June 5, 2011

The Red/Green

Last night I went out with some friends of mine. In the morning, when I tallied up my expenditures, I realized that I had spent more than I had intended. Which led me to this conclusion: peer pressure is a total pain! So here's some tips on How to Scrounge By Without Getting Your Wallet Busted.

1. Use Cash

Set a budget for yourself before you go out for the night/week. And then make sure you stick to it by using cash only all night. I know when I went out with friends while I was still on my college campus, this helped me avoid those hilariously awful stories of waking up and finding yourself out nearly $100 on drinks, dinner, midnight pizza, and all of the other miscellany expenses that seem to crop up during a night out.

A corollary to this is to hide some of your money from yourself. For example, I keep an "emergency twenty" behind my credit cards sometimes in case The Worst happens -- we have to call a cab, I have to bail someone out of jail, whatever. (While that's never happened, well. You never know.) I also don't bust out the debit card unless absolutely necessary; cash keeps me in the green. Plus, if I've spent $40 in a night, and drinks are $2, then I've definitely had enough to drink. Which brings us to the next point...

2. Seek Out Specials

This is, essentially, the coupon-clipper's night out. Find out if the bars around you have specials, and take advantage of them. Go for house instead of top shelf in your drinks, and 2-for-1 is your best friend. Unfortunately, this tip doesn't work as well in cities; where I went to college (in the Midwest) we had $2 Tuesday and $3 Thursdays. Plus $2 doubles on Mondays, not to mention the myriad other specials at the numerous bars, pubs, clubs, and miscellany watering holes. And restaurants. But I went to a less urban (but not less urbane!) university than most, and my friends who stayed in-city noted the higher prices in addition to the higher sales taxes.

3. Pregame at Home and Get in Early

If you're planning on going out to a club or a fairly popular bar, consider having a few drinks at home with your group prior to heading out. Much like you shouldn't go to a restaurant hungry, perhaps not being 100% sober isn't the best of ideas, either. Mind, don't go out sloppy, or else you won't be allowed in anywhere.

Similarly, you can oftentimes avoid being charged a cover by making sure you arrive somewhere before some threshold -- usually 11pm. Also, being female can sometimes be an advantage; Ladies' Nights are considered a "built in coupon" (rather than the price discrimination they really are) and mean your dollars can go farther.

Realizing that this has been over-21 specific for the last few tips, here's a couple more universal ones.

4. Split the Bill

If you go out with friends to a place with hilarious large portions (the Cheesecake Factory is a hilarious repeat offender for me, especially) skip the appetizer and the drink -- soda is marked up ounce for ounce, and water is better for you, as food is often over-salted in the U.S. anyway -- and split the entrée with a dining companion. Not only will you eat less (meaning more room for dessert, yum!) but you'll also halve the price of your dinner. For a plate that can run as much as $14, that's a pretty solid savings, for your waistline and your wallet.

5. Simply Abstain

It sucks to be the Debbie Downer, but hey someone's got to take the role from time to time. If you're on a pretty strict budget, limit yourself and stick to your guns. Can't afford lasertag? Go, but wait out the game elsewhere. Popcorn is, I've found, the best investment food-wise; it's not too filling, but provides a nice, salty contrast to the sweetness of most mixed drinks. Furthermore, it isn't as messy as peanuts or nearly so filling as they are.

Frankly, I kind of wish I had abstained more last night. But it was a good time, and I enjoyed being around the group that went. I hadn't seen them in ages, and it was a pleasant evening nonetheless. It's not something that I can do regularly whatsoever, but it was a good time regardless, and to me it was a worthwhile expenditure for people that I don't get to see very often.

That said, I will need to be more conscientious of my finances as I move forward. Lacking any real nest egg (for which I kick myself constantly!) I need to take on the initiative to be much more fiscally responsible. Food is my greatest weakness, and food prices are climbing ever high. Recognizing where my expenditures are highest -- clothes, food, shoes, DVDs, whatever -- is the first step to trimming the fat from your money. Consider tools like Mint or similar software on your bank's site to track your finances, and make sure you have your daily account summary being emailed to you. (And that you're checking it for mysterious expenditures!)

As a a wise fella once said, it isn't easy being green. But frankly, I think we'd all much rather be green than red.

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