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Create your own happy hour

7 tips for cutting the cost of drinks when you go out.

By Karen Datko Feb 25, 2010 11:41AM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Want to grab a drink tonight? How about meeting at . . . my place.


In the tough economy, a night out drinking is looking like an indulgence. Liquor sales were flat at $18.7 billion in 2009, and volume shifted. While sales for home consumption rose 2.2%, sales for restaurants, bars, hotels and nightclubs fell 3%, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

Another reason people are drinking less: Bars are pushing pricey premium liquors and complicated cocktails. “The best bars are charging a premium because the cocktails take awhile to make,” says Noah Rothbaum, the founder of cocktail and spirits guide and author of “The Business of Spirits.” Freshly squeezed juices, exotic ingredients, even special ice, all add up. The more expensive a drink gets, the more likely drinkers are to savor rather than slurp.


How can you spend less without going for the cheap stuff -- or staying home? On your next night out, use these seven tricks to cut your bill:


Share a bottle of wine. “The rule of thumb (for sellers) is to try to get the retail price of the bottle on the first glass,” says Natalie MacLean, the founder of wine education site Given that mark-up, ordering wine by the glass doesn’t pay if there are enough people in your party to go through a bottle. Not sure you’ll drink it all? Many states have laws permitting restaurants to reseal bottles to take home with you.


Skip the tab. Restaurants like it when you run up a tab on a credit card because you tend to spend more. Instead, pay as you go, in cash, says Catherine Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, which oversees nonprofit credit-counseling agencies. It’s the best way to keep spending and drinking in moderation. “When your cash is gone, your drinks are cut off,” Williams says.


Clip coupons. Group-discount sites regularly feature discounts of up to 50% off at bars and lounges., for example, recently offered Las Vegas residents $35 worth of beer and pub fare at The Outside Inn for $15. In New York, the $20 Bar & Lounge Deck contains 52 cards for local bars, each worth $10 off on drink purchases of $30 or more.


Stay loyal. Take a tip from the TV show “Cheers”: It’s not a bad idea to drink where everybody knows your name instead of trying a different spot each week. Bartenders tend to reward regular customers with free drinks every few rounds, says David Blend, the senior editor of guy-focused event newsletter “It gives you incentive to come back,” he says. You’ll still need to tip on that free round, though.


Some venues have loyalty programs. At The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille chain in Maryland, patrons can purchase a numbered 16-ounce mug for a one-time $45 fee. The program, in place since 1978, gets you a $1 discount off regular pricing -- even during happy hour, says chief operating officer Bob Barry. (The catch: Each bar offers a limited number of mugs. To join, you may have to put your name on a wait list -- or hope to inherit a mug.)

Do the math on BYOB. With a mark-up of two to three times wholesale cost, wine is one of a restaurant’s reliable profit centers. But bringing your own bottle might not end up saving you much, since many owners charge a corkage fee. In most cases, that’s $5 to $10, but some fancy places charge as much as $50 -- which can more than offset any savings, says MacLean.


Check BYOB policies and corking fees at, or by calling ahead. Then compare what you’d pay to buy and bring in the wine against the restaurant’s wine list prices.


Chat with the bartender. Bars don’t often have a full price list, so it pays to ask before you order something deceptively pricey, Williams says. An in-the-know mixologist can also point you to nightly beer, wine and drink specials, as well as less-expensive liquor choices for your cocktail.


Hunt for happy hour. Despite the name, happy hour can last well into the night at some locations, Blend says. Some restaurants and bars even offer late-night happy hours after 10 p.m. to draw in night owls. Check out apps like Happy Hours and Happy Houred, which list specials spotted by other users. Since the recession hit, high-end bars have begun offering specials, too, Rothbaum says. For example, he says, Elixir in San Francisco has an Economic Stimulus Plan of discounts on select spirits served alone or in a mixed drink. Sauza Hornitos Anejo is $7 instead of $8 (a 12% discount) and Hudson Baby Bourbon $13 instead of $23 (43%).


Related reading at SmartMoney:

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