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Is It Cheaper to Drink Beer or Smoke Pot?

That depends on how much alcohol and weed you consume — and where you buy it.

by Michelle Jackson; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
Mar 27 2018, 9:24pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

At the end of a long day, you may want something to take the edge off, whether it’s a spliff or a stiff drink. But which is better for your wallet? When this question made its way to my desk, I laughed. But it's actually a serious question because your booze or weed habits could be killing your budget.

Consider the “Latte Factor.” You may have heard about the idea that eliminating small expenses, like your daily latte, and investing that money instead could make you a millionaire in the future. Recently, for instance, there was a big stink about millennials going broke because of their love of avocado toast. While that idea was widely debunked, the grain of truth there is that mindless spending can make you broke.

The two vices have something in common: After you’ve smoked a bowl or had a couple glasses of your favorite drink, it's easy to lose track of what you’re spending. Or stop caring. You're having a good time, so more is better, right? And once you're on a roll, it’s super easy to spend way more than whatever you may have budgeted for your daily, weekly, or monthly treat.

As a Coloradan, I will be the first to admit that I know a lot of people who have mentioned indulging in legal cannabis. Maybe they smoke a bowl, ingest an edible, or save it for a special occasion like the Colorado Symphony’s Classically Cannabis event. For many, cannabis is the equivalent of some people’s after-work glass of wine, or even a walk in the park. It’s how many people choose to unwind from a hard day.

Likewise, there are people who are obsessed with the local craft brewing scene here in Denver and make a point of touring the city (and state) to taste their favorite craft beers. In fact, a woman named Liz Thomas walked 88 miles and visited 65 Denver breweries in eight days. That’s a lot of beer — and a lot of miles.

What's your budget for wine and weed?

To figure out how much you're spending, the first question that you need to ask yourself is: “How often am I indulging?” With cannabis in particular you need to take into account that you’re almost always spending cash to purchase it. Because you’re paying with cash, it can be very easy to lose track of the amount you’ve spent. Also, similar to coffee, pot prices vary depending on the type of strain you purchase and purchases are made in varying weights ranging from a gram to a quarter to an ounce. There’s even a website, Budzu.com, that can help you get a general idea of what the average price is by weight and depending on the town that you’re in.

Figuring out the cost of booze is just as tricky as figuring out the cost of pot. If you’re going to Trader Joe’s and purchasing Four Buck Chuck every day, that really adds up. If you’re stopping for happy hour every Thursday and Friday and wondering why your bill is way more than you anticipated, you may need to ask yourself how many drinks and appetizers you ate. Then there are the endless variations in quality for each type of alcohol imaginable.

So which is more expensive? That depends on how you approach drinking or smoking. The average U.S. household spent about $484 a year on alcohol in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, versus an estimated $647 annual spend on pot among weed smokers, according to a 2016 estimate based on legal marijuana purchases in Washington State from cannabis research firm Headset. (Washington has some of the cheapest marijuana prices in the country, according to the crowdsourced site, Price of Weed.)

But averages don't tell the whole story. When you break those numbers down by individual drinking and smoking sessions, weed can actually be cheaper, assuming you're a cheapskate and are totally fine with the least expensive weed and the most basic brew. In that case, it is almost always cheaper to smoke weed, provided that your joint is the typical 0.4 grams and you're drinking a six-pack of Bud Light.

Just how much cheaper is it to get high instead of getting drunk? Take this example from New Jersey, which has about average weed prices (even though marijuana has not been legalized there) according to Price of Weed. A low-end joint there will set you back a little more than $4 versus $6 for a six-pack of Bud Light at a local retailer.

Of course, you'll want to take these numbers with a grain of salt. Depending on your tolerance for pot or beer, you may need much more or less of each to get to your happy place. And if you live in an expensive big city like New York, the price of beer could easily be double our estimate. Thinking more broadly, the "cost" of each indulgence could be a lot higher overall when you consider the potential health risks of addiction and the increased risk of chronic diseases. But you get the idea.

Are you a cheap drunk or a weed snob?

If you want to save money on your vice of choice, here are a couple of things that you can do to manage your booze or pot budget.

  • Track your spending: With pot, you’ll have to figure out how much cash you spent to purchase your stash. It’s unlikely that you’ve made pot purchases with your credit card because it’s still considered a Class A substance in most places. Once you’ve figured out the amount you spent, multiply that number by twelve for the number of months in the year. That will give you an idea of how much you’ve spent annually on pot. I actually did this when looking at my clothing and travel habits and discovered I was spending a lot more than I expected. With booze, you may have used your credit or debit card to make those purchases. Look through your records and add up what you’ve spent last month and then multiply it by twelve. If you enjoy both, do this for both.
  • How Many Work Hours? Now that you’ve figured out how much you’re spending on booze and or pot, it’s a good idea to figure out how many hours of work it takes to afford your habit. If pot or booze is costing you more than a day's worth of work each month, it might be time to cut back. In fact, this may be the deciding factor on whether or not this habit is too expensive to you.
  • Make Adjustments: You may find that your occasional bowl is not hurting your bottom line or your ability to be productive, or you may find that your your booze habit is out of control and you need to do something about it. Instead of enjoying your habits every day, maybe you’ll switch it up to once a week or embrace the envelope method and set aside a budget amount for recreational enjoyment.

Photo by @mark.co via nappy.co

Finally, consider whether both habits are personally and professionally risky and expensive to you. Here are a few scenarios:

  • You show up drunk or stoned to work. This feels like a no-brainer but happens frequently. You can and probably should lose your job.
  • You work for an organization that runs periodic drug tests. In Colorado, a paraplegic gentleman lost his job because he was using medicinal marijuana. So, he sued his employer. His case eventually made it to the Colorado state supreme court and he lost! The ruling basically stated that employers had the right to fire employees for off the job use of any type of drug-including medicinal marijuana.
  • As a person who lives in a state where people have the right to enjoy what they would like to enjoy I leave you with this: “With great freedom comes great responsibility.” Enjoy!

Michelle Jackson runs the blog and podcast Michelle is Money Hungry. She's still on her debt freedom journey, but is getting closer to the end. When she's not blogging, you may find her roaming around the mountains of Colorado. Follow Michelle Jackson on Twitter.