In Toy Story the two favorite toys of the child get in a fight about flying. Buzz Lightyear says he can fly and Woody says he was only “falling with style.” I just got back from a Disneyland vacation with my daughter and it made me wonder how I can do things like that when I’m still struggling with hospital bills. So this post is not about being broke, but like Buzz Lightyear, going broke with style.
Our trip to Disneyland was great. I work as a free-lance writer, and teach college classes from home so my schedule is fairly flexible. That allowed us to go during a time when Disney offered their cheapest tickets. Every few years my credit card company sends me a new offer. I normally throw them away but a couple years ago I signed up and got about 60,000 free points, which help pay for several Christmases (see below.) This time, they sent me a Disney card that offered 250 dollars in free gift cards. (I earned some Disney points and bumped it up by another 25). So my tickets didn’t cost me anything out of pocket. The only thing I’m paying for a hotel and gas to get there which makes this an incredibly affordable trip.
The trick to qualify for these bonuses was to spend a certain amount of money within a certain time period, usually a month or the first 90 days. Because of my hospital bills I easily met that threshold. I had to spend the money anyway on hospital bills, so I figured I might as well get a few hundred dollars of Disney gift cards for my trouble.
On the same thread where I described my visit to the hospital I mentioned a trip to London. Well a new Las Vegas based carrier started nonstop flights to London. They had introductory rates that were incredible. I and my daughter averaged about 400 dollars a ticket for a transatlantic flight so I went ahead and pulled the trigger. Money was tight but I always try to put at least a few dollars out of every paycheck for opportunities like this. I don’t remember the name of the airline, maybe it was Norwegian air but whatever it’s official name it should be called Nickel and Dime Airline. They charged to pick your seat (we didn’t), 50 pounds for a meal (we carried on a small cooler with lunchables and granola bars), 30 pounds for checked in luggage (we packed light), and we traveled for an extremely good rate. Our trip to London wasn’t determined by the luxury of our flight, but by the wonderful things we could do like going to places like the Tower of London, Temple Church, and Imperial War Museum. I’m trying to do the same for China. I’m saving a ridiculously small amount of money each paycheck, but its seed money for nice trip sometime in the future when I come across a good deal.
But there are more ordinary ways to the live the high life as well. There was a period in the summer when we went to free or low cost movies for six weeks in a row. We started with a City of North Las Vegas event. My daughter mainly wanted to go so she could play with friends. I enjoyed chilling in the park watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2. The next week was a onetime only event watching Rifftrax live. We had to pay a bit for this, but I knew it was coming and saved up. The next week we finally made it to watch Solo in the dollar theater. It was okay, but nothing amazingly special so I’m glad we waited to watch it for a dollar. Then we had another movie in a (different) park. It was the Last Jedi this time, which I again watched alone (yay family time?) Then the drive in movie theatre has a customer appreciation day. I wanted to watch Mission Impossible again. (I saw it for free the first time using my reward points.) But she won the day and we watched Jurassic World. That movie was so terrible we saw it for free and I still wanted my money back. So that was a whole series of movies for which we mostly paid nothing and my daughter loved it.
We can see first run movies for free as well. Eric Snider has a good summary of the negatives of these experiences as it essentially involves lots of waiting and a rush for seats that make Southwest look calm. But I usually have a stack of reading anyway so as long as I eat an early dinner and show up a couple hours early, I’m at the front of the line and don’t worry about all that. I’m Mormon and a former Marine, my tolerance for boredom and sitting in one spot is extremely high and this doesn’t close. Between the two methods we see so many movies for free that we rarely go to a normal theatre. But when we do I make sure to use my rewards card, so even then we are earning our way to a free movie.
More Free Stuff:
My former sister in law once said that if you are truly a Vegas resident you don’t pay your tickets. I laughed and thought she was kind of ridiculous, but after a few years I tend to agree. The cliché in movies is that there are ways of making you talk, and there are ways of getting free stuff.
Know somebody- My sister in law scored us free tickets to the Bite of Las Vegas, a fun event. We were looking at some smelly incense and cool rocks at the Fashion Show Mall and the since we were local the sales lady gave us tickets to the Renaissance Fair. We paid to get into Pirate Fest (using a military discount), but then we met one of the radio personalities who gave us free tickets to Motor Cross. We were at a free movie night hosted by the city and we won free passes to the Highroller. Supposedly this is the biggest one in the world (and the frat boy d-bag on the video guide reminded us that size matters.) This took away the sting of the London Eye being closed during our visit. I went to a Marvel Themed party at the Zappos headquarters downtown and scored free tickets to Avengers Station down on the strip. Our sister in law scored us free tickets two other times to Motor Cross. That is great because the October race is always the same weekend as my birthday. I used to know somebody who knew somebody who worked at the MGM ticket office. We got free several passes to the Tournament of Kings. At other times my ex worked as a concierge for one of the New York New York, and she got free tickets as part of her job. Usually we went on our own, but one time I joined her and her new husband, and my daughter for Blue Man Group. I definitely deserved parenting points for that one.
Radio- I’ve only won tickets once as I was caller nine for Rick Springfield. I’ve gotten close a few other times. I almost won some Motor Cross tickets. I was caller 6 when I needed to be caller 15 or some such. I almost won some tickets to Metallica as well. But even though I didn’t win there are still plenty of free events. The D in the old downtown has a free concert series. I’ve seen Seether, and recently the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I had to cancel a free Rick Springfield date because of my surgery. If I can’t afford Iron Maiden or Metallica I can usually see their tribute bands for as little as 5 dollars. It’s a decent way to spend the night. There is always a club that offers some no name band for free. Evel Pie recently won best pizza so they offered free pizza and the guy from Karate Kid singing you’re the best around. This show was so awesome I could actually joke with him in the middle of his set since I was five feet away with my free pizza and coke. (Getting a Coke or water is a good opening to flirt with the bartender about being so wild.)
The Lego store does free events every month, and we are members of the club for the chocolate store next door, so we get free samples every month as well. Right next to that is my favorite pizza place. We went to a free event hosted by Las Vegas Journal Review at the Las Vegas National History Museum (and the Glittering Lights at the Motor Speedway the next year) and scored a lifetime of coupons that make the pizza very affordable. So that’s always nice doing three free or discounted things right next to each other at a high end fashion show mall. Speaking of fashion shows, they usually have some kind of runway show as well and their holiday themed ones are quite fun. (Telling them that my daughter loved them is a good way to strike up a conversation afterwards. Models like compliments too!)
The best free events are around May the 4th. It sounds like May the Force Be with you so there are lots of Star Wars related events. The Desert Research Institute and Atomic Testing Museum do a May the Science Be With You where it’s a giant party. My daughter actually made the news two years in a row and we get cool tours of the research centers, live music, some food trucks, lots of swag, and generally a great time. The Lego Store and Toys R Us both offer free building events the same weekend as well. And that is usually the same weekend as free comic book day. So we end up with free legos, free parties, free comic books, and sometimes free motor cross tickets (which is often the same weekend.)
But there are free events all year. I went to the Stratosphere on the 4th of July which was free for locals. Me and my daughter go to the Shark Reef every Friday before Halloween. It’s a state holiday, they turn it into the Haunted Reef, and make it free for kids. (That and parking becomes free for adults that give blood as well.) The Bellagio Art Gallery had free days for locals as well. We really liked their Monet collection. Now that many of the casinos charge for parking we don’t go down there as much but there are still some places that have free parking and free events. St. Marks Square at the Venetian is nice, as is the garden at the Bellagio.
The Mob Museum is a great tourist attraction that is usually free at least twice a year. November 15th is Kefauver day. This was a famous senator and two time Vice Presidential candidate that held hearings on the mob in the 1950s, including the court house in Las Vegas which is now the museum. The other free day is Valentine’s Day. They have part of the wall from the St. Valentine ’s Day massacre so you can see the bullet holes and everything and sometimes they have the actual Tommy Guns on loan. It gets a bit busy but the lines aren’t as bad as Disneyland. Plus, the Lego store usually has an adult build on the same day, so I can that for free as well. It being Valentine ’s Day I again check out my favorite pizza place too. So the free or discounted stuff usually has some synergy.
Speaking of free or discount pizza, we can often eat out for very little money. The McDonalds app multiple times in the same visit lets us eat dinner for 4 dollars. Our other treat is having discounted tacos every Wednesday. When we go to a local fried chicken place called Caines I take advantage of a military discount. Veterans Day weekend always has some free food so I make the rounds. It’s usually just a free entrée so I have to cover a drink and tip, but it’s still a good chance to get food for a much better price than I normally could. Chick Fila has Cow Appreciation Day every year that is really fun and free. And we totally abuse 7-11 on July 11th. There are so many locations in Las Vegas we pretty much make a three mile circuit around the city getting about 3 or 4 free smalls. The end result is that we can eat out without busting our budget.
Christmas time Ninja-
The toughest time of the year is Christmas. If I had a dollar for every person that complained about commercialism and shopping I wouldn’t need to worry about the shopping. All the rhetoric in the world about the reason for the season won’t make your child happy they have no presents. As a general rule I find I can stretch my money pretty far. The best place to buy plush animals is the local Deseret Industries. I can find plush animals that are bigger than my daughter for just a few dollars. In contrast, a small plush costs 8 dollars at the Disney store. (I might skip the animal this year. She rocks the claw machine every time we go somewhere that has one.) Same thing with books and Barnes and Noble; I always buy used books at DI. The dollar store provides good stocking stuffers. But you can’t do Christmas on a 5 dollar budget which is where the ninja part comes in.
I don’t use my credit card for deficit purchases. I essentially pay bills with it using money I already have. Then I pay off the balance and collect the points. I have about 60 dollars’ worth of points saved up this year, which is actually one of my lower years. I also seem to collect Amazon gift cards. I drive for uber and they give me gift cards for completing their surveys. I use the Walmart Savings Catcher in which Walmart refunds me the money I could have saved by shopping at other stores. Finally I use the rebate app Ibotta to collect more money. Between all of those items I have 130 dollars of free money saved up.
It might seem like a great deal of work for too little gain for some people, but the time investment is really not that much. It takes me literally seconds to scan a receipt, and the math to make sure I have the money to pay off the bills I just put on my credit card is something I do everything month anyway. Just like using a rewards card at the movies, it’s a way to maximize spending that I am doing anyway.
That might not sound like a ton of money for some people but it’s just me and my daughter. Buying gifts for me is something I could do every day so for Christmas I usually buy something special that I wouldn’t normally purchase. In past years this has included items like a Game of Thrones banner or the Big Trouble in Little China Board Game. It’s pretty nice walking around Walmart on Black Friday knowing that my first 20-80 dollars is basically a shopping spree and that is before you get to the two dollar dvd’s and other Black Friday deals. (I usually don’t have my daughter that day so it’s nice to get out of the house and spend some free money.)
I’ve been doing pretty good as a free-lance author and historian, but medical bills and car problems have made the last year particularly difficult. Whatever my income I try to live a full life I’m not afraid to pull the trigger on a trip to London or China if I find a good deal, but I also strive to do free and every day things around town. After my divorce I didn’t want to fight for custody of my daughter just so she could be bored at my house half the time. When the money isn’t flowing as much as I’d like I can still go broke in style.
What are some free or low cost things you like to do?
What have you heard about in Las Vegas I could still do?