Living in San Francisco, one of the most expensive places in the country, has taught me a lot about budgets. First lesson: I need one. Recently, I kept track of my monthly expenditures and was shocked by the number in my “entertainment” column. No wonder my paychecks disappear so quickly.
There are obvious alternatives to nights on the town, like socializing at home, but sometimes we’re obligated to go out—a friend’s birthday, for example, or the need to leave the house and indulge ourselves a little. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to cut corners and still have a good time without entertaining ourselves into debt.
1. The credit card—leave home without it!
It’s easy to go out with every intention of scrimping and saving, but it’s much harder to put those intentions into practice. If you have sufficient funds in the bank, the best thing to do is to withdraw a set amount of cash before you go out and leave the credit card at home. That way, you only spend what you can truly afford. (It feels pretty silly asking to borrow money for dessert or an extra drink.)
2. They call it happy hour for a reason.
People tend to go out to dinner or meet up later in the evening, especially on the weekends. Unfortunately, they’re missing some great deals courtesy of local bars and restaurants. Many places offer happy hours (which usually last at least two or three hours, despite the singular name) with food and drink deals like half-priced cocktails, 2-for-1 appetizers, cheap beer, etc. There’s no reason why the party can’t get started a little earlier. Just try to get there early to snag a seat, as happy hour is becoming increasingly popular (and crowded) in these penny-pinching times.
3. Dinner and drinks without loosening the purse strings.
Dining out can be a difficult obstacle to staying within budget. Food and beverages are often overpriced and even if you order minimally, there’s a chance the rest of the group (who didn’t exercise such restraint) will want to split the bill. There are ways to get around this, though. First, consider ordering off the appetizer menu. It’s cheaper and the portions are much more reasonable. Another option is splitting an entrée with a friend—most main courses are enough for two people, or you can save half for tomorrow’s lunch. Keep an eye out for restaurant specials and coupons in the local paper, or go to Restaurant.com and buy gift certificates to restaurants in your area for significantly reduced prices. (A $25 gift certificate for $10 is a frequent deal on their Web site.)
Beverages have a high markup, so choose your poison wisely. Water is the best bet, but if you’re craving something with more flavor (or alcohol), just know you may have to cut back on something else during the night. Speaking of alcoholic beverages, ever notice how some mixed drinks are more expensive than others? That’s because patrons pay for the alcohol content, not whatever mixers are included. Stick to drinks with only one kind of alcohol or pick a stronger drink that you can sip on through the night. (Long Island Iced Tea is a popular choice among frugal drinkers. It’s pricier, but one or two should do the trick.) Sticking to domestic beers and ordering “well drinks” (read: not top-shelf liquor) are two more ways to keep the spending to a minimum.
4. Why pay for entertainment?
Since moving to this pricy city, I’ve discovered the beauty of art show openings. They’re free, they happen at night, and there is usually a table of snacks and beverages to enjoy. (Hello, free dinner!) Plus, you’re introduced to new artists and their work. Check online or browse the local paper to see if any gallery shows or art walks are happening in your area.
The Internet and newspaper are great sources for other events—concerts, book readings, community theater productions, shows at the local college, movie screenings—that are discounted or free. In fact, there are numerous Web sites and blogs dedicated to finding frugal forms of fun in various cities. Do a search online or read the calendar section of your city’s newspaper for updates on free or budget entertainment.
5. Have fun without spending a dime (or spending just a few of them).
Having fun with friends doesn’t necessitate a restaurant or club setting. There are lots of ways to spend time together and enjoy a night out without dipping into grocery funds. Creativity is the key. One night, my friends and I created and participated in a scavenger hunt downtown. It was fun and we met new people as a result—all with zero impact on our finances.
If weather permits, try a nighttime neighborhood tour or take a hike and go stargazing. There’s no reason why being active should be relegated to daytime, as long as you travel in a big group and are mindful of your surroundings. Stick to the safer parts of the city and use your best judgment.
Bowling, though not free, is another affordable alternative to a night out. You split the cost of lanes, the brew is cheap, and you spend a night perfecting your game (or if you’re me, perfecting just how skillfully the ball goes straight into the gutter).
Wallets may be lean, but that doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally enjoy ourselves. In fact, escaping the house to socialize with friends is what makes tough times bearable. It lends a sense of normalcy to our financially unstable realities. And there are benefits to frugal entertainment, such as discovering activities in our cities that we might not have explored before. It requires a little effort—well, if you consider going online or opening a newspaper an effort—but the results can be surprisingly rewarding and not just for our bank accounts. Remember, it’s not being cheap—it’s being creative.