How to Save Cash at a Music Festival

... and still have a great time!

A music festival can (and should) be a fantastically affordable vacation option for anyone, but festivals can also become bottomless pits of spending: tickets, vendor meals, beer, CDs, beer, irresistible crafts, camping gear, beer... it all adds up.  Want to save money at the next music festival you attend? There's no reason not to try—all it takes is a little bit of advance planning, and you can cut your music festival budget down substantially, while still having just as much fun as the next festivarian. Here are some ways you can slash your festival spending.

Choose Your Festival Wisely

Portrait of enthusiastic woman outside tents at music festival
Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Some festivals are just inherently more expensive than others -- mega-fests with huge slates of headliners (such as Bonnaroo) are going to be the most expensive, and free daytime-only outdoor festivals (such as Festival International de Louisiane or San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass) are going to be pretty cheap, at least ticket-wise.  Figure out what you actually need in a festival (camping? A campfire jamming scene? Big-name artists?) and then find a festival that suits those needs, within your budget.

Buy Tickets Early

Most festivals with paid admission offer a graduated ticket pricing scenario, where the earlier you buy your ticket, the cheaper it is, with a difference of anywhere from $10 to well over $100 from the gate price. Tickets are usually cheapest before the band lineup is even announced, so if you have historically admired a festival's roster and feel that it's been consistently excellent, get those tickets (and that vacation time) squared away as early as possible.  

Volunteer!

Want a free festival ticket, and potentially perks like free camping or meals? Most festivals are in need of capable and competent volunteers for all sorts of different tasks, and they usually offer free admission in exchange for that work. Sometimes volunteer positions fill up quickly, though, so signing up as early as possible is the way to go. Volunteering is often tons of fun, too, and a great way to meet new people and even develop some new job skills.

Bring Your Own Food

Many festivals have a rule forbidding outside food or beverages.  If that rule is not in place, though, stock up! If cooking facilities are available (or if you're allowed to build a small campfire or bring a hibachi grill), you can bring any camping food you can think of. More likely, though, you'll have to depend on dried and non-perishable food. Granola bars, dried fruit, jerky, and peanut butter and crackers can cover you for breakfast and snacks for a few days, saving you lots of money.

Buy Vendor Food Wisely

Scope out food vendors early on to get a sense for their pricing and offerings. Often, lunch prices are cheaper than dinner prices, so why not eat your big meal at lunchtime? Also, watch what other people are ordering to see what a serving size looks like. You don't want to order a full portion for yourself only to walk away with a five-pound plate that you could've easily split with a friend or two.

Also, remember that food containing lots of carbs (rice-based stir-fries, noodle dishes, pizza) tends to leave you hungry again after what feels like minutes. Though a meat-and-vegetable or tofu-and-vegetable entree might be more expensive, they'll stick to your ribs and keep you dancing for hours. Oh, and if you seriously run out of money? A friendly food vendor will often let you wash a few dishes in exchange for a meal.

Just Drink Water

If you're allowed to bring in outside beverages, this can be one of the most dramatic money-savers. Inflated festival prices on bottled water alone can singlehandedly destroy your budget. In most US states, festival producers are legally required to provide a source of free potable water. Figure out where that source is and bring your own bottles to fill and refill, and you'll have free water all weekend. You might have to ask to find out where you can find that tap or tank, but it's likely that it does exist somewhere on the grounds.  

Save Money on Alcohol

Drink less. Or don't drink. Okay, that's the super-cheap way out. If you'd like to imbibe a bit, though, there are ways to save. First off, if you're allowed to bring your own beverages, do it. If you're not, consider a festival to be the time to embrace your inner cheap-beer fan—buying expensive mixed drinks at a festival vendor is probably an extravagance that won't really add to your fun.

Bring Whatever Money You'll Need

Running out of cash will force you to hit up an ATM, which could cost you up to $5 in fees. Sure, it's just a savings of $5, but every little bit counts!

Don't Buy CDs

Buying CDs at the festival vending booth is an unnecessary on-site expense. Sure, you hear a great new band and you want to grab their CD right away... but wait. If you're on a seriously limited budget, maybe that CD purchase can wait until next month's pay cycle, when you can buy it straight from the band's website or an online vendor. Just make sure you write it down or save it in some way—if it was an obscure album by a lesser-known artist, you'll want to know you can find it again.

Wait Until the Final Day

Wait until the last day of the festival to go browsing the craft vendors or the official festival merchandise. By the afternoon of the last day, you'll know how much money you have left to spend, and some vendors may have marked down their merchandise by that point. The exception to this rule, of course, is if you really want a commemorative T-shirt or something—festivals usually make limited runs of shirts, so if there's a style you really want, get it early.