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Can You Have a Social Life if you Don’t Spend?

Kristin McGrath

May 3, 2013

With a trip abroad just a few weeks away (and my pricey new hobby), it’s extra important for me to save all I can. The trip in particular is making me acutely aware of all the little leaks in my bank account — every drink I buy in the next few weeks is one less beer I’ll be able to buy in Germany. So I’ve declared a spending freeze on all non-essentials.

The problem is when you live in a city known for its excellent food and fun nightlife, most socialization revolves around enjoying it. And once you’re out and about, dinner easily turns into coffee and dessert, which turns into a night on the town, which turns into brunch plans for the next day.

Lucky for me, the personal finance blogosphere is full of advice for those who want to avoid spending without avoiding their friends. Here’s the best advice I’ve found — and some that I’ve tried.

Be honest. The blog Financial Highway emphasizes that those who truly care about you will understand if you say that you’re on a strict budget — even if you have to repeat yourself a few times. Krystal Yee, a blogger at Give Me Back My Five Bucks, points out that your friends have probably been in your situation as well — and will probably happily suggest cheap, or free, activities.

Because my strict spending freeze is only temporary, I’m not directly informing people that my money is on lockdown. Instead, I’m much more likely to ….

Propose another activity. You can only turn down your friends so many times before they start getting concerned — or stop calling altogether. So proposing an activity within your means can keep both your budget and friendships intact. Can’t afford dinner? Make plans for (just one) after-dinner drink, personal finance site Wise Bread recommends. Yee suggests offering to host gatherings to avoid, say, watching a much-anticipated game at a pub or bar. If friends want to collaborate on the food and beverages, all the better.

This week, I managed to avoid an outing to a cafe for coffee and ice cream by telling a friend I had a ton of tea and hot chocolate at my apartment and asking her to “help me get rid of it.” We spent a few hours catching up without spending a dime. My boyfriend and I have also been hosting weekly viewing parties for a show a bunch of our friends love. That way, I get to see several people at once without the pressure to “buy a round.”

Prepare. I make every effort to prepare meals ahead of time. It’s a lot easier to say “no” to a dinner invitation when you’ve got some chimichurri (that you spent an hour making) all ready to smother the meat you’ve already defrosted. An empty fridge can make it too tempting to grab your debit card and head to a restaurant. Mint has some great tips on planning and pre-preparing meals.

Distract yourself. Green Panda Tree House, a personal finance blog aimed at 20-somethings, suggests using something you really want to distract yourself from things you kind of want at the moment. If you’re focused on a big reward, small sacrifices become effortless.

The other week, I placed a guide book and some maps of the city I’ll be visiting on my coffee table. Last weekend, I had just texted a friend, “Sorry, staying in tonight,” after receiving an invite for pub trivia (one of my favorite activities). I was feeling a bit lonely, so I picked up the guide book and started paging through. I soon found a ton of activities that would cost me the same amount as a pitcher of beer and an appetizer at trivia and, suddenly, loneliness was replaced with excitement.

Once I’m back from my trip, I’ll let up a bit. But this spending lockdown has taught me some good habits I hope to continue. While I’ll probably say “yes” to trivia night, I hope to continue preparing meals in advance — and maybe even getting so good at cooking that I won’t miss meals out as much.