Most financial planners agree that when it comes to your entertainment budget — which covers everything from movies and dining to sporting events — five percent of your income is about the right amount to set aside.
But oh, how easy it is to lose control of that line item! A warning must be issued.
It’s a good time to talk about entertainment budgets. Baseball’s spring training season is a few short weeks away and the summer movie season will start soon after that. The entertainment industry is hungry for a bigger slice of your budgetary pie.
Among the pitfalls:
The $95-billion-a-year movie industry has come up with some clever ways to extract more money from you, from premium 3D movies, to new, higher-resolution projection technologies (ah, was that the Hobbit you saw during the holidays, or a daytime soap opera?).
Of course, you don’t have to see the next Star Trek movie in an IMAX theater, and if you do, you can always catch the matinee, but did you really have to buy that $8 tub of buttered popcorn (theaters make a bulk of their profits on overpriced concessions — and please don’t tell me there’s $8 worth of popcorn in there!).
The real rip-off, though, are platform-specific DRM-encoded movies that can’t be played anywhere else; meaning they can’t be shared across the devices on your home entertainment system.
But I digress. You could seriously overspend on films.
Don’t look now, but video games (a $78 billion-a-year business) can consume a huge part of your budget, particularly if you have children and teenagers. And even if you don’t, some of the most expensive and fascinating video games are made for adults, so no one is immune.
The latest version of Halo 4, for example, costs $59. Now, I’m not telling you not to buy Halo 4, but that if you do choose to buy it, you could be putting a significant dent into your entertainment budget for the month.
You can eliminate some of the temptation by choosing your gaming platform carefully. Consider sticking with a computing platform instead of a dedicated gaming platform.
You’ll probably get a better selection of software, and it might even be a tax write-off (a gaming platform, on the other hand, is definitely not a write-off).
The $125-billion-a-year gambling industry is a black hole for your entertainment budget.
If you’re planning a trip to Vegas or Reno this year, you can count on a loss, according to one informal estimate, which estimated that Americans lose $69 billion every year when they play poker, blackjack or shake hands with the one-armed bandit.
This is completely preventable. Don’t go to Vegas if you can’t resist the temptation, and if you do go, don’t gamble. (And if you have a gambling addiction, get help.)
A restaurant meal can be a great opportunity to give Mom or Dad the night off from chef duty — or it can give the whole family heartburn when they get the bill. Now, to be fair, a vast majority of restaurants want to give you a square deal on a meal, and they do.
But go to any restaurant trade show, and you’ll find that this is a business that, in some cases, is designed to separate as much money from you as possible.
The traps include everything from tips added to your bill “for your convenience” but without ample notification, to frequent upsells (“Do you want guacamole with your nachos?”). One does not earn $632 billion a year as an industry by being naive.
If you’re considering a night out with the family, do yourself a favor and read a few reviews and budget accordingly. Don’t forget to factor in a tip if you’re in the United States, which can increase the cost of your meal by 20 percent.
If you want to save a little money, take the family to lunch. The lunch menus, like matinees, are often discounted.
No one is suggesting you should avoid movies, video games, casinos and fine dining in 2013 — only that these industries are gunning for your entire entertainment budget. Don’t let ‘em get their way.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.