Get More Bang for Your Membership Buck!

If you are looking for a way to get out of the house, and do something without breaking the bank, it may seem your options are limited, but using these simple tricks, you will be able to get out of the house without going broke.

Free Days

Many museums offer days of the year, or hours during the week, where you can get in for free or reap deep discounts. For instance, here is a fantastic list on of museums in New York City that are free, take only donations, or offer free times every week.

Scout your local area's websites, and call your local museums/attractions, to find out if and when they offer any free or pay-as-you-wish times.

Another option is to volunteer! If you volunteer you may get a free membership, or at the very least use of the museum or attraction after you are done helping out. Volunteering is also a fantastic way to meet people who share common interests.

It Pays to Be a Member

Purchasing a membership is the key to consistently going places on a budget. By being a "member," you can take advantage of reciprocal memberships. Reciprocal memberships are memberships that give you the benefit of admission to similar attractions.

By digging around on your chosen attraction's website, you can usually find any associations and rules for using your membership at other places. For instance, by using the American Horticultural Society's website, I was able to find a local garden membership at nearly half the cost of the garden I was considering joining.

You may find a membership at a vacation spot or in your hometown that is a less expensive option to your local attraction to stretch your dollar even further. This can be a boon when there are rules about how far away you have to be from your "home" museum or site.

Aren't sure you want to purchase a membership without visiting first? Ask if you can buy one that same day if you change your mind. In my experience, many places offer this benefit because it's a win-win. Just be sure to hold onto your receipt, and usually the membership office can deduct that day's fees.

Best Family Memberships

Look for a membership to one of the museums who belong to the Association of Children's Museums, which touts it "was rated by Real Simple, Nick Jr. Family Magazine, and others as the best value for families."

In my area, a membership to ACM affiliate The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is a fantastic deal. It saves you the $5 parking fee at every visit, and includes a number of free carousel rides.

Kid-Free Households

No kids? No problem! There are memberships to gardens, botanical centers, science centers, etc. that have the same benefits. Whatever your taste, you are sure to find some kind of museum or attraction that offers admission to other local, national or worldwide places. It may take longer to pay back your membership, but if you have a favorite place, it's well worth it.

Other Discounts on Memberships

Students should always make sure to take along your ID, as many museums offer student discounts.

Seniors also get discounts at a variety of venues.

Check with AAA, your workplace, and even your local government — you may find an extra discount, or discounted tickets.

Vacation and Memberships

When visiting another area for vacation or to visit family, you can leverage your memberships to see the local sights. You may find your memberships don't extend to that area, or your memberships don't extend to the attractions you want to see. In major metropolitan areas, look for multi-passes to several attractions.

In San Francisco, for example, you can choose the CityPass, which includes a muni/cable car pass and admission to:

  • the California Academy of Sciences
  • to Aquarium of the Bay
  • San Francisco MoMA
  • the Exploratorium or the deYoung/Legion of Honor art institutes
  • a cruise on the Blue/Gold Fleet

Just be sure you want to visit ALL the attractions, or you may end up spending more than you need to. When my husband and I visited San Francisco in June, we purchased a Muni/Cable Car pass only. It enabled us to take the cable cars multiple times ($5 for one way), the streetcars (my favorite), and Muni all over the city.

Another example, my family (6 of us) traveled to Baltimore 2 years ago, and thanks to our memberships, we went to the Children's Museum and the Science Center for FREE! We saved over $200 in admission fees.

Keep in mind that you can also plan ahead by using guidebooks and websites to find free or discounted admission times at various venues. Just be sure to call ahead, so you don't end up spending $100 without intending to!

Do the Math

My family has used memberships to save over $1,000 in the last 3 years. That's a lot of bang for our membership buck!

With a family of 6 a membership usually pays for itself pretty quickly. A few months ago we purchased a family membership to the Philadelphia Zoo. We would have paid $106 plus parking, but instead I bought and printed out our membership for $99 which included free parking. We only saved $7 on the first trip, but each additional trip adds another $106 to our savings total!

You may not have quite as large a brood, so here is a simple equation to figure out how many trips it will take to make membership worth your money:

Step 1: Cost of tickets x # of people = cost for 1 visit
Example: $15 x 4 = $60

Step 2: Cost of membership / Cost for 1 visit = # of visits to pay for membership (round up)
Example: $100 / $60 = 2 (rounded up)

In our example, it would take only 2 visits for a membership to be worth it!

My favorite part of using these memberships, however, is not saving money. It is the time well spent with your family or friends in a carefully and lovingly cared-for environment. Whether it's a science museum, an estate turned garden, a historic ship, or a children's museum we often find a renewed sense of wonder with each visit!

This post was included in the lastest edition of the Festival of Frugality.


This is a guest post by Kelly Whalen who blogs about paying off debt, organizing family life, and personal finance on The ¢entsible Life:

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Guest's picture

If you're a Bank of America customer (for anything that gives you a card - credit or debit), you can get into some museums free during the first weekend of the month!

Guest's picture

If you are going to take the dive for an annual pass, just make sure it is something you are really going to use!

A few years ago, after a 2 year campaign, my wife convinced me that an annual pass to Disney Land was worth the money. I too, did the math and figured to break even we needed to visit the parks 8 times.

She convinced me that she would take the kids on early release days and several times over the summer.

As it turned out, it was Dad that was dragging the family to Disney for the 6th, 7th and 8th visit just so I could say we didn't waste the money!

We now live on the other side of the country. Can you believe she actually suggested a visit to Disney World a couple weeks ago?

ahhhh NO!

Guest's picture

Depending on where you live, the National Parks Pass can save you a lot. We went to Lassen, Oregon Caves, Olympic, and Crater Lake for one trip. Then 6 months later we went to Arches, Mesa Verde, Zion, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Natural Bridges. We also took small long-weekend trips to places like Joshua Tree and Pinnacles. Factor in minimal camping fees and gas instead of expensive hotel rooms and airfare and we saved a TON of money on our trips.

Guest's picture

Here in wisconsin, the Betty Brinn Childrens Museum offers a free membership to anyone who makes less than $40,000. With kids, these places make an afternoon trip seem like a great vacation. Its free. They are always changing the items. Kids are learning. You cant beat that. Pack a bag lunch or healthy snacks for the ride home and you got yourself an awesome afternoon and tired kiddos at night. So anything in your area, call and check their income guidelines. That goes for rec centers, community centers, YMCA. Always call and check before making any plans.

Guest's picture

some libraries will let you "check out" a pass for local museums like this