Owing $15,000 on credit cards and almost $150,000 on a mortgage makes you an "average" American, according to the Federal Reserve. Recent college grads bear an even heavier load, with the average student loan debt nearing $32,000. Add costly car payments, cell phone bills or health insurance, and you may want to crawl under a rock -- or punk the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Fortunately, you don't have to resort to either tactic. You can make a nice chunk of change by reining in your entertainment budget and investing the savings. Here are 50 ways to have a blast in Madison while chipping away at debt.
Learn something new
Madison Public Library's maker-focused program encourages small groups to get creative with free, hands-on instruction in printmaking, 3D printing, computer-based animation and other cool art forms. It's also a driving force behind Stacked, Central Library's Sept. 19 kickoff featuring a dance party, an art show and music by more than a dozen local acts, including Samantha Glass, Golden Donna and Trin Tran. To lure night owls out of their nests, the fun goes from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Advance tickets are $12, less than the cost of a movie and popcorn.
Located on the Capitol Square, American Family Insurance's DreamBank hosts loads of free evening activities that kindle creativity and lift debt-burdened spirits. Fall offerings include concerts by singer and violinist Ida Jo (Sept. 20, 6 p.m.) and roots rocker Beth Kille (Oct. 17, 6:30 p.m.), and a female-focused improv comedy class led by Monkey Business Institute (Sept. 19, 6 p.m.)
You needn't resemble Sheldon Cooper to attend this monthly gathering at the High Noon Saloon. On selected Wednesdays at 8 p.m., local smarty-pantses meet up to drink beer and give presentations on topics such as game theory, predatory amoebas and badasses of French literature. Admission is free, and lots of drinks are $5 or less.
Wisconsin Union Mini Courses offer inexpensive classes on a very wide range of topics, including cooking, karate, ballroom dancing and genealogy. Many sessions convene at night, near the Memorial Union, and most are great places to meet others. For the cost of a few lattes, you can prep for a romantic trip to Mexico with "Spanish for Travel," bolster your knowledge about Trappist ales at "Beer Geek 101" or defy gravity at "Intro to Pole Dancing."
Want to make noise without hitting a concert or a Badgers game? Head to this makerspace on Winnebago Street, where you can safely learn to use blowtorches, saws and sandblasters. Classes range from copper plumbing to software engineering and are typically $20 an hour, but staff will let you explore the space for free almost any day the building's open. The group's monthly meeting (first Tuesdays, 7 p.m.) is an ideal place to connect with others who like to create and innovate.
Flaunt your talents
Story Slam at Johnson Public House
If you're a fan of The Moth, this is the place to be. Story Slam happens once every month or two, and it's got just the fuel for summoning your inner storyteller: Ale Asylum beers, Intelligentsia coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches for just a few bucks. Prepare to get your fill of belly laughs, too. A recent slam centered on embarrassing memories from adolescence.
Open mic at Mother Fool's Coffeehouse
Enjoy a mocha and showcase your talents at this free event on Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. Almost anything goes, so bring your magic tricks, hula hoops or knock-knock jokes.
This High Noon event is perfect for folks with tons of charisma or no shame. On Tuesdays for $6 ($3 for students), you get a chance to choose a song from a list of crowd pleasers like "Funky Town" and "Eye of the Tiger," then perform it with local rock band the Gomers, in any style you'd like, from hip-hop to polka. Singers get a free drink and a lively, receptive crowd. The rocking continues on first and third Fridays for $7.
Trade verses with other locals the third Saturday of the month at Genna's Lounge (7-9 p.m., $5-$6). Bashful bards can write haikus on bar napkins at weeknight happy hour (4:30-6:30 p.m.), which features a steep discount on rail drinks and several tap beers.
If you really want to crank up the swagger, try this trio of Wilson Street taverns during a Sunday Packers game. To prove you're a true Wisconsinite, not a "Sconnie," start at the Up North with cheeseheadery and meat rafflery. There are usually free snacks and drink specials, too.
After the game, it's on to Essen Haus for beer-filled boots. Chug a pair of these economy-size beauties and laugh at friends trying to gulp theirs down. Then burn off those beer calories with a polka, or head to Come Back In for karaoke. For maximum calorie burn -- and crowd appeal -- try singing Queen or Ke$ha songs with the onstage moves you'd expect from those artists. If it's a flop, you can slink back to the Up North and drown your sorrows in a $4 bloody mary.
Fun and games
Though Rossi's Vintage Arcade & Pizzeria is a restaurant in present-day Monona, it could be mistaken for a game room in an '80s shopping mall, or a Chuck E. Cheese for grownups. Specials include a 14-inch one-topping pie for a respectable $9.50 on Mondays, but the big draw is the old-school arcade games, including Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Rampage. Most cost one or two quarters, a pittance for the flood of nostalgia they beget.
A mug of Weary Traveler grog ($6.50) and a game of chess, played with life-size pieces on a patch of checkerboard floor, make a memorable date on a chilly evening.
Vintage Brewing on Whitney Way hosts a euchre meetup on selected Monday nights at 7 p.m., while the Laurel Tavern on Monroe Street has a sheepshead game every other Sunday night. Both events are virtually free, and there's often a beer special.
Lots of local bars have a pool table, but the one at Harmony Bar feels like it's in a beloved grandparent's basement. At about $10-$12, the tavern's 12-inch pizzas are great for sharing.
At Great Dane-Hilldale you'll find pool tables, huge TVs and other delights, such as free weekend DJ sets by locals like Mike Carlson. Keep the tab low by sharing a flavorful poutine ($6) with a friend or ordering a 12-ounce glass of handcrafted beer ($2.75 during happy hour, Monday-Friday).
Duck into the Brass Ring, a neighbor of the High Noon Saloon, for shuffleboard and billiards, or try to multitask by adding Team Trivia on Wednesdays (7 p.m.) or Sundays (5:30 p.m.).
You don't need to be named Norm to go to Woody & Anne's for the 22-foot shuffleboard table, which costs just a coin or two per game. But within a few minutes, you could share your name with everyone in this Winnebago Street institution; it's that friendly. The cozy, cash-only joint also has Don Wieder, whom Isthmus readers named best bartender in the 2011 edition of Madison's Favorites, plus plenty of barstools and cheap beer, including $1.25 PBR a couple nights a week.
Dexter's Pub is the perfect spot for libations after kickball at Demetral Field, or if you're in the mood to bounce a ball over a net in a sandpit. It also offers League Trivia on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. But the best game of all is guessing what's in the "mystery shots" the bar serves on Thursdays.
Meanwhile, the Wisco (Willy Street Pub & Grill) has a sand volleyball court a few feet from Willy Street. It's in a steel cage to make sure you understand that folks at this joint really like metal, musically and otherwise. If it's cold outside, just slap some coins in the jukebox, blare some Sepultura and master the art of foosball while trying not to spill your Blatz.
Joining a club a great way to rev up your social life. Meetup.com shares information about dozens of local groups dedicated to some very specific interests. You'll find pods of Madison newcomers, theater lovers, bulldog fanatics and much more. The Movies and Meals group combines two popular pastimes with stimulating post-film discussions.
Ice Cube forgot to say "One Barrel show you love up in their club" at the end of his hit "We Be Clubbin'," but he surely would have if he'd known about the brewery's Mug Club. For $75 year, you get a dollar off every beer you buy, and even more off on Mug Club Mondays. And you drink from a giant mug that gets filled with more ale than a standard glass holds. If you're not the joining type, bring your bike helmet on Thursday evenings to get your first beer for a buck.
After hitting the lanes, try some West Coast swing dancing or a concert by hair-metal diehards Cherry Pie at this hangout near Alliant Energy Center. Bowling is half-price after 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and you can win free games on Sundays and Mondays. More bowling discounts -- and lots of other money savers -- can be found in coupon mailers like Dollars & Sense and on daily deal sites like Groupon, Living Social and Isthmus Saves.
Whether you're pairing coffee with cupcakes or Cabernet with cheese, this coffee and wine shop's West Washington location is a great place grab a bite without eating up your budget. Its doors stay open until 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, making it a good place to meet before events at the Frequency and Overture Center. Join the Wine of the Month club for a sizable discount on tasting events, and get a Belly loyalty card to earn perks such as free espresso shots.
Eat to the beat at this Wisconsin-centric bar and restaurant on State Street, which doubles as a parlor for local jazz fans. Free events abound, including Tuesday movie nights and performances by guitar dynamo Louka Patenaude's trio on Fridays at 8 p.m.
There's no better way to welcome beautiful fall weather than a date with a steaming mug of coffee. This King Street java joint just jumped into the events game with a free music series featuring local artists like Paul Otteson and Whitney Mann. Bonus: The shop now features alcoholic coffee drinks brimming with gourmet ingredients.
Monroe Street's newest coffee shop has a toasty fireplace and a hot lineup of budget-friendly events. Owned by Madison musician Cait Shanahan, it has a strong focus on local acts and a low cover charge (often $5 or so). This month includes performances by Eric Doucette, Hannah Luree Odland and Michael Lynn (Sept. 13, 7 p.m.) and Anna Vogelzang and Rachel Reis (Sept. 22, 6 p.m.) Then the cafe will partner with neighboring bookstore Mystery to Me to welcome local author Florencia Mallon, who'll read from her novel Beyond the Ties of Blood (Sept. 27, 7 p.m.).
Sustainable foods and Just Coffee with a side of awesome music and a humanitarian project in Haiti? Yes, please. The homey cafe that peers over State Street has concerts by local and touring acts, many of which are $7. The events menu also includes free chats about TED Talks and a new lecture series about social entrepreneurship. Inspiring documentaries like Who Cares? (Sept. 20, 7 p.m.) are sometimes accompanied by a group meal (6 p.m., RSVP required).
To top it off, there are local food specials six days a week. Coffee is strong but modestly priced, and visitors can get a medium latte for $2 after 2 p.m. if they bring a receipt from a purchase made earlier in the day.
Dance, dance, dance
'80s vs. '90s at Majestic Theatre
Held every month or so, this dance party features vintage music videos by stars from decades past. Each party has a theme, from Madonna to Michael Jackson, and costumed attendees can win prizes. It's about as much fun as you can find for $5 -- or free if you're dressed as the evening's featured celeb.
College Night at Cardinal Bar
Though the Cardinal's upped the ante with free trivia nights (Sundays, 7 p.m.) and jazz by the New Breed and guests like rapper Rob Dz (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), dance is still its bread and butter. Thursday nights have Latin-music DJs and are free for students sporting a school ID. Rock en Español (Sept. 27) and Friday salsa socials provide an intro to Latino culture you can't get in a classroom.
Leather & Lace at Inferno
Fetishes breed friendships and more when the Inferno hosts this kinky dance party with industrial music from DJs WhiteRabbit and Mike Carlson. Admission's just five bucks if you show up by 10:30 p.m. The catch? You must be "dressed to kill." Whether that means a lacy corset, dominatrix gear or a life-size banana costume is up to you.
Brew 'n View
The Majestic Theatre sometimes has film screenings for $5 or less. On Oct. 11, it will show The Big Lebowski twice (8 and 11 p.m.), with a costume contest between screenings. Admission is free for those dressed as the Dude or characters like Jesus and Maude.
Local parks often screen movies for free. The Moonlight Movie Series runs from spring through early fall. This year's final presentation is The Princess Bride at Garner Park (Sept. 27, 7 p.m.).
The library screens films for free, including kid-friendly anime and art-house fare. The Hawthorne branch often shows eco-themed movies on Tuesdays, the Alicia Ashman branch presents foreign films, and Central Library is planning a series of experimental gems (first Thursdays, 7 p.m.).
UW film events
UW Cinematheque is a godsend for cash-strapped cinephiles. The organization shows classics, experimental works and a few Madison premieres each season, and some events feature visits from directors and actors. All screenings are free, and most take place in 4070 Vilas Hall or the Chazen Museum or Art. Fall 2013 includes a newly struck 35mm print of Michelangelo Antonioni's existential delight L'Avventura (Sept. 13, 7 p.m.) and the local premiere of Johnnie To's Drug War (Sept. 27, 7 p.m.).
Union South's Marquee Theater also shows oodles of free films, including cult classics, sneak previews and recently released indies like Frances Ha (Sept. 13, 11 p.m.). Across campus, Memorial Union often projects movies on a big screen in the Rathskeller.
High fashion, fine art
Five Nightclub and Plan B regularly host inexpensive drag shows starring stunning female impersonators. Plan B recently welcomed Willam, Detox and other personalities from RuPaul's Drag Race, while Five is a magnet for queens on the pageant circuit and up-and-coming local performers.
Helmed by Mary Jane Connor (who also works in the Isthmus sales department), Gallery 99 organizes pop-up art exhibitions at bars, coffee shops and restaurants. All works featured are $100 or less, which means financially challenged art lovers can buy an authentic piece by a local artist -- not a reproduction on a postcard -- without going broke.
It's hard to top the Terrace's combination of lake views, locally made beer and ice cream, live music, and people watching. Access is free, and the music lineup includes the Portland Cello Project with Jolie Holland (Sept. 14) and punk-pop band Bleached (Sept. 27). In October, the party heads into the Rathskeller, whose German beer-hall decor and inviting fireplaces surround a stage that draws local and touring acts.
Joining the ranks of the Willy Street Fair (Sept. 21-22) and the Madison World Music Festival (Sept. 19-21) are these free outdoor concerts in front of the Majestic. Delta Spirit and PHOX will wrap up the 2013 season on Sept. 20 at 5 p.m.
If you want a dark corner to canoodle in, you may need to sit on a stranger's lap at this Johnson Street tavern. But when a barstool's available, there's nothing more romantic than sharing a 'Bou Burger Lady and the Tramp-style under the hazy glow of the menu board.
Paradise excels at specials, from a Tuesday-night discount on Berghoff bottles ($1.50) to the weekend PBR pitcher deal ($5.50), which is about as close to charity as a Madison bar gets. The 'Dise Burger will make you proclaim the wonders of this downtown dive.
If you've graduated from college, going to a student union may feel odd, but the Sett will quickly make you feel at home. Almost nothing on the menu is more than $10, and pub-style fare like beer, brats and cheese curds radiate local pride. Nights often feature free concerts on a huge, L-shaped stage. During World Music Fest, catch a free performance by Red Baraat (Sept. 27, 8 p.m.), who mix bhangra drumming with funk and go-go.
Alex Trebek is your ticket to thriftiness during happy hour at this Willy Street bar. Get the Final Jeopardy question right and score a complimentary drink. Weeknights feature $3 Irish Car Bombs after 9 p.m., and weekends often have free rock concerts.
Support local acts like Land of Vandals, Icarus Himself and Control (all three play on Sept. 21, 9 p.m., $5) and affirm Milwaukee's "Beer Capital of the World" title with $2 PBR tall boys Sunday through Wednesday.
Made-from-scratch soups and bakery items draw visitors to this intimate cafe near West High. Small espresso drinks are in the $3 range, and free acoustic concerts by folks like Julia McConahay sweeten the deal with nary a calorie.
Concerts are free at this Willy Street mecca of cool. Tuesday-evening singer-songwriter residencies are a good bet, with acts like Luke Arvid and Casey Foubert appearing this fall. Other nights pull in touring acts like Cave (Oct. 5) and Grooms (Oct. 16).