Friday night is coming up, and all your friends are getting together for dinner and a movie.
The only problem? You just paid off your credit card bill (well done!) and in your excitement you set up a new budget that doesn’t include a $50 evening out.
Before you start to make up an excuse that doesn’t sound as lame as “I’m on a budget,” consider this idea: It is possible to spend less money and still see your friends — without earning the permanent label of “group cheapskate.”
Hang out with your crew and stick to your savings goals by being sneakily frugal. Here are 10 ways to be cheap on the sly.
Get Creative with Your Socializing
Relationships happen “during” — during a movie, during a meal at a restaurant, or during a live show. Don’t miss out on those special occasions because of a temporary budget setback.
We’ve covered the basics of eating out for less, like checking out menus online and dining out during happy hour, but here are three more tips for getting creative with your money while you socialize:
1. Buy Low in Restaurants
When eating out, choose appetizers or desserts as meals to make your social time stretch longer and save 20-50% off the cost of an entree (depending on the restaurant, of course).
Consider your socializing budget in the long run: If you spend $8 per outing, you can go out three times for the cost of a single $25 meal.
2. Drink Like a College Kid
If you’re going out to dance or socialize at a bar, pregame like you’re in college (alcohol is always a mark-up) and order one drink or nothing while you’re out.
Keep the social aspect intact by inviting friends over for a cocktail hour before the main event rather than meeting up at a restaurant.
3. Hit the Big Screen Strategically, If at All
For cinema nights, bring your own snacks and plan in advance. Buy your ticket online using a discounted gift card from sites like Gift Card Granny and Plastic Jungle or using a survey site like Swagbucks to accumulate points and spend them on tickets.
Even better? Throw a movie night at home, complete with “stadium seating” (bar chairs behind a couch behind a layer of pillow seats) and popcorn.
Screen movies you already own, rented movies or a brand new release — even at full price, a recently released DVD will cost a fraction of the ticket price for a few friends to hit the theaters.
4. Get Your Kicks as a Volunteer
Instead of paying full price to attend major events and festivals, look into group volunteer opportunities to score a free ticket and goodies.
No matter how expensive the face value of the ticket, it’s very likely that the event management team is looking for volunteers to help with the day-of celebration (and as the event sways towards being a non-profit or community event, the likelihood skyrockets!).
Simply research the event website for a “Volunteers” page or submit a polite inquiry via the online “Contact Us” address. Pitch it to your friends as a great way to work behind the scenes, and they won’t suspect a thing!
Going out with your friends to enjoy fine dining, drinking and entertainment doesn’t have to traumatize your budget. Just plan it out in advance and get creative with your choices and your wallet and reputation will both thank you!
Be Flexible About Clothing and Shopping
Few budgeters can get away with an unlimited shopping hobby, but don’t let that keep you from being stylish. A tight budget doesn’t mean you have to go without the latest styles; it just means you need to be flexible with your choices about when and where you shop.
Here are four ideas for enjoying shopping without needing a less-enjoyable part-time job to pay for it:
5. Explore Your City and Shop Secondhand, Strategically
If you like to shop as a form of stress release, make it an adventure. Grab a friend and head to the outskirts of the nearest city — or for more random finds, try the nearest small town.
Investigate flea markets, outlet malls, thrift shops and antique malls to find one-of-a-kind, discount items.
All neighborhoods are not equal when it comes to secondhand shops like Goodwill and Salvation Army. Take a longer drive to check out a consignment or thrift shop in a more affluent neighborhood where the donated goods are likely to be of higher quality.
Even if you don’t buy anything all day, it’s still an adventure because the focus is on finding the one right item and spending time with your friend, not on spending money!
6. Stick with basics and trade out accessories
When it comes to stocking your wardrobe, stylish or name-brand accessories are always cheaper than clothing pieces. One sturdy pair of jeans or a simple dress can last a whole season (or years!) if you turn it into several outfits by switching accessories, scarves and shoes.
When your friends want to go shopping, share this philosophy and be on the lookout for lower-priced accessories — not entire outfit upgrades.
7. Work Within a Color Palette
This is hard to pull off in bright colors, but buying clothing within one color range — such as black, white and gray — means everything you purchase works together.
You’ll need to own fewer items overall, and your possible clothing combinations (even when you wear the same pieces frequently) are exponential.
Give Generously (not Expensively)
Most people feel one extreme or the other about giving: either they love to give and take pride in delivering thoughtful gifts, or they can’t stand having to shop for yet another birthday present. No matter which best describes you, a limited budget won’t make things easier.
8. Use Discounted Gift Cards (again)
Discounted gift cards are good for more than just movies. Shop for your friend with gift cards purchased online from sites like Gift Card Granny and Plastic Jungle. Save up to 50% on a same-as-cash gift card just for planning your gift in advance!
9. Give Experiences
We’ve all heard that experiences are more important than things. Plan a special (secretly no-spend) day with a friend just to talk and catch up. Window shop, visit a park or just hang out at your home. This almost-free gift will be more valuable than any present you could have purchased.
10. Give Your Time
If you’re well-known for a particular industry or trade, it’s perfectly acceptable to give amounts of your time or skill to close friends. Just make sure it’s a skill or talent that’s useful or that’s recently been mentioned in conversation.
A compliment like “You’re such a good interior decorator!” or “How do you always know what to cook for dinner a month in advance?” can be easily translated into a valuable homemade gift certificate.
Put time and thought into outlining the services and your ideas for the project and it won’t look cheap — it will look thoughtful and timely.
11. Use What You Have
While you’ll definitely look cheap if you become known as the guy who uses birthdays as an excuse to declutter, if you have valuable, like-new things around your apartment or home that are new or desirable (like a potted plant from your backyard), it’s okay to gift them every once in a while. Do your best to keep each gift as thoughtful and personalized as possible.
12. Keep It Useful
Speaking of potted plants, traditionally “boring” but useful gifts are underrated — and often inexpensive.
For less than the cost of a brand-name gift from a mall or department store, you could assemble an entire gift basket of items from Walmart or Target that will surprise your friends with its cleverness and usefulness.
Keep it practical with a seasonally-themed “Cold & Flu Starter Kit” basket (cold medicine, tissues, throat lozenges, and magazines), or room-themed for “Stocking the Kitchen” (broth, bowl, spatula), or “Bathroom Cleaning Day” (cleaning supplies, paper towels, hand towels, scented candle).
No one wants to think of themselves as a cheapskate — and no one wants to hang out with one, either! Don’t let a limited budget keep you from socializing, shopping, or showing a friend how much she means to you. Use a creative approach to time, value and thoughtfulness to give impressive gifts on a budget.
Your Turn: What’s your best strategy for being sneakily cheap? Have you given (or received) an awesome frugal present?
Sarah Greesonbach is the magic bean behind Greesonbach Creative, a distinctive copywriting and content studio, and a former budget-hater. Compare mistakes in personal finance and eating Paleo at Life [Comma] Etc.