Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Penny Pincher

As much as I hate to admit it, it's time to trim the fat.

As a singleton with relatively low overhead, I tend to enjoy a pretty savory life. My schedule includes dinner out with friends, lunch at local, non-fast food spots. As long as my paycheck continues to roll in, I am grateful to enjoy good alcohol and quality entertainment on a somewhat regular basis.

I guess that's how most of my life has been, save for a couple rough spots that I'm glad I weathered.

When I was a little girl, I used to wonder about Ends Meat. I didn't know what it was, but I got the impression it was something families had to make and eat when "times got tough." My voracious reading clued me in to the equally less enticing option of tongue - poor Ramona and Beezus Quimby - but ends meat was always a mystery to me. I guess my eight-year-old brain thought it meant that someone was struggling so hard that they had to eat a cow's bum, and I knew that was a fate no one deserved to suffer.

It wasn't until years later that I figured out the phrase had less to do with meat and more to do with pay periods, and by the time I really understood the struggle of making ends meet - I was thick in the middle of the fight, myself.

These days, I thank God every day I go to work. I know so many good, intelligent people who have experienced the wrath of this wretched economy, and so my employment is not lost on me. I am so blessed to have a steady job with reasonably affordable health benefits and a provision that supports my saving for retirement.

Even with my blessings, I know its wise to dial down, tighten the belt, stretch a dollar. We're all trying to be smarter with money, and sometimes that means cutting things out of our routine - other times it means using smart substitutions.

Me? I crave socializing and tasty morsels. I can sit at home with a good book or twelve, and even if they're the best thing since sliced bread, I would struggle with the lack of social contact (well, save for the Twilight series). My sanity demands a somewhat regular schedule of conversation and cocktails, so I am now seeking out the more affordable happy hour options to pencil in my available evenings. Thankfully, I stumbled across this list of eats-on-the-cheap options at Newport on the Levee (in fact, Melissa Huelsman's entire blog is a great resource for folks looking to save money).

I normally don't spend much time at the Levee, instead choosing to support businesses and shop owners north of the Ohio in neighborhoods and close to downtown. However, this list of affordable happy hour bargains is enough to make me re-evaluate my list of hot spots, especially considering I spend a lot of time in Newport. $1.25 raw oysters? Specially priced appetizers? Dollar drafts? It all adds up to a delicious way to enjoy cocktails and your friends on the cheap.

Another way to buckle down? Forget a night on the town, stay home and sip on your favorite cocktail. I don't necessarily condone drinking alone, but I think drinking at home is a great, budget minded way to visit with friends and unwind after a long day. And you don't need to roll out the fully stocked bar for these get togethers chez moi, plan ahead of time and stock up on a case of wine at Trader Joe's. You can buy 12 bottles of Charles Shaw's best for less than $40 bucks. I think Two Buck Chuck is a fine wine to enjoy at home when you're just relaxing and not trying to impress anyone - and check the accolades, it's won several awards in California, too. If you can't make it to TJ's, head to the grocery and pick up a bottle of Crane Lake - it's great for the price point, too. Here's a great article with a few more suggestions for affordable wine.

If wine's not your thing, I suggest buying a couple bottles of inexpensive liquor. The fact of the matter is, premium vodka is exactly the same as the less expensive versions. You can enjoy your cosmos at home without shelling out for Ketel One, Grey Goose or those other obnoxiously overpriced versions. Now, bourbon is a different story. I'm partial to one of the best in the Bluegrass - Woodford Reserve - but sometimes I can't swing it on a tight budget. The fact is, I rarely drink bourbon on the rocks, and that's really the only scenario that calls for the best money can buy. If you're mixing with coke or vermouth, Jim Beam or Maker's Mark is just as fine.

Happy hour isn't the only thing I'm cutting back on.

Lunch time is a great time to stretch a dollar. There have been times in the past when I would think nothing of popping out the plastic to cover a $14 bowl of bibimbap and a soda while lunching away from the office. I have discovered I have less cash to my name since changing careers from a profession that did not allow for lunch out to one that does. With that in mind, I've been packing more lunches - frozen meals from the grocery store. Even that option provides frugal shoppers with some choices to cut back. Lately I've been forgoing the delicious but more pricey Healthy Choice Steamer Bowls (around $3.50) for the more basic HC offerings of spaghetti, broccoli alfredo and other less gourmet offerings (around $1.75).

One other opportunity to cut corners - look for more affordable options when getting your hair done. Some folks are willing to cruise in to Great Clips for their regular trim. I tend to rely on an option that's just as affordable - Aveda Frederic's Institute in Hyde Park. As someone who parades around with less than natural blonde hair, I am a slave to my monthly highlight job. The price of a full highlight is pretty great at the Aveda School (full foil for long hair, $50), but I try and stretch it out a little further by alternating between full foils, partials ($39), and accent lights (which are just along the part and crown, $25).

The School is a wonderful way to maintain your luxurious locks for less...

Whether you are a happy hour bar fly, a cocktail connoisseur or a diva dedicated to doing your hair, you can still indulge during these uncertain times while keeping your budget in check.

If I stick to my tips and tricks, I know I'll be less likely to have to eat Ends Meat.

What are your shortcuts for chic on a shoestring?

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