Trimming the Average Budget: Alcoholic Beverages

This is part of an ongoing series about how to trim the budget of the average American. As this series focuses on such broad-based tips, some will work for you and some will not. You’re invited to mention in the comments the tips that you found to be the most useful for inclusion in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of this series.

Alcoholic Beverages – $457

The solution to cutting this element of your budget is easy.

Don’t drink.

For many of us, though, that’s not really a solution. I often enjoy a glass of red wine with my dinner and I like a mixed drink once in a while, particularly on social occasions. I know I’m far from alone in this type of attitude towards alcoholic beverages, too.

What’s the solution for keeping such spending under control? Let’s look at a few options.

Don’t spend more than $10 on a bottle of wine. There are thousands of different options for wines under $10. You don’t need the $50 bottle of wine in order to enjoy a nice glass of red with dinner. Pick up a low cost bottle and give it a swing.

Keep track of the low cost ones you do enjoy. This way, you can share these good low-cost wines when guests come over instead of feeling compelled to drop cash on a more expensive bottle that has some “promise” of being good (but really doesn’t have any such promise at all).

Have social events at home. Instead of going out for drinks and paying a hefty surcharge to sit in some loud, miserable place, have events at your own home. Have people bring a bottle of something they like and do something together, like play a board game or watch a film.

Look for specials. Alcohol is actually one of the most common loss leaders that stores use to get people in the door. Keep an eye on the prices local stores have in their flyer for your particular beverage of choice and stock up when it’s cheap.

Drop the brand snobbishness. Most of the times, brands are nothing more than the product of a lot of clever marketing – and you pay for that marketing with a higher sticker price. Nowhere is that more true than with alcoholic beverages, when you often pay substantially more for just a name on a label. If you doubt it, combine the idea with a social event at your home and have a blind taste test, for fun. You’ll likely be surprised.

Don’t drink at the restaurant. If you’ve decided to go out and eat, great! Have fun! However, you’re almost always far better off if you don’t consume alcoholic beverages at the restaurant, because they’re often exorbitantly overpriced. Instead, limit yourself to just a glass of wine with dinner, if that, and then enjoy a drink elsewhere with your dining companions.

Make your own. I make my own beer and find it to be cheaper to brew craft beers than to buy them. The savings is even stronger with wine, provided you find a reasonably-priced supplier. Make your own – it doesn’t take much equipment and it’s surprisingly fun to have others try your home brew.

And never drink and drive. DUI’s have reverberating affects on your life.

I want your help! In the comments, please let me know which of the tips you find most useful for trimming these costs. I’ll include the top choices in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of the series.

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  1. Trent,
    I find the biggest thing,as you mentioned, when saving money on alcohol is to not drink at restaurants. The mark up is huge.
    That said, some meals really do deserve to be paired with wine.
    To each their own, but I don’t normally order any beverage at a restaurant, let alone an alcoholic one.

  2. Vicky says:

    Heh, Brand snobbery it may be, but Grey Goose is my weakness.

    I keep a bottle of it at home just for me, and I save it only for when I’ve just GOT to have a drink.

    I do agree about not going out frequently and drinking at resturants…. $8 for a glass of vodka and cranberry? No thank you.

  3. Molly says:

    Buy the case! You usually get a discount.

  4. Andrea says:

    I counter on Grey Goose, no other vodka has compared to being as smooth. Like Vicky mentionned it’s for special occasions. I also don’t drink alcoholic beverages at resturants. I also love certin $10 bottles of wine. Everyone is different.

  5. Tom says:

    Don’t know about other bigger cities but here in Chicago there are numerous BYOB restaurants that can save you a bunch of cash while eating out. Seek those out if you can.

  6. Kyle says:

    Labels don’t matter as much when talking about rum, vodka, and other light alcohols. When buying a bottle of brandy, scotch, whiskey, or even beer, the label makes a big difference in flavor. You can’t compare a Milwaukee’s Best to a Miller light, the flavors are different. If you like the cheaper beer, or the flavor of the cheaper liquors you are golden but quality does come with a label.

    The suggestion to keep your parties at home is a great one, we do that in my neighborhood to keep costs down and save lives. No drinking and driving if everyone can just walk home.

  7. mari says:

    I hope you meant “don’t spend more than $10 on a bottle of wine” and not “on a glass of wine”? Walmart carries a brand called Oak Leaf that they sell for around $3.50 a bottle, it’s very good, as is Vendange, Foxhorn and Nathanson Creek, all for much less than $10 per bottle.

  8. SEC Lawyer says:

    All the suggestions made by Trent in this column are sound. Here are a few more:
    1. Have cocktails at home before walking (not driving) to dinner. Or have after-dinner drinks at home after returning from dinner. Or both.
    2. Only use low-priced liquor in drinks mixed with fruit juices or other strongly-favored mixers or other ingredients. (Save the high-priced liquor for martinis and straight-up drinks.)
    3. Life is indeed too short for bad wine, but there is a lot of very good low-cost wine. Chile produces the best low-cost wine in the world. Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest fall right behind Chile.
    4. Find a restaurant that will allow you to bring your own wine and pay a modest “corkage” fee to drink it at your table. Patronize that restaurant.
    5. Avoid drinking and driving. Leaving to one side the risks visited on others, the “costs” associated with getting caught and convicted of drunk driving can hardly be overstated.
    6. Don’t order a bottle of wine at a restaurant unless you and your dining companion(s) will drink at least five glasses of wine in total.
    7. Never order wine from a restaurant or bar that does not carry much wine: It won’t be any good and you’ll pay too much for its low quality. (The same is not true of liquor or beer.)
    8. Sometimes — not always — indeed, not usually — locally-produced wine is lower-cost and interesting. And it’s good for the environment to buy what’s produced nearby. Worth a try to see if you like it.
    9. For European wines especially, there are great values in buying low-cost wines from great vintages. For example, a $15 bottle of red Bordeaux from the 2000, 2005 or 2007 vintage will almost certainly be good. Indeed, any French wine from the 2007 vintage will be good, so buy low-cost bottles by the case.
    10. Wine tastings sponsored by restaurants and wine shops are usually low-cost means of tasting a great many wines inexpensively. This is the most efficient way I know to learn what you like and don’t like.

  9. Megan says:

    I think someone already pointed it out – but I think the first is that a bottle should be less than $10, right? Also, I like the idea of having parties at your house, instead of a bar. great idea!

  10. Adam says:

    If my friends and I are going out to the bar, I will get nice and hammered before we go (although I keep it together), drinking cheap drinks at home. When we get to the bar, I nurse one drink the whole night, am blissfully happy, and just sobering up when its time to get in the taxi or walk home. I usually wake up hangover free :-) and the earlier parts of the night getting together and drinking before we go out are usually more fun than the bar itself.

    I know friends who spend $100 a night at bars, buying rounds and what not and having 5 or 6 drinks themselves at $10-$15 each, plus $20 cover charge. Eesh!

  11. chacha1 says:

    Great tips from SEC, there!

    I have almost entirely stopped ordering wine at restaurants specifically due to the markup. I know perfectly well that a particular bottle is $8.99 at the grocery store, so I’m not going to pay $8 or even $6 for a glass of that wine.

    I *will* occasionally order a wine that’s uncommon or that I’ve never tried before. We don’t eat out that often anymore, so this doesn’t add much to the annual drinking-and-dining expense load.

    We do go through about a bottle of wine a week, though, so we shop carefully!

    World Market and BevMo are great places to find wonderful wines for less than $6 a bottle. Especially if you join BevMo’s free “club,” they have a BOGO 5 cent sale several times a year.

    If someone who enjoys alcohol keeps it to the recommended (for health) limits – one drink per day – and follows some of the suggestions in the post, it doesn’t have to be a very expensive habit. But when budget is a concern, this should be one of the first indulgences to go. Especially because “moderation” is such a challenge for so many.

  12. anna says:

    Look for places that have specials, there is a great bar downtown here that has mixed drinks for $1 on Friday nights, any other night of the week the same drink is $3.50.

    Attend a winery or brewery tasting, Anheuser Busch in STL puts on an awesome tour and than you get 2 beer “samples” at the end, all for free. Wineries are another great opportunity to try before you buy and most are not that expensive plus you guarentee you’ll enjoy it.

    Buy your alcohol at a discount liquor store or a warehouse store like Sams. Sams is legally required to allow EVERYONE including non-members to buy their alcohol and most of the time it is the cheapest place in town.

  13. MegB says:

    My new favorite thing is to go to places that are BYOB. There are several in my neighborhood. If it’s not BYOB, I will usually just not drink. No big deal.

  14. Henry says:

    Anna, tell me more about Sams being legally required to allow everyone to buy alcohol. I bet they would ask me for my card if I went to the register with nothing but booze. Do you buy there without a membership? Tell me more, is there a written policy somewhere detailing this?
    I don’t think it’s a big concern for me since any of the liquor barns or warehouses are cheaper or as cheap as Sam’s, and they have more variety. At Sam’s, I could get a mainstream Scotch for cheap, but I could get a rarer and more enjoyable Scotch at liquor barn even cheaper. If you’re around a Sam’s, the area’s probably populated enough to also have a liquor warehouse.

    And $10 for a glass of wine? What?

  15. Anne KD says:

    It’s very rare that my husband and I will have a drink when we’re out. BYOB is great and several places will pour for free. However, we’re happy to just stay home, have something homemade to eat, and try out different wines. We don’t drink much for various reasons. Also, we live in PA, which has liquor laws from the Inquisition, no that’s not it, the Dark Ages, no that’s not it either; oh, I mean Prohibition- not kidding about that one. There’s a very limited selection of wines etc in this state compared to NJ and MA where I used to live. Prices are set, no case discounts, no alcohol in grocery stores, etc. If the police don’t catch me bringing back decent wines from out of state then I don’t have to worry about being thrown in jail and fined. Not kidding about that one, either. Just found out about that law the other day (and laughed my head off in disbelief about that stupid law). Time to go look in the cabinet to see which bottle of wine to open tonight- it’s Friday and a good time to relax.

  16. Noadi says:

    The benefits of not drinking. I occasionally buy inexpensive wine for cooking which lasts a long time (you can freeze it, I use a muffin tin for 1/2 cup portions) or beer for a beer batter, etc. I probably don’t top $50 a year on alcohol. I honestly don’t get the appeal of alcohol, I hate the taste and the effects it has on me. Maybe my body reacts differently than other people, I don’t find it pleasant at all.

  17. SystemError says:

    If you’re looking for a smooth vodka for less than half of a bottle of Grey Goose, go with Tito’s Handmade Vodka, made by the traditional pot still method.

    Grey Goose is the typical example of marketing and branding over actual quality. The creator thought “I want to make an overpriced vodka” made it with french wheat, because france = quality right? and put it in a fancy bottle for $50. There are many other good vodkas out there for much cheaper.

  18. jbd says:

    I bought wine in a box the other day to save on this cost. It was a little more than the cost of my normal 1.5 liters but it contained 3 liters! You don’t have to sacrifice on taste to save money. Mine was a nice Australian Shiraz. Hardys was the maker- I may never go back to bottles at home. It is also economical if you drink socially like we do. We can open a box of wine for friends one weekend and it will still be good for the next several weekends.

  19. Rosa Rugosa says:

    Compared to our spendthrift past, we are probably only eating out about 10% as often as we were a few years ago. When we do eat out, it’s for a special occasion, and we generally enjoy a pretty nice level of dining. And wine or cocktails are a must! (Although we seldom spend more than $10. a glass, we certainly have been known to do so).

  20. Des says:

    I can’t tell the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle…but I CAN taste a huge difference between a well drink and a call or top shelf drink. No contest there. Same with beer. A $4 bottle of microbrew is not in the same ballpark as a Bud Light. I’m lucky enough to love BL myself, but there is no way you’re going to convince me that *marketing* is the difference between the two.

  21. Gretchen says:

    Actually, to #15, the PA state stores will special order any (wine) bottle you want.

  22. almost there says:

    We like the 3 ltr. box wines from the US and Australia. It breaks down to 4 bottles for $18 or less plus tax and is mostly medium shelf stuff. The leftover boxes can be saved up to make a portable shelter. :)

  23. Zella says:

    Trader Joe’s is where I go for wine– I can usually find decent to very good bottles of wine for <$8.

  24. *pol says:

    I have a good quality wine made at a U-brew (yes there are different grades of kits), that way when I do feel like a smooth glass of Merlot with dinner at home, I know I haven’t been scalped by the Canadian government taxes. A batch of 36 bottles usually lasts me a couple years!

    We don’t drink often at our house so rotation is VERY slow on the liquor cabinet and is primarily reserved for dinner guests. We keep a bottle of Bailey’s for after dinner coffee treats around Christmas.

  25. partgypsy says:

    We don’t split out alcohol from the regular grocery/restaurant budget, but the sample month where everything was broken down I believe it was around $45. Unfortunately we have developed a taste for the better beers. My husband has found out that Food Lion, where we typically don’t shop, often has 1 nice beer 12 pack on sale (different one each week) so he has been stopping by to check out the sales.

  26. Laura says:

    My tip is to keep a well-stocked bar. May seem counter-intuitive, but if you have a variety of nice liquors and wines at your home, you’ll be much more likely to drink at home, invite friends over instead of going to a bar, etc. Plus, if you maintain a bar with the standard “essentials” (whiskey, vodka, gin, rum) you won’t have to buy liquor very often – you just have to replace what you run out of – we spent about $100 this year on our big bar-stocking trip, and I don’t expect we’ll spend any more, except for a glass of wine with dinner out (which we maybe do once every other month or so). Especially is you are someone who likes fine liquor – I’m a scotch drinker, myself – it’s completely ridiculous to spend ten or fifteen dollars on a glass of scotch, when by spending forty or fifty dollars, you can buy a whole bottle of something pretty decent.

  27. IASSOS says:

    I used to drink a beer every evening, or maybe two, or even three; or as much as a case in a week! Then I had an episode of gout which seemed to be traceable back to the beer, so I stopped. Not having gout is much better than having beer.

  28. Jeremy says:

    Big vote for the brew your own beer if you enjoy craft beers. I have been brewing for a year now and have pretty much replaced all beer purchases with the beer that I brew. It has saved me a ton of money and its fun to take “your” beer to parties.

  29. Ryan says:

    I’ll have to bookmark these tips for future reference. 3 years in the future…. ;)

  30. Moom says:

    More expensive wine does tend to be better, though there is good cheap wine too. But if you can’t tell the difference don’t spend the extra money. Personally I can tell the difference much more with red wine than white wine. So with white wine I buy something cheap. With beers, brands really do matter. Or rather there are good beers and bad so it matters what you buy. So I don’t get the point about not paying for brands. My wife, though can’t tell much difference between them though, so for someone like her it would be a waste of money to buy a better brand.

  31. Harm says:

    After getting very very drunk one night early
    in my Navy career, I barfed it up….(tmi, I
    know) and have never had a taste for alcohol
    since (except for the very occasional glass of
    wine). That has saved me loads of money and
    probably lots of personal complications in my
    life….as well as never having to worry about
    dwi checkpoints while driving….or hangovers….
    I’m popular as a designated driver….
    I admit, not being able to enjoy alcohol is
    sometimes a minus, but not a very big one :D

  32. Could not have said it better myself.

    The #1 way is to stop–but as you said, that is not a desirable option for many.

    I particularly like and agree with the drink at home before going to the restuarant thing–those savings are huge.

    Finally, when entertaining, if there will be some serious drinking going on, I usually buy a higher brand of beer/liquor for the beginning of the party, and something else for later. Honestly, after you’re feeling good, do you care if you need to switch to a cheaper beer or a well brand of liquor?

    People actually tell me they love the idea.

    I’ve never had a complaint yet–

  33. Michelle says:

    I second the recommendation of Tito’s as a high-end vodka alternative. Made here in Austin, by a guy named homonym-rifically Beveridge!, this has beat out all the big names at international competitions. I can get a full liter for $20, or the 750ml for $14! But I really love beer, good beer. DH does too, and luckily he’ll make it for us…$30 for brewing ingredients, 4 to 6 hours in the backyard and we’ll get 15 gallons (equivalent of 100 pints of microbrew) – enough for a month (inclusive of the many friends who find reason to stop by to socialize). Buying the equivalent microbrew (think dogfishhead or left-hand brewing co), we’d be out hundreds more. Plus I get to design the beer’s profile – hops, hops, more hops & a slight malty-nose.

  34. Michelle says:

    Oh, and for those of you lucky enough to live in a state that allows wine shipments, WOOT! is a great site for getting really fine wines for under $20/bottle. I’ve ordered about a dozen times – most offerings are lots of 3 bottles, and I think I’ve averaged less than $15/bottle for wines I’d pay $25 – 45 at the local wine superstore.

  35. Kim says:

    Sorry, have to disagree about the wine. Cheap wine is cheap wine. VAST difference in quality in an $8 bottle and a $20 bottle. The issue is – are you able/willing to pay for it?

  36. Sam says:

    “Drop the brand snobbishness. Most of the times, brands are nothing more than the product of a lot of clever marketing – and you pay for that marketing with a higher sticker price.”

    I’m not sure what you are using as a basis for this claim, but my experience is quite the opposite.

    For me (and all of the friends that come to mind), more expensive alcohol tends to go down smoother, have a more pleasant taste, and most importantly: lead to fewer, less intense hangovers the next day.

    If you tend to get hangovers, it could be well worth paying for the more expensive quality liquors. Waking up without one more than makes up for the higher cost, if not simply because you feel better, but you’re likely to be more productive throughout the day.

  37. Steven says:

    @14 Henry

    I know definately that Sam’s Club has a liquor area separate from the rest of the club. Same building, but separate entrance where you don’t need a membership card to enter or purchase from. I would assume this applies to BJ’s and Costco as well.

    Next, I want to say that price is not the sole indicator of quality. There are tons of good, cheap wines that taste better than pricier wines. Then again, taste is very subjective. What is tasty to someone, is vomit inducing to another. The key is to find what you like. You find you like $5 bottle of wines, great for you, you can drink more. You like the $20 bottle of win, then you drink less.

    To me, alcohol is a luxury, so I will spend the money on what I like. No point in indulging if you’re not going all the way.

    If you’re one of those people who can’t tell the difference between a good beer/wine/liquor and stuff that comes out of a plastic bottle, good for you. My mom can’t tell the difference between a New York Strip and a piece of bottom round. All I got to say is ignorance is bliss.

    I personally start off with the good stuff, when I still can taste the alcohol, then switch to the cheap stuff after a few drinks.

  38. Kathy says:

    @Anne KD — the importation restriction does not apply to state residents who are bringing it in for their own use.

  39. Henry says:

    @#37

    But Sam’s doesn’t have a liquor area separate from the rest of the store. Not in a single store I’ve been to in Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana. It is all right there with everything else.

  40. Jules says:

    There is definitely a difference between the el-cheapo wines and the good stuff. I can tell the difference–but I just don’t appreciate it the way an oenephile would.

    We have a lot of expensive liquors in our drinks collection, but only because my boyfriend knows how to appreciate a good drink. I have the alcohol tolerance of a gnat, so I just sniff.

  41. Jamie says:

    Start with a clean budget vodka like Svedka and buy some FOOD GRADE activated charcoal (NOT aquarium charcoal). Put an inch or two in a bottle of any type of vodka leaving some head space of air, and leave it there for a week. Shake every day. Put it in the freezer at night and take it out during the day. This will smooth it out so much that you will think it is better than the best vodka on the market.
    I also infuse my vodkas for variations.

  42. Margaret says:

    Trader Joes is great for wines and has specials going all the time. For liquor, I just try to shop around because the prices vary quite a bit. I try not to drink when we go out to eat but it’s not really possible to have cocktails before dinner and then go out, with .08 and beefed up enforcement on drunk driving. I just don’t want to take the chance.

  43. SLCCOM says:

    #32, David, wrote: “Finally, when entertaining, if there will be some serious drinking going on, I usually buy a higher brand of beer/liquor for the beginning of the party, and something else for later. Honestly, after you’re feeling good, do you care if you need to switch to a cheaper beer or a well brand of liquor?”

    Entertaining and having serious drinking going on can be VERY expensive. If a drunk guest is driving and kills someone, it can come back on you. Or if a drunk guest walks home and gets killed, which happens quite often (pedestrians who are killed by cars are more often than not drunk), it can come back on you.

    And if any of the intoxicated guests are underage, you have a very good chance of ending up in jail. In fact, even if they aren’t intoxicated, underage drinkers can land you in jail, sued, and otherwise in really expensive trouble.

    If you allow guests to become intoxicated, you had better be darned sure that you get their car keys as they come in, someone stays sober, and no drunk driving is allowed. In fact, prudence dictates that all intoxicated guests stay overnight in your home or arrange other transportation. That can save you a ton of legal bills.

    Or, you can simply not allow drinking to the extent that people become intoxicated.

  44. How prohibitionist…
    The difference between different brands of hard liquors such as vodka, rum and gin IS important. What really saves money is buying bottles at the supermarket instead of drinking in bars and restaurants: even Jack Daniels, the most expensiv whiskey, here costs only 16 EUR a bottle, the same as three Jack&Coke in a bar.

  45. Jeroen says:

    Join a wine tasting club (or drink of your choice)! You get access to a pool of great info and cheap tasting sessions. Usually they can order bottles at bulk discount too.

  46. Bill in Houston says:

    I am a snob. I’ll admit it. Nothing but Lone Star in a bottle in my house…

  47. Bill in Houston says:

    Many Costcos have a liquor store next to the warehouse. Called appropriately enough, Costco Liquors, they sell name brands at bargain prices. Problem is you’re buying 1.75 liter bottles, not 750s. You can also find bargains at liquor warehouses (we have Specs in Houston).

    By Grapthar’s hammer, what a savings.

  48. SwingCheese says:

    @Bill (#47) and others:

    This must not hold true for all Costco/Sams. Our Costco’s liquor section is in the back of the store, and there is no separate enterance, thus you must be a member to purchase it. The same is true for the Sams that I’ve been in. Maybe it depends on the area?

  49. anna says:

    My Sams has the liquor in the center of the store but has a sign above it that says you don’t have to be a member to purchase from them, not sure about Coscos policy but Sams has to allow you in to the store and has to let you buy the liquor. They also will allow none members in to buy anything if you have a Wal-Mart Gift Card and are willing to pay the added 10% fee. So when you go to the door you just tell the greeter that you are there to buy alcohol and tell the cashier the same thing.

  50. Marta says:

    We got a wine aerator. It really makes a difference in the tase of every-day wine.

  51. Lara says:

    I try to limit my liquor store visits to the weekends only. I usually have something on hand at my house, but if I want something different, I must wait.
    This is a good intro to the 30 day rule, since the 4 day rule is pretty easy in comparison.

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