You don't have to eat meals alone just to stay on budget
Well, here are a few things I have tried in the past that seem to work. Remember, I'm not a financial planner. I'm telling you what I have done to stay on budget.
I plan splurges
I actually stole this cash budgeting idea from the old school Weight Watchers Points plan (I lost 20 pounds 14 years ago and haven't gained it back, so this idea works). On the points plan a person has so many caloric points a day/week to spend. They have to hit a minimum number of calories everyday, but they can't exceed a maximum. If they have a special event coming up, they can eat the minimum points (or just above it) and bank the remaining available points for another day. The only rule is that all of the banked points have to be consumed by week's end.
Being on a budget means planning weekly and monthly expenses just like planning caloric points. I plan "excessive" days, set a fixed amount that I will spend and then stay under budget "banking" the surplus money for that special "excessive" day. Friend wants to go to dinner this Friday? Great! If it's Tuesday, and I have a few days to underspend so that I can afford dinner on Friday. If my friend calls Friday and I don't have "points" to spare? I decline and suggest I'll meet them later for something lower cost (i.e. post dinner drink) or I invite them to my apartment (I do this most frequently). I can always bank for dinner out with my friend the next week.
Make back up plans for splurges
I can't emphasize this enough. It makes sense to have some "points" in pocket just in case. I often underspend during the week, anticipating weekend nights out. On the weekends where I do little, I figure out what to do with the excess. Sometimes I put the money on debt, sometimes I buy much needed clothes or order food in. It's my "excess" and I use it by the end of the week.
I am up front about what I am willing to spend
When I meet with a group of friends I am very up front about what I can afford. The earlier my budget is introduced into the planning conversation, the better. I have had to skip a few 30th birthdays and nights out because I've been on a strict budget. I usually make plans to meet up with my friends at a cheaper location after they have enjoyed the place I can't afford. I don't mind missing the experience, because the expense will stress me out and they don't mind because we get to spend some time together.
Don't let shame get in the way of your financial happiness
I am never ashamed of being budgeted. I am budgeted because I am a graduate student. I have worked very hard to finish this degree and part of that means working long hours without compensation. Anyone who would make me feel bad about that is not worth my time. When a friend tells me that everyone is going to the Landmarc and I can't afford it, I wish them well and tell them I'll meet them later.
I don't share food or buy rounds
This is a killer. Shared bills rack up charged very quickly, especially when drinks are involved. When I am strictly budgeted, I simply don't do it. When there is a group of people rotating in and out of a waitressed, seated area a bar I either ask for a separate cheque, close out a tab immediately or I get my drink at the bar and come back.
I alternate water with drinks
This slows the drinking, keeps me from being hungover and leaves my wallet intact. Usually have a club soda, which can be easily disguised as a vodka soda-like drink if I am pressured to have a drink in front of me.
If all else fails, I leave
If I am already out with friends and my attempts to keep the evening low cost are unheeded, I simply step out. The bar hours in this city run until 4:30...and then there are after clubs and diners. A 7 pm after work drink can turn into my key slipping into my front door at 8:30 am the next day. It has happened before - so if my friends really want to go someplace very expensive, and I can't negotiate another location, I let them go without me. My friends are pretty awesome though, so this rarely happens.
Any other tips that might be helpful?