Family Finance: Frugal Flicks

Denise Trowbridge
Denise Trowbridge

“The Lego Ninjago Movie.” “Jumanji.” “The Nut Job 2.” These titles—and more—are coming to a theater near you. But family trips to the movies are no cheap date. Plan to go? Shave a few dollars off the bill with these handy tips.

Shop around for the best prices. Not all movie tickets cost the same. This fact applies beyond the usual markup for 3-D and IMAX presentations. For instance, tickets are $2.50 cheaper at AMC Columbus 10 near Hilliard than at AMC Lennox Town Center 24, and the former is just as up-to-date, with reclining seats and a cocktail lounge for adults.

Bypass convenience fees by buying tickets at the box office instead of online, unless the charge is waived as part of a theater rewards program.

Sign up for a rewards program. It's worth considering, even if you only see movies out occasionally, because you'll save on tickets and concessions.

Cinemark sends weekly coupons to subscribers. Past deals have included $2 off a large popcorn or candy, or a free small popcorn when you buy a medium drink.

The free AMC Stubs program (skip the $15 version) includes up to $2 off tickets on Tuesday nights, free refills on large popcorn, waived fees when buying four or more tickets online, and 20 points per dollar spent (Members get a $5 reward for every 5,000 points).

Marcus Theaters' rewards members get waived fees for online ticket purchases, free drink refills, and free popcorn on Tuesdays.

Go second-run.If you missed a movie when it debuted or just want to see it again, consider a “dollar theater.” Most of them cost more than $1 these days, but they still charge much less than first-run venues. For instance, tickets at Cinemark Carriage Place Movies 12 are $3.25 for weekend matinees and $5.25 for weekend nights.

Do the matinee.The traditional advice still applies: See a morning or afternoon show if you want a discount. A recent Sunday lunchtime show cost $3.99 per adult at the AMC near Hilliard, vs. $6.49 for a later afternoon show and $7.99 that evening.

Use rewards. Some credit card rewards can be redeemed for movie theater gift cards. Rewards sites such as Swagbucks let users earn points and redeem them for gift cards from merchants including AMC. A note of caution: Use what you've already got. It doesn't make sense to open a new credit card or go through the hoops to earn points on Swagbucksjust for the movie gift cards.

Manage the concession stand. In July, I took my boys to see “Despicable Me 3,” and all of my frugal planning was blown at the concession stand. Sure, I could take a cue from my mother-in-law and suggest sneaking candy into the movies, but I won't. A large chunk of the ticket price goes to Hollywood, so the money to keep the theater doors open comes from concessions.

Our strategies: Eat lunch beforehand and just buy candy or drinks at the theater as a dessert. Or, look over the menu and piece together the best deal before stepping into line and ordering. There might be a combo that includes everything you want for a few dollars less.

Get fuel rewards. The pro frugal move is to do all of the above, then pay with a theater gift card you bought at the grocery store that scored you a gasoline discount, too. Using multiple coupons, perks and discounts to maximize your money is called rewards stacking.

Kroger and Giant Eagle sell gift cards for AMC, Regal Cinemas and Fandango, and sometimes you can get up to quadruple the gas rewards during special promotion periods.

Ask for movie gift cards as gifts. Inevitably, family and friends ask what they can buy for holidays and birthdays. We suggest gift cards for movies, meals and fun things to do with the kids.

Do movie night at home. Staying home all the time isn't super fun, but it is a super-frugal strategy worth mentioning. Since the time it takes for a new movie to go from theater to DVD is often three months or less, patient families—especially large ones—can save a mint on movies. To make it more fun, turn it into an occasion. Pop your own popcorn, eat movie-sized boxes of candy bought on sale at the grocery store and press play.

Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseTrowbridg.