Would you give up alcohol to help balance the family budget?
I posed that very question on social media recently. These were some of the answers I got:
"Gosh no - it's what gets us through the week."
"As if that would ever happen."
And so on, in the same vein. Most responses ranged from sarcastic to outright incredulous.
But one other answer stood out, which got to the heart of the matter:
"I quit drinking - and it was like we won the lottery!"
And there's the rub. We all tend to complain, in an era of stagnant incomes and rising prices, about how we just can't make ends meet. There is just no place we could possibly find more savings.
But is that really true? Consider this: The average U.S. household spent $445 on wine, beer, and spirits in 2013, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounts to roughly 1% of our household expenditures, and it compares with an average household figure of $268 in 1993.
That is more than we spend on all nonalcoholic beverages combined, by the way. Keep in mind those averages include nondrinkers, too. That means some households are spending much, much more than that already-hefty average on alcohol.
So let's be honest with ourselves. It is not always the case that we can't squeeze any more savings out of our budgets. It is that we choose not to, because we just don't want to give up the booze.
When New York City's Jenna Hollenstein sat down one day and calculated what her drinking was costing her, she was shocked.
The 39-year-old dietician used to enjoy a nice bottle of wine or some gin after work, and it was starting to add up. "Even if it was only a $15 bottle of wine, three times a week, that was $45," she remembers. "That's $180 a month, or over $2,000 a year.
"That's a significant amount of money—and that's not even including going out for cocktails with friends."
Hollenstein finally decided to give up her pricey habit, and even wrote a book on her experiences, Drinking to Distraction. But she is hardly alone in having a taste for a nip after work.
After all, 64% of American adults report drinking occasionally, according to Gallup's most recent poll on consumption habits. Through boom times and bust, one of our most consistent national traits is that we enjoy our booze, and are not willing to give it up.
"We've been asking this question since the 1930s, and the numbers are remarkably constant," says Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. "Even in an era of huge demographic changes, the percentage of drinkers just doesn't seem to budge."
Our Beverage of Choice
Beer is America's beverage of choice, by the way, followed by wine and then spirits. The average drinker enjoys a shade over four alcoholic beverages a week, according to the Gallup poll.
But 9% of people have more than eight drinks over the same period, and 5% of folks are guzzling more than 20. And that can get very expensive indeed—especially if you do your drinking in restaurants or bars with high markups.
We might not even realize how much we are spending on this habit, since it drips out in relatively small increments—a beer or two here, a carafe of wine there. Personal-finance expert Tiffany Aliche, author of The One Week Budget, suggests forcing yourself to do the math—just as Hollenstein did—before tossing back yet another nightcap.
"Let's say you drink three nights a week and spend $30 each time," she says. "That's over $4,000 a year, or as much as a trip to Paris or Rome."
It is not an all-or-nothing proposition, notes Aliche, who is not a drinker herself. You don't have to become a teetotaler in order to realize massive savings. "Instead of drinking three times a week, just drink twice—and then go on your vacation, too," she advises.
As for Hollenstein, who had a long and complex relationship with alcohol, she thought it was best to give up drinking altogether. She did not necessarily do it for the money—but when she did, she noticed that her finances changed overnight.
"As soon as I gave it up, the money thing became so clear," she says. "Drinking was just a mindless, habitual thing I did on a daily basis. And I didn't really notice it—until I got my credit card bill or looked at my bank account."