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Back in the days of my consulting career, I was an idiot with money. In the beginning, my newly-graduated colleagues and I really took the “word hard, play hard” mentality to an extreme (as new graduates working in client services/finance often do).

Our evenings and weekends were often filled with meals at upscale restaurants, followed by crazy nights and vodka shots at the club, and hangover remedy brunches waiting for us in the morning. Back then, I didn’t do things like tracking my spending to the penny or planning my budget.

But boy, was that a mistake.

Soon enough, I learned that these spending habits were not sustainable. But while my colleagues and friends continued to enjoy the “finer” things in life, I cut back and started to retreat into my safe little frugal haven. Soon enough, I stopped seeing my friends as much, and I was convinced that being frugal meant that I couldn’t have a social life.

After a while, I started to feel the FOMO (and missed my friends). So instead of continuing to live like a hermit in shame, I started forming some new habits and came up with a system that enabled me to stay frugal while still going to social outings at restaurants, bars, and clubs.

If you’re feeling the similar strain of finances vs. social life, don’t worry! You CAN have it all if you follow a couple of guidelines. In this post, I’ll outline my secrets and strategies for maintaining my social life while spending minimal amounts of money and sticking to my budget.

How to Be Frugal Without Giving Up Your Social Life

Drink Water, Always

Years ago, I was eating breakfast in Brazil when someone told me that drinking water with a meal is “sem graça” (distasteful in Portuguese). I wrinkled my nose and reluctantly proceeded to dump my water down the sink and pour myself a glass of sugary juice instead.

But then I realized that this advice was stupid, and that water is literally the most refreshing, healthiest, and more rejuvenating beverage around.

I’ll never forget that (bad) advice because it reflects an attitude that is actually pretty pervasive in our commercialist society: that fancy, sugary or alcoholic drinks are more “classy” than water. But actually, these beverages are a huge money suck, costing anywhere from $3-15 (!!!) per glass. Meanwhile, water is FREE, super hydrating, and can provide all kinds of health benefits. Yeah, YOU BET I’m that dork who carries her Hydro Flask around everywhere.

Anyway, if you choose to drink water instead of any other beverage while you’re out with friends, you can keep a lot of that money in your wallet.

Eat Before You Eat Out

Have you ever made dinner plans with a friend, only to realize that you’re really hungry when you arrive and the menu is WAY out of your price range? Yeah, that feeling sucks. To avoid this sticky situation, I always opt to eat something at home before arriving at a restaurant.

But Kay, you might be thinking, don’t you want to enjoy every last bite of an expensive meal? 

To this, I say no, because I don’t spend money on expensive meals to begin with. You see, if you eat a meal at home before going to a restaurant, you can use the powerful “I’m not that hungry” excuse and then order something small/cheap from the menu, instead of a $15+ entree. Usually I’ll go with a soup, or a small side, or a dessert, which typically costs less than half of the entree price. And of course, I always drink water.

It also helps to look up the menu online before you head to a restaurant so that you know exactly how much you can get away with (not) spending, and plan that into your budget for the night.

If I’m forced to order an entire entree (which is almost always too large for me after I’ve already eaten), I’ll always pack it up and eat it as leftovers later. Despite societal pressures and implied expectations, there’s NO shame in taking food home! When someone shames me about taking food to-go, I remind them about the egregious food waste problem in the United States these days.

Avoid Prix Fixe Spots Like the Plague

Prix fixe is the death of a budget, unless you eat A LOT more than the average person. Why? Because it forces you to pay the restaurant’s full dollar amount, even if you only want to eat a little.

I’ve made this mistake in Washington DC by meeting friends at an all-you-can-eat brunch place that cost $25 a person. It’s a great deal, they say, you get SO MUCH FOOD. But honestly, I usually only get 1-2 plates of food, leave feeling overstuffed, and spend WAY too much money.

So, if your friend suggests a chic new prix fixe brunch place (or dinner buffet, or 5-course menu, or whatever), politely suggest a different place that’s even more chic but has a normal menu where you can order what you want.

When they push back, cite your restaurant’s five-star review on Yelp, or their award-winning chef. If they continue to argue for the prix fixe restaurant, be honest and tell them you don’t think you can eat that much, or that you’re on a budget. True friends will understand.

Fake It Til You Make It

Whenever I met my friends at bars, I used to HATE making excuses to my friends about why I wasn’t drinking. They all used to sound like something along the lines of:

  • “I’m sick”
  • “Right now I’m taking medication that clashes with alcohol”
  • “I’m hung over from yesterday”
  • “Tomorrow, I have to get up early”
  • “Sorry I’m being lame today”

Needless to say, I DREADED going to bars with friends and I stopped doing it for a while… until I learned the secret trick for being frugal at a bar. Now, my favorite kind of social outing is meeting friends at the bar, because I know I can almost always get away with spending 0 money there.

So, what’s the secret for hanging out at bars without having to make excuses? Sparkling water is usually free.

Yep, that means that you can order a sparkling water with a lemon at the bar, take it back to your tipsy crowd of friends, and tout it as a Sprite cocktail or gin and tonic or a sparkling mineral water with a hint of citrus.

Bars are usually hectic enough where it’s not obvious that you haven’t ordered anything. Once your friends are drunk enough, they won’t care. And you won’t accidentally get drunk and overspend because…well, you can’t get drunk off of water and lemon.

Suggest Low or No-Spend Activities Instead of Restaurants & Clubs

I’ve noticed that as the years have gone by, my friends prefer more laid-back social activities more and more. The rise of in-home social activities has been a fantastic thing for my budget! Board game nights have become *a thing* in our friend groups, and we love a good potluck every now and again.

If your friends still love going out to restaurants, bars, and clubs on the regular, be proactive and suggest that you all try a board game and wine night, or a movie with snacks get-together. Get one other friend on board and you’ll most likely be able to sell the rest of your group on trying it out.

Once you find a low-spend or no-spend activity that your group loves, try and make it a regular thing. That way, you can make sure you spend quality time with your friends without having to feel pressured into spending a lot of money eating out or drinking.

Stand Your Ground and Be Honest

There are some expensive situations you can’t get out of without saying something. When all else fails, be honest with your friends about your budget requirements. When an activity is too expensive and there’s no alternative, let them know you’re sitting this one out because it costs too much.

I used to feel so guilty doing this. When things got too expensive, I’d make up some lame excuse about being sick. I’d stay home, pondering whether my friends would hate me forever.

Then, I just started being more honest about my intentions to save and my budget restrictions. My friends were actually super receptive, and we started playing board games, cooking in, and having movie nights a lot more often! Now, I love having a really frank discussion about money and finances with my friends. Honestly, I feel like this openness has made our bonds even stronger.

If your friends care about you, they won’t enforce their spending habits on you. They may actually take your lead and start being more frugal themselves!

BONUS: Use Incentives to Reel in Your Spending

One thing I’ve started doing is restricting my social spending as if it were cash. Each time I go out, I set a budget so that I know exactly how much I can spend.

If I don’t keep to my budget, I put that same amount away in savings. So, if I decide I’m going to spend max $10 on a coffee meetup, if I spend $15, I’ll put $10 away in my savings account.

I don’t do this as a punishment, but it’s a reminder to treat my discretionary income like the treasure that it is and protect it. Since starting this practice, I’ve only had to move money to savings 2-3 times.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to frugality vs. having a social life, you can have your cake and eat it too (as long as it’s home baked). Despite all of this advice on how to avoid spending money, you can still go out to restaurants and bars and spend money in moderation and keep within your budget. There’s no shame in treating yourself to nice things, just like there’s no shame in resisting the urge to spend money.

Only YOU know your budgetary requirements, and hopefully this post gave you some good ideas for how to maintain them in the face of mounting pressure from friends to go out and spend money. Stay classy, peeps.


Ready to get back out there, you social butterfly? Awesome! Now pin this post so you don’t forget it!

2 Comments

  1. These are such great tips! It’s been an adventure to navigate social outings while keeping spending low. I do most of these things (I didn’t know sparkling water was free at bars!) I used to miss out on lunches with coworkers because I started bringing my own instead of going out, but I realized I could still hang out with them for the journey and we will all eat back at the office. Suggesting activities at home has been a lifesaver as well. Craft Sundays mean I make time to make holiday cards for people AND chill with friends.

    • Thank you so much! I totally agree, there are so many things you can do with friends or colleagues without spending money. I go to restaurants every week with friends but my total “eating out” budget is peanuts because I just order a small soup or salad instead of a full meal.

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