of fun. I also recommend Goldstar for huge discounts (often 50% off) and TheaterExtras, which you buy a $99 membership too and then get ticket offers for shows that want to fill the house.

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
9 years ago

So many good ideas. Also, colleges have performances, many of them free.

Since I live near New Orleans, I can have free or cheap music (often by famous people!) all the time. An embarrassment of riches.

Museums often have performances in the evenings–free for members or with the day’s ticket.

The only thing I can’t find a free/cheap way to: big city opera.

babysteps
babysteps
9 years ago

Some PWYC institutions make it tough to tell that they are PWYC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC is PWYC, but it is in very small print at the bottom of (at least) some of their entrance signs. When I was in grad school I used to go early on a Saturday (bus there, walk home a few miles) and pay $1. Some of the clerks would smile, some would actually say “student rate is (whatever it was then)”. So if it’s a new-to-you museum, try asking if they have a PWYC day! Also, some states and cities have… Read more »

k
k
9 years ago

Public library systems — especially the bigs ones like NYPL – often have their own cultural events, and most are good sources for information about other free or low-cost cultural events via flyers/public bulletin boards (still in use despite the Interwebs!) and the like.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago
I’m loving all these adds. (And I can’t believe I left docent/volunteer off the list. D’oh!)

How about this one: Bookstores. You can hear some really swell talks by authors. Among my favorites: Eoin Colfer, Ann Rule and the Sweet Potato Queens.

krantcents
krantcents
9 years ago

These were great date ideas! I wrote an article called Cheap dates that suggest inexpensive ways to impress you date for little or no money. If you care to read it it is on my blog (www.krantcents.com).

Avery
Avery
9 years ago

If you’d like to see high-quality opera productions at (comparatively) low cost, check out the Met HD simulcast that shows a live production in movie theaters.

http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/broadcast/hd_events_template.aspx?id=11964

First Gen American
First Gen American
9 years ago

The other good thing about volunteering is that not only you get to see the shows while you’re ushering, but often times you’ll also get a pair of tickets for another show(if it’s at a performing arts place).

These additional tickets can be used as a gift or given away to a friend. Then that friend is likely to repay you in their own way. So that one night of volunteering leads to several nights of free enjoyment.

Rachel
Rachel
9 years ago

Here in Boston, many of the museums are discounted or free if you visit on a weeknight. The Institute of Contemporary Art is free Thursday nights. The Museum of Fine Arts is free on Wednesday nights. The Children’s Museum is only $1 on Friday nights.

Wade
Wade
9 years ago

There are also free opportunities around Madison. These include the veterans museum, childrens museum, the local zoo, and free concerts downtown on Wednesdays. Also, when I was in Chicago I took advantage of a free weeknight at the Art Institute. No matter where you look, there are plenty of free entertainment options.

Gabriel
Gabriel
9 years ago

Having the Queen of the Night Aria and Brandi Carlile in the same article pretty much made my day. Two of my favorites!!

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

Ditto on the volunteer option. In my city, volunteers sign up online for the shows they want to work and it’s all very civilized. Discounts to shows and even free tickets are offered on occasion for active volunteers. Another thing I haven’t seen mentioned is Costco. They are currently selling vouchers for “Masterpieces from the Musee D’Orsay”. Each ticket is $17.99 which includes admission, audio tour and the handling charge. To purchase directly from the DeYoung Museum, this package would cost $28.00. Our library had a docent presentation before the event. It was free and greatly enhanced our experience. Costco… Read more »

The Penny Hoarder
The Penny Hoarder
9 years ago

We have a theater her in St. Petersburg called The American Stage. Once a week they have “Pay what you can night.” It’s awesome and great for young people like myself who don’t have a lot of extra money, but want to take in a little culture. My partner and I usually give $5 each which is a very cheap night out for us.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

Don’t forget your local small theater companies; we have a number of small, talented, serious theaters where tickets start out at $20-$30, less than half the price of the big-name companies to start with.

Minneapolis Public Libraries does the museum checkout, usually 2 or 4 tickets, that someone mentioned for the Chicago libraries. It’s a great resource!

Ro in SD
Ro in SD
9 years ago

Several years ago I was lucky enough to be selected to join an usher team for the local Playhouse. It’s been great to see the shows for free!

The downside of ushering – if the show is sold out the ushers may need to stand for the entire performance. Also, there is a dress code and certain rules an usher must follow.

I have many opportunities to usher but choose to only be on one team for 8 shows a year.

When I retire I may attend more shows but working full time it doesn’t work for me.

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