How to Be Frugal When Your Friends Aren't

Years ago in my spendthrift days I shared a house with someone who was frugal in the extreme – but she was also very conscientious and caring towards her friends. I admired the way she was able to maintain friendships with people from a wide range of backgrounds and incomes while remaining frugal.

Since then I've become frugal myself and I really struggle with maintaining my stingey habits in social situations. It's hard being frugal when entertaining or going out with friends – there's always the danger of looking cheap.  So here's what my housemate did, and some of the things I do. Many of these tips revolve around food and drink, because that tends to form the basis of our friendships.

*  Be prepared to cook, and stock up on food staples. Inviting less frugal friends over for a meal is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your friendships with them. Vegetarian meals are usually very cheap to prepare, and if you cook a flavoursome cuisine, such as a Mediterranean, Asian or Middle Eastern dish, your friends won't even notice it's vegetarian. You may have to stock up initially on spices and flavourings but once you have these in your cupboard, vegetable curries, tortillas and so on are very cheap. Ingredients like creamed coconut for curries last quite well in the fridge. Olive oil, rice and pulses can be bought in bulk from health food stores and Asian grocery stores. Coffee beans can be kept in the freezer and then ground in a grinder for freshly brewed coffee.

*  Arrange some in-house entertainment. If you don't want to spend money on film tickets, invite your friends around for video evenings. Create some atmosphere with freshly popped corn or home-made dips.

*  Combine a free event with something that costs money. If catching up with friends who like to go to cafes and restaurants, arrange to do something that's free (eg an exhibition or an outdoor concert) and then spend the money on a restaurant meal, or just have a drink with them at a cafe.

* If you're meeting up with friends for a drink, don't buy alcohol – it's much cheaper to sip on a soft drink or soda water. Pay for drinks separately so you don't end up paying for your friends' expensive cocktails. If buying alcohol when you entertain at home, buy in bulk (but there's no need to drink in bulk!). If you like to entertain, consider having the makings of cocktails at home – it's much cheaper than buying them. You could even type up a little cocktail menu for special occasions!

* If you're frugal and your friends aren't, be prepared to do any legwork required to organise cheap entertainment. For example, Melbourne has a booking agency that sells cheap theatre and concert tickets, Halftix, but you need to buy the tickets in person. If your friends don't care about frugality but you do, putting the extra effort in yourself will ensure that everybody pays less.

If your friends like to meet up for a meal, scout out restaurants that are both cheap and of reasonable quality. The internet has loads of food blogs that provide guidance to the best cheap food in different parts of the world – this
list of cheap New York eateries is just one example. Some cities have hard copy reference guides that you could borrow from or consult at your local library; the Age newspaper's Cheap Eats Guide is a Melbourne institution.

If your friends tend to buy food whenever you go out, let them know that you're comfortable simply having a drink while they're eating. I have a friend who rarely cooks, and whenever we go out for a coffee she always buys food, even if it's mid-afternoon. We are both used to this – it's no big deal for her to eat a meal while I sip on a drink.

* If your friends spend money on you, pay them back in kind. Help your friends out when they're painting a room or moving house. Offer to walk their dogs, collect their mail when they go on holiday, or babysit for a special occasion such as a birthday or wedding anniversary. I often help family and friends with small editing jobs.

* Pay your friends back with freebies and discounts. Use coupon deals such as two-for-one offers to treat them. Sites with daily deals like Groupon and Jump On It have cheap deals that can be given as gifts. There are many online opportunities to obtain free tickets for various events, eg some film review sites offer free film tickets.

*  Rewrite the rules for gift giving with your friends, or plan ahead. If you usually exchange gifts with friends, curtailing this arrangement can be difficult.  You could try simply discussing it with them – they might actually be relieved not to have to exchange presents. If they tell you that they enjoy buying you presents, start buying or making thrifty gifts in exchange. If you're not the crafty type, organise cheap gifts in advance – create a list of friends that you buy presents for (and their children), and be on the lookout for cheap, suitable presents throughout the year, particularly at sales.

Until next time!

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