For a frugal tribe of bargain-hunting seniors, scarfing up the potpourri of newly available discounts can take some of the sting out of a milestone birthday.
Turning 50 means activating an AARP member card to save 15 percent at Denny’s. The big six- oh shaves 30 percent off tickets at AMC movie theaters. And octogenarians ski for free at Bretton Woods, a New Hampshire resort dubbed “Medicare Mountain” by its grizzled regulars.
“I’ve earned it,” said Justin O’Connor, a 66-year-old Woburn resident who estimates he saved $75 last year on daily pilgrimages to the local Dunkin’, where he gets 10 percent off his extra large decaf coffee.
But some question whether senior discounts are warranted in an era when many of those enjoying them are relatively well off, while large numbers of younger folks strain under the weight of student debt and labor in a gig economy bereft of benefits.
David Wallis, who leads the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit that supports journalism focused on inequality, argues that the deals for seniors are a relic of an earlier time. He calls for replacing them with income-based discounts for people of all ages.
“The senior discount should be radically rethought,” Wallis said. “Let’s say you have a very comfortable lifestyle. Do you deserve cheap seats at the movie theater?”
Extending deals to discount-deprived younger people could also help businesses reach out to a valuable market, he said. And if discounts were extended more broadly, it might lessen the stigma for baby boomers who are reluctant to accept them because they don’t want to think of themselves as old.
Ben Brown, founder of the Association of Young Americans, which advocates for people between 18 and 35, said his group offers discounts to members on everything from sports events and concerts to Lyft rides and Megabus tickets.
“Older Americans are not the only ones struggling,” Brown said. “The cost of education has exploded over the past 15 years, and the student debt crisis has reached epidemic proportions. We absolutely see the need to create new discounts for younger folks who are struggling.”
Indeed, many can’t afford to buy homes or save money. Data from Young Invincibles, a research and policy group, show that young adults today earn $10,000 a year less than their counterparts did in 1989.
Senior discounts emerged in the 1960s as a way to help retired folks with meager savings. But many today work into their 60s and beyond. And with surging home values and financial markets, plenty of retirees have amassed formidable nest eggs they can draw on well into their 70s or 80s.
Merchants offering senior discounts initially assumed people would only take advantage of them for a short time, but increased life expectancy has changed that calculus and stretched eligibility spans.
“Seniorhood lasts a lot longer today,” said Len Fishman, director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “You could qualify for senior discounts for 40 years.”
But senior discounts have their staunch defenders. And they’re not all seniors.
“They’re really a sign of gratitude to people who have been buying from these businesses all their lives,” said Boston University sociology professor Debby Carr, who studies aging and inequality in later life. “And just because some older adults are doing fine, we should remember there are still deep pockets of poverty” among those claiming senior discounts.
Even some younger activists don’t begrudge seniors their savings.
“It’s not something I’m going to sweat over,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, 33, a Longmeadow Democrat who leads a millennial caucus in the Legislature. “We have to focus on [changing] public policies that punish the young: the skyrocketing costs of education, the ballooning costs of housing and health care.”
But he said it would be nice if businesses or public agencies extended some breaks to financially strapped younger people, too.
A small band of pioneers has begun experimenting with income-based discounts. Lime and Bird, a pair of startups whose electric scooters recently debuted in Brookline, offer discounts on rentals to customers enrolled in Medicaid or the federal food stamps program. New York offers a “fair fares” MetroCard to subway riders based on household income. And transit advocates in Boston are pushing for a similar discount for low-income MBTA riders.
Many seniors would qualify for means-tested discounts. Sixty-one percent of single older adults in Massachusetts have incomes that fall below a cost-of-living measure called the Elder Economic Index, calculated by the UMass Gerontology Institute.
Among those who depend on senior discounts, and those who simply like to cash in, the practice has spawned a vast subculture of deal hunting and bargain chasing.
Skilled practitioners brandish Golden Apple Cards to claim 10 to 15 percent off meals at Applebee’s. They flock to Dressbarn stores for 10 percent senior sales on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And they trek to national parks from Acadia in Maine to Yellowstone in Wyoming to take advantage of their $80 lifetime passes for nature lovers 62 and over.
“As soon as I turned 65, the first thing I did was go to Guido’s and sign up for the discount,” said Pittsfield resident Ellen Hynes, 68, a retired office worker who baby-sits for her great nephew and uses the discount at the high-end local market. “I find products I can’t get elsewhere.”
Retired entrepreneur Gareth Taube, 70, said senior discounts influence where he skis and vacations.
In the winter, he frequents the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton, to take advantage of a deal that gives him 22 percent off weekday season passes.
“I meet lots of other retirees who have the same senior pass as I do,” said Taube, who lives in Dover. “You go on the weekends and the average age is 18. You go on the weekdays, and it’s closer to 60.”
In a recent post on the question-and-answer website Quora, retired lawyer Barrie Levine, 74, of Wenham recalled the first time she claimed the senior rate at a movie theater as a “rite of passage.”
After that, she wrote, “it was a slippery slope, it’s senior discounts everywhere.”
Most of the nearly 38 million AARP members eagerly scope out dining, entertainment, and travel discounts on the group’s website, said Katherine Zorn, director of member value. For those 50-year-olds in denial about their age, the temptation to recycle their first AARP mailings is often offset by the lure of savings for members.
“A lot of people dread getting the mail that says ‘you’re 50,’ but many others look forward to getting the great mix of discounts,” Zorn said. “They can’t wait to take those bucket-list vacations [to] the Christmas markets in Germany or the river cruises on the Nile.”
Riding the Boston transit system may be a far cry from cruising the Nile. But Fishman, the 67-year-old Gerontology Institute director, somewhat sheepishly admits he carries a Senior Charlie Card — giving him half off on MBTA fares — though he could probably afford not to.
“Every time I swipe it,” he said, “I think the T shouldn’t be subsidizing me. But I still swipe it.”
Correction: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misstated the age of David Karaus. He is 67.