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How To Enjoy Bars On A College Budget: 6 Tips That Will Save You Money

One night while walking the streets of Minneapolis, a dude who I’ll call Steve (because that was his name) stumbled up to my friend Zach, handed him a $100 bill, and said:

“Dude, my friend just got married and we’re going to have an awesome night. You guys should go have one as well.”

We didn’t know the guy at all.

Of course, that didn’t stop us from heading to the next bar and enjoying his $100 with lots of beer and a few games of pool. This story reminds me of a simple truth, though:

Going out to bars can be really expensive. And when you’re on a college budget, that can translate to “Oh crap, that was my rent” levels of expensive.

Luckily, they don’t have to be.

Even though I was actually not a huge fan of drinking when I started college (my freshman advice roundup said as much), my mind has changed quite a bit over the years.

After hanging out at bars in Tokyo, NYC, San Francisco, eh, Nashville, 300’s BC-era Carthage, uh, Budapest… ah, let’s see, uh, the moon…

…let’s just say I’m now of a mind that hitting up the bars every once in a while is a good bit of fun.

I’ve also learned – both by making my own mistakes and by watching the screw-ups of others – how to keep a night at the bar from becoming a wallet-disintegrating exercise in unwittingly outmatching the federal government’s spending rate.

Here are a few of the simple tricks I know that can help you keep your bar nights cheap, and hopefully free of blue-blooded robots.

Before You Leave Home, Know Your Number

No, I’m not actually talking about your phone number. Well, actually I would advise knowing that one as well.

But there’s another number you should be aware of before you head out, and that’s the number of dollars you’re going to spend.

It’s such a simple concept, but a lot of people make the mistake of not being mindful of what they want to spend before they start buying drinks. This seems like a pretty alright think to skip thinking about until they’ve impulsively plunked down $27 for a round of shots and the regret starts to sink in…

So this one’s easy: Run a simple query through your brain before heading out the door:

“What percentage of my net worth am I willing to part with in exchange for tasty drinks?”

Doing this will help you be aware of what you’re spending, and cuts down on the chance of a hangover and an empty wallet.

Of course, if you’re a fan of Bayesian statistics, you can always update your number later!

If you find that simply deciding on a number beforehand isn’t enough to reign in your spending, try imposing actual limits on yourself by bringing only a certain amount of cash, and leaving the cards at home.

This is a form of precommitment, which is a terrifically useful strategy for achieving any goal – getting up early, avoiding internet distractions – and keeping your night cheap.

Odysseus – the hero of The Odyssey – knew well the power of precommitment. Determined to hear the Sirens’ song without diving overboard, he took the choice away in advance by ordering his men to tie him tightly to his ship’s mast.

I must say, I’m not exactly smitten with these, um… bird women. (Photo credit)

He knew that it’s a lot easier to build binding systems for avoiding temptation beforehand than it is to simply try to fight the temptation with pure self-discipline.

The same is true when deciding whether to buy another round of shots as it is when avoiding a sweet call to a watery grave.

If you do this, however, don’t forget to think about additional expenses you might need money for, like bus/cab fare, food, etc.

Pay Attention to Drink Specials

Most bars offer drink specials and deals on many nights of the week. If you’re observant of these, you can save a lot of money by planning your nights out in advance based on the intersections of what’s available for cheap and what you like.

You can find a lot of these drink specials just by checking to see if the bars in your area have websites, Facebook pages, or Yelp profiles – if they do, their specials will probably be listed there.

It also doesn’t hurt to check for Foursquare check-in specials and other forms of loyalty discounts, especially if it’s a bar you really like and plan on visiting regularly.

Websites and FaceYelp profiles aside (ya damn kids), most good bars will have their specials nicely displayed on their physical menu, or on the wall somewhere.

If you’re at a bar you plan on returning to, take a quick picture of the specials with your phone – that way, you’ll have a record of it that you can refer to later.

On a related note: It doesn’t hurt to ask if there are student discounts available if you find yourself at a bar that isn’t in a college town. I’ve heard that many bars in Europe actually offer them, so this might be true here in the States as well.

Master the Art of the Pre-Game

Pre-gaming is simply having a couple drinks at home (where they’re a lot cheaper) before heading out. And unfortunately, a lot of people do it totally wrong.

A Swiss study found that college students who pre-game were more likely to drink more than intended, black out, skip school the next day, and engage in hand-to-hand combat with escaped zoo animals.

While that last sentence may be somewhat embellished, I think we can all collectively react to these findings with but one word:


However, you don’t have to be a statistic. Objectively, pre-gaming is economical:

  • Shot of Jack at home: $1.36
  • Shot of Jack at the bar: $4-$5

…and it’ll stay that way for you as long as you can continue to hold yourself to your plan even after having a couple shots at home.

That’s why figuring out your number is important. If you do that – or just leave all money you don’t intend to spend at home – you’ll most likely be fine.

Go Easy on Shots

Lil Jon
“Thomas Frank is now permanently on my shit list.” (Photo: E-40 feat. Lil Jon -Ripped by Javier Ochoa, CC-BY 2.0)

My girlfriend and I hit up a restaurant/bar in NYC recently called Jekyll & Hyde, and if you’re ever in the city, I’d definitely recommend it.

The whole place had this spooky/adventurous feel to it, complete with skeletons, talking gargolyes, and employees whose only job was to do bad Doctor Who impersonations and entertain people. It was great.

At one point, though, a waitress came up to us holding a bucket filled with what looked like giant syringes, and asked:

“Want to do some shots?”

We respectfully declined – shots weren’t included in my number – but I will say it was tempting and there was some hesitation.

Still, those shots probably would have been an extra $10 each (Manhattan ain’t cheap).

That’s the thing about shots. They’re a quick, spur-of-the-moment thing, and it’s really easy to get caught up in the whole, “Let’s do some shots!” excitement before you realize how much it’s going to cost you.

Beer, wine, and cocktails, on the other hand, generally take longer to drink, so buying one is usually less of an impulse decision.

Personally, I stick to beer and cocktails, and I’d say these (and wines) are a better bet if you’re looking to get the most out of your money. If you like shots, that’s cool – but be deliberate about them.

Tip the Bartender Well

“Wait, I thought this article was about saving money! Won’t the bartender get enough from the ballers who make bank?”

You can get as mad as you want about the practice of tipping, but it doesn’t change the fact that bartenders need to make enough to pay their bills and student loans – and that means they need to make good tips. In fact, Investopedia reports that 55% of a bartender’s income comes from tips.

When you’re deciding in your number before going out, make sure to include this as a consideration.

Ninja Cat
Photo: Help Send My Cat to Ninja School by Eden, Janine and Jim, CC-BY 2.0

Luckily, tipping your bartender isn’t just an obligation – it’s also a practice that’ll help you make a great first impression and build a good relationship with them if you visit that bar regularly.

Do it for long enough, and it’ll pay off in better drinks, faster and friendlier service, and the occasional drink on the house.

Everyone at the bar has money, so just waving it isn’t going to get the bartender’s attention – but if he knows you’re a good tipper, you’re gonna get priority.

If you tip well right off the bat, and you’re the first person we aim for every time you come up to the bar.”

On last tip (ha) on this – don’t leave a big tip for your first drink and expect it to cover the rest of your night. This can easily backfire if your bartender ends his shift while you’re still there – the next bartender won’t know who gave the big tip, so all that goodwill you were trying to build up becomes moot.

You’re better off just tipping for every drink you buy. Wondering about how much you should tip? Well, this graphic on Thrillist might make your eyes bulge. Keep in mind that the data comes from an NYC bartender, though.

Personally, I usually tip $1-$2 per drink – but I live in Iowa, so my drinks are usually around $3-$5. In bigger cities, my group and I typically will do everything on a card, so I’ll tip my normal 20% + whatever extra to make the math easier.

Plan the Logistics in Advance

I live in a small-ish town, so my options for getting to and from a bar are:

  • Walk
  • Take a bus
  • Get a DD

This means that, unless I’m willing to walk several miles home, I need to plan my transportation in advance every time.

If you live in a bigger city, though, then you’ve got other options – including cabs – and maybe even more convenient things like Uber.

From my experiences in NYC, I know that cabs are ridiculously convenient – so much so that it would be extremely easy to go out without planning and then just take a cab home at the end of the night.

If you want to save money, though, you’ll do the planning in advance – because cabs are expensive. So plan out your logistics. Make sure the bus is running when you think you’ll be done, figure out who’s driving home, or be willing to walk.

While you’re doing your advanced planning, ask your friends if they want to get food after the bars. It’s a pretty common occurance, so knowing in advance will help you figure out your number, plan bus routes around the restaurant, and see what’s open.

“Drink Up. Let’s Boo-Boo.”

Too bad, English teacher – I don’t want to write a conclusion to this article!

All I’ll say now is that writing this guide kept reminding me of how much I love the movie The World’s End. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it.

Oh, and you can find some more good advice on this Reddit thread. I’d also recommend checking out my friend Steve’s guide on healthy drinking over on NerdFitness; it’s a great read.

That is all.

Featured photo: McSorley’s Old Ale House