Throughout my entire program, I saw so many posts about asking about budgeting and wanting advice saving money at Disney. For a lot of people, this is their first experience truly on their own and for some it might even be their first job. Having to live on your own in not only a new city, but a new world (trust me, living in one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet is equivalent to a new world) can be totally intimidating, especially when you’re really not making that much money.
I’m not going to lie—budgeting at Disney is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Luckily for me, I did my program as a college graduate at 22 years old, so I already knew about living on my own and had been working at part-time jobs since I was 17 years old, so I had been building up my savings account for some time. While I am nowhere near a money genius or the best saver around, I would like to think I’m fairly smart when it comes to money and know how to be a penny-pincher when I have to be, so here is the best advice I can think of for those moving to Disney and nervous about their money situation.
An overall thing you need to keep in mind: Disney doesn’t pay that well and Orlando is a tourist bubble in which the cost of living is pretty high. Gas is high, groceries are high, and merchandise is through the roof. If you’re doing the math right now, it doesn’t look that hot. I went to Disney already knowing I was either going to lose money or at the best break-even and I was fine with that. For me, working at Disney was a dream of mine since I found out about the program in 7th grade, so I was going for the experience, not the pay. I think that mindset really helped me through my program when sometimes my paychecks were only $20 for the week. (No, that’s not an exaggeration. My lowest was $20, a few times it was $60, and I probably averaged about $120-140/week.) With that said, I definitely spent more than I made, but it was only for 5 months of my life. It’s not that hard to get back home and back to work and recover what you lost.
Rent comes out of your paycheck. …If you live in Disney housing, that is. Depending on your Disney apartment, you’ll need to work between 10-14 hours to cover rent. (Naturally I had the most expensive apartment because I had a one-bedroom at the Commons, but even then, it was only about 14 hours of work.) I would suggest extending shifts if you need extra hours. If you extend an hour every day, then you just added 5-6 hours on your paycheck and still kept your days off, which you definitely want for mental health days/playing in the park.
Use your discount everywhere. No one will ever get mad at you if you ask (politely), “Do you have discounts for cast members here?” The answer is either yes or no. If it’s no, then you know for next time and if it’s yes, you just saved yourself some money. The CM discount works pretty much anywhere on property, with a few exceptions for restaurants and shops. If you’re off-property, always ask. Most of the time, you just have to show your blue ID and you’ll get 10-20% off whatever you’re getting. I know the Crossroads Center right across from property and down the street from housing respected discounts—places like Buffalo Wild Wings, McDonald’s, Noodles and Company, to name a few. I never would have known about these discounts if I didn’t ask, and when you’re on Disney paygrade, every dollar you save counts.
Download shopping apps. If you don’t already have apps like Ibotta or Walmart Savings Catcher, I would download them. They’re free and super easy to use. All you have to do is keep your receipt, scan it with the QR code at the bottom and the app does the rest. It’ll find coupons or lower prices from competition and match the price, so you’ll get money back. Even if it’s just 50 cents a time, it’ll add up. Plus, you’ll be able to find discounts or coupons on the app that will help save money in the store.
Plan your major purchases. I do this in life in general because I feel as if it’s the most useful thing I can do while planning a budget. If I know how much I’m absolutely going to spend, then I’ll know how much I’ll have leftover for the rest of the week. If it turns out to be more than what I was going to make for the week, then I could adjust the weeks around as well. For example, I bought my Universal Annual Pass early, not only to get the most use out of it as possible, but to buy it with one of my full paychecks when rent wasn’t taken out yet (that’s about the first three weeks of your program).
Take advantage of the holiday discount. Both semesters get to use the holiday discount, which means merchandise is 40% off, not 20%. Since I was spring semester, that meant we got the tail-end of the holiday discount, which ran until the middle of February. I made a list of people I was going to get presents for (mainly my family and boyfriend) and then merchandise that they would like. Before the holiday discount ran out, I bought as much as I could because I knew I was already going to buy the stuff anyway—why not get an extra 20% off it? While it was a lot of money to spend right out of the gate, I’m glad I got their gifts while I did because I honestly saved a bunch.
Pack your lunch. I worked in the Magic Kingdom, where there’s a Mouseketeria with tons of food options (Subway, pizza, hot lunch…). I never once bought lunch from the Mouseketeria or other vendors in the tunnels under MK for a few reasons. One, it adds up if you constantly spend $5-6 on your lunch break every day. And two, I’m a lazy person and like to sit and enjoy my breaks. Since I was working at the Crystal Palace, my tunnel exit was closer to the front of the park while the Mouseketeria is all the way at the back under Fantasyland. If I only had a 30 minute lunch break, then I would have to walk all the way to the back (roughly 5 or so minutes), stand in line and buy my food (another 5-10 minutes), then walk back (another 5 minutes). That adds up to about 15 minutes of my break in which I would not actually be sitting and relaxing, so packing my lunch and having it directly under the Crystal Palace maximized my break time.
Don’t impulse purchase. If you’re anything like me, then Disney merchandise has a hold on your soul and almost all of it seems to scream “Buy me!” as you walk by. What I did to keep myself from emptying the shelves of the World of Disney was to not buy anything on the spot. As a CM, we have the privilege to go to Disney whenever we want and walk by the same stores day in and day out, so if you keep thinking about that item and really want it in your life, then you can get it. However, most of the time, I decided I didn’t actually need to the object and saved myself the extra $20.
Make your groceries last. This is a talent I believe I have truly perfected. I’ve been known to go over a month without grocery shopping. It’s a skill, it really is. I buy and cook my own meals, and I get things that store well. For example, chicken. I would get a few packages of chicken breasts and then freeze them until I was ready to cook them. I’m normally pretty boring when it comes to cooking when I’m trying to save money, so I would bake some chicken with either veggies, noodles, or rice (I know, super creative) and then have leftovers for about a week if I portion it correctly. Therefore, it takes about four packages of chicken and I can feed myself for a month. This method of grocery shopping is certainly not for everyone and it definitely takes some getting used to, but it can be done and it can save a TON of money if you do it right.
Invest in staple items. There were a few things on my program that I used every day or things that were really special for me. I got this Vera Wang backpack at Cast Connections for about $40 (when it was originally about $100) in my first week of my program. It was the perfect size to fit my costume—shoes and all—which was great in case I was playing in the parks before or after work and had a change of clothes with me.
I also got this large Eeyore that I hugged every time I was in the Hundred Acre Goods store because he’s just too fluffy and fits in my arms perfectly for a hug. I got him because I worked in the Crystal Palace with Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and of course Eeyore, who has always been one of my favorite Disney characters, so it helped commemorate my time at the Palace.
Collect. I know this is a way of spending money, but I feel as though it focuses your spending. Instead of buying a bunch of random things, like a tsum tsum here, a trading pin there, and then some random ears, you could build up a collection to display or have later on. For me, it’s coffee mugs. I drink coffee, tea, or both every day, so Disney coffee mugs are both useful and cute for me to have. For my roommate Rachel, it was The Little Mermaid merchandise. Whatever it is that you like, it’s awesome to come home and still have a little bit of Disney with you.
The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to not stress about the money. Yes, I advise you to plan and budget as much as you can, but you’re at Disney. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t spend $100 every day in merchandise, but enjoy yourself. Get a Mickey bar. Buy those Mickey ears. Love every minute of it!