Sixteen Ways to Go Out on the Town on the Cheap

I love going out on the town with friends, but when I was a younger man, I found that going out every night with pals was a sure way to suck my wallet dry. I’d spend $30 before I blinked and doing that every night was a sure way to drain my wallet.

Over time, I gradually began to develop a toolset of skills that reduced the cost of going out on the town with friends. I’d just use one or two of these tactics each time – the ones that seemed the most appropriate – and would find myself saving 50% or more on one of these little after-work excursions.

With that being said, here are sixteen tactics you can use to save some cash while going out on the town with friends. When you go out, just choose one or two tactics to use – don’t be a cheapskate and try to do all of these at once. If you can save 30% of your normal spending and still have all the fun of going out, that’s a real start.

Do the research

Spend some time researching the options available to you and know where the good deals are. What places have stellar offers for the after-work crowd? Which places have no cover charge on Monday or Tuesday nights? What restaurant has a great deal on its website? Know what kinds of places are available and what some of the best deals are. That way, when you’re out and about, you’re equipped with some knowledge.

Be the one that makes a suggestion

With the group I used to hang out with, the first person that made a concrete suggestion about where to go that evening usually got their way, as everyone else just went along with the flow. Thus, if you know where the bargains are, suggest that place (and you don’t have to mention the bargains, either). That way, you’ll effortlessly save money when the rest of the crowd follows along.

Clip some coupons

My Sunday newspaper always contains tons of coupons for restaurants – things like “save $4 on two lunch entrees,” for example. Clip these coupons and then bust them out when a lunch opportunity comes along. Another great place to look: local “free” newspapers (like Cityview and Juice in the greater Des Moines, Iowa area).

Buy (and use) an “entertainment book”

Around here, “entertainment books” are a common item that you can buy to help a charitable organization with fundraising. These books are loaded with coupons for restaurants, golf courses, clubs, and so forth – in other words, entertainment coupons. If you go out with the gang on a very regular basis, these books can quickly pay for themselves – just take it along wherever you go and see if any coupons match up with what you’re doing.

Take advantage of special local events

Many communities offer interesting local events that can easily eat up a social excursion or two. See what the community festival is all about, or check out restaurants that are participating in any big cross-promotional events (like “restaurant week”, which some communities have).

Pay per drink – don’t start a tab

Never start a tab when you’re out at the local watering hole. A tab makes it incredibly easy to rack up purchases without really thinking about it, leaving you with a stunning bill at the end of the night. Instead, buy each drink with cash – and tip each one individually. If you take in only $10 or $20 in cash, you’ll be capped at spending that much and thus won’t be shocked at the end of the night with a huge bill.

Catch happy hour

Many dining and drinking establishments offer a “happy hour,” usually timed to catch the after-work crowd. These usually offer cheap drinks and usually very cheap (sometimes free) appetizers. If you know of a place that offers a great “happy hour,” offer up that place as a suggestion as to where to go after work, then eat up on the free appetizers (meaning you’ll only need a tiny supper you can easily fix at home for pennies, saving you even more).

Don’t be the only person buying rounds of drinks

It’s fine to buy a round of drinks for your friends, but only if everyone does it on a regular basis. Otherwise, you’re throwing money away needlessly. Don’t feel obligated to buy a round, especially if you’ve recently bought one.

Take advantage of any “members club” offers

At a few of the drinking establishments in Des Moines and other nearby towns, there are “members clubs” that offer deals if you buy so many drinks. For example, at one place, if you buy 10 different drinks, you get one free – they use a “wooden nickel” system to do this. Take advantage of it, especially if it coincides with other deals like cheap appetizers or a great happy hour.

Meet friends for lunch instead of dinner

If you’re looking to meet up with friends for a meal, consider going out for lunch instead of going out for dinner. The lunch menu is always cheaper and you can still have a great time together. Plus, there’s less temptation to drink heavily (and thus spend more than you should) over lunch than over dinner.

Eat plenty of the free appetizers

At many places (especially Mexican-themed restaurants), free appetizers are given to you before the meal. If they are, order a light meal and chow down on the appetizers – and if you feel bad about this, just tip strongly. There’s a Mexican restaurant I love near where we live that has $4 lunch specials with unlimited chips and salsa – I always leave $6 behind just because the meal is good, you can eat as much as you’d like, and the service is great.

Order a glass of water (if it’s free)

If you can, always order a glass of water before ordering food. Drink that glass of water quickly, then evaluate the menu. The glass of water will not only hydrate you (a real bonus), but will fill you up a bit and encourage you to order a smaller portion off the menu, thus saving you a bit of cash.

Split an entree with a friend

If you’re going to a place with large entrees, suggest splitting an entree with a friend and also splitting the cost. This is sometimes frowned upon with small parties, but with large parties, it’s fine. Choose a meal that’s easy to separate into equal portions (soup’s bad, sandwiches are good) and pay an equal portion of the bill.

Drink some beverages and eat a snack before you go

Another way to keep your eyes from overloading your wallet while studying the menu is to eat a snack or drink some beverages before you go. This way, when you arrive at the restaurant or club, you’ll already be partially full and won’t want to order as much food or as many beverages, thus saving you money.

Don’t be ashamed of the doggy bag

If you order an entree, focus on cleaning up the side dishes first. That way, if you start digging into the entree and can’t finish it, it’s very easy to package up into a doggy bag for lunch the next day. Don’t be ashamed of the doggy bag, either – it’s an incredibly smart (and non-wasteful) thing to do.

Join the group after dinner

Another clever strategy is to simply agree to meet up with the gang after their dinner. Just meet them outside the restaurant an hour or so after their reservation and then hang out with them afterwards. Meanwhile, you can either skip the meal or eat something inexpensive by yourself (likely something at home).

Using one or two of these tactics in an evening is not a social intrusion

It just ensures that you spend your money in a sensible fashion – and doing that over and over can mean many evenings of fun without many nights of worrying about making ends meet.

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  1. M. Chen says:

    I’ve been a server for years, and I have to admit, I’d rather have a small group split a meal than people in a big group.

    Increases in group size usually exponentially increase the server’s effort because everyone ends up having to be addressed separately, where as with a table of 4, everyone listens together, gets refills together, etc. which saves a lot of time and effort for the server.

    It’s one thing to have two people splitting one meal, it’s a whole other issue to have 16 people splitting 8 meals.

    People should remember that whether two people order two entrees at $20, or two people order one entree at $10 – the server still has to do the same amount of work to take care of them.

    Your comment for tipping, as relates to eating lots of free appetizers and ordering cheaper food, applies even doubly when you split your meal with someone else – your server is still doing twice work, and should be tipped as such (is he/she is efficient, friendly, etc)

  2. Kate says:

    Now I ask for chicky-bags.

    We very rarely eat out, because we save so much and eat so well by cooking at home. But when we do go out, I ask for *everything* leftover to be put in a to go container, even fish skins. I also add whatever bread is leftover in the bread basket. I don’t feel bad about this as it would just be thrown away otherwise. Waste is awful.

    The food then goes to my four laying hens, who turn the leftovers into eggs for me. Of course, if there’s a nice chunk of something that is good leftover, I’ll eat it myself. But there are some things that are put on restaurant plates just for garnish that I wouldn’t eat even fresh, such as deep fried thin rice noodles. The chickens love this stuff, and don’t mind bread that’s gotten soggy because it’s on top of mashed potatoes. So repurposing what few restaurant leftovers come our way is another frugality measure in our home.

  3. K says:

    All good suggestions except:

    Food at local festivals can be quite expensive. You’ll often pay sit-down prices for a meal that you often have to eat standing up, balancing your drink between your elbows. That is not to say that the food and the experience are not well worth it, but it’s not always a money-saving option. Unless of course you just go for the free entertainment and some ice cream.

    Also, I agree about not starting a tab, but if you will be buying several drinks individually, be aware of how much you are tipping on each. It is easy to leave a $5 for a $3 drink, and if you do that repeatedly, the tips will cost you as much as a few extra drinks. Maybe leave a single tip when you leave.

  4. James says:

    Great ideas for the going-out crowd! I’ll throw in the idea to use restaurant gift certificates available at places like http://www.restaurant.com. Usually, you can buy a $25 gift cert for $10, and sometimes even these are discounted to $5. It’s a low-risk way to try out new restaurants and save money.
    I like that you’re writing these kind of posts too. I try to be frugal but as a single twentysomething, I tend to go out with friends a lot. These tips should help us save some $$$. Thanks.

  5. Josephine says:

    Love today’s topic. Being a young professional living in New York City… it’s tough to tame the money you spend on going out. Great suggestions!

  6. j says:

    obviously this is a “go out” themed post, but in LA it’s very common for one of us to cook / bbq while the rest bring food and drinks. nothing like a cook-out to bring friends together to party for cheap. also, if going out we all carpool to bars and split the parking fee, saving us all all the extra money for parking – something like $8 EASY in LA. remember, always have a DD!

  7. liv says:

    With the rising cost of EVERYTHING, I am less ashamed about using coupons now’adays. Happy hours are great, especially if you find the right place to go to. :)

    I’d like to add my tip for going to the movies. Check on the theater website to see if they offer discount tickets. Some theaters and have discount tickets (some are special engagements that require you to wait about 2 weeks to use, some aren’t). Then find it on ebay (or order from the site and split the cost of the ticket minimum with friends). I also go to Costco for some of those movie tickets too. My tickets now cost about $7.50ish instead of $10-11!!! (don’t forget to get a movie theater club card too!)

  8. I liked the “meet the group after dinner” suggestion. I do this a lot on business trips by eating a TV dinner at the hotel. Then, I just get a beer with the guys when we get dinner. Usually, there’s some type of bread brought out to the table, or if I really can’t stand to be without food, I’ll get an appetizer or dessert.

  9. Procrastamom says:

    I second liv’s movie idea. We buy tickets at Costco that allow two of us to see a movie for $21.00 and that includes two drinks and a large popcorn (sometimes a Mars bar slips into the theatre in someone’s purse too…shhhh!). We won’t buy food at the theatre unless we’re using this deal, as you pay more for food and drink than you do to see the show.

  10. Summer’s especially perfect for this. I go to free concerts, art walks, movies, book lectures, theather all summer long.

  11. lisa says:

    We have local outdoor music all year long, and there’s a Dairy Queen nearby. Signed up for blizzardfanclub.com and we get a night out for less than five bucks.

  12. Mac says:

    The “entertainment book” in my area is sold at increasingly discounted prices as the year progresses. My husband and I find that buying a discounted book during the early months of the year still leaves us ample time to use the deals that are of interest to us. We eat out about once a week, and by using this book we can to a better restaurant for the amount we have budgeted.

    There are also coupons for area businesses in the “Yellow Book” phone directory.

  13. Jesica says:

    Order your drink virgin and bring your own flask. Probably frowned upon, but I’ve heard that many city people do this and save TONS of money that way.

  14. Stephen says:

    To follow up on Jesica’s comment….Pregame at home before you hit the town. We did that throughout college and still do.

  15. Huffles says:

    I have to disagree with the “don’t start a tab” suggestion. If you’re planning on having more than one drink at a bar use your debit card to start a tab. When paying cash for each drink, it’s easy to leave a tip that far exceeds 20%.

  16. Mac,
    Are those entertainment books worth it overall? I have considered one but was worried I wouldn’t get my initial investment back.

  17. Borealis says:

    The money makers for restaurants are alcoholic drinks, appetizers, and desserts. THink about what you want ahead of time and stick with it.

    Also, you need to think through the payment by your group — individual checks, all contribute their share, or divide the check equally. Obviously each of those will greatly affect how much it will cost you.

  18. Ari Herzog says:

    These are all great tips, Trent. Well done again! It’s worth repeating the value of drinking water which not only makes you feel more full but is also one of the best beverages for you (especially in the summer)!

    There’s a very good Mexican restaurant walking distance from me that every Monday and Tuesday night is Taco Night: your choice of 5-6 different tacos ranging from $1 to $3. Forget the $10 margarita and order the $6 sangria and it’s a good deal! Not to mention the free chips (which are corn so you don’t have to feel guilty about carbs).

    @Luke – Entertainment books are definitely worth the investment, though it partially depends if you would use the coupons. You really notice the savings when taking advantage of hotels, rental cars, movie tickets, etc.

  19. Sam H. says:

    What’s the wooden nickel system?

  20. bpaul says:

    Going out during happy hour saves you alot of money. Go to different restaurants or pubs in your area and see which ones are givings the best discounts. One restaurant in my area used to advertise buy one get one free mojitos and free wings from 4pm to 8pm!!

  21. Lynn Kay says:

    I know you advocate frugality and not being “cheap”, Trent, so I’ll just throw this in for emphasis- Don’t be “cheap” when it comes to your server or bartender! Waistaff can get a little wary when they think people are trying to look for ways to stiff them, and unfortunately some of these tactics send that signal. Why don’t we fly in the face of old stereotypes and be frugal and generous tippers? Yay!

  22. Tony says:

    I don’t agree with your pay per drink and don’t start a tab for a few reasons:

    1. Bartenders are more likely to give you a buyback “free drink” if you have a tab open and they are aware of how many drinks you are ordering. So if you plan on staying for more than 1 or 2 drinks, starting a tab is almost always cheaper than ordering each one individually.

    2. If you’re drinking at a place with specials, as you suggest, say a bar that has a $1 drink special, tipping for each drink ends up being MUCH more expensive than tipping at the end on a tab. Even at bars without specials, if you’re enjoying alcohol beverages, as the night progresses you will be more inclined to tip too generously with each individual drink. Waiting till the end installs a safeguard of overtipping on every drink.

    3. Most bartenders appreciate tabs much more than having to perform an individual transaction each time. Especially at a busy bar. Also they are more likely to receive a fair tip on a bill at the end. I know this contradicts some of the other things I’ve said about overtipping with individual drinks, but also many people who tip individually cheap out on tips and only tip every 3rd or 4th drink.

  23. DrFunZ says:

    When eating out with others, especially folks that I don’t know well, I always make sure I have a bunch of different denomination bills and coins accessible and I tally my own bill up as I order (food and tax and tip). I get that money out immediately and put it in my pocket. When the bill comes, I quickly put the money out and say “OK, I’m all in, including tip and tax.” and drop my portion on table.

    Why do I do this? I have been stung too mnay times. I am not a big drinker and I usually do not eat desserts. When I go out with people who have had a meal with a few rounds of drinks or bottles of wine, they always seem to want to split the bill. They forget that I had no drinks at all. I sometimes get a hairy eyeball, but eventually they get it. There is usually some smart-aleck comment made like, “Oh, I guess you can calculate the bill in your head!” I smile and say “Yes, that’s why they call me Doctor!” (I am not a physician, I am a teacher on a budget.)

  24. Don’t forget to take advantage of art openings and other cultural events. The art museum within walking distance of my house has an exhibit opening once per quarter. For a $5 or $10 donation you can hang out looking at art for a couple hours, and help yourself to a glass of wine and some very good appetizers.

  25. deRuiter says:

    Dear Friends, When drinking at a bar, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER run a tab! The unfortunate desire of management or bartender to maximize income by padding the tab occurs more often then you would think. It’s not necessary to tip each drink, wait until you’re ready to leave to tip. If you’re unable to recall how many drinks you’ve consumed when it’s time to go, in order to calculate a fair tip, YOU’VE HAD AT LEAST ONE TOO MANY!

  26. Tony says:

    deRuiter,

    I’ve been to very few bars that pad tabs. And if they attempt it, I notice and never go back. Most cash conscious consumers would do the same.

    And if you don’t tip till the end without an open tab, the bartender will assume you are being cheap and you will receive little notice each time you go to the bar for service.

  27. Mister E says:

    If you are paying per drink but not tipping per drink you may find your server is too busy to make it to your table as frequently as you might like.

  28. Kelsey says:

    being a college student, it can be hard not to spend a lot of money going out on the weekends. one thing we do is we buy our own alcohol/drinks and “pre-game” at someone’s house and then go to the bars. i find that i don’t spend as much money then because i only get one drink at the bar then.

  29. Dawn says:

    The value of the entertainment book or similar books depends on where you live. My brother just got one, and every coupon in it is at least an hours’ drive from their house. Where we live, we have a local alternative that is much better than the Entertainment book. The best bet with these is to see if you can take a look at someone else’s first, and then buy.

  30. guinness416 says:

    We bought one of those entertainment books last year and it was a disaster. I hadn’t been to most of the restaurants and bars listed (which didn’t surprise me, I live in a big city) and the few we tried were terrible, low class, bad food places. I’m happy we didn’t drag friends there too! Not sure if you can check the listed companies prior to buying. We did use some coupons for bowling etc but overall it was a big waste of money and (more importantly) time.

  31. luvleftovers says:

    DrFunZ @ 6:38 am June 12th, 2008 (comment #23)

    Ummmm, what’s a hairy eyeball???

  32. kim says:

    I know this doesn’t quite fit the bill for a grown up outing, but since there was a discussion of movies…
    Regal Cinemas has free children’s movies on week day mornings in the summer. They usually show two films one for preschoolers and one for older kids. We really enjoy them even though they tend to be older things you can already rent. Going to the movies is fun and the AC is nice. Not all Regals offer it but we have two within an hour’s drive. I always try to pair it with something else to justify the extra gas.
    Usually at the end they hand out freebies like a new cereal or snack as a promotion.

  33. Kris says:

    I agree with deRuiter. Many times, I’ve been the DD and kept track of my husband’s drinks, only to find at the end of the night up to 3 extra drinks were attributed to him. So now I always pay per drink. What I normally do for tips is to tip very generously on the first drink and if I get good service for the rest of the night, give another good tip at the end as well. This way, we still get the server’s attention and avoid having to tip on every drink. Saves me cash every time.

  34. Allison says:

    @luvleftovers: hairy eyeball…sort of a cross between the evil eye and a wary sidewards glance/”oh please” roll of the eyes…

  35. Christine says:

    I heartily agree with all of these tips, but it’s so hard to do with a fiance who has eyes bigger than his stomach! Normally, I’d get his leftovers to go in a doggy bag, but it doesn’t help when I’m a vegetarian and he’s a carnivore!

  36. TJP says:

    My husband is a server. PLEASE don’t be frugal on the tips. The current economy is scary for us, we expect people will dine out less, eat less and tip less (we live in a resort area). Also, his restaurant offers a half portion (it’s not on the menu). I find the protein is smaller but more than half and the sides are full size. After the free crackers, cheese and bread I still have left overs.

    For movies, they often have free popcorn refills on the large. I bring paper lunch bags, fill one up for each person and send someone right out for the refill before the movie starts. Same for drinks, I bring extra cups with lids (if you have kids you probably have these from Olive Garden/Red Lobster, etc).

    We don’t go to the movies often as you can rent a movie for $1 4 months after it’s in the theater anyhow.

  37. I always start a tab for the reasons above which have to do with tipping less by not tipping every single time you buy a drink.

    Warning: My parents had their identity stolen and it was traced back to a bartender who wrote down their credit card number and the security card on the back and used it online to make purchases somehow.

    Sometimes when I am going to a bar I stop at the liquor store and load my pockets with those mini 2 oz. Captain Morgan bottles and just order cokes and make my own drink when nobody is looking. Saves TONS and TONS of money.

  38. Mac says:

    Luke – It seems that whether the entertainment book is worthwhile depends on its particulars where you live, as well as your lifestyle. In the Baltimore area we find that we definitely get our money’s worth, and even more so if we buy it a little into the year at a discount. We use it about once a week for a restaurant and quite rarely for anything else. It includes coupons for a supermarket, one for each quarter of the year, that we use.

  39. clint says:

    I am one of those crazy people…I just don’t drink anything with alcohol in it. This saves me a ton of money and I am the one that drives home. my friends that do drink always buy my sodas and give me the keys. I have seen some guys leave the bar with tabs over $100.00 in one night, and they do this several times in a week. Do you know how easy it would be to get out of debt on a couple of hundred extra dollars a week? Crazy easy. So do yourself a favor do the driving and save some cash. Besides think of what you will save on a kidney or liver transplant a few years down the road!

    Clint Lawton

    http://www.a-debt-free-life.com

  40. AaronO says:

    I have to agree with clint. I find my bills can get pretty steep when ordering drinks – especially alcoholic drinks. Even buying soda can add to your bill. Make sure refills are free! It’s pretty easy to keep getting refills on your soda and see that you had 3 or 4 sodas on your bill.

    It’s nice to have a beer with your meal but is it really worth $4.50+? I try to stick with water.

  41. plonkee says:

    Things are somewhat different in the UK. No one tips bar staff, and it’s illegal to add your own alcohol to drinks – also rounds are ubiquitous. But, drinking before hand is a good tactic, as is liking a variety of alcohol so that you can drink the specials.

    I particularly enjoy researching the happy hours, but also save money by walking or catching the bus in to town rather than taking a cab, and getting in to bars/clubs just before they start charging a fee.

  42. Donna says:

    For lunch in the big city, my friends and I have a rule when go out: $10 and under. That way, anyone can join us and not feel broke. Unless everyone orders pretty much the same priced item, we don’t split the check. That way, people with bigger incomes can eat the more expensive things on the menu without putting the poorer people in more financial straits.

    For dinner, we make sure the restaurant is affordable, too, or we go out with another group of friends for whom the cost is not hardship.

  43. Lisa says:

    It’s really important to bring cash in smaller denominations – so that you can legitimately pay for a (generous) estimate of your portion of the bill and no more. If you just have a card, you’re more likely to be asked to split the bill evenly, which might not be in your favor if you chose a cheaper selection than others.

  44. james275 says:

    I have to agree with most of the comments here on disagreeing with starting a tab for drinks. Bar etiquette dictates that you tip $1 per drink when ordered individually. If you and your party plan on having more than one drink, it is almost always less expensive to start a tab & tip 20% at the end of the night. Unless you’re the type of person who doesn’t tip – in which case I think you’ve taken your frugality a bit too far.

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