Being Frugal Without Giving Up Your Social Life


Whenever I write a frugality post, I get comments asking some version of, "That's fine if you're happy being a hermit in your cheap apartment, but what about people who have friends?" (See also: Not Driving Your Less Frugal Friends Crazy)

I think there are three general strategies for dealing with the issues around having a social life while still being frugal.

1. Consider That Extreme Frugality Doesn't Have to Be Total Frugality

Part of the answer is just to go ahead and budget some money for socializing with friends who do stuff that costs money.

You won't want to eat out every meal, but you could join them occasionally — when it fits into your budget. Similarly, you can go to an occasional movie or an occasional concert or an occasional night out drinking. In fact, you could take a once-in-a-lifetime cruise, if it's what you want to do, and if spending your money that way is aligned with your values.

The whole point, after all, is to align your spending with your values. Doing things with your friends almost certainly aligns with your values — at some level of spending. That level of spending may be much lower than what they spend, but it's probably above zero.

2. Consider That Even Friends Who Usually Spend Money Appreciate Variation

Another part is to gradually and subtly educate your friends on the attractions of frugal entertainments.

If your friends always meet at a coffee shop, invite them over for coffee instead. If you keep coffee on hand anyway, you can probably make coffee for six or eight friends for no more than you'd spend on just your own drink at a coffee shop. The upshot is that you spend less and all your friends spend zero. (A pleasant zero-cost hour over great coffee is just the sort of thing that can open a friend's eyes about the advantages of choosing frugal alternatives.)

Having them over for coffee only makes sense if you're a coffee drinker, of course. If you drink tea, have them over for tea — again, for the cost of one mug of tea at a tea house you can make tea for a whole crowd of friends. You can even, if your friends socialize by going out drinking, invite them over for cocktails — more expensive than coffee, but still cheaper than drinks at a bar.

There are cheap alternatives for all sorts of otherwise expensive outings — watch a DVD at home (popcorn is cheap), play board games, go to a free event at the library or the park. (Wise Bread has a big collection of posts of free and cheap things to do in cities and towns all over the U.S. and here and there in a few other countries as well.)

Don't present any of these as "cheap" alternatives that you'd rather do to save money. Instead, present them as "more interesting" alternatives.

Better yet, present them as "superior" alternatives. If you're a serious coffee drinker who buys locally roasted coffee and brews it in a French press, there's every reason to expect that your coffee is better than they'd get at the coffee shop. Ditto for tea. If you keep up with the local music scene, you can identify the bands that are national quality just before they get too famous to do free concerts in the park. A documentary shown at the library with the filmmaker in attendance to lead a discussion after may be better than the third remake of some action-adventure blockbuster.

3. Consider That It's Also Good to Make New Friends

Finally, remember that your stock of friends isn't fixed.

You don't have to drop your old friends — you may have great friends whose only flaw is that they don't know how to have fun without spending money. Just make some new ones who appreciate getting together for the company more than for spending money.

As you make new friends, consider introducing them to your old friends. The ones who fit in and hit it off with your old friends will be in a great position to suggest new activities for the new, expanded group — activities suggested because they'll be fun, that just happen to be frugal. It turns strategy #3 into a variation on strategy #2.

Being frugal is not about being a hermit, just like having friends is not about spending money.

How are you socializing frugally? 

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Guest's picture

I find that frugal activities-- barbecues, outside games and sports, etc.-- are usually the most fun anyhow. I love to get together with our neighbors and friends, cook some inexpensive pulled pork, and sit outside and watch the kids run themselves ragged. That's frugal, but it is also living!

Philip Brewer's picture

Right! BBQs, cookouts, picnics, etc. are excellent options that people can choose purely because they like them—with the fact that they can be pretty frugal being entirely secondary.

Guest's picture

I've been struggling with this... I work from home. We eat nearly all of our meals at home, and I occasionally invite people over (and I do occasionally go over to other people's houses who also think making meals together is fun). I feel like I'm stuck in my house all the time! During the summer I try to meet up with friends in parks just so I can get out of here, but in the winter (and spring and's always raining here) it's a real challenge. Any ideas?

Philip Brewer's picture

There are always "indoor but away from home" options, like museums, libraries, galleries, and so on.

For example, get in touch with the local arts community and get hooked up to find out about opening receptions at galleries. Champaign-Urbana is pretty small, but there's a steady stream of such events, which are not only indoors and free, but often include free wine and snacks. Probably not very interesting unless you're interested in art and the people who make it, but if you are it's a great way to get to know other like-minded people in your community. If you have a group of friends who are also interested, it can be a very pleasant way to pass an evening in convivial companionship.

Similarly, you could go to author readings. Hang out with your friends in the bookstore for a bit, then listen to the author read. If the particular book grabs your interest, you can buy a copy and stand in line to get it signed, but there's no obligation. You're totally free to just slip out with your friends once the line forms.

Guest's picture

Good idea... actually there are a lot of monthly art opening nights that I used to frequent. I should get back on that train. Thanks!

Guest's picture

We used to do this all of the time when I had a bunch of single friends and we used to do this all of the time. We used to have each other over for movies, pizza, cheap movie theaters. If we went to someones house the rules were singles, soda, and for pizza money, bring your own soda, and socks so we wouldn't get each others floors dirty. This worked out for guys and girls. Sometimes we would play board games, watch movies, play cards, make each other dinner or dessert. We would usually go out once in a while. We would do this all of the time on the weekends. Some one would start it, then we would just pass it around. We had a nice night out at 'the turn of the century' for an enjoyable evening out at a very nice high end restaurant as a 'once in a while splurge'. I mean how can you not at the end of the century. We are all fairly frugal people still.

Guest's picture

We do a lot of BBQ's and outdoor things when the weather is nice, but we also do potlucks with slow cookers, soups, ethnic foods, etc. Whatever the theme we always have fun! Outdoor games are also fun, like Can Jam and such. Get together's for NASCAR races or football games is also a crowd favorite, (not mine), but no matter what we do we always end up having some laughs.

I think that it's important to socialize and get out, and that's perfectly obtainable even with a frugal lifestyle. I also don't wait to be invited somewhere and do some of the "we should" or "do you want to's" myself. I have purchased movie packages with rewards points, and there are always deals on wine tours in my area. Sometimes I will get a car load of friends together, throw a cooler in my trunk, and head out to a local state park with a beach. Museums are another good option, especially on free days.

Guest's picture

Even doing one of these more frugal ideas just once will probably be enough to change your friends mind about whats fun. Having friends over for cocktails and board games can be even more fun-filled then going out to a bar. And if they're true friends, they will understand that you're strapped for cash and will be more than willing to bite the bullet on an expensive outing to just hang.

Philip Brewer's picture

And once you convince them that the cheaper alternatives can be more fun, the fact that they're cheaper won't matter to anyone.

Guest's picture

My entire circle of friends consists of new parents on VERY strict budgets. We have kid-friendly pot luck dinners at least once a month, trading off houses--each couple brings one dish that feeds 6-8, one bottle of either wine or hard alcohol that's under $10, and one game or movie. The whole crew gets to eat like kings and queens, drink a variety of different cocktails and whoop it up without worrying about babysitters, splitting pricey dinner bills, tips, etc. for about $20-$25.

Guest's picture

I live in a neighborhood that has become Halloween Central. We get over 800 children coming to our door, which, as you can imagine is pretty expensive.

Every year, we invite our friends from rural neighborhoods to join us for soup and salad and dessert. The price of admission? A big bag of candy.

It's a unique way to socialize. It helps us keep up with the rush. And no one feels we're being cheap. They're excited to join us for a unique occasion.

Guest's picture

I love socializing, I love eating out, and I love going drinking, so this is one area in which I've really struggled to spend less. I've made a couple shifts in this area to save money. First, I go out a few times less during the month that I used to. Second, I try to have friends over for eating / drinking potlucks more often that I used to.

Guest's picture

I don't think that all people need to be frugal. If you have a good savings plan, retirement plan and an emergency fund, you are already doing good financially and can afford to splurge a little. However if you are lacking the 3 things I mention, you should become as frugal as you can until your financial life changes. That' why when we go on vacations, we stay close to home and only visit sites that are free of charge. We have fun too.

Guest's picture

Another tip I'd add: if you do join friends out for dinners, etc., just don't order as much. You can still be present at the dinner table at a restaurant, but opt to skip appetizers, drink water and order a cheap entree. You can still join your friends at the bar, but opt to drink a Diet Coke. This way you still get to socialize but you won't be spending $9 on vodka-mixed drinks.