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Great Ways To Save Money At The Movie Theater

8 minute read

David Ning

By David Ning

I feel excited just saying this, but people are finally starting to go back to the movie theaters again. Sadly, one of the nation’s top entertainment industries has been closed for most (or all) of the pandemic. I recently went to my first movie in well over a year. I could hardly believe it, but the room was 80% full. It was a later show and plenty of people were still willing to bring their children too.

When the movie was over, many of those kids were now sleeping. Hopefully the adults at least enjoyed it. After all, they probably spent close to $100 on tickets alone. And that doesn’t even count the cost for drinks, popcorn, or candy. Millions of Americans have greatly missed the cinema experience over the last 18 months. However, almost no one missed the outrageous prices. Taking a family of four or five to see a movie almost seems like a luxury nowadays. Here are a few suggestions on how to make going to the movies more affordable.

Skip The Snacks

Need I say more? The food and drinks at the movies are ridiculously marked up. Many theaters even offer alcohol or full-blown restaurants. I have to admit, it’s great to munch of some chicken wings while I watch a show. And popcorn is basically a long-standing movie tradition. However, the truth is that these expenses really add up. $13 for a large popcorn? $7 for a soft drink? Yikes.

If you’re bringing the kids, make sure you eat a full, healthy meal at home first. That can help cut down on the “but I’m huuuuuungry” whining. If you’re going to cave, buy one large popcorn to share among the children. As for the adults, a friend of mine recently suggested saving on movie snacks by chewing gum instead. If you ask me, that’s a pretty good idea if you’re trying to save some money.

Look for Discount Movie Passes

Multi-packs of cinema passes or gift cards are displayed close to the checkout aisles around the holidays. However, they are available pretty much year-round if you know where to look. At places like Costco, you can even just go to the cashier and ask him or her to scan the code. You don’t even need to go find it at the aisles.

If you have a big family (or just really go to the movies often), check out your local theater chain’s website. They may offer larger packs of gift cards. They are generally sold for corporate giving, but there’s no rule saying you can buy them and stash them away. They may cost you more up front (for example, my local cinema requires purchasing a minimum of 25 entry tickets). However, the cost per ticket is much lower when you do the math. If you go to the movies fairly regularly, you’ll eventually use these tickets — and save yourself some money in the process. Just be sure to read through the terms and conditions carefully, so you understand any potential restrictions.

Movie tickets and popcornShutterstock

Consider Unlimited Passes

This might not make sense for most people. Most people don’t go the movies by themselves very often. My aunt, on the other hand, loves to attend a show solo. For her, it made complete sense to get one of those unlimited passes that some theater chains offer. They generally start around $20 a month and let you watch and re-watch every new movie that comes out. If you average just two movies per month, you’ll come out ahead.

The one downside is that you often have to commit to at least six or twelve months of payments. So you can’t just pay for one month, watch a movie (or two!) every single day for 30 days, and then cancel. On the other hand, buying a pair of these as a couple can be a great way to make affordable date nights. Plus you’ve already paid, so that adds the incentive to actually spend that quality time together. Again, check the terms and conditions. Some of these passes have extra rules about certain blackout dates or times.

Look Out For Special Free Movie Screenings

If you keep an eye out, you can find the occasional free movie opportunity too. Local radio stations and newspapers sometimes announces special free movie screenings. You could also do an online search for “free movie screenings” + your town. You may find websites to watch or feeds you can subscribe to that will alert you when a free movie screening chance arises.

One word of warning, though — these passes tend to go very quickly (for obvious reasons). Sometimes they are given out at contest prizes or random draws, instead of being given on a first come, first serve basis. They do exist though, and can be a great way to get your family out to the theater for a fraction of the normal cost.

Watch For Discount Days and Times

Afternoon matinees is almost always a few bucks cheaper than evening shows. Some theaters even have major discounts on the first show on a certain weekday. A Regal location in my city has $6.50 movie tickets on Tuesday, as they try to capitalize on days that are traditionally slower for theaters. There’s another nearby theater that advertises $8.00 tickets every Sunday.

If you can pull off some creative scheduling, going to the movies on a Monday or Tuesday night can save you a bundle. Even better, the theater probably won’t be as crowded. That can make the whole experience much more pleasant.

Premium Sound and 3D Aren’t Always Worth the Premium

Many theaters are adding extra gimmicks to their movies these days. There’s 3D, IMAX, D-Box, UltraAVX, and even 4Dx. I’m honestly not even sure what the difference is between half of those options. I do know, however, that theaters are happy to jack up the price of your ticket for their “premium viewing experiences.”

Here’s the simple truth — seeing the movie in 3D (or whatever) is almost never worth the extra cost. I won’t even see a 3D movie that costs exactly the same as a regular showing. I already wear glasses, and the 3D glasses just make the whole experience a nightmare. Plus children mostly just tend to fiddle with their 3D glasses the whole time, instead of actually wearing them.

If you really love 3D movies, then go ahead and pay extra $2 or $3 charge. However, I would argue that it really doesn’t add that much to the movie experience. Even worse, plenty of these “3D movies” weren’t actually filmed with the 3D experience in mind. The studio just added GCI effects after the fact, in order to inflate the box office take.

Ask About Rewards Programs

Most theater chains have their own rewards program by now. Membership is usually free. These programs typically come with a discount on food and drinks (say, 10%) and a points program that you can use to score free stuff down the road. Sort of like a “watch nine movies, get the tenth one free” kind of deal. Even if that’s only one free movie a year, that’s still one less you have to pay for.

Just remember to enter your reward number every time you pay. What I like to do is take a picture of my reward cards and then setup an album on my phone called “cards”. When I need to use my movie theater card, then I just take my phone out to scan the barcode on the photo so I don’t have to carry every membership card with me at all times. Some of these programs actually have digital cards you can add to your smartphone’s wallet feature. Super handy!

Don’t Forget Coupons and Cashback Sites

Groupon once teamed up with Fandango to offer movie tickets for $4. What a deal! And it could happen again. Entertainment coupon books (remember those?) are another source of discount tickets. Be sure to read the fine print to get all the details on any restrictions on when and how you can redeem your coupon.

Don’t forget discount gift card sites and cashback sites too. You can routinely buy gift cards to the movie theater chains at 10% off (or more). I’ve even seen them at 20% off when there’s a sale. If you pair that with a cash back site when you buy a ticket online, you could be saving a bunch every time you buy a ticket.

Check Out Drive-in Theaters

I love drive-in theaters. They offer such a different experience than the typical movie theater. Plus they tend to be much cheaper. As a bonus, many drive-ins also are fine with you bringing in your own food. (You should always check their rules first, though.) A family of five can probably pay the “full car” rate of about $30 at the drive-in, whereas it might cost twice that to buy tickets to a regular theater.

The drive-in a great option for parents with infants or younger children. You can just bring your kids along in the car, without having to pay for a sitter. Since you’re contained to your own vehicle, you won’t have to worry about a fussy baby distracting other movie goers. And if your kids fall asleep in the back seat, who cares? Let them snooze while you watch the movie! Drive-ins also give you that feeling of nostalgic summer excitement.

Drive in movie vector illustrationShutterstock

Second Run Theaters Are a Good Option

These theaters are smaller and might not be brand names. They probably won’t be showing the brand new blockbuster movie that just came out. However, if you’re willing to be patient (and less picky about what you watch), the savings can be substantial. The prices will vary from area to area, but they are generally close to half of what you’ll pay at the first-run theaters. There’s a theater near me that has $5 showings every Wednesday. It’s awesome.

If you have younger children, it’s a good way to do a “trial run” of taking them to the movies. If they don’t like it, can’t sit still, or complain it’s too loud, you can just bail early without feeling like you just wasted a large wad of bills.

Buy Your Tickets at the Door (Unless You Get a Discount Online)

Paying for your tickets online can save you from waiting in line. However, you’ll often pay a buck or two per ticket for the privilege. Those fees really add up over the months.

This isn’t so bad if you’re buying just one ticket. Buying your tickets online ahead of time may even be necessary in order to get reserved seating for a popular movie in a populated city. However, these fees are basically surcharges that raise your costs by 10 or 20%. If you can, plan to get to the theater early and buy your tickets in person. Then enjoy a nice walk around the block while you wait for your show to start.

The Bottom Line

I was never really a big movie buff. However, I truly realized how much I missed the big screen experience when I was finally able to go back last week. The smell of popcorn, the comfy reclining seats, the cheering when big events happen on screen — it’s all part of the experience. You just can’t quite recreate that feeling at home, no matter how big your TV is.

The only thing stopping my family from going to the movies more often is the crazy prices. It costs $100 minimum, every time my family of four attends a show. Luckily, I regularly use all of these tips and tricks to get into movies for less than that. If you can skip the snacking, watch out for deals, or wait for slower days, you can reduce your theater budget in a big way.

David Ning

Experienced Finance Writer

David is a published author, entrepreneur and a proud dad. He firmly believes that anyone can build a solid financial foundation as long as they are willing to learn. He runs, where he discusses every day money issues to encourage the masses to think about their finances more often.


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