Sweating the Cost of Summer Fun

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Late last week I suggested we drive to the Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ — yep, that’s really its name — for supper. It wasn’t that there wasn’t anything to eat at home. It’s that the weather was too nice to stay inside.

Sure, we could have had leftovers at a table in the backyard. In fact, my life partner suggested we do just that rather than spending $30 or more on ribs. But I wanted to take advantage of the splendid drive along Turnagain Arm, and then sit on the patio eating fried pickles and basking in the nonstop Alaska sun.

Summer can do a number on a frugalist’s finances – especially if your friends don’t play fair. Whether it’s beer and chicken wings after a pickup softball game or al fresco lunches with pals on a sunny Saturday, the next few months could lead to all sorts of uncomfortable money situations.

Suppose you take your BFF out for dinner and meet her for coffee the following week. “You paid last time, so I’ll get this,” she says. As if a couple of Mocha Frappuccinos were equivalent to pasta, wine and lavender panna cotta – and as if she didn’t know that you, too, are paying back student loans on an entry-level salary.

Ever agreed to temporarily cover a friend’s ticket to the outdoors blues festival (and his visits to the beer garden) but never heard a word about repayment? This is particularly annoying if this friend later posts on Facebook about his swell new game system.

Or maybe it’s work-related, e.g., lunches out or drinks after work on Friday. Socializing can build camaraderie and a sense of teamwork, so saying “yes” can have a real advantage even if you’re on a fairly strict budget. (Plus you might even have fun. Remember fun?)

But suppose your experience with the cubicle gang is that someone always says, “Let’s just split it evenly”? (Often the person who says this is the guy or gal who orders the expensive booze and appetizers.) Suddenly your carefully hoarded fun fund will be overdrawn.

‘It’s about relationships’

Should you say something? Maybe not. Carmen Wong Ulrich, author of “The Real Cost of Living,” says not everything is going to be “fair” when it comes to socializing.

“It’s not just about the dollars. It’s about relationships,” she says. “If it bothers you that much, don’t go. For me, it’s not worth (complaining about) the extra $10.”

To some extent I agree. Among good friends a few dollars here and there will ultimately even out. If you’re in a better position financially you might not even care whether everyone pays exactly his share or not. Treating a friend or relative is a great pleasure.

And if you really can’t afford to go the “$30 from everybody should cover it” route, especially if you stuck to a salad and a Diet Coke? Let it be known upfront. As you’re looking at menus, say, “I’m on a budget and can’t afford to split the bill evenly, but I will leave my share plus tax and tip.”

If you’d like more leeway, examine your budget for places from which to move dollars. Maybe you could turn your every-Saturday breakfast date with friends to an every-other-Saturday event, and use that money toward summer fun.

Picking your spots

Feel free to suggest less-pricey entertainment, too. A walk or bike ride, a day at the free town beach or lake, a picnic basket and blanket at an outdoor concert – all are good ways to enjoy the nice weather.

Fly a kite from the dollar store. Catch fireflies (come on, you know you want to). Make ice cream at home and then sit on the balcony with big, drippy cones (and don’t forget the sprinkles).

You don’t need to pulverize your budget to enjoy the summer. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to spend a little extra now and then. The old me would have eaten those leftovers. These days I’m more inclined to pick my spots when it comes to saving money.

In fact, I insisted on paying for both of us. At the end of the evening my partner said, “This was a great idea. I’m glad we came.”

He’s right: It was a great idea. The ribs were smoky, the beer local and cold, the drive heartbreakingly beautiful. The Alaska summer is marvelous, and oh so fleeting. It’s against my religion to waste the sun if it’s out.

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