How to Afford Your Social Life

 

Hi, readers!

I spent my leanest years in some pretty rockin cities, and I didn’t let a shortage of cash get in the way of my social life. There are lots of ways to have a really good time without spending too much money- you just have to be clever about it. Here are my best tips about having an amazing social life while not going broke.

Keeping food/alcohol bills low

  • look at the menu before you agree on the restaurant. If you can’t afford it, suggest an alternative
  • sign up for Open Table and then make reservations for the group. You can earn dining points which add up to a free dining check when you have enough points.
  • pay attention to food costs- soups, salads, appetizers, sandwiches, hamburgers and pizzas are usually cheaper and can be as filling as an entrée. I can’t even remember the last time I could finish a whole restaurant hamburger, so there is lunch for tomorrow, too!
  • don’t drink to excess- learn to nurse your drinks. Alternating alcoholic drinks with nonalcoholic drinks will cut your bill in half, and you will feel better the next day.
  • cocktails are (almost always) more expensive than wine, wine is usually pricier than beer, and craft/imported beer is usually more expensive than domestic beer. Think about how much you plan to drink, and order accordingly
  • look for happy hour/appetizer specials
  • try to get separate checks when in a large group- no one intends to short the bill, but even though you would like to believe your friends all know how to add….evidence has shown time and time again that they can’t. Avoid the stress when possible.
  • avoid the extras- skipping an appetizer, dessert and beverage can cut your bill in half
  • eat before you meet your friends and then order something small or just a drink
  • look for Groupons or livingsocial deals for the restaurant you are eating at

Instead of going out, host at home

  • potluck dinner parties are an inexpensive way to enjoy meals with friends
  • having a barbeque and asking everyone to bring their own item to grill is another alternative
  • learning to make fancy cocktails at home is much more affordable than ordering them at bars
  • soups, tacos, vegetarian dishes and egg-based brunch dishes are inexpensive ways to feed crowds
  • ask guests to BYOB for dinners or house parties to keep your alcohol costs low
  • host a movie night with frozen pizzas, beer and popcorn to save on theater costs
  • game nights are a great way to spend time with your friends without spending a lot of cash. I especially like winter game nights because I never feel like getting dressed up for cold weather and then navigating bars with a coat.
  • if your house isn’t available for hosting, consider hosting picnics in public parks (check local laws before bringing alcohol)

Check out what is happening on weeknights

  • There is usually great local music available with no cover when you go mid-week.
  • Sometimes clubs/bars will have midweek theme nights (ie, Tuesday Funk Night, Thursday Line Dancing) that you don’t have to pay a cover for. They can be more fun than weekends!
  • If you have clever friends, check out trivia nights. Trivia is fun, and the prize for winning is usually money off of your bill. Less popular trivia nights= more chances of winning for you!

Getting around

*Don’t ever compromise your safety or the safety of others to save money. DUIs are expensive, hospital bills are expensive, car repairs are expensive, increased insurance is expensive, getting your car from the impound lot is expensive…and there is a lot more at stake than just money. Spend the tiny amount of money for a cab, choose a trusted designated driver before you leave home, or don’t drink. That is what adults do.

  • being the designated driver will save you cab fare and a bar tab. Often bartenders won’t charge for nonalcoholic drinks if you tell them you are the designated driver (don’t forget to tip)
  • if you know you will need a cab, consider taking public transportation there and then a cab home
  • sharing a cab will keep costs low
  • if your city has Lyft or Uber  you can usually get less expensive rides than a typical cab, and they often offer promotions.

General tips

  • If you take charge of planning events, you will have more control over how much you (and the rest of the group) spends
  • Keep an eye out for free community events- concerts, outdoor movie screenings, festivals

The point of having a social life is to enjoy time with your friends, and it should never make you go broke. Follow these tips, stay safe, and have fun!

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Eating on a Budget: Lentils Edition

One of my favorite foods is lentils.

I used to hate lentils. That is because (sorry Mom!) the only way I had ever had lentils was in this thick, baby poop textured soup. We ate a lot of it one sad winter when my grandpa was sick and for years I associated lentils with bland, undersalted gloopy sadness.

But not anymore. Because lentils don’t have to be brown! Baby poop days are over, baby! You can buy green lentils, yellow lentils, orange lentils, black lentils (called beluga lentils because they look like caviar, and if that isn’t fancy I don’t know what is!). During one of my leanest Christmases I made beautiful (very inexpensive) gifts for my family by making lentil soup mixes in jars with multiple colors of lentils with some spices added.

Lentils are about $1.89 per pound and a pound of lentils will last about 10 meals. That is an EXCELLENT bargain food (did I mention filling, comforting and healthy, too?). Even if you splurge on olive oil or spices, you are still getting some cheap eats.

Here are two of my favorite lentil recipes:

This first one is a very happy lentil dish (I just read an article that said that orange foods are for happiness and now I feel happy when I eat orange foods. I also read a different article that said vitamin C makes you happy, so that is probably the link we were missing. But I prefer to think it is the color that brings the joy). Warm curry, coconut milk, a squeeze of lime (added by me, I told you I am bad at recipe sharing)…perfect for freezing winter weather and for helping you imagine that you are eating it out of a banana leaf in the tropics. When I made it I ended up with a huge pot (all legumes expand and you will eat more of them than you expected, that is a life lesson) but we gobbled it up happily for a full week! I never can tolerate leftovers that long and usually end up freezing them, but these lentils were just what we needed.

The next one is a Rachael Ray speciality. Feel how you want about Rachael Ray, but I learned about this recipe when she told a very engaging story about how she had these lentils as an appetizer at a restaurant and could not get enough of them. I serve them on nice crusty toast and I add extra garlic. Yum. I might have skipped my entree too, Rachael. The garlicky olive oil might be the best invention of all time, and combined with lentils…swoon worthy.

I hope you enjoy slenderizing your budget (and possibly your waistline) with my newly rediscovered favorite legume!

Eating on a Budget: The No Ramen Plan

I really like to eat.

I watch the Food Network, I buy cookbooks for the photos, I subscribe to cooking magazines, my Zagat guide is full of notes from new restaurants I have tried.

I like cooking, I like being cooked for, I like eating out, I like hearing about recipes and I really like taste testing.

This habit can become expensive.

I try not to eat ramen…but there have been times in my life when I could hardly even afford that. What was a poor kid with a developed palate to do?

I had to learn to cook at home- and not only to learn to cook at home, but to learn to cook meals that a. I love and b. don’t break my supermarket budget (and optional c. impress my dinner guests. Having dinner at home saves on restaurant bills!). As I have mentioned before, knowing how to cook is a trait that everyone finds sexy. So cooking at home will not only decrease the cost of food, but it will up your sex appeal. (Is the oven making it hot in here or is that just you? Oh baby.)

Over time, I am going to share with you some of my most delicious budget friendly recipes. However, I am not an excellent recipe writer. My directions usually say things like “Bake a sweet potato at about 350. Or 400. 425 is fine too. It should take about 40 minutes. Or maybe an hour. Depends on the size of the potato. If you squeeze it and it feels like you want to eat it, then it is done.” To spare you from my massively unhelpful recipe writing, I decided to borrow recipes from the internet that are similar to my own favorite bargain recipes. (Did you know? The internet is full of recipes. You never need a cookbook). Stay tuned, but until then…

Here are some general tips that will help you slenderize your grocery budget:

  • Beans are given a bad rap. Sometimes they stink (hehe literally…get it?). But sometimes beans are creamy, or garlicky, or spicy, or smoky. Beans are high in fiber and are an excellent source of protein. When I went to Barcelona I kept ordering this local dish of white beans and sausage. I could care less about the sausage, but the beans were SO GOOD. I passed up all sorts of “fancy food” in favor of those beans. If anyone knows how to recreate them, I want the recipe!
  • Eggs! What a fantastic, versatile, filling, cheap food. You can eat eggs at every meal. They are so comforting and delicious. They can be a convenience food (hard boiled) or a gourmet food (poached in white wine, fancy!), food for a crowd (quiche) or comfort food (scrambled with buttered toast). Excellent invention, chickens! A dozen eggs costs less than a cup of coffee and it can feed you a number of meals for a week (if you are me).
  • Think about buying and using meat as a seasoning rather than as the main entree. Meat is usually the most expensive item that people buy, but you can use it for flavor and get your protein elsewhere to stretch your budget without going totally veggie. For example- I make this absolutely delicious meal* with butternut squash, white beans, kale, polenta and bacon. The whole dish uses three strips of bacon and the flavor is fantastic. Bacon, sausage and ham all have a strong flavor punch, especially in soup.
  • Think carefully when buying in bulk. Do you cook for one? What are you going to do with 10 lbs of bananas that were on super sale at Costco? Buying bulk for things that don’t spoil quickly (onions, potatos, squash, peanut butter) = good. Making 12 loaves of banana bread because you couldn’t eat those bananas in time = defeats the purpose of saving by buying bulk. But wait! Do you have a friend or roommate who is also on a food budget? Buying in bulk and then splitting the haul is an excellent solution- especially if only one of you has a bulk store membership.
  • Bargain produce to consider eating more of: bananas, cabbage (seriously! great on tacos, in stir fry, cole slaw, stuffed cabbage, cabbage soup), potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash and carrots. Frozen produce also can be a bargain. Don’t forget to buy seasonal produce to get the best deals (and the best quality produce!).
  • Try growing your own herbs. Dried herbs are expensive (and not as tasty), but fresh herbs will cost you your entire paycheck. Each herb plant should be $3-$4 at a garden store and will keep producing (just don’t kill it, obviously). I also would recommend growing your own vegetables, but as a hobbyist veggie gardener myself I know that this hobby sometimes costs more than I get out of it in produce so don’t start a veggie garden expecting to save money on your first try.
  • Make your own chicken, turkey or veggie stock. This is easy to do- after you roast a chicken (significantly easier than you think it will be, I promise!), save the bones and boil them for a few hours with some salt and vegetables like onion, carrots and celery. My best no-waste trick is to save the little bits of veggies that you won’t eat (like the ends of carrots or onions, or celery leaves), put them in the freezer, and when you are ready to make stock use those instead of putting in whole good vegetables.
  • You can avoid buying green onions if you do this. I have been doing it for years and it is yummy and also lovely decoration!
  • Cheese is the only food you can safely just slice the mold right off of and keep eating. (Is that gross? My dad told me that trick and I haven’t gotten sick yet. Blue cheese is half mold anyway so it must be ok.)
  • Freeze fruit that has a weird texture or produce that is almost spoiled that you won’t eat in time. Make some smoothies, put the veggies into soup, bake the fruit into oatmeal or rice pudding, or make a pie. I just made an amazing pot of applesauce with a few disgustingly mealy apples.
  • Generally, not wasting food will save you money. But cooking for one without being wasteful is a challenge. Sometimes I am better at this than other times. Making an effort to rotate my fridge, freezing leftovers that I can’t stand to look at anymore, and doing some meal planning can all help reduce your waste (and can give me some ready-to-eat lunches for later on, which is another money saving tip!)
  • Depending on your milk consumption, consider buying more expensive organic milk- it tends to have an expiration date a few weeks after non-organic milk (my dairy industry friend says that it has to do with freshness and shipping). When I buy normal milk I usually have to toss half of it, when I buy organic I am more likely to finish it before it expires. It costs more up front but it saves me money over time.
  • Shop the sales. If broccoli is on sale this week and cauliflower is not…this might be a broccoli week, my friend.
  • Chicken with bones in and skin on is cheaper than boneless skinless. It takes about 5 minutes of grossness to peel the skin off of chicken and it saves a lot of money. I personally think bone in chicken is always tastier because it makes the meat more tender (and you can save the bones to make stock, you clever bean!)
  • Having a party? Embarassed about not buying nicer wine and/or your sad liquor selection? Try making a crowd-pleasing sangria with some Two Buck Chuck (yum yum yum yum). Or, for wintertime dranks- mulled wine!
  • Speaking of hosting- throwing a party can be quite expensive. Try going potluck (one of my best themes was a “Dip-off” party where everyone brought their favorite dip) or go for some crowd-pleasing cheap eats, but put some thought into them. I have a killer 6-bean veggie chili recipe that I serve with a baked potato bar- including bacon, cheddar, sour cream, scallions, caramelized onions etc. etc. The topping options (which can top either the potatoes or the chili) makes the whole meal seem a little fancier, and feeding a crowd on beans and potatoes won’t break the bank, will leave vegetarians happy, and will fill up my guests.
  • Soup is (almost, unless you are making lobster bisque) always a bargain meal that is lovely in the wintertime. When I visited Paris I discovered the reason why French women don’t get fat- who can afford the food?! My hostess and I made a few pots of potato leek soup (melt butter, boil potatoes and leeks with some water and then add salt and pepper and mash) and we felt tres Parisian eating leek and potato soup with baguettes and cheese and a bottle of wine, but I didn’t spend all my euros on it. And it was SO GOOD.
  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze it in useable portions.
  • Lots of inexpensive foods (beans, eggs, cabbage, sweet potato) tastes better as a taco. You know what else is inexpensive? Tortillas. Yum.
  • As I have already mentioned, I have a CVS problem. While CVS is not exactly a full-service grocery, they do have some great sales on the food they do have (and most of their food does not spoil). This week I am planning to buy 8 containers of mixed nuts (usually $6.29 each) for $4 each. When you buy $30 worth, you get $10 extra bucks back. So I will get 8 containers of mixed nuts for a net of $22 ($2.75 each) instead of spending $50 for the same quantity of food. No coupons even needed! Eight containers may seem excessive but my boyfriend eats them almost every morning for breakfast, so I know we will use them quickly.
  • If you don’t already, buy generic. Usually generic brands are made by the same manufacturer as name brand so you are getting the exact same product. I haven’t found much difference between the two except with Cheerios, and I am going on the record to say I think generic brand Cheerios are weirdly dusty and have the wrong texture.

Tips I have already mentioned:

  • Sign up for your grocery rewards program and then check to see if you can pre-load electronic coupons onto your card online. Almost no effort, saves hundreds of dollars. (My grocery offers $5 off of $20 purchases all the time. That is basically a free $5 and all I have to do is log into one website).
  • Try ethnic groceries for produce. Be adventurous and look for stores that sell “seconds” (produce that has been rejected from the chain groceries but is still in great shape.
  • If you need more kitchen supplies, try Goodwill. They always have huge selections for bargain prices.

*See what I mean about recipes? This is the recipe I started with but I used less bacon, switched butternut squash for pumpkin, added some chopped kale and then served it over polenta. Sorry. Even though I can’t write up a better recipe than that I encourage you try making this anyway!

Can’t Buy Me Love

Can’t buy me love- but you can buy your squeeze dinner and a movie. But dinner and a movie might just blow your entire month’s entertainment budget (have you seen movie prices these days?!!) and (hopefully) you want to see your squeeze more than once a month. What’s a Romeo or Juliette to do?
To date without breaking the budget, you have to get a little creative. The main thing that makes a successful date is a little planning- not spending. Here are some of my best suggestions for dating on the cheap- each city I have lived in has different resources so some of these may be appropriate for different areas of the country.
My boyfriend calls these Kate Dates (if you just vomited in your mouth, I apologize. We can’t help it).

  • Picnics are always a good idea! Go to your local park with a blanket (put down a shower curtain liner or a dry cleaning bag underneath if it’s wet). Make some sandwiches, grab some sunscreen and some books, buy yourselves some sparkly lemonade or those individual wine boxes that my family calls “juice boxes” (there are no children in my family, it’s totally cool.)
  • Go for a hike or a bike ride. Pack a picnic! Alone in nature with a view and the one you love…sigh.
  • Check out community events. There are probably historical tours, guest speakers, interesting/and or funny museums, outdoor movies (this is very common in the summer), festivals, free concerts, holiday parades. Everywhere I have ever lived (urban or rural- and I mean RURAL) had community events that were worth checking out.
  • Speaking of museums, check for free admissions days or night openings. I know of a few museums that had jazz nights or cocktail hours in the evenings- not necessarily cheaper, but you got more bang for your buck when you got to hear music and see art at the same time!
  • Gallery openings have free wine, cheese, interesting art and interesting people.
  • If you are a theater fanatic, see if you can volunteer to be an usher. Being an usher is more of a regular commitment, but you go early, help people to their seats (or take tickets) and get to watch a free show! This is a great way to see a large variety of performances.
  • Colleges and universities often have concerts, sports events and performances that are very affordable. No major league baseball in your area? Grab a bag of peanuts from the grocery and check out your college team. No college nearby? Check out your local high school teams!
  • Hopefully one of you has a reasonably clean kitchen. Why don’t you try learning a new recipe together? Have a frozen pizza on hand just in case.
  • Watching movies at home becomes a lot more romantic if you planned a gourmet popcorn and a special cocktail or drink for the night. My favorite popcorn recipe: put olive oil in a smallish pot with a lid. Add salt. Let it get hot. Add popcorn kernels to cover the bottom of the pot and add some fresh or dried rosemary. Cover and shake over high heat. Stop when the pot is full of popcorn (DON’T BURN IT!). There you go: incredibly impressive Olive Oil Rosemary Popcorn for about $.17 total.
  • Spending too much on movies at home? Check out the selection at your local library.
  • Make a string of dates around a theme, like “Finding the best donut in town.” Sounds like multiple trips and multiple donuts…yum!
  • Try to check out popular locations in the off season or play hooky on a weekday to avoid crowds. I once visited my friend in LA and instead of going to $90 Disney world, we went to $30 Knotts Berry Farm on a weekday in the off season. There was no one there and we went on every single ride (except for that one that drops you 5,000 feet because we are weenies). Sure beats paying more to stand in line all day!
  • My family is full of board game fanatics. You know what is a fun date? Board game night! You can make your famous Olive Oil Rosemary popcorn!
  • Take a day trip to a nearby city that you don’t know very well. Be tourists! If you want to stay overnight somewhere, I have had good luck with AirB&B as an alternative to hotels or hostels.
  • Actually, most people miss out on tourist attractions in their hometowns as well. Pretend you are moving in six months. What should you have done in the area that you just haven’t gotten around to doing? Go do it!
  • Going to or live in NYC? Check out todaysthedayi.com for some creative activities in New York that you probably wouldn’t find on your own (written by my beautiful and talented friend Lydia)
  • You know what is romantic? Stargazing. Especially if you have done your homework and know what’s what up there.
  • I am a sucker for sunset picnics at the beach.
  • Bowling is usually pretty affordable and also pretty fun. Ditto darts or pool. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone (and if it does, dump him/her immediately. Life is too short to date someone who can’t lose gracefully.)
  • Pay attention to little perks you might pick up from your everyday life. Your work might offer free sports tickets or tickets at a discount. This year I got a 4 pack of major league baseball tickets for free because I bought bras (that I was going to buy anyway, all I had to do was take a photo of the receipt) and I also got a 4 pack of Steve Winwood tickets (I know, you are totally jealous) because I subscribe to the Sunday paper. Both of these events required me to do about three clicks worth of work with my phone, I don’t get any spam mail because they are from two companies that I already buy from and the total value of the tickets is over $400. Awesome.
  • Groupon, Living Social and Restaurants.com all were invented so you can live like a manager on an entry-level salary.
  • What if you volunteer together? Pick a cause you really believe in or work that you enjoy. I have had a number of lovely days helping out with Habitat for Humanity and I picked up some home repair skills, as well!

I’m sure you get the idea. To have a successful date you

1. need to like the person you are with and

2. need to do a little planning.

Other than that, you can wine and dine your squeeze while not spending a lot of money, as long as you have spent a lot of thought! Have fun, you two!

I would love to hear about your own successful Kate Dates.

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