3 Ways to Save Money at the Bar

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Going out to sports bars, dive bars, and nightclubs is a common occurrence for many Americans. Recent estimates indicate that around 20 million Americans visited a bar, nightclub, or casino within the past year. Some night-lifers pick their favorite bar and visit that specific business on a regular basis, while others hang out at a different bar from week to week or month to month. Although these bars are hangouts, they are also places of business, and their goal is ultimately to earn revenue and generate profits. Data from IBISWorld indicates the bar business in the U.S. employs roughly 370,000 people and brings in annual revenues of $24 billion.

Bar owners and managers calculate drink costs, overhead, and labor, and all of those costs are factored into every drink you purchase. The price of your Grey Goose and tonic is a strategic one: it’s priced high enough to cover the bar’s costs and earn the establishment some money, but generally not too high that you’re  unwilling to pay. Beer is the most commonly purchased beverage at bars, accounting for around four-fifths of drink volume. A beer that costs an establishment pennies can come with a price of a few dollars in some bars and more than $12 in others, depending on demand and how much patrons are willing to pay.

A recent Food Service Warehouse blog post outlined information on how bars price alcoholic beverages. If you order a regular Cosmopolitan, the bar prices your cocktail like this:

  • 1.5 ounces vodka = $1.20
  • .5 ounce Cointreau = 70 cents
  • 1.5 ounces cranberry juice = 12 cents
  • Squeeze of lime = 5 cents
  • Lime zest, garnish = 5 cents
  • Recipe total: $2.12
  • Ideal beverage cost: 20 percent
  • Math: $2.12 x 5 = $10.60
  • Menu price: $10.60

Because you’re paying about five times the price of the ingredients, a few hours out at a bar can quickly empty your pockets. There are, however, a few measures you can take to lower your costs. Using a recent Bankrate publication, combined with supplemental information from industry insiders, we’ve come up with a few tips that will help reduce your chances of emptying your wallet during a night out.

1. Get the most booze for your buck

Buying top-shelf cocktail drinks in a bar is oftentimes a waste of money. These liquors are overpriced and in some extreme cases, you end up getting liquor from the well when you’ve paid for premium. Bartenders — of course, not all of them – pour well-brand liquor into top-shelf drinks when they’re in a hurry, particularly for multi-drink cocktails, like Long Island Iced Tea. If you’re drinking straight shots, you’re more likely to get what you paid for.

These well liquors are not always as cheap as you may think. Many of the brands are average-price liquor store brands. Menu engineer Gregg Rapp told Bankrate that with a “premium well, with Absolut and Smirnoff vodka for instance, you’re more likely to get better value and better quality, but the restaurant or bar won’t make as much money.” 

Although well is a better value than premium, the best value for you overall is beer. “If you’re in the bar and you’re looking to go cheap, you should go with beer … draft beer is going to be the best deal in the bar,” Rapp said to Bankrate. Many beer drinkers have a specific brand or type of beer they enjoy. “I only drink Corona” or “I like Sam Adams Black,” bar customers may say. On the other hand, some beer drinkers are not as particular, and will purchase whatever beer is on special.

If brand isn’t too much of an issue and you’re simply looking to enjoy beer that’s cold and cheap, check out this list of some of the best cheap domestic brews, via The Huffington Post.

  1. Pabst Blue Ribbon
  2. Miller High Life
  3. Milwaukee’s Best Premium
  4. Miller Genuine Draft
  5. Coors
  6. Budweiser
  7. Yuengling
  8. Natural Ice (Natty Ice)
  9. Keystone Ice
  10. Rolling Rock

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2. Keep sober company

Many bar patrons spend large amounts of money buying drinks for a date or someone they’re trying to impress. You can greatly reduce this expense at the bar by simply finding a sober companion. If you spend your time hitting on a designated driver, as opposed to that tipsy person over there at 2 a.m., you’re buying soda all night instead of those top-shelf gin and tonics. Your cost savings is around $8 per drink ($2 for soda versus around $10 for a cocktail for your date).

Having a sober friend, wing-person, or date not only saves money on drinks, but it also saves money on cab fare. With the cost of an average cab ride ranging between $12 and $24, depending on your location, transportation to and from the bar can quickly add up.

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3. Stay put

Staying in one location, as opposed to bar hopping, will generally result in less spending throughout the night. Of course, traveling around costs money in gas (if you have a designated driver) or cab money. Also, at each venue, you may have to pay a cover charge. These charges of $5, $10, or $20 can add up to hundreds of dollars if you visit several bars in one night.

At each establishment, you’ll also encounter a new menu, new drink specials, and new marketing strategies. After you’ve had a few beers at the last bar, you may be more inclined to purchase a high-priced shot at the next one.

Drink prices fluctuate at each bar or nightclub, and your favorite beer at one establishment could cost double what it cost at the last bar you were at previously. Also, once people start drinking, they begin to become less conscious of how much they’re spending. Given that, it’s best to stay in one place and with a group of trusted friends.

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