Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Entertainment by the hour

It's often said that the best gift is something the recipients will enjoy, but would never buy for themselves. One of our Hanukkah presents this year definitely fell into this category: a pair of theater tickets. Brian and I do go to a show once in a while, but it's usually a summertime production at one of the local open-air theaters, which cost anywhere from $5 to $15 per seat (and depending on the theater, you may have to provide the seat yourself). I think the last time I actually went all the way into the city to see a show was before Brian and I were married. But my sister got word of this production called Potted Potter, in which two guys condense all seven books of the Harry Potter series into about an hour and a half, and she decided we really had to see it.

So last weekend, for the first time in our married life, we actually drove down to Philadelphia and had dinner and a show. And it was indeed quite enjoyable, partly because of the novelty itself; I think I enjoyed seeing the theater all decked out in Hogwarts fashion nearly as much as I enjoyed the actual play. But as we drove home, Brian and I had to admit that, much as we enjoyed it, an outing like this probably wasn't something we'd ever choose to do on our own. This was partly because of the travel time involved, but mostly because of the expense. Unfortunately for my sister, the price of her gift was printed right on the tickets—$69 apiece—and a little quick calculation revealed that, for a 70-minute show, this worked out to nearly two dollars per minute. True, we also got some entertainment value out of the time we spent dining and hanging out before the show started, so you could say it was really more like two hours of entertainment—but then you also have to factor in the tax and the additional money spent on gas, parking, and refreshments to figure out the total cost of that two hours. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, a similar evening would cost about $180 for two hours of dinner-and-a-show, or $90 per hour.

This got me thinking about some of the other things Brian and I do for entertainment, and how much they cost on an hourly basis. Our most common evening out is a concert at the Minstrel up in north Jersey, which has an unusual payment structure: it's only $8 to get in, but in order to get out again, you get subjected to a guilt trip about how little you paid and how much this kind of music is really worth, then requested to put the balance of what you should have paid into a fishing creel that hangs conspicuously near the entrance. (The point of this system is to encourage people to come out for acts that aren't familiar to them, knowing that they're only putting 8 bucks on the line to find out whether they like it or not.) Brian and I, however, usually avoid the $8 admission fee by coming as volunteers. The entire show is volunteer-run, so as an incentive, all volunteers get free admission on the night they volunteer plus a "tick" that allows them to get in free to a future show of their choice. So what Brian and I generally do is to sign me up as a baker (spending about $2 on the ingredients for a home-baked goodie) and then use up one of my existing "ticks" for his admission. Our average contribution to the creel is $10, so altogether, we pay about $12 for three hours of music and schmoozing with friends. (Technically, it also costs about $8 for the gas to get to and from the show, but since we often carpool with a friend, our actual transportation cost varies, and it's easier to do the calculation without it.)

So, if the Minstrel is a basic evening of entertainment for the two of us, that means our baseline price for entertainment—the amount that we consider neither terribly exorbitant nor a great bargain—is about $4 an hour. So by using this as a baseline, I should be able to figure out how other forms of entertainment stack up for us in terms of value. However, when I start crunching numbers, I find that nearly every form of entertainment, from movies to board games, can vary hugely in dollar cost per hour. For example:
  • Movies. The last movie we saw in the theater was Wall-E. After wincing our way through the previews and ads before the show, we decided that from then on, we'd be happier waiting for the DVDs. So now, instead of paying $9 a ticket for a two-hour movie ($9 per hour for the two of us), we can spend $1 on a Redbox rental and pay only 50 cents per hour. Or, if we're willing to wait a little longer, most of the movies we really care seeing about will probably show up at the library for free.
  • TV series. As I've noted before, even before we had cable, we could watch most of our favorite shows for free on Hulu or on the individual networks' websites. Last year, we decided to spring for $79-a-year Amazon Prime subscription, which gives us access to an even broader range of choices. We've already watched over 50 episodes of MythBusters, plus a few miscellaneous movies and things, so the average cost per hour of the entertainment we've enjoyed through Amazon Prime works out to around $1.50 so far and will continue to drop as the year goes on. However, there are still some favorites of ours that are neither available for free nor included with Prime. For instance, "A Game of Thrones" is available to us only on DVD, at $40 per season. That gets us ten one-hour episodes plus a few hours' worth of bonus features, so it comes to about $3 per hour. We've also been working our way through the entire run of "Castle." This is a network show (ABC), so it would actually be free for us to watch new episodes, but previous seasons cost money; after borrowing Season 1 from a friend, we had to shell out $20 each for streaming versions of subsequent seasons, which works out to 83 cents for each one-hour episode. However, if we're willing to wait for the current season until all the episodes are available on Hulu Plus, we can just shell out 8 bucks for a one-month subscription and watch the whole season in that one month, spending only 33 cents per hour. (In theory, we could just sign up for the one-week free trial and binge on all 24 episodes in one week for nothing, but that's probably more vegging out than even we can handle.)
  • Books. When I read on my own, I can power through a standard fantasy or mystery novel in a day—say, six hours of solid reading. But when I read aloud to Brian, it takes much longer, and we get to enjoy the book together, so it stretches out to maybe 20 hours of entertainment for the two of us. So a $20 hardcover costs $1 per hour, a $9 paperback costs 45 cents per hour, a $4 secondhand paperback costs 20 cents per hour, and a library book (or one borrowed from a friend or relative) costs an unbeatable zero bucks per hour. (This is the main reason we'll probably never buy a Kindle: a secondhand paperback is still a lot cheaper than a Kindle download.)
  • Video games. Brian gave up his $15-a-month subscription to World of Warcraft years ago—not because it wasn't a good value, but because he was spending so many hours on it that it actually was a good value, and he decided he needed to reclaim those hours. I, however, often have down time between work assignments that I can devote to games, and one of my favorite genres is the point-and-click adventure. The one I've currently got my eye on is "The Book of Unwritten Tales," a highly-rated sendup of the fantasy adventure genre that promises 20 hours of gameplay for $10, or. At 50 cents per hour, that looks like a pretty good value—but the reason I haven't sprung for it yet is that I keep reminding myself that there are loads of interactive fiction games, which I enjoy almost as much, available for free at the Interactive Fiction Database. Some of these provide only about half an hour of play time while others can keep me busy for days if not weeks, but at zero dollars, they're all as good value as it's possible to get.
  • Board games. Brian and I love board games, but we seldom get a chance to play them, because most of our favorites don't work for only two players. This makes spending money on a board game a chancy proposition. Popular games on Amazon.com cost anywhere from $20 to $60, and it's hard to justify spending that much on a game if we're not sure how often we'll actually get to enjoy it. However, if we find a decent game at a yard sale, it's almost always worth snatching up, since it can potentially provide countless hours of entertainment for as little as a dollar. 
  • Puzzles. Crossword puzzles are another of my favorite time-wasters when I'm between work assignments. My favorite type is cryptic crosswords, which are hard to find online (British newspapers like The Times and The Guardian have them, but I can never get through them, possibly because they contain too many UK-only references for me). So this Christmas, Brian got me a collection of them (one of the few that I haven't already worked my way through) for $11.70. The puzzles turn out to be pretty easy, taking me about 10 minutes apiece, so the 50 puzzles in the book will probably provide me with about 500 minutes of entertainment for about $1.40 per hour. The other crossword book he got me, however, is a much better value: just $6.13, including shipping, for 70 crosswords that take me about half an hour apiece. That comes to 35 hours of diversion at a mere 17.5 cents per hour. (I can also download the weekly Saturday puzzle from the Wall Street Journal for free, but that's only good for one day out of seven; the puzzles available during the rest of the week aren't nearly as interesting.)
So, looking at all these options, it's clear that there's a huge variety of choices out there, with a tremendously wide range of hourly cost. The freebies are obviously the best value of all, but even among the paid products, there are lots of options that cost no more than a dollar per hour—less than a quarter of the price of an outing to the Minstrel. Of course, that's not to say that the Minstrel isn't worth the money; for a really good evening of music, $4 an hour is still an excellent value. We'll even pay well above that rate for an act we really want to see; we considered $25 a ticket for a concert with David Wilcox and Susan Werner on the same stage, for instance, to be money well spent. But if the act on any given Friday is only so-so, we might just get better value for our money by staying home with a $1 episode of "Castle"—or a good book.
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