Difficult times are upon us, America. You know it, I know it, and everyone other than McCain economic advisor Phil Gramm knows it. There are major economic troubles affecting every area of our economy. There’s the credit crisis on Wall Street and the foreclosure crisis in our neighborhoods. There’s the high price of oil at the gas station and a 5% rise in food costs due to the high cost of transporting food. Businesses are going to cut jobs and hire fewer people. Some projections say that the unemployment rate may top 12% not too long from now.
The economic crisis comes at a time when real wages were already down, even though productivity and GDP are at higher levels than ever before. Health Care costs are going up, we’re still fighting two wars, and the Medicare Prescription Drug program blew a hole in our budget. The debt-to-wages ration in this country is out of control.
In the midst of all of this, people are spending less and saving more. You’re probably one of them. At the same time, a steady diet of culture is important to being a human being, even though going to movies, plays, and museums while keeping up with reading and music can be quite expensive.
Don’t worry — help is on the way. Here are a few legal (and ethically okay!) ways to save money while continuing to get your culture on:
Suggested Donation = (Almost) Free. Companies and institutions have “suggested donation” policies for all sorts of reasons. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, gets some of its funding based on the idea that it is free (or at least very cheap) to go to. Some events have suggested donations for union reasons; if the events are free, labor doesn’t have to get paid.
Supporting the arts financially is important — most suggested donation events are essentially fundraisers — but if you’re living on the cheap, they’re a great way to experience art and live events while saving money. The important thing about the phrase “Suggested Donation: $20″ is the word suggested. That means that whatever you are going to is actually pay what you will. The MET might like you to pay $20.00 to go to the rare musical instrument room, but you can get in for a penny if you want.
Get A Library Card. Do you buy every movie you watch? Probably not. Why would you want to buy every book you read? I say this as a committed bibliophile whose favorite place in New York City is a secret used bookstore in Manhattan. I used to spend a large amount of money every month on books, especially graphic novels, which cost between 10-35 smackaroos and take a maximum of three sittings to read.
Weaning myself off of buying every book I want and moving to using the library card has been psychologically difficult but necessary. I bought a new bookcase over the summer and have already almost filled it. When you have less than 900 square feet to live in with a significant other, there’s a premium on space. Also, my monthly budget just couldn’t take my compulsive need to purchase books. Luckily, there’s a library in my neighborhood a 15-minute walk away. Not only that, but thanks to the web, libraries are becoming much more user-friendly and useful than they were when I was growing up. At the Brooklyn Public Library’s website, you can request a book (or a movie) to be delivered to your branch so you can check it out or renew books you currently have without having to go into the library.
If you are a reader of comic books, getting a library card is essential to saving money. It’s insane how much graphic novels cost. Paying $30.00 for a paperback book is crazy, unless you’re planning on reading it repeatedly or loaning it to friends, and that’s a decision you can make after you read it.
Read Music Blogs. So you don’t want to spend all your money on music, but you don’t want to pirate it — oops, I mean “borrow it from several million of your friends simultaneously.” Don’t worry, music blogs are here to help, and they go well beyond indie music (although, if that’s your thing, I recommend Gorilla Vs. Bear). Want to check out what’s available on cassette tapes in Africa? Look no further. Whimsical mid-century modern lounge music more your deal? Check out this guy. There’s a wealth of difficult-to-find unique music out there waiting in the blogosphere, and if you hunt around their blogrolls and link pages, you can find even more.
Go To A Staged Reading. Theater is really expensive. It’s expensive to make and very expensive to see, especially in relationship to other art forms. If I wasn’t a theatre blogger and artist romantically involved with a theatre marketer, there is no way I could afford to see the one to three plays per week I go to — especially on Broadway, where tickets top out at over $200.
It turns out, however, that there’s a lot of free theater going on in New York, beyond Shakespeare in the Park, and it’s probably happening in your city as well. I’m talking of the controversial and ubiquitous practice known as the Staged Reading. Staged readings are briefly rehearsed live readings of plays, generally done with very little actual staging by actors around music stands.
Staged readings happen all over the place all the time, owing to certain unfortunate realities of theater-producing in America. Every theater has a limit on how much theater it can produce. Many theaters reserve very few slots for new plays. These theaters also have missions that involve doing new work, however, and many theaters genuinely want to do more plays than they can or more new plays than they think their subscribers will tolerate. The end result is a lot of staged readings, particularly of new plays, and a lot of writers frustrated that their work is constantly read out loud but never actually produced.
You shouldn’t let that bother you as an audience member, however, because staged readings are a great opportunity to experience plays and learn more about what’s going on in theater in your area. The one barrier to this is that, since theaters generally do not charge for their readings, they don’t spend a lot of money on publicizing them. You can find staged readings going on in your town by joining your local theater company’s mailing list or poking around on their websites. Here in New York, there are a lot of readings. I would recommend the readings done by The Lark and New Dramatists, which are two non-producing organizations dedicated to developing American Playwrights. Many theatre companies also have playwrights’ groups that generate material for readings. MCC Theater is about to start its fall PlayLabs series, while in the spring, SohoRep’s Writer Director Lab offers six free readings by some of tomorrow’s best writers.
There’s no reason why belt-tightening and cultural illiteracy have to go hand-in-hand. The above suggestions are just a start. Now go out and embrace your inner cheap bastard!