Save Money at the Bar: Beer Math, Happy Hour and Other Smart Strategies

save at the bar

My wife and I like to play the jukebox at our local bar, but we also like to stick to our budget. One way to do that is to play longer songs so that hour of music costs fewer dollars. Jukeboxes never have the epic 20-minute-long version of “2012,” by Rush, but usually we find nine- and 10-minute songs like “Free Bird,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “The End,” by The Doors.

Looking for jukebox bargains is one way to save money on a night out at the bar. Whether you want to have enough money left for that third beer or are just trying to spend a little less during your night on the town, there are many other ways to keep the costs down.

1. Look for Happy Hour Deals

Perhaps the most obvious way to keep your drinking adventures affordable is to know when and where to find the best happy hour deals. Most bars and taverns now have that information online, and several apps make it simple to find local happy hour information. But sometimes you have to call.

For example, in researching this article I found a local pub that drops the price of their draft beer from $3.50 to $2.50 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. every afternoon. But a mile away, at a bar that has a decent jukebox but no website, draft beer is $1.50 during happy hour, which is all day long. I discovered this by picking up the phone and calling (the bar doesn’t have a website, but I found its phone number on Google).

Calling is also good idea if you have a taste for specific drinks. A bar website might advertise a two-for-one special on regular well drinks during happy hour, but what do they consider a “regular well drink?” Inquiring minds want to know.

2. Drink Cheaper Beer

Draft beer at a bar is almost always cheaper than its bottled equivalent. And the consensus of beer experts seems to be that draft beer is theoretically better. But says it depends on several factors. Personal preference plays a role, but storage methods and the condition of tap lines can greatly affect the taste of your beer too.

And then there is the “ego factor.” Some people like to have a beer bottle in front of them because the brand of beer says something about the drinker. You’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to save money or show off your taste in ales. Of course, I’m not suggesting you drink beers you don’t like just to save a few dollars. But at least try the cheaper draft beer before writing it off.

You could also try all the cheapest beers and well drinks to see which you enjoy, and then go with the least expensive ones that satisfy you. For example, a bar near me sometimes has $1 cans of PBR.

3. Do Your Beer Math

We’ve covered sneaky sales tricks before, including ones based on what behavioral economists call “extremeness aversion.” Consider the beer pricing study William Poundstone reported on in his book, Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value. Researchers presented subjects with beers at different price points in three tests. Here’s what happened:

Test One (two choices offered)

Beer A for $1.80: 20% of “customers” bought

Beer B for $2.50: 80% bought

Test Two (three choices offered)

Beer A for $1.60: 0% bought

Beer B for $1.80: 80% bought

Beer C for $2.50: 20% bought

Test three (three choices offered)

Beer A for $1.80: 5% bought

Beer B for $2.50: 85% bought

Beer C for $3.40: 10% bought

Look at how easy it was to get more people to pay $2.50 even when there was a beer for $1.80! Don’t be manipulated by seeing a more expensive option on the menu. Start with the cheapest option and work your way up only if you don’t like the beer.

Remember to do your beer math so you aren’t fooled by different sizes. Which is the better deal per ounce, a 22-ounce mug for $3 or a 16-ounce glass for $2?

4. Eat Cheap

Look for deals on food too, since you might be tempted to grab a snack along with your drink. Some bars offer half-price appetizers during happy hour.

Another way to save on food is to share a meal or appetizer. My wife and I regularly share food at the bar, and have only once paid a “plate charge” ($2 in that case) for splitting a meal.

Free food is good too. We used to go to a bar that handed out unlimited free peanuts, and they even encouraged patrons to throw the shells on the floor! Draft beer for $1.50 and free bar snacks makes for a cheap night out.

Final Thoughts

If you’re really ambitious in your efforts at frugality, you might do even better than cheap. You could even leave with more money than you had at the start of the night! (To help with this goal, study these posts on how to make money at the bar and bar bets that you can’t lose.)

Have a drink before you go and then alternate stronger drinks with water at the pub. At home, many beers cost about 65 cents per can — cheaper than any bar — and a margarita will cost several dollars less when made in your own kitchen. And remember to plan for a designated driver, or a DUI could make it a far more expensive night out than you had planned.

Your Turn: What are your best tricks and strategies for saving money at the bar?