“I got a pocket full of quarters, and I’m headed to the arcade,” sang Buckner & Garcia in the song “Pac-Man Fever.” Though I grew up when kids across the country were coming down with Pac-Man Fever, I was rarely allowed to step foot in an arcade. My parents didn’t have anything against video games – in fact, my father spent more time playing Pac-Man on our Atari than I did – but they objected to the practice of wasting quarters on coin-operated machines.
Today, machines are still gobbling up quarters – sometimes four or more at a time – faster than Pac-Man can eat those pac-dots. As a parent myself, I’m not quite as strict as my parents were about wasting quarters on kiddie rides and arcade games, but I do see how quickly those quarters add up. How do we balance a desire to let our children enjoy themselves on a ride or game now with the desire to save for their future? My husband and I follow several informal principles:
Be aware of how much you’re spending: Occasionally treating your children to a coin-operated ride at a mall or buying yourself a snack from a vending machine won’t break the bank, but if you allow your child to ride every ride every time you pass it or you buy three drinks from the work vending machine every day, you’re probably spending more than you think. Bring only enough change (or dollar bills) to make planned purchases, and avoid the change-making machines.
Avoid bubble-gum machines that dispense toys: The toys are invariably disappointing, and you might be tempted to continue to feed quarters into the machine until your child gets the one she wants. Most of the time, these toys are discarded quickly.
Save the quarters for trips to Chuck E Cheese (or a similar “family fun” place): When we were teenagers, my husband and I started going on dates to Chuck E Cheese. Now we have made these trips regular family outings. We have found that the best way to make our money stretch is to use the “100 tokens for $12.50″ coupons that the company puts in the Sunday coupon inserts. We go right when Chuck E Cheese opens, which is 9:00 a.m. in our area, before we are hungry for lunch. (I don’t think the staff really expects us to buy pizza that early in the day, anyway.) Most of the time, we have the entire game room to ourselves for at least a half an hour. By the time we’ve used 30 tokens or so (taking a break or two to watch the animatronics show), we’re tired, so we redeem our tickets and head home, saving the remaining tokens for the next trip. We enjoy an hour of family entertainment for about $4, and we even got some bubble-gum machine toys as part of the deal.
Consider alternatives: My mother-in-law loves crane machines, and she’s the only person I know who wins the prizes from them. Only half joking, I have told my father-in-law that they should save some money by buying her a crane machine for home.
If you, like my mother-in-law, are a true aficionado of a particular game (or arcade games in general), you might actually spend less if you do buy yourself a game for home – whether it’s an actual arcade game or a game system with several games is up to you. With your own game, you can always have the high score!
The same idea applies to food vending machines: If you find yourself regularly spending a lot on food or drinks from vending machines, buy yourself a supply of snacks or sodas to take along to work or school. Those individual snack bags are cheaper at the grocery store or wholesale club, and a big bag is even cheaper yet.
Quarters add up – the arcade game industry makes $8.1 billion in proceeds, according to the website of BMI Gaming, a company that sells coin-operated machines. The next time you’re tempted to spend a pocket full of quarters on anything, take the time to stop and think first. That arcade game or vending machine may give you a quarter’s worth of entertainment, but you might be better saving those quarters for something you’ll enjoy much more.