College drinking (and smoking and gambling)? At least do it safely and cheaply

Money College vicesThe Irish playwright and social critic George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Bourgeouis morality is largely a system of making cheap virtues a cloak for expensive vices."

The philosophical implications of Shaw's critique could easily inspire hours of heated debate-or a toast over tequila shots--but Shaw got one thing right beyond argument: Those vices can get pretty freaking expensive. Given the number of multi-millionaire celebrities who've exhausted mind-boggling monetary resources on alcohol, parties, drugs and general debauchery, how can a cash-strapped college student expect to have even a semblance of a hedonistic good time without going completely belly-up?
Before I give you an answer, keep one caveat in mind: This article is intended in good fun, but you can get yourself in serious trouble with any of these selected vices if you don't apply rigorous moderation and a healthy dose of common sense. (Please, ponder this seriously over your next beer.)

Still, we can't all behave as though we aspire to sainthood -- perhaps you've got the poverty part down, but all that temperance and fortitude prove a bit more elusive. Here are a few tips that might allow you to indulge a bit in college life's bawdier side without going entirely bust in the process. (And remember: if your mom finds out, you never heard it from me.)

Perhaps the most all-American of vices, and a perennial favorite among college students, the copious consumption of alcohol has accompanied academic rigor since at least as far back as Victorian times, and probably longer.

Unfortunately, a night of drinking can also run up a tab that can devour your monthly grocery budget in a few ill-advised rounds of shots. If you do decide to go out, stay away from trendy (read: pricey) clubs and dig up some solid neighborhood dive bars -- you know, the kind with no identifiable name, just a weather-beaten "Pabst Blue Ribbon" sign looming out over the avenue.

Besides touting significantly cheaper drinks, many of these little mom-and-pop spots don't even bother to take credit cards, which means you can self-impose a budget by only carrying cash you can afford to spend. If you do decide to hit a more popular spot with a younger crowd, then leave your debit card at home. Any drinker of experience can tell you about the horrors that might ensue when you open a credit card tab and proceed to broadcast that fact to a group of buzz-hungry and also-broke friends.

Of course, the cheapest way to drink remains a night at home with a few (or more) friends, and, in that case, smart budget shopping remains the most effective and least common way to purchase alcohol. Most students simply amble down to the nearest corner store, but if you plan ahead, you can save money and buy booze at a cut rate, just like anything else.

For example, as
The Consumerist reports membership-only discount retailers such as Sam's Club and Costco often allow you to purchase their heavily-discounted alcohol without a membership -- all you need is a special visitor's pass that you can pick up at the door.

While you're planning your epic liquor run, check out, which organizes common drinks by alcohol-to-cost ratio in order to show you the cheapest possible way to get drunk. (That dubious honor belongs to Franzia boxed red wine, if you're curious.

Obviously, buying alcohol in bulk might prove a double-edged shot glass for those who lack the proper restraint. If your 120 beers from Sam's Club end up lasting you one blurry weekend, you might've been better off sticking with the marked-up six pack from the corner store after all. You should quit. (See Money College writer Fruzsina Erodogh's piece on the economics of quitting smoking.)

Quitting smoking
You know that, and we know that you know, and the Surgeon General knows that we know that you know, et cetera. Still, if you're just not ready, or you're a member of that rare and dying breed, the unrepentant smoker, you might as well save a few bucks along the way to your early emphysemic demise.

Unlike alcohol, cigarette prices vary wildly from state to state and region to region. While packs often retail for $3 or $4 a pack in some of the southern states, cigarette prices in or near major cities often reach nosebleed peaks of $9-$10 a pack.

If you attend school in an area that suffers from extortion-worthy cigarette prices, ask around among friends who grew up in nearby suburbs or small outlying areas. Cigarette prices often drop abruptly in half once you escape the high-tax zone of a major metropolitan area. Many of them often make cigarette runs to buy cheaper cartons for themselves or friends, and getting in on one of these tobacco pools can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in the long run.

Some smokers attempt to stock up and avoid taxes by purchasing from discounted online tobacco mega-stores like this Cigarettes America, but be wary: some states have hit buyers with massive bills for the back-taxes they went online to avoid paying in the first place, as this story from USA Today illustrates.

Finally, rolling your own cigarettes can provide a cheap alternative to store-bought and tax-addled major cigarette brands. Many aficionados of rolled cigarettes, or "rollies," take great pride and satisfaction in rolling their own tobacco - but please, if you're going to go the home-made route with cigarettes, do it right. Research the process
, practice up, and purchase a cigarette-rolling machine until you get proficient at rolling, lest you become one of those burnt-lipped misfits who leave little tobacco flakes in the carpet wherever they go.

Then again -- and we hate so sound like nudges -- if you really want to save money, you really should consider quitting. Here's a primer to get you started.

OK, really now. Of the three cardinal vices discussed here, this is the last one you should be considering if you're on any kind of a student budget. Still, maybe TNT sucked you in with a late-night showing of Rounders or Casino Royale, and now you've got an itch to test your courage at the green-felt table.

You could always go the traditional route and organize a little backroom card game with some friends, but if you can't find drum up any interest, some of the better sites on the internet can offer some quality action without involving money at all.

Of course, some types of casino-style gambling simply don't work without money on the line (Fantasy roulette, anyone? Whee...).

But some of the more skill-based games, such as poker, have attracted a respectable community of players who play entirely for imaginary play chips. Given the explosion in popularity of televised Texas Hold 'Em tournaments in recent years, sites like FullTiltPoker and PokerStars offer multitudes of card rooms that use play chips exclusively. At the beginner rooms, you'll unfortunately find many poor players who treat their play money like, well, play money, but if you can outlast them and move up in stakes you'll encounter competition from serious players who intend to win.

If you do decide you want to play for money at one of these sites, you can put down as little as $10 in order to push pennies around the table with smack-talking thirteen-year-olds and hobbyist grandmothers in the super-micro-stakes games. Just remember that when granny cleans you out, you should probably call it a day--most of these sites jack up their requirements for subsequent deposits to two or three times the minimum of your first buy-in. Remember as always to bet with your head, not over it.

OK, viceroys of vice...
Of course, this list only begins to scratch the surface of possible cheap vices--but, after all, I do have an obligation to keep it legal and somewhat reasonable. One last caveat, though; when it comes to certain vices, cutting costs isn't always in your best interest. If a friend tells you that they know this little strip club, for example, where $20 will last you all night... well, I suggest you wish them godspeed and slowly back away.

And if you need business models in vice, here are some recession lessons from the cast of Jersey Shore, courtesy of our friends at RecessionWire.
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