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A night out on the cheap

Some people might think that "penny-pinching" and "nice evening out" don't belong in the same sentence. Don't tell that to Shel Horowitz.

Horowitz, the self-proclaimed "King of Frugal Fun," and his wife have learned how to entertain themselves for a fraction of the usual cost.

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The author of five books, including The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook (soon to be retitled "Frugal Fun"), Horowitz says they usually spend $5 to $15 per person on a good dinner and they see lots of concerts and plays for free. In one week, the strategy saved them $90.

It doesn't hurt Horowitz's wallet that he's an unabashed romantic. He can take a walk down a busy city street and turn it into a stroll in the moonlight. Window-shopping becomes a fantasy of a lavish lifestyle. Sharing an entrée is transformed into a time of growing closeness (remember "Lady and the Tramp" and the strand of spaghetti?). Instead of an overpriced bouquet, there's the understatement of a single, perfect stem.

"It makes for a nice, healthy relationship," Horowitz says. "We celebrated 19 years this year. I'm not ashamed to be romantic."

Here are some of his suggestions for a great evening out without breaking the bank:

Dining tips

  • Go early. Many restaurants offer specials before 6 p.m. It's perfect, Horowitz says, for making a show on time or for parents who need to make an early night of it. Not only do you get a discount on dinner, but you'll get a break on the cost of a sitter. "If you go early, you can get the cheap 11- and 12-year-old babysitters instead of the expensive 17- and 18-year-old baby sitters."
  • Go veggie. Vegetarian entrees are usually less expensive than ones made with meat.
  • Go ethnic. Some ethnic foods are better bargains than others. You can get a lot of food for the money in Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Indian and Thai restaurants. You'll pay more in Japanese and French restaurants.
  • Go light. Share an entrée or stick with the appetizer menu. Many restaurants serve portions that are too large for one person to finish.
  • Go alcohol-free. The markup on alcoholic beverages in restaurants is high. Instead of having a drink with dinner, have a glass of wine or some brandy after you get home.
  • Go sweet. Have a candlelight dinner at home, and then go out for coffee and dessert.

Low-budget movies

  • Wait until the first run ends. Many communities have bargain theaters that show movies after they've finished their first runs. If you can't wait a few weeks to see the hottest new flick, at least go to a matinee. Check the pricing. Many theaters offer the best price on movies that start between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. So see a show first and then go eat.
  • Go offbeat. If you live in a college town, there's probably a campus movie theater that shows low-cost art or foreign films. Or check with your local library. They often have free movie nights.
  • Skip the munchies. The concession stand is no bargain even at bargain theaters. If you can't imagine a movie without popcorn and Junior Mints, get the smallest size and share.

Concerts and plays

  • Volunteer. If you have a pair of black pants and a white shirt, sign up to usher at shows. Horowitz and his wife ushered at a sold-out Chuck Berry concert. Tickets were $45; they got in free. There are usually plenty of seats, but this show was sold out. They didn't mind having to stand. "We were the only people who got to dance." Smaller venues and community theater companies are much easier to approach than major arenas. Once you have that experience, it's easier to get on the list to usher at the larger shows. They also volunteer at a major folk music festival each year. They get free admission, food and camping, have minimal duties and often get to hobnob with their favorite artists.
  • Write reviews. If you have a flair for writing (as Horowitz does), offer to review concerts and plays for a small, local newspaper. You have to be well-informed about the subject to write a credible review, but you'll typically get two free seats in the best section of the house.
  • Put your phone on speed dial. It's not as tough as it sounds to win concert tickets on the radio. Horowitz recommends putting station call-in numbers on your speed dial. If there's a college radio station in your community, those have the fewest listeners and usually have lots of tickets to give away.
  • Support your local artists. Check the newspaper for performances by local artists. They're usually low cost or free and often held in coffeehouses, bookstores or libraries, which are wonderful places to spend some quality time together. "My wife and I met at an open poetry reading," he says. "You can't get more frugal than that. They pass a hat and you throw in a buck when it comes around."


-- Updated: Feb. 18, 2004




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