Socializing on a budget

How to charge up your social life without charging up your credit cards

Every parent knows this moment: The Visa bill is due, the fridge is empty and — boom — an email arrives from an out-of-town friend suggesting you get together for a steak dinner during her visit.

You want to see your friend, but you’re already having trouble making ends meet this month. What do you do?

Veteran parents with the skill for saving money suggest you say yes to getting together — but meet for drinks or dessert instead of a posh dinner. They insist that being a penny-pinching parent doesn’t mean you have to give up your social life. “It’s not only possible to have fun on a budget, but putting your creativity to use can make it even more rewarding,” says Kimberly Danger, founder of mommysavers.com, a site devoted to helping parents make the most of their money. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Family entertaining Inviting friends over, instead of going out, is one way to control costs. Hosting an afternoon playdate with snacks and drinks means there’s no need to plan an extravagant meal or for friends to hire babysitters or rush home for kids’ bedtimes. Choose a game everyone enjoys, such as Cranium, and play in adult-child teams.

Date night  Strategy is key to scoring some alone time with your partner. Instead of paying primetime teenage sitter prices, ask a neighbour or family member to drop by after your children are in bed. Or trade babysitting duties with a friend — your kids can have a playdate or sleepover on your night out, and you can return the favour next time.

To keep costs low, Danger, mother of Sydney, 10, and Nicholas, six, suggests sneaking out for coffee and a fancy pastry after having dinner at home. If you make a bookstore’s café your destination, you’ll be surrounded by stacks of conversation topics.

Time with friends Try meeting up with mates over the lunch hour. If a friend works near your own workplace, brown-bag it and meet for a walk. You can catch up while burning calories, and skip the gym.

Surekha Kandiah often meets with friends at a teahouse, not far from her Toronto home, for a comforting cuppa, a scone and a long conversation, while her husband watches their son. “Tea is a slow thing to do. It’s enjoyable and it’s not expensive,” says Kandiah.

Vivianne Gayton of Grimshaw, Alta., has found a “hidden social life” during activities for her three children, aged seven to 12. Since moving back to her hometown, she runs into people she has not seen in decades while lounging on floor mats at gymnastics or drinking “rink coffee” at curling.

Founding a social club is another way to plan regular, inexpensive gatherings. Gina McFetridge of Halifax attends a book club that meets at a different member’s house each month. They spend half the time talking about the book — and the other half catching up on one another’s news.