Going blotto on a budget

When the time comes to tighten belts and watch expenditures, one of the first things to disappear is entertainment. People stop going to the movie theater and start putting miles on the Blockbuster card. They stop hitting the horse track and start hanging out at the cockfights and bear baitings. They stop hanging out in bars and start drinking at home. Alone.

It doesn't have to be this way. While I can't offer any ideas for saving money on movies and the ponies, I can suggest a few ways to stretch your bar dollars. In addition to trying out some of the less expensive beer selections and learning to ask for a "rail" martini as opposed to one made with Bombay Sapphire, there are a few simple things that you can do to let your good times roll without crushing your wallet:

Pay As You Go: Tell me if this seems familiar: you start the evening by handing your bartender a card. You and a few of your buddies then guzzle tasty libations for a couple of hours. When closing time hits, the bartender hands you the tab and you sign your name with a flourish that would make John Hancock proud. The next morning, you find the receipt and discover that you've rung up a bill that is equal to the yearly military budget of a small Latin American country. You decide to hit up your friends for their expenses, only to find that they're all washing their hair or building houses for Habitat for Humanity. You suck it up and survive on ramen until your next payday.

Even if this has never happened to you, you have probably paid more than you intended on at least one occasion. First of all, by making it easy to order, tabs encourage you to spend more than you can afford. Added to this, when you work in a 20% tip at the end of the evening, your per-drink cost goes through the roof. This only gets increased if you're using a credit card, as you then get the joy of paying interest on your fun night out. Rather than go through all that misery, you might try paying for each drink and tipping as you go. You'll probably find that $1 per drink is reasonable, yet is a lot less than you'd normally be dropping at the end of the night. Best of all, by using cash, you can decide how much the night is going to cost you while you're still sober enough to think rationally.

Set Aside Dough for Your Ride Home: I must admit that there was one occasion when I became so inebriated that I inadvertently shredded my ATM card by trying to jam it into a bill changer. In addition to making my life a little harder for a few days, this episode taught me a great lesson: it's not a good idea to use an ATM while drunk. The best case scenario is that you end up taking out an unknown amount of money and potentially losing it. The worst case is that you end up trying to explain to a bank teller that your card is torn into little pieces because you "slept on it wrong." All in all, life is a lot easier if you just slip a $10 bill in your shoe, along with the number of a reputable cab company.

Don't Waste Your Money on Premium Hooch: One New Year's Eve, my sister called me from a party to tell me that she and some friends had bought a bottle of my favorite single-malt scotch and were getting "totally wasted." Although I gritted my teeth and wished her a happy new year, I immediately began constructing elaborate plans for revenge. After all, while my sis might have appreciated the wondrous flavor of Macallan's during the first two or three shots, by eleven o'clock, she could have sipped lighter fluid and wouldn't have known the difference. No matter how much of a label snob you are, chances are that you won't be able to distinguish between Redhook IPA and Pabst Blue Ribbon after the first few refills. To save cash, try dropping your standards when you stop being able to feel your nose.

Check Out BYOB Restaurants: Many restaurants have recently begun allowing their patrons to bring their own alcohol; with a simple Google search, you might be able to find a few in your area. Although it can be difficult to choose a tipple before seeing the menu, some beverages are a no-brainer; pasta usually goes well with a nice Chianti, spicy food often benefits from a fruity Gewurtztraminer, and burgers and fries can be nicely matched with a bottle of Night Train. Also, in addition to allowing you freedom in your choice of libation, BYOB joints also save you a lot of money: restaurants generally charge three times the price of wine stores for a bottle of wine.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Over the past two years, he's discovered that the best way to save money on going out is to have a kid.

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