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The Surprising, Non-Financial Lessons From My Month Going Sober To Save Money

As I write this, I can see more than half of November in the rearview mirror. With the holiday season and all its overindulgences looming, I continue to think back on my “sober curious” experiment last month.

I heard about Sober October from my yoga instructor. Whatever mental picture you have of a yoga instructor in your head, that’s not my yoga instructor — mine enjoys his scotch and tequila. But he’s made Sober October an annual practice in restraint. Overhearing him talking about abstaining reminded me of my own disappointment in my current relationship with alcohol, both personal and financial. 

Here at TFD, writers often recommend taking on little challenges, giving up something for a set period of time, both in order to save a little money toward some goal (like an emergency fund) and to evaluate whether the good or service is actually valuable to you. Sober October seemed like the perfect opportunity for reflection and saving.

I’d already realized that my alcohol spending was a problem. At the beginning of my fiscal year, I saw how much money I’d spent on alcohol the year before: $717.13. It was the first year I’d separated booze from my grocery and dining out categories, and I was uncomfortable staring down a number that high, especially as a percentage of my salary (~$24K). I determined that the following year, I’d try to cut my spending in half. So far, I’ve failed miserably, blowing through my allotment twice as fast as I’d hoped.

It’s fine to set goals, but you have to have a concrete plan to make them work. A drinking hiatus in October represented a real actionable step toward reducing my spending, not just an intention to do so.

Normally, I wouldn’t try to make such a drastic reduction in spending all at once. I’d try to give myself an achievable goal and then build on my success. But drinking was something I already knew didn’t consistently add value to my life. I can recall enough occasions when I went just one drink too far — not in a way that hurt myself or others, but in a way that canceled out a good share of the fun I’d had all evening prior. I also started reading enough science news articles stating the real health risks of alcohol consumption, especially for women. I’d been telling myself that my glass (or two) of red wine in the evenings was part of a healthy Mediterranean diet, but now I’m listening to more rigorous research and to my own doctor about what constitutes moderate drinking. Even though I should have realized that the budget goal was unrealistic, I really wanted my financial goals to align with my mental and physical health goals.

So, to give all those goals a boost, I went through the month of October without buying a drink. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

I don’t need to drink to fit in.

Before this experiment, I hadn’t realized my deep-rooted assumption that every “grown-up” drinks at social gatherings. I’d apparently taken the expression “adult beverage” literally and thought that not drinking would draw attention to myself, that I’d have to explain my behavior.

Big surprise! Plenty of mature people don’t drink. I noticed them at every event and establishment where alcohol was served. In my experience, no one comments on your not drinking if you abstain. If you want to save money or your health by forgoing alcoholic beverages, it’s probably not going to be a big deal to anyone else around you. (And if it is, that’s certainly not a you problem.)

I don’t need to drink to be more expressive.

I’ve called alcohol “liquid courage,” because I thought it gave me the confidence to face large social gatherings with lots of strangers. There’s also a Latin expression, in vino veritas, “There’s truth in wine,” and that’s often described me well. I can get so caught up in anxious thoughts, worrying, Am I seeing this situation clearly? What if I get too worked up emotionally and some mean comment slips and hurts someone? I stay silent even around people I’m close to. But with a drink, I start to lose these inhibitive thoughts, and I can begin to confide in others.

Without alcohol? I am perfectly capable of having a conversation with a stranger at a large gathering, without any “performance-enhancing drugs.” I can also still express my deep thoughts and feelings with loved ones. It just takes longer. If I’m patient with myself in the moment and I keep working with my therapist on how to be vulnerable in relationships that matter, I can continue to be a more authentic communicator beyond October.

I don’t need to drink to self soothe.

There was one instance this month at work where a colleague said something that went straight to the pit of my stomach. I started worrying about what she thought of me personally and professionally. As I’m squirming in the meeting, I catch myself thinking: “Ugh! Let me call my partner and tell him to meet me at the pub right away so I can vent about this.” It was eye-opening to see that going out for a drink was the very first thought that arose when I was stuck in an uncomfortable situation.

With my Sober October commitment, I was able to take a moment, see my bad habit, and try something new. I did talk to my partner right after work (at home), and our conversation made me feel a little better, even without a beer and fries. The next day, my colleague and I talked it out, and it turned out I’d completely misinterpreted her comments and she stated how much she appreciated my work. This opportunity to respond to an emotional situation in a new way and have everything turn out alright without spending a dime was a terrific lesson I hope to carry forward.

It’s easy to find tasty, cheap alternatives to alcoholic beverages at home.

Since my goal was not just to make it through this month-long challenge, but also to learn from it, I kept my eye out for products to substitute for alcoholic beverages. The most inexpensive alcoholic beverage that I drink at home (individual results may vary) is either a $5.99 (not including tax) bottle of wine or a 12 pack of 12oz beers for $15.99 (not including tax or bottle deposit). I do buy more expensive drinks, but this is what I buy most often. With the tax, it comes to approximately $1.30 per standard drink (5oz wine or 12oz of beer).

Any substitute I bought would have to be as cheap or cheaper than $1.30. It wasn’t very hard to find options at that price, and I did find options that actually felt like a treat.

Bougie sodas, especially from close-out stores:

There’s no arguing taste, but for me personally, drinking a typical soft drink feels more like a punishment than an indulgence. At the end of a hard day when I’m craving a glass of wine, I don’t want to feel like I’m at an 8-year-old’s birthday party instead. But I have been able to find more sophisticated sodas at reasonable prices. By sophisticated sodas, I mean ones that include interesting flavors, like ginger ale made with real ginger and rose-flavored sparkling lemonade. At discount stores, you can find these odd-lot beverages and they cost about the same as my $1.30 usual drink. These I reserve for special occasions and guests.

Iced Teas, especially ones with interesting herbal or floral flavors:

Making iced tea yourself is extremely simple. You can indulge in fancier teas at 25 cents per tea bag, or get basic black tea for 3 cents a tea bag and add your own flavors (see below).

Infused Water:

Putting fruit in your water makes it a beverage you want to drink. Consider also cucumber and/or herbs like mint and basil (goes really well with citrus).

Seltzer:

It is truly a golden age for seltzer. This month of sobriety got me to pull my Soda Stream out of the back cabinet and trade in the dead CO2 cartridge for a refill. When I first bought a Soda Stream, the only additives available were syrups to make-my-own soda (not interested). Now, you can find fun seltzer flavorings like mango at $5 for an 80-serving bottle (6 cents per glass of seltzer). If you don’t have a seltzer maker, check for sales on flavored seltzer or check discount/close-out stores.

“Mocktails” with fancy vinegars and bitters:

What about those times when you crave the ritual of being your own mixologist? If you like to play bartender, two ingredients that help make an interesting alcohol-free cocktail are bitters (like Angostura) and vinegar (like a nice cider or fruit vinegar, not the clear type you’d use as a household cleaner). Bitters and seltzer alone make for a refreshing “mocktail.” For something more complicated, you mix and match all the ingredients above in new combinations, and use the vinegar to add complexity (it’s like kombucha). For example:

  • Take a ¼ or ½ serving of strong iced tea (like green or hibiscus)
  • 1 TBSP vinegar (like cider or pomegranate)
  • top off with seltzer or soda to desired taste (you can add 1 TBSP of sweetener like simple syrup if using seltzer)

With a fancy vinegar at 15 cents per tablespoon, you’re still well below the cost of an alcoholic beverage.

*****

Even if you have no interest in excluding alcohol from your own diet or budget, I hope you’ll consider these alternatives and recipes when you host a dinner party. I promise, non-drinkers’ eyes light up when you offer them something really special to drink.

Spending patterns are seasonal.

At the end of the month, I was looking forward to reviewing my spending and seeing how much money I’d saved compared to my alcohol spending in October last year. Unfortunately, when I calculated the grand total, it only came out to…$30. I checked to see if maybe there were savings side effects; since I was skipping alcohol, did I go out to eat less often? Nope. I went out the exact same number of times in October of 2018 as I did in October of 2019 (5 times).

I kept looking through my detailed spending log from this year and last. While the average spending was $60 per month, the actual monthly spending varied widely. I also discovered that I spend about the same amount of money on alcohol each month from year to year:

  • $79.82 July 2019 vs. $87.31 July 2018
  • $68.54 August 2019 vs. $67.79 August 2018
  • $58.68 September 2019 vs. $38.71 September 2018

The high amount in the summer made sense to me. Not only are their beer gardens, barbecues, and beach parties to enjoy, I’m also working only online, and I don’t have the opportunity to interact with real live human beings at work. I’m more desperate to get out of the house or sit on the porch with a G&T to unwind from all that screen time.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons from Sober October about my spending habits and how to change them, and I hope to apply them to the rest of my fiscal year. But perhaps in 2020 to save some real money in this spending category, I’ll have to start a new trend: #DryJuly.

Valerie is an adjunct professor in upstate New York teaching Latin and writing electives. When she’s not working or at the yoga studio, you can find her on her porch binging podcasts.

Image via Unsplash

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