Here's how to save on drinks, whether it's wine, beer, or spirits.

How to imbibe at the bar without going broke

Going “where everybody knows your name” is the preferred way to unwind after a busy workday for many of us, but hitting the bar may be hitting your wallet a little too hard.

Mike knows how to save on drinks because he's the one selling them.
Mike Meadows

Sound familiar? Mike Meadows, a restaurant manager and longtime bartender in the city of bars — New Orleans — says the average tab these days is about $25 per person. If you frequent a bar twice a week, that adds up to $200 a month and $2,600 a year on alcohol purchases alone.

But you don’t have to give up your favorite bar stool altogether to save on drinks…

1. Find a good happy hour

If grabbing a drink with your colleagues after work is a common theme in your life, you need a good happy hour. “Not all happy hours are created equal,” Meadows says. “Some deals are just there to get you in the door.”

To find the best happy hour, start by checking the timing. On the surface, a happy hour from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. seems like a great deal — four hours of cheaper drinks — but it won’t matter much if you get out of work at 6 p.m. Then it really will be just one happy hour, followed by hours of sadness. Instead, look for one starting around the time you get off to maximize the specials.

Make sure you’re getting the best deal on the most common happy hour special: the two-for-one. “It isn’t uncommon for a bartender to offer two shots in one glass if you’re ordering by yourself,” Meadows says, but that doesn’t always work to your benefit. If the glass is a tad small, “the bartender will just pour a little less.” Instead, ask for two separate glasses.

Finally, look for happy hour specials that combine deals — like free cover on ladies night or free food with the purchase of a drink or two.

2. Skip the tab

Just say no the next time a bartender offers to open a tab. Meadows says “having an open tab makes it too easy to just say ‘put it on my tab’ and stop tallying how much you’re really spending.” If you get carried away — or offer to buy too many rounds for your friends — you’ll end up with a big surprise when the check comes.

Instead, Meadows always pays for his drinks in cash as he goes. That way, he can “easily stick to his budget.”

3. Order smart

When it comes to ordering, what you choose will make a small difference to your taste buds and a big difference to your wallet. For beer, Meadows says to order what’s on draft, not in bottles. “You can get more than 200 beers out of a keg,” he says, so bars offer better deals on draft.

For mixed drinks, “always tell the bartender you want well,” Meadows says. When it comes to bar hierarchy, there’s top shelf, middle range, and well. And while it falls in last place, it won’t taste different in a mixed drink — and it could “save you $5 to $12, depending on what you order.”

For wine, “always order the whole bottle,” Meadows says. While it may seem counterintuitive at first,  “you can usually get five glasses out of a bottle, and bottles are typically priced at four glasses.” If you can split the bottle with someone else, you’ll get an even better deal.

4. Know how to tip

“Tipping $1 per drink is industry standard,” Meadows says. And you should tip in cash as you go, so you keep your budget in check.

However, if you do decide to tip at the end, don’t treat your tab like a restaurant check.

“At a restaurant, you’re tipping based on a full-service experience, and 20 percent is totally reasonable,”  Meadows says. But when you get to the bar, “that doesn’t always make sense.” If you have a $50 bar tab, a 20-percent tip would be $10, but you may have only ordered six drinks. If you tipped 20 percent, you’d pay well over the industry standard.

5. Don’t try to buy favoritism

Finally, ignore any advice you hear about tipping big to get special attention throughout the night. Many people believe a large tip at first will make a difference, but Meadows says an old adage applies here: “You can’t buy your friends.”

“If a bar gets busy, a bartender stops caring who tipped what,” he says. “They’re just going to worry about getting the drinks out. No matter what you tip, they’re still going to serve everyone in order.”

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