I’m feeling the economic downturn right now and I’m trying to cut back on going out to bars and restaurants. I don’t want my social life to suffer, but I feel like it’s a downer if I say, “I can’t dine at Chez Fancy-Pants because I’m totally broke. How about you come over to my place? We can make soup.” How can I have fun drinking and eating with my friends, but save money at the same time? —Penny Pincher
Dear Penny Pincher,
We go to bars and restaurants in part to people-watch and enjoy the scene, and staying home can seem a bit flat in comparison. When you tell your friends you’d rather not go out, don’t say it’s because you’re broke. Invite them to come over, but offer a festive reason. Obviously you don’t have the cash for champagne or private belly-dancing lessons. But below you’ll find some suggestions for recession socializing that will cost you less than you’d spend on a restaurant meal or on cocktails and taxis, especially if you get your friends to chip in.
Make a special drink or snack. These always create a sense of occasion. A friend of mine makes her own dill schnapps. People light up when she breaks it out (and it gives you a buzz fast). You could make special spirits like Ginger-Infused Vodka or Grapefruit-Infused Vodka. You need not use top-shelf liquor for it to be good, and nobody will know anyway, because you can put it in a crafty-looking Mason jar. If you have a secret recipe, whether it’s for a cocktail or a snack, now’s the time to bring it out. I sometimes make popcorn with my “secret seasoning.” I don’t put anything particularly unusual in it, but I like saying that, because people get so excited.
Host a tasting party. Tell your friends you’re having a tasting, and ask everyone to bring a bottle or dish. That way, you split the cost of refreshments. For instance, have a tequila tasting (and let everyone take home one of the opened bottles). All you have to do is clean your bathroom and buy some limes. You don’t even have to buy plastic cups: Just make the event BYOC. Or, if tequila is too pricey, have a mac ’n’ cheese party, where everyone brings a version to compare. Unless you’re putting truffles in it, what’s more cheap and cheerful?
Create a food project. There’s something pleasingly old-fashioned about inviting your friends over to collaborate on a kitchen project. It’s a low-maintenance way to hang out, because the focus isn’t all on the conversation. Your project could be making preserves or trying out this incredible salsa recipe. You share the cost of the ingredients and give guests half the booty to take home.
Go on an alfresco outing. You need not do a full picnic. If the weather is fine, most people are eager to get together outside, and are happy with a blanket, a thermos of martinis, and something to nibble on. If you can invest a little cash, buy a secondhand lawn game like bocce ball or croquet.
Of course, one great advantage of meeting people in bars and restaurants is that it’s easy to escape. If you’re entertaining friends in your home, you can’t just murmur an excuse and slip away when you get tired or bored. However, with my proven Guest Ejection Strategy, none of your visitors will outstay his or her welcome.
All that said, sometimes a bar or restaurant is truly the best option. If you don’t know your companions well, inviting them to your place might feel too intimate (or too labor-intensive). And if the occasion is a first date, having someone over and plying him with vodka could look downright creepy. Save the homemade schnapps for the third date.