Bracketology on a Budget: Enjoy March Madness without Going Broke

Ah, March Madness. It’s the time of the year when the men in my life go missing until early April, returning often with a broken heart and always with an empty wallet.

If you’ve just woken up from a several-decade coma, March Madness is the end of the college basketball season in the United States, culminating in the infamous nationwide NCAA Tournament. But it’s not so much the basketball that puts the “madness” in the month of March; it’s the betting.

In March, millions of people in offices, schools and even churches across the country—some who have never watched an entire basketball game in their life—will attempt to predict the outcome of the entire NCAA tournament and wager hard-earned money with coworkers and friends for the chance to win a pool of cash (and, of course, bragging rights for a year).

But wait, a personal finance Website telling you to gamble? Say it isn’t so!

We know, we know; betting rarely makes financial sense. But we’re also here to proclaim that sometimes a friendly wager is harmless fun. Here are some ways that girls and guys (sports fans or not) can all have fun—on a budget—this March Madness:

Office Pools

When you think of NCAA Brackets, office pools come to mind—and for good reasons. For one, a cheap buy-in of between one and five dollars can usually snag you a part of the action. (Hint: The 2010 tournament brackets will be released on March 14 and can be found all over the Internet just by searching for NCAA Bracket).

Another perk of office pools? Camaraderie. Join a pool and soon you’ll be bonding over winning picks and game highlights with coworkers you’ve never spoken to before. I don’t even know much about sports, but I once won $80 in a one dollar pool!

Just one caveat: Make sure office pools aren’t against your company’s policies before you get involved in one or start a pool of your own. Understandably, the thought of company-wide gambling makes HR managers shutter—never mind the lost productivity.

Family Pools

A good way to bring the family together during the tournament season is to organize a family bracket pool. You can choose to charge a buy-in if you want, but it may be just as fun (and less expensive) to just play for bragging rights. Trust me, bragging rights are huge in a family. I’m still hearing about how my brother won the pool last year!

Since the tournament goes on for weeks, this will keep your family bonded and communicating throughout the month of March even if everyone is really busy most of the time.

Want to take it a step further? Invest in a plaque (they’re not that expensive) for your family’s bracket pool and have it engraved with the winner every year. (There may or may not be a March Madness plaque displayed in my parents’ family room…)

Online Bracket Pools

Online bracket pools are all the rage right now, and most are free. The downside is that with so many players, the odds of winning aren’t good. But if you take five minutes to fill out a bracket at Websites like ESPN or CBS Sports or even Facebook, then you could have a chance of winning thousands of dollars or cool prizes like TVs. Like the other pools, this can bring a little fun competition between you and your friends…and maybe even some awesome prizes!

Watch Parties

Watch parties are some of the best activities during March Madness and they’re usually close to being free. If you offer to host a watch party but really can’t afford a huge array of appetizers, tell your guests that it’s pot-luck and have everyone bring a fun appetizer dish to share. The games go on all day and night, so if you go to bar or restaurant to watch, your tab might be pretty shocking by the end of the night. This won’t be the case at a watch party; you may just finish out the night with no tab at all. And don’t forget your brackets at the watch parties so you can compare your bracketology skills with all your friends!

Want to make those watch parties a little more exciting? Set up a miniature bracket pool during the day. Have everyone pick who they think will win each game of the day and whoever wins at the end of the day will win a prize or the pool. Keep it cheap by having the host offer up a small prize or limiting the buy-in to $1 or $2. If you have between 10-15 people at the watch party, you could walk out with $10-$30 just for hanging out with your friends! And if you don’t win, you’re only out a buck or two; not bad for a day with your pals.

Enjoy The Games

In the end, the odds that you’ll win a pool aren’t very high, so it’s best to keep your buy-in under $10. The best part of March Madness is the excitement of following the tournament and seeing which games you picked correctly. Even if you’re not a huge basketball fan, it can still be fun. I’m definitely a convert and look forward to the thrill of the tournament every year now! The key to having a fun and affordable March Madness season—as with any wagering—is to know what you can afford and to treat it as entertainment. Find ways to enjoy the tourney that don’t cost much, if anything at all.

Do you follow the NCAA tournament? How do you enjoy March Madness on the cheap?

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About Amber Gilstrap

Amber is a twenty-something CPA from Kansas City, Missouri who loves writing, working out, and---of course---finding fresh ideas for saving money. Follow her on twitter @amberinks.


  1. I still remember MM from last year. How time flies.

    Probably will hear the talk coming from coworkers real soon.

  2. Joe Dooley says:

    Great article Carrie!!!! I’ll be rooting on my Jayhawks all March…and hopefully April.

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