When times get tough, people seek more entertainment. We need to get away from the news of dwindling retirement funds and collapsing banks. However, most of us are trying to pinch our pennies these days. Here are 9 frugal fall entertainment options to keep your mind off the troubles without squeezing your wallet.

See a Matinee
Movies are fun, but who wants to pay $12 a ticket? If you don’t have an Entertainment Book that will get you great discounts on movie tickets, hit a matinee. Go right after lunch so you won’t be tempted to buy popcorn. If you must have a snack, sneak in water bottles and toasted nuts.

Go to a U-Pick Farm
Take the whole family to a U-Pick farm for an afternoon of apple picking. When you get home, bake your fruit into pies, cook applesauce, and make apple bread. If you have a cellar, the apples will store for quite a while, so that will save money on groceries, too.

Carve a Pumpkin
Buy pumpkins from the farmer’s market, pumpkin patch, or grocery store. Opt for sugar pumpkins if possible. Carve them the night before Halloween, and bake a pie from those same pumpkins the night after. To avoid eating wax, put a small piece of aluminum foil under the candle, or put it in a clean votive cup.

Have a Movie Marathon
If you have Netflix or Blockbuster, order three related moves and hold a movie marathon day. If you don’t subscribe to a movie service, visit the library to browse their selection of DVDs. Then make popcorn, bust out the big bag of M&Ms, nosh on nachos, or whatever else screams movie mania. It’ll be just like going to the theater, except with more comfortable seats and no need to pay for parking.

Go Leaf-Peeping in the Neighborhood
Usually leaf-peeping requires driving. If you don’t want to use the gas, go leaf-peeping in your neighborhood. Borrow a book about local trees from the library, then set out for a nice walk to admire the local trees and fall leaves.

Read Aloud
The whole family should choose one book everyone wants to read, and then spend an hour every night reading it aloud. Most people have probably finished the Harry Potter series, but The Book Thief and Madapple are getting a lot of good press these days. For those of you who don’t have kids, give one of the above a try or delve into a classic you’ve been interested in reading for a long time.

Cook a Group Meal
Not only is this a fun activity, but it’s a good lesson if you have kids. If you don’t have kids, gather your friends for a night of cooking, wine-tasting ($5 bottles), and general merriment. Choose an affordable menu from the grocery sale flyers, and then assign everyone a task or dish to cook in your home.

Game Night
Not a video game night. A family game night. Play the classics like Monopoly and Pictionary, or try one of the latest games like Cranium. Invite several friends over, then split up into groups. Ask everyone to supply suitable junk food and wine to keep the games going through the evening. If no one has games, then it’s time for Cutthroat Charades. When choosing difficult clues, consider not only the obscurity of the title, but also whether or not it’s easy to act out.

Attend a Museum on Free-Admission Day
Unfortunately, most free museum days are on weekdays, but both Bank of America and Target are sponsoring free weekends at museums around the country. WalletPop has more details on options through the end of the year. You may also find local children’s or science museums that are free every day, all year round. Check your local travel bureau for more information.

If you want more fall entertainment ideas, check out the local free weekly newspaper or calendar section. You should be able to find numerous free activities throughout the fall.

Got more ideas? Share them in the comments.

A few months ago, I saw this at Failblog:

book rental service?

was just thinking. my sister does -alot- of reading, and spends like $1000 a year on just books alone. most of them she reads once then never looks at again. is there any kind of like…video rental store but for books? would make things alot cheaper, plus once one person had read one the next person can get enjoyment from it etc

I laughed and thought, “It’s called a library.” Then I started to wonder if a Netflix for books might actually exist. It turns out they do, which then prompted me to wonder if they’re better than the library.

How Book Rental Sites Work
Book rental sites like BookSwim and BooksFree work just like Netflix. You pay a monthly fee and then they send you the allotted number of books per month. Shipping is free both ways. When you return one, they send you the next book on your list.

What Book Rental Sites Cost
BooksFree’s cheapest plan is $9.99 a month for two books at a time. They only offer paperbacks and audiobooks. The audiobook plan comes with a separate fee. The cheapest plan sends two books at a time and requires you to return them together to get more. The other plans circulate the books like Netflix.

BookSwim’s cheapest plan is $19.99 a month for three books at a time and you can return them separately to have more shipped. Their selection includes hardcovers and paperbacks.

Are Rental Sites Better than the Library?
I haven’t tested either site because I have a backlog of books at home and an awesome library that carries nearly everything, but I can see the advantages and disadvantages of the rental site.

Rental Site Advantages

  • Shorter wait for hot books
  • Wider selection for rural residents
  • No need to travel to a library
  • No late fees or due dates
  • Site available 24-hours a day.

Library Advantages

  • Books are free
  • Higher limit for checked out books
  • Wider selection for residents of cities or larger suburbs.

I’m biased, but I think the library wins, for the simple reason of cost. However, convenience is bigger concern for some people. I’m spoiled by my library system. Consider these factors when choosing the best source for your books:

Location and Hours
The Los Angeles system has many, many branches all over the city. I’ve never lived more than 5 minutes from a branch, but that isn’t true of people in rural areas, where a visit to the library could entail a drive of 20 minutes or more. My library also has good hours – my branch is open until 8 weeknights. Some branches are open Sundays. I know many rural libraries have cut hours, which makes them hard to use.

Online Ordering and Renewal
The LAPL catalog is also online, and I can order books to be delivered to my local branch. I can usually get any book I want, although I have spotted some gaps in their fiction collection. I can also renew online. Some rural or smaller systems don’t offer either of those options.

Cost of Late Fees
The biggest danger of the library is late fees. If you’re forgetful or can’t get to the library before a book is due, then maybe the rental service is best for you. Most libraries have night drops, so you can still return books, but then you have to go back to the library when it’s open to check out new books.

Catalog Size
The Los Angeles library system is huge. They have most new books as well as books dating back 80 years or more. I don’t know precisely how many books they have, but I’d guess it’s in the millions. They check out 15 million books a year. BookSwim advertises over 120,000 books and BooksFree claims over 140,000 titles. If your library has fewer books than that and limited interlibrary loan privileges, then better selection is a strong selling point.

Final Thoughts: Library for City Folk, Rented Books for Country Folk
I can certainly see the appeal of renting books through the mail if you live in an area with a poor or distant library system. But if you live in a large suburb or city, then stick with your library. Even if you have to get on a super-long waiting list to read the current bestsellers, free is better than $10 a month. But, if you rack up more than $10 a month in late fees, get thee to a rental website to feed your book habit.

I always think that I’ll spend less in the summer, but somehow, it’s always more expensive than I expect it to be. You’d think I’d learn from that. So, in my attempt to do just that, I’ve come up with some theories about why summer spending patterns are higher than expected.

Fresh Summer Food
Grocery budgets for foodies and regular eaters alike go up in the summer. It’s hard not to buy all those new fruits and veggies. Of course, some foods are available year-round due to global food imports, but foods that are in season in your region taste better because they’re not shipped as far. I recently switched to the farmer’s market to get even fresher food. Even though it’s usually a bit cheaper, too, I buy a lot more of it. I can’t resist the cherries, strawberries, nectarines, and peaches after months of living on citrus and apples. And so, my summer food budget goes up.

Summer Home Improvement Projects
In many regions, some DIY home improvement projects can only be done during the summer. Even if you can do them at other times of the year, summer seems to be the season of projects. Although these projects will improve the home and last a long time, they aren’t free. Paint, drapery, plants, etc., all cost money.

I don’t own a home, so my summer projects are limited, but I did get it into my head to make produce bags and slipcovers. Certainly, both are cheaper to make than to buy, but these aren’t expenses I factored into my original summer budget.

Summer Entertainment/Dining
Yesterday I listed several free or nearly free summer cultural events, and I listed nine ways to entertain a couple weeks ago. Even if you do both, you’ll probably spend a little more than planned on party or picnic food. Dining out with friends is also more enticing during the summer. It’s hot inside: who wants to turn on the over or stand over a stove when outdoor cafes beckon?

Summer Travel
Many people with children travel during the summer to avoid missing school. Hopefully you budgeted for your vacation, but you’ll probably need to buy a few unbudgeted things before you leave. Most people also spend a little more than anticipated while traveling.

To compound the problem, summer is the season of weddings, which means traveling to them (unless they’re local). This summer I have a wedding, bridal shower, and bachelorette party to attend. I’m not upset about that, but it is something that I had to work into the budget.

This summer we’re not taking a full vacation, but I do attend a conference every July, and that also adds to my spending.

The only way to curb your spending is to become more aware of what makes you go over budget and curb those habits, or budget for them by reducing spending in other areas.

Do you spend more in the summer, and if so, what makes you go over budget? Tell me in the comments.

Summer is the season when most cities host free or nearly free cultural events. Of course, this is also the season when you can choose to spend big bucks to experience culture under the stars. Los Angeles is brimming with options, but here are some ideas for finding free or nearly free cultural events near you.

Summer Classical Concerts
Here in Los Angeles, we have this wonderful place called the Hollywood Bowl. It’s legendary. Conductors aspire to conduct there, performers aspire to perform there. The Bowl is currently the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Normally, you think of an orchestra performance as an expensive event that requires dressing up. This may be true when the Phil performs at the Disney Hall, their winter venue, but it’s not true of the Bowl.

The Bowl is an amphitheatre, which means it’s a come-as-you-are place. Ultra-casual. Although they sell refreshments on site, everyone is welcome to bring in their own food and beverages, including wine and beer. Picnics are strongly encouraged. Parking is fairly reasonable and they also run shuttles from various locations around Los Angeles.

Tickets are also affordable. For some shows, tickets are as low as $1. They go up to over $100, but even the $1 seats aren’t that bad. My husband and I usually spring for the $18 seats. The nice thing about the Bowl is that the conductors explain the story behind the music or discuss an interesting episode from the composer’s life between the pieces. They’re usually amusing and they make “stuffy” classical music accessible.

So you sit under the stars, being educated, being entertained, drinking wine, and listening to amazing music.

Many cities and towns also offer free or low-cost concerts at parks, museums, and local amphitheaters. Start by visiting the website for the nearest orchestra or your local city’s website for ideas. Several LA museums offer free chamber music, so check a local museum if you don’t have an orchestra in your city.

Summer Jazz Concerts
I’ve found free summer jazz concerts at several of LA’s outdoor malls (we have many) and museums. The listening is free, but they sell food and beverages. I’ve also attended an evening of low-cost jazz at the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and seen ads for similar events at their Chelsea Market. If you want to find something similar near you, your local museums and malls are the first place you should check. A local university or community college may also offer events.

Summer Theater
New York’s free Shakespeare in the Park is legendary (and difficult to get tickets for), but other cities offer free or low-cost summer performances, too. Some feature professional actors, while others feature local performers who are quite talented. Check your local city’s website, theater groups, universities, parks and rec. department, or newspaper events calendar. If you’re in a big city, try the alternative newspaper or Goldstar.

Summer Children’s Events
Most outdoor cultural events are open to children, but you can find events specially designed for them, too. Start with the local library and museums, both of which usually offer free summer children’s programs. Your local park and rec. department or community center will probably also hold activities for kids.

Summer Films
Free films in the park are a relatively new event, but they’re growing in popularity. These are free in some cities, and cost money in others. LA’s biggest is actually held in a famous cemetery, and costs $10 a person, but you can bring in your own food and drinks, so it’s still a good deal (and not in the least bit creepy. You don’t sit on graves.) San Francisco has a couple free film venues during the summer. The films are usually classics, or at least a decade old. The LA event also includes free music before and after the movie.

To find a summer film series near you, your best bet is to Google your city name and “summer film.” You can also try a local events calendar, the newspaper, or the parks and rec department.

Summer cultural events are much more relaxed than anything you’ll find during the winter. Use this opportunity to enjoy local culture for free (or nearly free), without having to worry about dressing up. As more cities and towns add events to their calendars, you should have no trouble finding an event near you. Of course, if you’re in the mood to stay home, you can invite your friends over for a nearly free party.

If you have other ideas for finding local events, tell me in the comments.

When I was a teenager, my boyfriend told me I needed a hobby. It sounds mean, but he meant it in a nice way. Unfortunately, my hobby turned out to be expensive and messy. Now that I live in an apartment, I don’t do it anymore. Instead, I’ve taken up a few inexpensive hobbies. Here ten cheap hobbies you can try.

Reading
I’ve said it before: reading is frugal. You could spend a lot of money on hardcovers, but you simply don’t have to. Become one with the local library instead. Of course, if you find an author you really love, buy all their books in softcover so that the publisher will continue to give them contracts, or tell your friends to buy their books.

Writing
Once you start reading a lot, you’ll probably wonder if you could do it better. That thought is the first sign that you should try writing. You can write articles, poems, short stories, or even give a novel a try. All you need is a pen and paper, or a computer. To improve your craft, borrow writing books from the library, join local critique groups at the library or through Craigslist, or find free online critique groups. It becomes more expensive if you want to get published, but then it’s not just a hobby anymore.

Cooking
You probably already have the basic tools you need to take up cooking as a hobby: pots, pans, knives, and kitchen tools. Now check out the cookbook selection at your local library or start reading food blogs. Cooking really isn’t difficult, it just takes practice. Unless you’re preparing dishes that require obscure ingredients, it’s not expensive either. Best of all, you get to eat the food you produce, so you’re hobby is built into your grocery budget.

Baking
Baking is related to cooking, but the two really are different passions. I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes, but I really love baking and making chocolate truffles. You have to be careful with baking – if you like baking desserts (like me), it can add to your waistline. I limit my baking to food for parties and guests in order to keep my weight in check.

Hiking
I’m also a big fan of hiking. Once you’ve got a guidebook and a pair of hiking boots, it’s pretty much free. I also have a hydration backpack, which I recommend for serious hiking. You can find them at Target during the summer, so you don’t have to spend a fortune on gear.

Team Sports
If you’ve got a local park, then you’ve probably got access to local team sports like soccer, baseball, and basketball. Check the community calendar, then stop by the next game to ask about joining the team.

Volunteering
If you believe in an important cause or support a local organization, volunteering is a great hobby. It may even come with free perks! For example, if you volunteer at a museum, you’ll be invited to volunteer appreciation events. Or you can volunteer simply for the joy of helping others, which is its own reward.

Crocheting/Knitting
Crocheting is one of those hobbies that can be cheap or expensive. It really depends on the type of yarn you buy, how many classes you take, and how many books you buy. If you stick to cheap yarns and get your patterns at the library, then it’s a fairly inexpensive hobby. As a bonus, you can give the things you make as gifts, which reduces your gift budget.

Digital Photography
Simply going outside and taking pictures, or becoming the official photographer for friends and family, is a fun hobby that doesn’t have to cost a lot. Once you own the camera and memory cards, there’s no film to buy. You only have to print the pictures you want to keep. Of course, it can add up if you buy an SLR camera with all the attachments, but you can keep it cheap if you want to.

Arts and Crafts
If you’re a crafter or have an artistic spirit, you could take up whittling, watercolor painting, or a host of other crafty projects. Once again, there’s an initial investment for supplies, but then you can enjoy the hobby for decades. Projects also make great gifts for the people you love.

If you set your mind to it, you can find loads of inexpensive hobbies. What are some that you enjoy? Tell me in the comments.

Note: I wrote this as a guest post at a friend’s now-defunct blog, so I’m re-posting it here.

Last year, a horrifying study found that 25% of Americans hadn’t read a book in the last year. This is horrifying for a number of reasons:

  • We’re not reading because we’re choosing other entertainment forms, most of which are mindless
  • We’re not reading because we’ve learned that books are “boring,” which tells me that our education system is failing us (to be fair, I already knew that.)
  • We’re not reading because our parents didn’t demonstrate reading as a worthwhile habit, which again reflects poorly on the values of our culture. Our culture says that TV/movies/sports/shopping are more important than reading.

My Love Affair with Books
I’ve been a lifelong reader. I recall fondly my weekly trips to the library where I would spread the children’s books out on the floor to choose my books for the week. I loved those books with their pretty pictures and slippery plastic library covers. When I opened one, the plastic made a very satisfying crinkle that said I was about to slip into a fascinating world. A trip to the bookstore was a huge treat. Of course, I wanted to buy every book in the store, but my parents would limit me to one or two, so I chose carefully.

Once I got older, I spent much of my own money on books, especially Sweet Valley High romances, but I also nicked books from my Mom’s shelf. I would routinely read three or four different books at once, and have no problem keeping them straight. Some of those books were 5-600 pages long, but I loved them anyway.

Today I try to read at least two books a month, more if I can manage it. I’ve got 19 books on my “to be read” shelf, two on hold at the library, and several more on a list to get from the library once the shelf is clear. If I stay on track to read a book a week, that will take me 21 weeks to get through them before I start the list. If I get really into a book, and I nearly always do, then I try to read as much as I can in just a couple days. I find the time to read by cutting the amount of television I watch.

Why Reading Is Frugal
So now I’ll tell you why reading is frugal. Yes, books can be expensive, but through the wonder of the library, you can get them for free! If you have a large enough system, they may have an online catalog that you can order books through, even novels and bestsellers (fiction and non-fiction), and be notified when the books arrive at your nearest library. If the book isn’t available in your system, ask the library about intralibrary loan. You’d be surprised what books a librarian can get his or her hands on.

You can also get free, or low-priced, books through places like Paperback Swap. http://www.paperbackswap.com/ I love Half.com http://www.half.com for books I want to keep. Sadly, keeping books isn’t always frugal because you have to buy more bookcases when the old ones get full. I know a person who bought a larger house to hold all his books, but that’s an extreme.

But beyond getting books free or cheap, reading is frugal because it doesn’t feature advertising. When you watch TV or movies, your brain slips into a meditative state where you’re more susceptible to advertising. Seeing the same ads repeatedly encourages a need to own those things, so you spend more money. When you read, you avoid the consumer culture.

Reading is also frugal because it makes you smarter and healthier:

Better mental health: Studies have shown that people who read or do puzzles are less likely to experience dementia and other mental disorders later in life, which vastly reduces your healthcare costs.

Higher incomes: Readers are also more likely to have higher incomes, although this may be because people who read tend to be better educated.

Improved communication skills: Reading, even fiction, improves your communication skills by expanding your vocabulary and demonstrating proper writing, which can only help your career.

Exposure to new ideas: Reading also educates you, even if it’s fiction, because you’re exposed to perspectives and experiences that are different from yours.

Better school performance: Children who read definitely do better in school because reading helps train you to learn. You subconsciously absorb facts, vocabulary, and grammar. Later in life, homework isn’t necessarily a chore and even a biology book can be fascinating if you enjoy reading. (Okay, minor admission, I was the kid who read the back of the cereal box at breakfast because it was in front of me and I needed something to read.)

If you have children, make the trip to the library a regular event so they get used to reading. If you don’t have children, try to stop by every couple weeks to see what’s new. Once you get into the habit of reading, you’d be amazed how addictive it becomes.

How often do you read? Tell me what you think of reading books in the comments.

I enjoy seeing movies, but it costs a fortune to visit the theater. To save money, I came up with nine legal tips to save money on movies. But first, the backstory, which every good movie has:

Where I live in Los Angeles, the lowest priced movie theater is $12. If I want to drive a little further, the price falls all the way to $11. It’s practically a bargain (if you live in crazytown.) For this reason, I rarely see movies in the theater. I believe the last movie I saw was Harry Potter, sometime last summer.

On top of the cost, I just don’t want to take the time to drive to the theater, fight for parking, sit in the theater for well over two hours, then drive all the way home. On top of that, it seems like the 8 or 9 PM movie is dead. Instead I’m stuck with 7:40 or 10:15. One is too early for dinner and one gets out really late.

But, of course, I still want to see movies. Without further delay, here are my tips:

Find a bargain theater. Most areas have one or two bargain theaters. These are “second-run” theaters showing movies that are probably already on DVD. The upside is that tickets are usually less than $5. The downside is that the sound and seats aren’t so great. If you must have the big screen experience, this is the way to go, but it’s not my personal favorite. A commenter on another blog I read (and I’m so sorry I forgot which one) suggested visiting university theaters, but most of the universities near me limit their screenings to students and faculty.

Join Netflix or Blockbuster Online. One reason I rarely see movies in theaters is the 190 movies on my Blockbuster list. I call it the tyranny of Blockbuster, but it is nice to get movies mailed to my home. During the summer, we can usually get through three movies a week. We pay $20 a month, so that works out to $1.66 a movie. We especially like having the ability to start and stop the movie or to watch it any time of day.

Attend matinees. These days it seems that matinees aren’t that much cheaper than evening films, but you can save a little money if you’re willing to go to the first showing. Make sure you avoid the snacks, though. My trick is to carry my big purse and bring in my own bottle of water and bag of candy. This works better for adults than teens.

Watch movies on Demand. If you have cable and a digital box, you may have a small selection of free movies. Skim through it to see if there’s anything decent showing. I have one pay channel, so I occasionally watch movies from its on Demand menu. I’ll continue to do so until I can finally convince my husband to cancel the channel.

Rent from the library. Most libraries carry a selection of first-run movies. The one drawback to my library system is that they won’t send movies through interlibrary loan. The selection at my library is limited, so I’ve never rented from there, but I hear that other systems will send movies between branches. If you’re looking for a foreign language film and live in a big city, check a branch in the neighborhood where that language is common.

Buy previously viewed movies. Personally, I don’t understand why people buy movies, but if you like to own them, wait until they’re on sale at the video store. You can usually pick them up for less than $5. You can also try Amazon, eBay, and Half.com, but consider the shipping cost before making the purchase.

Find a bargain rental store. Many neighborhoods have bargain rental stores. If you can wait a few months, you can often rent the movie for $1. This was dicey during the VHS days, but DVDs retain their quality well.

Join movie theater clubs. If you really want the theater experience in the evening, see if the theater has a movie club. Each time you buy tickets or concessions, the club gives you points. Eventually you’ll earn free popcorn, drinks, candy, and tickets.

Use Entertainment Book coupons. If you buy an Entertainment Book, look in the back for the movie ticket coupons. Usually you have to mail away for the passes, but they save at least 25% on the tickets, sometimes more.

Bonus tip: Join an entertainment guild. All you have to do is break into the movie/television industry, become eligible for one of the entertainment guilds, and then receive your membership card. That card will get you access to free movies during awards season. If you want to see free new releases at home, then work even harder to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Sure, you’ll have to put up with long hours, unreliable employment, and Hollywood’s self-importance, but you do get to see the free movies during Oscar season.

I think I’ll stick to the first nine tips. It’s just easier. What are your tips for saving money on movies?

I read year-round, but my reading has definitely increased since the writer’s strike commenced. I’ve read four or five books already this year and read another three to four at the end of last year. Summer also leaves me a lot of time to read. In addition, I was recently a grad student, which meant I had to devise method to save money on research books. Today I’ll focus on the ways I save on personal books. Tomorrow I’ll discuss how I saved on college books.

Request Books from the Library
The library is my top source for free books. Granted, I live in a huge city with a huge city library system, but most libraries have access to interlibrary loan so you can get just about any book you want. If I hear about a book on TV, the radio, or a blog, I will usually check it out from the library. I also keep a list of books I’d eventually like to read. If I like a book and will read it again or will use it as a reference, I’ll buy it from Amazon or Half.com. Even with library usage, I have three overflowing bookcases in my apartment.

Organize a Paperback Swap
If you have a small group of friends who are interested in trading novels or popular non-fiction, you can organize a paperback swap. Here’s how to do it:

Poll your friends who are readers and find out how many paperbacks they buy/read per month.

  1. Ask which friends would be willing to part with their books in exchange for different books for free.
  2. Set up a monthly meeting date for swapping. For example, the second Saturday of the month at 11AM.
  3. Month 1: Everyone buys the average number of books the group reads, say 5. The books can be a variety of genres, authors, etc. Just try not to double up on any single title.
  4. Month 2: Everyone brings their books to the meeting spot. If one person is unable to attend, she should arrange to bring her books to someone else beforehand and can then collect her next set of books from that person afterwards.
  5. To keep things organized, give everyone a number. These are their permanent numbers. Person 1 gives her books to person 2 who gives them to person 3 and so on until you reach the last person, who hands them to person 1. Next month, they rotate again.

Depending on how many people are in your group, you could get several months of books for the price of one month. Because of the high cost of hardcovers, I highly recommend sticking to mass market paperbacks (the smaller size paperback), although you could agree to include one or two trade paperbacks (the larger size paperback) in the mix, too.

Of course, as a writer, I still recommend that people buy new books. If you love an author, buy his or her books new so he or she can keep writing. If you plan to use a cookbook heavily, buy it new. If it’s your first time reading an author, first check the book out of the library, which pays for the books in its collection. Then tell all your financially stable friends about it so they can go buy it!

I’m not someone who thinks TV is bad, but I recognize that it can easily absorb a whole afternoon if you’re not careful. Studies have shown that watch TV produces alpha waves, which are the same waves produced when you meditate. That’s why it’s so easy to watch a night of silly sitcoms without realizing it.

At the same time, I find that some shows get me thinking and create interesting conversations. I don’t want to give up TV entirely – there are certain shows my husband and I enjoy together – but I do want to watch less junk. I also wouldn’t mind cutting my cable bill.

Here are my tips for learning to watch less TV:

Keep a Cable Log
Last spring I kept a viewing log for a month in order to pinpoint my viewing habits. Right now it’s more challenging to figure out which shows you do actually want to watch because so few of them are on, but a cable log is still a good way to keep track of where you’re wasting time.

To keep my log, I put a notebook in the living room near the TV. Every time I turned on the TV, I noted the time, what channel was on, what show I watched, and whether I did anything else while watching. I also noted the time I turned the TV off.

Highlight the Shows You Actually Watched and Like
When reviewing my log, I discovered that I intentionally viewed about 50 hours of TV a month, but the TV was on for 85 hours. I also discovered that I never watched several of the premium channels we subscribed to. Those have now been cancelled. Of those 50 hours, probably 16 of them were the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. I discovered that I had a lot more free time when those two shows were off the air this winter, but I also really missed them! Now that they’re back, I watch them during dinner.

Set an Appointment to Watch TV
If there are specific shows you like to watch, make an appointment to watch them. Turn the TV on when the show starts, then turn it off when the show is over. In the fall, I was down to five shows a week (plus DS and CR). At this point, I watch 3-4 a week, but soon that will be just one or two. When/if TV returns in the fall, I plan to stick to just 3-4 shows a week.

Hide the Remote
If you tend to channel surf when you’re bored, make the remote difficult to access. Keep it in a box across the room or another room entirely. Serious TV addicts might want to lock it up. That will force you to think about whether or not you really want to watch TV. If you’re just trying to kill time, do something else. Read a book, exercise, play a game with your family, do something other than letting yourself lose four hours to mindless TV viewing.

Cancel Cable and Rent Shows
With most past seasons of popular shows now available on DVD, you can cancel cable and then rent the DVDs when it’s convenient for you. Even shows like MythBusters and Food Network series are on DVD. Your library, video store, or Blockbuster and Netflix most likely have many of the shows you’d want to see.

By cancelling cable, you also give yourself fewer options for channel surfing. If you don’t have a digital television, you’ll need to buy a digital converter by February 2009 or you won’t be able to receive any television. The government is operating a digital television coupon program to reduce the cost of the converters. Of course, if you want to stop watching TV entirely, cancelling cable and using an analog television without a converter will be a great way to go cold turkey!

Buy a Tiny TV
My best friend doesn’t have cable and only watches a few network shows, so she uses a 13-inch TV. The screen is so small that it doesn’t encourage lazy viewing. If you find yourself watching too much TV, buy a smaller TV and then sit all the way across the room. You’ll probably find yourself watching very little TV after a week of miserable squinting.

I was able to watch less TV simply by being more aware of my viewing habits, but you might need to take more drastic action if you have a serious TV addiction.

How do you feel about your viewing habits? Is the strike making it easier to watch less TV?

There are a few TV shows I love. I make an appointment to watch them every week, but I don’t watch much TV beyond those. But now I have a problem – because of the writer’s strike, most of those shows I watch are off the air. A few of them have only recently started, but I know they’ll be gone in a few weeks, too. I’m so accustomed to watching TV at a certain time that I find myself endlessly channel surfing just looking for something to watch. That has to stop, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money going out to movies. It’s too cold to engage in outdoor activities, so I’m stuck inside looking for stuff to do that doesn’t involve the computer.

Here are a few of the ways I came up with to reduce my total entertainment cost now that there’s so little good TV to watch:

Subscribe to Netflix or Blockbuster Online
There aren’t many TV series I want to watch that I haven’t already seen, but you can get full seasons of TV shows from Netflix or Blockbuster online. I’m thinking of adding season one of “Psych” to my list because I’ve only seen some of them. Then you can watch them one hour a day to fill a slot where you used to watch some other show. You can also catch up on all those movies you’ve been wanting to see, but missed in the theater. I figure that we can watch 100 movies this year if the strike goes through the fall TV season. It’s certainly better than “American Gladiators.”

Read
I know, a lot of people don’t like to read. Fortunately, I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life. Currently, I have a pile of 26 books that I’ve been meaning to read. I own them, but I got most of them for free at various events. The local library is one reason I haven’t gotten through them. Whenever I hear about a book, I order it online from my library system, and then I can pick it up a few days later. The downside to having such a huge library system available is that I’ve ordered so many library books that I haven’t had time to burn through my TBR pile!

If your kids think reading is boring, let them choose the book, and then read it together as a family. You can all read aloud, or you can read one chapter a week together and set a time to discuss it. I hear the latest Caldecott winner, Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” is a big hit with kids. Your library may have a waiting list for it, but the librarian can recommend alternatives while you wait.

Take Up an Inexpensive Hobby
Besides, reading, you could also take up a few inexpensive hobbies. If you’ve always wanted to learn to cook, get some cookbooks from the library and teach yourself. Visit an art store and buy inexpensive art supplies to practice painting, ceramics, or another hobby. I don’t recommend scrapbooking if you want to be frugal, but you can find other options.

Exercise
Since there’s nothing good on, why not go to the gym? If you have a low stool and a couple free weights, you could work out at home instead. My cable provider offers free exercise classes in the OnDemand section. You can also find free online routines at many women’s magazine sites like Self and Women’s Health. You could test-drive videos through your Netflix or Blockbuster account or the library. I use a printed out routine and watch the Food Network while I workout at home. For some reason, it motivates me.

Play Board Games
I have several board games, ranging from Checkers to Risk. If you have a simple dominoes set, you’ve got several games right there. These are fun all night long and also count as quality family time. Schedule a game night with some good munchies and I doubt you’ll hear many complaints. I loved playing games with my family when I was a kid. I still do.

Attend a Free Cultural Event
Sometimes, the local symphony will hold a free family night, or the library or bookstore will hold a reading. Pack up the family (for family appropriate topics) and take everyone along. If it’s just you and your spouse, you have more options to choose from. Find a free local paper and check the calendar section for upcoming events.

Invite Friends Over for a Potluck
Entertaining can be expensive, but not if you ask everyone to bring something. Every time I have people over, they always bring food even if I don’t ask. This way, you can suggest a course so you don’t have six entrees and a bottle of wine. As a bonus, you can keep the leftovers and have food for a few more days!

These are just a few things you could do to reduce the entertainment cost section of your budget. I’m sure if you get off the couch, or away from the screen, you can find a few more frugal ways to entertain yourself and your family when there’s nothing to watch on TV – and even when there is. Consider this your opportunity to wean yourself from the box.

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