The Frugal Drinker

January 8, 2010 at 6:25 am (Being Frugal) ()

After months of attempting to keep my alcohol spending low, I’m ready to throw in the bar towel and embrace my alcohol-sodden nature. How to do this and still stay within a spending limit? Here are some ideas and tips from someone who likes to indulge while still remaining budget-conscious.

The Basics

It’s important to begin with what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you’re not. In the most simple terms, it comes down to quality vs. quantity. But lower price does not necessarily equate to lower quality, as I’ll get into below.

Next it’s crucial to determine what type of drinker you are, and where it’s possible to wipe out excess spending. If you like to have a drink when you get home from work, are there other times you can do without? Can you do without during the week and instead limit your indulgence to just the weekend? Or maybe you’re a social person and need to think about bar spending – do you go out once a week, every Friday and Saturday, or more than that? Maybe you can save the drinking for the weekend and do sodas or juice or PBR (which is often cheaper than soda) the rest of the time?

Alcohol is expensive, there’s no getting around that. However, it is possible to tailor your habits to be budget-friendly. If you want to drink more often, then you may need to go for the mid-shelf or bargain varieties and maybe save the top shelf for special occasions or holidays. One thing I have learned – you can get used to anything. Cheap wine tastes like cheap wine. But over time, it becomes easier to swallow (both literally and figuratively) and you can definitely get used to a more “inferior” quality. On top of that, not all brands (or products within a brand line) are created equal. The key is to experiment, and try lots of brands and varieties until you hit upon the ones that work for you. Again, I’ll state that quality and price are not mutually exclusive.

Spirits

I am a huge fan of Irish Cream in my coffee. I’ll admit that I don’t much care for coffee without it, so I end up buying approximately 2 bottles a month. Bailey’s is by far the most premium and well-known brand out there. That familiarity is due to their extensive (and costly!) advertising budget. That in turn results in an expensive bottle on the shelf of your local liquor store, but there are alternatives! After trying some of the other brands, I now buy Carolins (which I find to be very comparable in flavor), which can be at least $10 below Bailey’s, sometimes even more than that! In my search for a cheaper alternative, I have come across one brand I was close to pouring down the drain rather than drink! The key, again, is to sample several different brands to find out which ones you like. Try an alternate brand than the one you see in TV and magazine ads. If you don’t like it, next time try something else!

I’ve done the same with vodkas. I have yet to buy a bottle of grey goose (I refuse to pay over $30 for a bottle of vodka), but I’ve come to learn that I prefer the potato varieties. Burnette’s is as cheap as you can get and it’s actually quite acceptable. However, my favorite is currently Vikingfjord – clean, crisp, no chemical flavor, and no harsh aftertaste. At $14-15 per bottle, that is eminently affordable, much more than Skyy, Belvedere or other premium brands.

For those that like clean, plain drinks, such as a straight chilled vodka, or a martini, a drink that is almost entirely 1 type of alcohol and little else, you’ll want to find brands that have a cleaner, less chemical flavor than if you were preparing a mixed drink. Mixed drinks give you a lot more flexibility in quality vs. price; while cheaper does not equate to lower quality, some of the lowest priced alcohols are exactly what you pay for. If, during your experimentation phase, you end up with something unimbibable, then reserve it for mixed drinks or cooking.

If you want to try various brands but don’t want to invest in buying lots of large-sized bottles, go to a bar and see if you can get samples, or tastes of various brands. Who knows, they might be willing to do a flight of tequilas or bourbons. I have yet to visit a bar that, when expressing curiosity about something I’ve never tried, they’ve not given me a sample to try (often for free as I sit there with another cocktail in front of me). If you’re asking for several tastes, you’ll most likely have to pay for it. Just note that tastes or samples aren’t “on the menu” so you’ll want to be friendly and patient with your bartender, and leave a nice tip! And it’s always easiest if you sit directly at the bar, not at a table with waitstaff running interference. If they are busy, you may have to delay until a future visit.

When at the liquor store, look at those little sample bottles. They are significantly overpriced – you are paying a lot more for a smaller quantity. But brand shop – pick up every whisky blend available and do a taste test at home. You may not get every brand you’d like to try, since not all brands make the samples or are carried by that store, but it’s definitely a place to start – you can winnow down the selection to a few different kinds, or at least knock out some of your least favorites.

Beer

I’m not a big beer drinker, but I definitely love an ice cold brewsky on a hot summer’s day. It’s more difficult to save money with beer, as prices don’t vary as much as other alcohols, but it can be done. Buy in larger quantities, or when the store is having a sale. You might have to choose brand B over brand A in order to save a dollar or two, but over time that can really add up. Just be aware that bigger isn’t always better. For example, Costco has lots of cases of beer – but their prices are rarely much less than what you’ll find elsewhere. And since they only sell in larger cases, you’ll be stuck with a larger quantity of alcohol (with a larger sticker price) and with little to no savings than if you bought a 6-pack or smaller case from a regular supermarket. Look at the posted prices at your favorite warehouse store and see what the per bottle cost is. Multiply that by 6 to get the 6-pack price, and double that to get the 12-bottle, or “regular” case price (as most supermarket cases are 12 bottles).

Wine

This is by far the easiest category in which to save money. Wine has a very large price range. In my home, Washington state, hard liquor is controlled by the state liquor board, so it is only available at certain stores. Wine, however, is available EVERYWHERE. That’s how you can save big bucks – more choice equals better value. Warehouse stores, supermarkets, boutique markets, gas stations, and of course wine shops all have wine. No matter where you buy, everyone offers discounts, usually for 6 or more bottles. 10% discounts are common, but you may come across close-out specials or special case discounts. Just remember, if you buy a case of a wine you haven’t tried, and find out you don’t like it, it’s not a bargain. So if you do see special discounts (on individual bottles OR cases), buy a bottle first to see if you like it BEFORE you shell out tons for a larger quantity. Just plan on returning quickly (such as the next day) to snatch up whatever inventory you can afford before it’s all gone.

I’m a red wine lover. Every time I go to any one of my local stores, I peruse the wine aisle and see what’s on sale. Currently, I can’t afford to buy the better grades of inexpensive wines and still stay on my debt pay-off schedule, at least not with the frequency of how often I purchase and consume wine. I’ve become used to the less developed flavors of cheaper wines. I used to buy wine that was $12-13/bottle (which could be partly to blame for my existing debt). Then I looked for wine that was under $10, as I was trying to be more frugal. Now I look for wine that’s in the $5-6 range.

There’s a lot out there! Try different brands. Keep in mind that the flavor will change significantly from year to year with differences in vintages. Even different varietals within the same label can vary greatly. For example, my current favorite, Two Vines, is fantastic (I believe it’s a label under one of the 2 biggest Washington wineries). It ranges between $5.49 to $9, depending on the variety and the store that you buy it from. Costco has a double-size bottle for $10.99 (they only sell one particular blend). My absolute favorite is the Vineyard 10 blend. It’s one of their more expensive types, typically going for $7.49 in the supermarket, but I’ve seen it as high as $8.99. Currently Safeway has it on sale for $5.99. If you buy 6 or more bottles, the 10% “case” discount applies and the individual bottle price drops to $5.39/bottle. I’ve already bought 6 to have around and I’m planning to buy more before the sale is over. Now that I’ve determined it be one of my favorite labels and varieties, I should really be buying several cases and stocking up for several months. At more than $2/bottle off the regular price, that’s worth investing in. And remember, alcohol is not perishable. It’s ok to buy in bulk and keep your cellar stocked! Just keep it out of direct sunlight, and keep the temperature from fluctuating too much.

To help determine what wines you might like, buy a bunch of different wines within your price range, to compare all at once or over time. See what you like. You might find out that hey, Pine and Post (often one of the cheapest supermarket brands) isn’t all that bad, or maybe you can’t stand it (personally I find it very underwhelming). Ask your local wine shop for recommendations – after all, it’s what they specialize in! .Don’t feel embarrassed if you have a small budget. You might have to correct the number they throw at you. Below $10? Counter with your limit (mine is $7). Trust me, they won’t bat an eye; they’ve heard it all before (and do you really think they get a high-paying salary working as a clerk in a wine shop?). But be aware that their cheapest price point may be in the $5-$6 range.

If you’re looking for less expensive bottles, your best bet is Trader Joe’s, which tends to be the only place I have consistently found lots of choices in the $3-4/bottle range. If you are having a big party or private event, this is a great way to try lots of bottles as well as a way to keep your budget down. I’ve bought 3 cases of wine at a time from Trader Joe’s for artist openings (when I wanted to have 20-30 bottles on hand). This was a great opportunity to try 10-12 different red wines and 4 different whites, all in one shot. I was pleased to find that there were actually some very drinkable wines for that price – what a surprise!

Ask, and Ye Shall Receive!

And even though holidays have just ended, you can always ask for alcohol as gifts. It makes a great choice when asked what you want for “X.” Ask for a premium bottle of your favorite poison. Having dinner guests? Have them bring the libation. I’ve found that guests often bring decent quality beverages (be it beer or wine). There’s nothing worse than being considered cheap by your peers, family, or friends. Love beer? Ask for a beer of the month club membership.

Prepare in Advance

I also offer these final suggestions, with an added caveat – don’t drink and drive and please please please, be safe! If you are a social drinker, or are planning on going out to a restaurant and want to keep the final tab low, you have additional options. Alcohol is expensive. It is much more expensive in a public establishment, so have a drink before you arrive. Have a glass of inexpensive wine at home before you leave; restaurants typically mark wine up 400%. Drink your 2 fingers of whisky before getting on the bus to go downtown. If you choose to drink while you eat out, then go during happy hour, when there are some drinks on special. Maybe your local bistro has a half-price night where bottles of wine are much less expensive than normal (these are typically during slower times, often mid-week). If you want a harder drink, stick to the wells, they are often a few bucks cheaper than other brands. Plus, this give you an opportunity yet again, to try brands without buying a full bottle at the liquor store!

Take it With You

Have a flask? Take it with you and avoid paying those ridiculous prices at the beer garden during summer events. Just remember – an open alcoholic container in your car is illegal! You’ll also need to know that if you choose to doctor a plain soda with liquor that you bring, and if you’re caught, you’ll get kicked out of the establishment, so I don’t recommend you try that. Be like me, drink your one drink beforehand, and then have someone else drive.

Inventory

The only problem is that the more stock I have on hand at home, the more often it will be consumed. You might find that it’s easier to control how much you drink by what you have available. If you need to go out of your way to go to the liquor store or market to pick up something to drink, that inconvenience may result in you buying less, drinking less (and saving more). Your mileage may vary, so try what works best for you. If you have an iron resolve and can set limits and stick to them, then definitely stock up during sales and keep extra bottles or cases in the pantry or basement for later use. You might want to have a set inventory that you allow yourself to consume weekly or monthly. Every Monday, for example, get 1 bottle of wine out for the week, and 1 for the weekend (or however much quantity you choose, remember, this is just an example).

Sharing Costs

If you have a partner or spouse, and they drink different quantities of alcohol than you, you may want to set limits on who drinks what, or designate different bottles of spirits for each of you – to keep it fair, or have you both be responsible for certain kinds of alcohol. If that seems draconian, another solution would be to have one person be responsible for a higher percentage of the alcohol bill, For example, in my house, my boyfriend is a heavier consumer of drink than I am. He also likes to drink stronger spirits. He buys his whisky/bourbon/scotch of choice, and I occasionally have a small glass. If I buy vodka, he will easily consume half or more. To keep it even, I just buy vodka less often, and it works out.

And finally, since it must be said, the simplest method to save money on alcohol is to flat out drink less. You might want to have some built in “dry” days where you abstain completely. That will also help the budget and stretch the alcohol inventory longer.

I hope these have given you some useful ideas. Let’s all raise a toast to more fiscal responsibility this year!!

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3 Comments

  1. the Dad said,

    I vote for homebrewing – make your own! I have for 11 years. 🙂

    Cheers,
    the Dad

  2. debtmaven said,

    Dad: There’s a thought! I think wine is on J’s docket this year (I just found out about it last night while he was talking to his sister on the phone). I can live with that! I know he wants to make beer too. (I’d rather have the wine…)

    A friend of ours distills vodka in his apartment. The crucial step is to have the right copper tubing. BUt it doesn’t take very long, and it doesn’t cost a lot. However, it is illegal, so he keeps it very quiet. It tastes pretty darn good though! And the sangria bowl is never empty at his parties…

  3. Festival of Frugality #212: New Beginnings Edition | Yes, I Am Cheap said,

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