What I Gained After I Accidentally Lost My Taste for Liquor

It was the third Manhattan that did it.

I had intended only two, (they were strong, and that’s about my limit these days) but the bartender was a friend, and just before last call he brought another to our table. What could I do? I drank it, it was free. And I then I spent the next two days in wrenching, head-pounding, gut-churning misery the likes of which I had never experienced.

I’m still not exactly sure what happened, or why three measly drinks would cause such a violent reaction, but when the hangover finally cleared, I found I myself with a strange new feeling: a complete aversion to alcohol.

At first I was sort of stunned—almost scared. I can’t drink? I thought, But how will I interact with people, go to shows, do things? Oh my god what about brunch?

I’m not a “heavy” drinker, but alcohol is a basic part of my life. It’s how I toast good news and soften bad; how I smooth out the edges of interactions with new friends; how I mark the end of the work day, or a rough day, or the middle of a sunny day. It has never even occurred to me to try and go without it.

But now I would have to? 

A week after The Incident my husband and I went to a show. As we stood in the dark watching the band, I was acutely aware of the people around me: the guy in the rugby shirt fist pumping during the slow songs, and the drunk girl swaying cheerily into my personal space. I was distracted and uneasy. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I tried crossing my arms in front of me. I tried awkwardly hooking my thumbs into my belt-loops. Finally in a stroke of genius, I got myself a glass of club soda to hold, and all was well. But a few songs later, when my husband went to the bar to get his second $9 beer, I found myself doing some sober math.

In my previous life, a week before, I would have been on my second beer as well. Nine dollars each, plus tip: That’s twenty dollars. Hey, I just saved us 20 bucks, I thought happily. I wonder how much we’d save if I keep this up…

The lack of booze meant I was alert enough to do word problems in my head. I began my calculations:

If we go out for drinks five times a month, and I have two each time, and they average $11 each, plus a $1-$2 dollar tip, that’s…$125 a month? What’s that times twelve? $1,500. Whoa, is that a lot? What about the drinks I make at home? If I have one half-size cocktail some afternoons, and a glass of wine most nights, what is that, $20 a week? That doesn’t sound so bad, but…$1,040 a year? Yikes. God and then there are the drinks I get when we go out to eat. You gotta have a beer with your burger, right? Another $40 a month, maybe? $480 a year! What happens if we add all this up?

$3,020 a year? Am I kidding me?

I could not believe it: $3,020 is so much money. That is a trip to South America. That is 1.8 months worth of rent. That is all the good cotton dresses at Anthropologie right now.

As my husband came back from the bar, I was still furiously crunching numbers. He put his arm on my shoulder and I looked at him, then eyed his plastic cup of beer. If he quit too, we’d save twice as much. $6,040 a year! We’d be practically rich!

How could we have let this happen? We were frugal people. We shop at the discount grocery store; we cook at home nearly every night; we eat the leftovers for lunch; our furniture is thrifted; I basically never buy the good cotton dresses from Anthropologie.

Early in our relationship, when we were living on grad student stipends, we agonized about the cost of coffee and cheese, and once had a long debate in a Kmart about whether we could justify the purchase of soft, $6 bath towel when there was a thinner, slightly scratchy one right there for just $3. But we never questioned what we paid to drink. Without any discussion, we had both agreed that gracious living included a fully stocked liquor cabinet that you could offer to your guests, a few bottles of wine that cost more than $9, and a refrigerator full of cold, rewarding things. Alcohol was a part of grownup life. It was essential to feeling cordial and accommodating—the act of pouring as important as the act of drinking itself.

So what would our life look like if we gave it up? Would we become barbarians?

I made it through our next few social interactions unscathed. We had a couple over for dinner, and I watched them get loose and loud, while I sipped compulsively from my water glass—a bit too aware of the volume of my own voice, but feeling fine. We arrived late to a BBQ in a park, and I chomped veggie dogs and about a pound of baby carrots, while my friends drained what was left of the beer. So far so good.

The real test came about two weeks in, when we were invited out to a gorgeous bar in our neighborhood where they make those fancy handcrafted cocktails with the vaguely old-fashioned names. I am a sucker for these places—for well-made, unusual drinks in general—and the thought of sitting there in the dim light with our friends while they ordered their Trolley Cars and their Sarsaparilla Reds, while I sipped my sad little club soda with lime, was enough to make me consider staying home.

But I went, and here is what happened: The bar was as beautiful and atmospheric as ever, the jukebox played the songs I wanted to hear, my friends laughed and told stories and opened tabs, and I asked for a dash of bar-made bitters in my club soda with lime. I tipped the bartender extra. And as the night wore on, I found I was just as good at laughing and telling stories as I was when I was drinking more than club soda.

It was this last revelation that really got me. I’m a shy person, and holding a drink has always seemed like the only way around my own anxious social barriers. This is part of the reason I had unconsciously put alcohol into the “essentials” category of my finances. That drink stem I’ve been gripping all these years as I talk to scary people? Total Dumbo’s feather.

It’s been about four weeks now. I’ve tried a few sips here and there, but I can’t say my taste for the stuff has come back. If my concert floor estimates were correct, I have theoretically saved myself $245 at this point, which, frankly, still seems a bit incredible.

It’s kind of shaming that it took something physically unpleasant for me to actually look clearly at this aspect of my spending, but I guess I’m glad it happened. If/when I do get over this aversion, I feel like I’ll be able to treat cocktails like the delightful gifts from the gods that they are, and no longer as an everyday necessity.

And then I will fly to South America.

 

Annie Nilsson writes and blogs in Los Angeles. She was all set to make a joke about artisanal club soda, until she realized that is totally a real thing. Photo: Shutterstock/Alex Saberi

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48 Comments / Post A Comment

Husb and I got into a pretty serious fight the other night over dinner – it had been a busy several days, we were too tired and addled to cook, so we ended up going to the moderately priced Italian restaurant on our way home. I ordered a glass of wine and he freaks. “Why can’t you skip the wine? Are you trying to send us into the poor house? Also if you can’t say No, then maybe you’re an alcoholic.”

My response was, “When I’m at the nice, moderately priced Italian restaurant sitting at the bar, I feel totally weird and also guilty if I don’t get one glass of wine – so why did we even come here if you were going to get testy about one glass of wine?! I don’t need wine all the time, I just need wine when I’m sitting in this place eating this food! If I need to be a cheapskate, then I don’t want it to be at the expense of the servers here who live on tips. Plus, I tried to suggest we go to the diner, the Whole Foods, even the mall food court, and you picked this place, and now you’re mad at me about spending money on wine?!”

His firm opinion is that it’s fine to go to the nice, moderately priced Italian restaurant and not get a glass of wine or even a salad, and that it would even be fine to go to the neighborhood pub and drink root beer. I think, if you’re with a group of four or six people, that would be fine, but just the two of us going and occupying space and not spending money is not welcome by these establishments and their hardworking staffs.

I actually am totally on-board with quitting the booze altogether because it’s (in my view) actually not worth the expense relative to the net enjoyment (and agony). But the husb says quitting is self-ostracism and moderation is good enough. But I can’t figure out a moderation strategy – I can imagine total quitting strategies (go to different places, do different activities, etc.), but not how to drink less.

Have folks had successful experiences with either strategy? What worked? When you don’t feel like sitting in front of the TV on a weeknight, what do you do instead of going to the pub?

ThatJenn (#916)

@Charismatic Megafauna I totally go to the pub and drink a root beer (or whatever)… and then I tip really, really well. Like, I tip on the alcohol I didn’t buy. Keeps me and my server from feeling like I’m taking up space where I shouldn’t be.

Also: I’m aware of how hard it can be to be in a relationship where you have different habits, but your husband’s views on quitting alcohol don’t need to define yours.

That said, a booze budget might work if you’re both interested in conserving money and drinking less. This could be a dollar budget or a number of drinks budget (the latter generally worked better for me as I was cutting down). I got a maximum of [n] drinks a week or month. It encouraged me to use that on drinks I’d really enjoy rather than just semi-mindlessly ordering a drink when out or bored at home, and it gave me a specific reason to point to when I *wasn’t* ordering one so I didn’t feel like a total cheapskate or no fun or whatever.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Charismatic Megafauna I gave up booze completely because, well, alcoholism, but I still think that once you decide to make the change to lift alcohol out of your life, it really isn’t that hard to give it up (also: drinking is a money sink). What do you do when you feel like going out that doesn’t involve drinking? Something else you enjoy. I take long walks, go to museums, eat at new restaurants, meet up with friends, see movies, go to shows, and so on. Granted, I have the added element of fear that makes it somewhat easier (or more urgent) to give it up, but most of the time it’s really not something to be missed.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Jenn@twitter Yep. Also, you’ll be able to afford BAR FOOD if you’re not buying $10 shots, and let me tell you – there is some stupendous damned bar food out there. I still frequent quite a few of these establishments, alone, and I’ve never gotten shit from any of my servers.

@MuffyStJohn bar food actually is a far greater expense for me than alcohol. the food doesn’t even have to be that good. I love me some god damn bar food.

also @Charismatic Megafauna while I rarely order a glass of wine with dinner because I hate paying $8 for a glass when I could be paying that for a bottle (damn I am cheap), when I feel like splurging on a nice dinner and spending that amount, why the hell not?! A nice glass of wine adds to a nice dinner experience. I find your husband’s getting up in your grill about this kind of weird.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@redheaded&crazy I generally go during happy hour and get small bites instead of burgers or sandwiches, and usually they’re like half off at that time.

And agreed that perhaps the issue here isn’t alcohol at all but that Megafauna’s husband is overreacting about spending a few bucks on part of dinner (be it the wine, the salad, or the critically important dessert).

@Charismatic Megafauna Where’d this idea about an obligation to order wine at a restaurant come from? I’m pretty sure that as long as you’re there to eat food and not just dine on the free bread and water they bring out, you’re in the clear 100%. Order what you want, and if you’re worried about the waitstaff, just tip appropriately.

@Jenn@twitter
I wonder if we could create some kind of “Deal-a-Meal”-type drink rationing system – move the color-coded cards from one side of your wallet to the other as you go through the month’s budgeted beverages. Plus: craft project!

@redheaded&crazy
I strongly agree about the fiscal stupidity of ordering a glass of wine instead of a bottle. Where I am falling on this is, I think, if one isn’t prepared to buy a bottle of wine at a place, then ordering a glass of wine is not somehow the smart/frugal thing to do – but then I have this problem (noted by Leon Tchtchke) that I don’t want to go to the wine-appropriate place at all.

I’m still a little stuck on this feeling of obligation to order booze at certain places, where I’d rather just not go there at all than try to go there and not drink. I’m clearly being irrational, yet I can’t seem to shake it . . .

Sarah H. (#408)

@Leon Tchotchke Yeah, I don’t quite understand the issue here – I very, very, very rarely order alcohol with meals, even at nicer places, and I don’t think it’s ever been an issue. Sure, they give you the wine/beer menu and offer pairing suggestions and such, but I don’t think the business will live or die on whether or not you order alcohol. I have never felt any sort of judgment from the waitstaff when I choose a club soda instead.

If you came in and were like “HEY EVERYBODY, BOOZE IS TERRIBLE, DON’T ORDER IT” then there’d be a Problem. But just as one couple, who I’m sure is still ordering appetizers/entrees/etc. and tipping generously, I think it’s fine.

sox (#246)

@Leon Tchotchke et al
I worked my way through college and well beyond by waiting tables and if a place would make you feel awkward about not ordering a drink, then it’s a place who doesn’t deserve your business. It’s called the hospitality industry for a reason.
That said, when I order club soda or a non-alcoholic beverage at a busy bar, I also tip as if I ordered an alcoholic drink.

El Knid (#1,183)

@Charismatic Megafauna You can go to a bar and drink tap water, and your bartender will be perfectly happy so long as you tip as if you’re ordering a drink drink, since his pay isn’t tied to the bar’s nightly take. Waitstaff might get a little antsy if your bill is really low, but the worry will turn to gratitude when you compensate in the tip.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Charismatic Megafauna I just noticed your comment above and I am really kind of excited about the idea of craftily visualizing my drink budget (or other budget items!) in my wallet. If I do it, I will surely take photos and try to get Logan & Mike to let me post them here. :)

undinespragg (#867)

The primary characteristic of alcohol that seems to be neglected here is that it tastes good. Sure, I like the fact that drinking makes me less socially anxious, and I could probably (and frequently try to) cut back on how much I drink when I’m out at the bar with friends, but when I’m sitting at home watching TV, club soda is not a substitute for beer. Beer tastes good, and what I drink changes with the seasons, and it’s a pleasure I enjoy. A fairly cheap pleasure, compared to many things.

If the sole reason you drink is to lubricate social situations, sure, go ahead and cut back, but if you actually like the stuff, cutting it out of your life entirely seems akin to deciding that, despite your love of good food, you’ll eat nothing but lentils from now on because they’re cheaper. Some things aren’t worth the savings.

I frequently lose my taste for alcohol, the last time in recent memory being after st patrick’s day. Always leads me to DD for a few weeks. Definitely cheaper but most of the time I only have a drink or two on any given night anyway. And I also slum it in places where $9 drinks are unheard of (i.e. my basement)

MuffyStJohn (#280)

Next time the author is at a bar where everyone else is drinking a charming old-fashioned sounding drink, she should order a Roy Rogers. In my estimation only about 34% of waitresses and 72% of bartenders know what this is, but it tastes waaay better than club soda.

@MuffyStJohn People don’t know what a Roy Rogers is anymore? Maybe my circle growing up was way too enamored of grenadine, but I just assumed everyone knows what that drink is! It’s the yin to a Shirley Temple’s yang!

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Saralyn@twitter You would not believe the looks of total confusion I get when I order these. And I’ve had them brought to the table with whiskey in them, too which – I don’t even understand.

@MuffyStJohn I don’t know whether that sounds awesome or a terrible indignity for the whiskey involved.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@MuffyStJohn Oh man, I remember those! On special occasions when we were kids my sister and I would order Shirley Temples and my brothers would get Roy Rogers. I suppose the logic was “One has a boy’s name and the other has a girl’s name.” I am totally ordering one next time I’m out.

Katzen-party (#219)

@MuffyStJohn Obviously I don’t know the author’s taste–maybe she actually LIKES drinking a club soda, which I personally find hard to fathom–but it seems like a fancy cocktail place would possibly have a couple of fun things on the menu for designated drivers/non-drinkers who are there with drinking friends? I mean, the thought of sipping on a club soda with a dash of bitters when those fancy cocktail places often have stuff like yummy artisanal sodas and fresh juices just makes me feel SAD.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@Katzen-party haha, I actually really like club soda! But if this aversion keeps up, I will certainly be branching out…

Katzen-party (#219)

@AnnieNilsson Well then, by all means carry on with your club soda drinking! It tastes so plain and sad to me and reminds me of, like, how you find out some character on a TV show used to be an alcoholic–they order “club soda with a twist.” But then again, I’ve gone to bars and just drunk free ice water (but I still tipped because I felt bad)…

LolaLaBalc (#707)

@AnnieNilsson I actually really like club soda too. I think it came from me drinking scotch and soda for years, and getting used to particularly crappy ones that were heavy on the soda..so I may as well just save a few bucks and skip straight to the soda.

I loved this article, btw! I totally have the awkward ‘what do I do with my hands now!?!’ feeling at concerts when I don’t have a drink in hand, which has led to some really bad public air drumming.

ThatJenn (#916)

Hey, I also quit drinking alcohol this year after a miserable experience at New Year’s. (At first I thought I would only quit until March. Then March came, and it still didn’t sound good, so I gave it up for Lent. Then Easter came and the idea still turns my stomach.) I never drank as much or as frequently, but I’ve been happy with the extra money.

What’s been shocking to me, however, is how much money I’ve saved by quitting soda (over the last month). I did the math, and I spent like $3,000 a year on Diet Coke. Which is a lot cheaper than alcohol! I’m not going to fly to South America, but I’m totally using the savings to buy better food at the grocery store so I don’t sit there agonizing over how much I really WANT the good-quality local grass-fed meat but it’s just so EXPENSIVE.

@Jenn@twitter Pop is so expensive relative to its deliciousness and nutritional value. It is also super bad for you. I gave it up in college and (aside from a few Diet Cokes out of extreme caffeine need here and there) have never looked back. Welcome, friend!

sally (#917)

“How could we have let this happen?” By drinking in places where a drink is $11.

And, this is what anti-anxiety drugs are for. Take a half, before you leave the house. Don’t take any bottle with you, and do not decide to have a drink after all. Do not. Also, not fattening.

Katzen-party (#219)

@sally Reading this, I was like, “$9 for a freaking BEER?!?”

Sarah H. (#408)

About halfway through last summer, I hit a wall with drinking, and suddenly couldn’t drink more than about two drinks without an absolutely horrific hangover the next day. At first it was obnoxious (and still kind of is, I can get accidental hangovers so easily!), but then it ended up saving me a shitload of money. I’m okay with it.

elizabeast (#629)

Ah spending money on drinking. I haven’t quit, but after a few terrible hangovers I’ve scaled back a lot. Usually I have one drink when I’m out, maybe two if the bartender is making them weak. Everyone else around me downs shots and I don’t mind because I really enjoy giggling at my drunk friends.

Except! Recently I tried to have a conversation with my boyfriend about money and budgeting and how we’re ever going to afford things like houses or just nicer apartments. A HUGE drain on his money is his drunk spending. After two drinks, he’s buying rounds of shots…and by the next morning he’s mysteriously missing $200. There’s pretty much no talking drunk boyfriend out of buying everyone drinks though so…I guess we’ll just never have a nicer apartment.

angelinha (#1,186)

@elizabeast For what it’s worth, I am always really appreciative when other people’s drunk boyfriends buy everyone shots!

elizabeast (#629)

@angelinha It’s great! It just also sucks because drunk boyfriend is a spending machine!

Marissa (#467)

The cost of boozing (and my ever decreasing alcohol tolerance) is why I switched from fruity vodka drinks to plain old vodka martinis. They take me longer to drink so when I go out, I’ll usually just have one instead of two.

Also, I love cheap bottles of Chilean wine from Trader Joe’s. Love love love.

I don’t get it. If not for booze money, what’s the point of going to work?

@stuffisthings uh oh. This is the part where the fun police show up and yell at you for spending $40 a month on booze.

@Jake Reinhardt Mint sez:

$404 on Alcohol & Bars
$184 on Restaurants
$122 on Groceries

No regrets!

ETA: Mint also says “Budget for enjoying life, not just paying bills.” Amen, brother.

@stuffisthings I’m so glad I’m a one beer queer.

(I ALWAYS WANT TO CALL MYSELF A ONE BEER QUEER BUT IT DOESNT QUITE EXACTLY WORK BUT ITS SUCH A GOOD LINE. FUCK IT. I’M DOING IT. <- three glasses of wine)

eta: (i love you edits) urban dictionary tells me this doesn’t refer at all to one’s sexuality, therefore, CHEERS!

eta2: urban dictionary’s second definition is someone who can’t hold alcohol, making them “look like a queer”??? that sounds derogatory? is this derogatory? BUT ITS SO GOOOOD

wallrock (#1,003)

I’m a pretty big booze hound but my propensity for crippling hangovers usually limits my consumption. I’m really big into local microbreweries and distilleries so I think I actually pay more for the libations in my house than anything I buy when out on the town. I don’t spend more than $20 on drinks out at a show or at a bar (booze is cheap here in Madison) but I’ll find myself spending over a C-note at the liquor store getting $15 bombers of Imperial IPAs, Belgian Quads or local whiskey.

The last time I went totally dry was for a month after a horrible confluence of an outdoor beer festival and a later poker tournament, the aftermath still ranking as the worst hangover I’ve experienced. I found it really difficult to refrain from drinking, in part because I live in Wisconsin with its pervasive drinking culture, but also because I became a lot more abrasive in my interactions with others. It turns out I’ve got little interest in the lives of others in my pure and clean state.

You guys should be drinking for free! There are lots of events around the city that are free and usually have an hour or two of open bar. They’re sometimes a hassle with long lines but it’s free! I’m not associated with the site but myfreeconcert.com has had good listings the past few months.

@forget it i quit Most places I go, I know the bartenders to a greater or lesser extent, so my tab is never 100% market price. However, it’s always a gamble as to how much of a discount I’ll get and how many drinks will get conveniently “left off”. Sometimes I get $150 worth of liquor for $11, sometimes I pay $40 for three drinks.

@forget it i quit Did you know that people live outside of “the city”? Hard to believe, I know.

@Vicky Johnson@twitter I usually just assume that when Internet people say “the city” they mean the large city that is nearest to me. It’s their own fault if I get confused.

trivialpursuits (#1,182)

I have to say, whenever I cut back or cut out alcohol I find I save money not just because I’m not drinking, but also because I’m not getting drunk and taking a cab home or heading to a diner late at night and ordering every greasy fried thing I can find. It’s not just the booze that adds up, it’s the additional spending that Drunk TrivialPursuits tacks on to a night of drinking.

sony_b (#225)

Yep. I didn’t have such an extreme experience, but I had an epiphany about how much this was costing me, and switched to diet cokes about 15 years ago. I kept hanging out with my friends. The bartenders didn’t seem to mind at all, in fact some of them seemed to like having a sober person to talk to at the end of the night.

Alcohol isn’t a need, and it isn’t necessary to enjoy an evening out. Or in. It’s just not. I do drink occasionally now, but definitely not if I’m feeling broke. And only the good stuff when I do go for it.

Same thing happened to me after a long night at a very nice Manhattan cocktail bar! That’s the beauty of poison (and make no mistake, alcohol is a poison). When you get too much of it, your body notices and will slap your proverbial hand if you so much as smell it again. See also – food poisoning from bad sushi, or when you drink six Sobes in under an hour while suffering from Strepp. Evolution at work.

Naturally, I spend all the money I would’ve spent on alcohol on decadent food. No savings for me!

bluewindgirl (#1,036)

Accidental teetotaller here–I barely ever drink, not because I have anything against drinking but because I was a huge nerd who didn’t party much in college and never really learned to like alcohol? By the time I realized I could drink booze smuggled into sweet things or blended into calorie-bomb-milkshakes, I just wasn’t used to the idea of paying a bunch of money for something that wasn’t good for me. I can’t feel sanctimonious about the money I’m saving by being lame though, because (a) where does it stop? I also don’t smoke or do cocaine or own a horse or have a gambling problem, should I congratulate myself on all that stuff too? and (b) I counterbalance my sober habits by throwing whatever cash I have at frozen yogurt vendors. Pinkberry, she is a jealous mistress.

charizard (#1,197)

Start smoking weed regularly. You won’t save any money, but you’ll never want to drink again!

@charizard i think smoking weed is a lot cheaper than drinking!

i still drink though. although i definitely prefer my substances more illict. and bad for my lungs. :D

Tim Chuma (#458)

I also mainly drink club soda and lime during the week or when I don’t feel like drinking. My local doesn’t even charge me for it these days. Depends on the venue also. Am more likely to drink at the RSL (Veterans) Club/Bowling Club than the place with the $9 vodka, although that does not stop me going for the $18 cocktail the comes with a free finger puppet (if you come home with all fingers covered you have spent too much.)

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