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With stubborn inflation, senior discounts are having a moment

Interest in senior discounts surged last year, as older consumers on fixed incomes turn to discounts to get by

(Yali Ziv for The Washington Post)
6 min

It was the free soft drink at Whataburger that got Melvin Schwartz hooked. Then he learned Chick-fil-A does it, too.

“I hate spending $2 or $3 on a Coke,” said the 75-year-old retired IRS agent, whose senior discount also earns him 10 percent off his usual Hungr-Buster combo at Dairy Queen and nacho salad at Taco Bueno near his Dallas home.

Senior discounts have been around for decades. Now, they’re having a moment.

Reviewer mentions of “senior discount” soared 36 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to data from crowdsourced review site Yelp. And AARP says a growing number of its more 38 million members are taking advantage of benefits for gas, event tickets and health care.

For many older shoppers, scoping out promotions to save a few bucks on a meal, soda or new pair of pants is a welcome perk of aging. But others view them as a necessity, especially as inflation continues to gnaw at their spending power. This is a growing group — 42 percent of adults 50 and older “either are working in retirement for financial reasons or expect to do so,” according to AARP Research.

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Kathy Lamb, 72, looks for ways to save on her hobbies. The book and photograph appraiser from Chicago seeks out discounts on movie and theater tickets and museum memberships. Both the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Driehaus Museum offer $20 discounts for people 55 and older.

“I go to museums all the time and I readily join museums anyway, but the discounts encourage me to join more,” Lamb said.

Historically, such promotions have proved effective for restaurants and retailers to draw in retirees as they go from the “production to consumption” phase of their lives, said Mindy Weinstein, the founder and chief executive of digital marketing company Market Mindshift. Normally, these consumers want to spend and are more willing to frequent places that value them, she added.

“We all like exclusivity,” Weinstein said. “So when businesses are offering that, it is a feeling of like, ‘I’m part of this special group … I’m being recognized and being rewarded.’ And it builds loyalty.”

Yelp’s data supports this: Nearly 80 percent of the reviews mentioning “senior discount” were positive.

A handful of major retailers offer discounts for older shoppers. Kohl’s, Ross and Goodwill offer 10 to 15 percent discounts on certain days of the week. Michael’s offers 10 percent off daily, and Walgreens and Joann Fabric and Craft have 20 percent off on designated senior days, which vary based on location.

It is also common for local grocers, restaurants, salons and stores to advertise promotions for older customers. United Markets, a family-owned grocery store in Marin County, Calif., offers 10 percent off for people 60 and older on the first Thursday of the month. On Tuesday’s, Joe Randazzo’s Fruit Market in Detroit has a 10 percent discount. Signature Style Lounge, a hair and nail salon in Hopatcong, N.J., has a 15 percent off promotion for appointments Wednesday through Friday.

There also isn’t as much of a stigma around these promotions anymore, Weinstein said. Older consumers are more comfortable being online. They’re on Facebook, joining groups and posting about their outings, and on Yelp, where they see other people writing positive reviews about discounts, she added.

“For those seniors, being able to see that, ‘Oh, other people of my age group — they’re active, they’re traveling, they’re going to restaurants, they’re going to the theater.' It takes away a bit of the stigma,” Weinstein said.

Some benefits — such as credits toward utility bills and discounted internet and cable — are welcome reprieves for those trying to stretch their dollars. Like most Americans, older consumers are feeling the weight of relentlessly high inflation. This was evident in the U.S. Census Bureau’s February retail sales report, which showed 0.4 percent drop from the month prior. And though inflation cooled to 6 percent in February, the stakes are still high for seniors out of the workforce and facing increasing costs of long-term care at assisted-living facilities.

Many seniors have also seen their retirement funds shrink thanks to an unstable stock market. A Fidelity Investments report found that by the end of 2022, retirees lost 23 percent of their balance year-over-year.

Social Security benefits are also lagging behind inflation despite the government agency upping benefit checks by 8.7 percent starting this year. The boost isn’t enough to offset rising prices on essentials, leading many to dip into their savings and some to return to work, said Chip West, a retail and consumer behavior expert at the marketing solutions company Vericast.

“That, combined with many older Americans starting to carry more debt into retirement — like mortgages, car loans and even credit card debt — they’re looking to save,” he added. “We’re seeing that rising inflation and those soaring prices have created a new iteration of a very, very, very savvy consumer.”

Older shoppers are hunting sales more, buying store-brand products and using coupons, West added.

During this inflationary era, AARP has seen increasing membership enrollments. The benefits offered to members are a big draw, with discounts for most major necessities. The interest group saw the biggest increase in uses of the gas discount, AARP’s vice president of research Indira Venkat said, as well as discounts for experiences such as hotels and events. Members have also been taking advantage of their cellular plan promotions. And as drug prices continue to rise, members showed increase interest in discounts for medications.

Corie Wagner, a senior editor of industry research at, has seen similar trends in her research. Inflated prices combined with the pressure of living on a fixed income has made spending money strategically a necessity.

“A few dollars there could, at the end of the month, add up to $100 … and that could go a long way toward your rent, toward medications, toward anything that you absolutely need to have,” Wagner said.

But she cautioned that discounts won’t solve everything — “It’s kind of a Band-Aid on a bigger problem, but every little bit counts when you’re trying to make ends meet.