Two young women are huddled around an ATM in a corner of a Toronto nightclub. After the machine flicks out a few bills, they turn and take three quick steps to the bar where liquor bottles are arranged in rows like singers in a choir.
They order two vodka sevens. Sixteen dollars, the bartender says. To their left, a man orders 10 “Porn Star” shooters. The bartender spills inky liquid into a line of stubby shot glasses. The guy counts out $90 and toasts with his friends.
“There’s very little alcohol in them,” the bartender at Brant House Nightclub tells me, referring to the shooters which have splashes of Blue Curacao liqueur and raspberry Sour Puss.
Some Canadians spend thousands of dollars a year on booze, bars and clubs. We pay for a great time with friends, a chance to hook-up, a mental reprieve from work. We pay to network, to affirm our social status, to celebrate a raise, a birthday, a Friday. Unless we drink too much, in which case, we pay for with amnesia and queasiness.
“When I was bartending, you’d get people coming to the bar and if someone spent $200 or $300, you’d think, ‘Wow, big spender.’ Now a big spender is someone who spends two to three grand at a table,” says Zark Fatah, a 38-year-old nightlife entrepreneur.
How much someone spends is relative.
Every Thursday, Lin Nguyen joins her co-workers and former colleagues for drinks. The 30-year-old Kitchener native who works in human resources at Ernst & Young in Toronto might spend about $40 a week.
Meanwhile, one 35-year-old Toronto developer told me that he once spent $40,000 in a summer going out for drinks. His commercial plaza north of Toronto brings in $189,000 net a year and he estimates he spends 10% of it going to bars four nights a week with friends. He admits it’s stupid but says: “It’s the single life.”
It’s the single life. It’s youth. It’s the mantra: YOLO (you only live once).
But how do we spend thousands of dollars and have nothing to show for it, no evidence of money spent except for a few online nightclub photos of us looking sweaty and red?
Actually, it’s pretty easy.
Take a night out in Toronto. The average cover for a club is $20 (maybe $10 if you’re on the guest list). If you’re a lady, sometimes it’s free before 11 p.m. Now, of course, the drinks. Alcoholic beverages start at about $2.75; but I’ve had $20 drinks at Toronto bars.
Don’t forget the extra costs: cab fare, booze for pre-drinking, the after-hours meal in Chinatown, the bouncer’s “tip” because you didn’t want to wait in line.
If you’re doing this in Montreal, “knock it down by 25% for the exact same night,” says Fabio Campanella, a 35-year-old financial advisor who lives in Toronto and plays in Montreal.
Bottle service, which became popular about eight years ago, changed the way people spend money in clubs. Depending on where you go, bottle service starts at $100 a bottle with a minimum two-bottle buy to secure you a booth.
“It’s no longer about buying drinks. You’re buying real estate in a club. The better the real estate, the more status you have,” Mr. Fatah says. “Dance floor tables will sell for $1,000 or $1,500 a table.”
The average household in Canada spent $858 on alcohol in 2011. Data has shown a steady increase in heavy drinking among young men and women. Almost 34% of people aged 20 to 34 were considered heavy drinkers (reported having had five or more drinks on one occasion, at least once a month in the year), according to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey. That’s up from nearly 20% in 1993.
The economic downturn in 2008 caused fewer people to go out on Thursdays and Fridays; but Saturday continues to be party night. Mr. Fatah says the average bar spend on a Saturday night is about $50 a person. That’s about six drinks each.
“Who are these people? Some of them are very successful Bay Street guys who are either entertaining clients or have the disposable income to spend the money. A lot of them live in the [suburbs]. Some of them live with their parents. Some of them don’t have mortgages to worry about. Three or four guys, they pool their money and they’re rock stars for a night and they’ll do it a couple times a month,” he says.
“I’ve seen people spend upwards of $10,000 in one night. In order to spend that much, you have to be buying a lot of champagne.”
It’s 1:30 a.m. and as Bruce Ram approaches the bouncer at Brassaii Restaurant and Lounge in the courtyard outside the Toronto 25+ club; they greet each other with a handshake and a hug. Inside, the rounded booths can be bought for two $330+ bottles of booze. The liquor comes in a bucket lit from the bottom so that the ice and your drinks emit a radioactive glow. Tonight, Toronto Raptors player Andrea Bargnani and a few of his teammates have a booth.
The general manager who is in a three-piece suit and tie, sees Mr. Ram and yells over the music, “You’re a regular. I love it!”
That’s because Mr. Ram, 33, was here on Wednesday. He makes a six-figure salary working for Rogers and at his family’s companies. He spends $100 to $500 a night and goes out three nights a week. He names off a bar for every night of the week. “These places will be packed every night,” he says. “It’s about feeling special. It’s about the experience.”
Over the last 30 years, getting married and having children have come later and is less common. This doesn’t mean that by postponing coupledom or parenthood we’re all getting smashed instead; but maybe we have more time to “hang out.”
“There are a lot more single people above the age of 28,” says Andrew Christoforou, the 35-year-old marketing director for Uniq Lifestyle Entertainment Group. “And people live for instant gratification these days. I really don’t see a lot of people looking to the future to be secure. The information age is at the click of a finger, the press of a button. It has to be now.”
As Dimitri Bumbaca says: “What else are you going to do? Are you going to go bowling?”
I happen to like bowling; but Mr. Bumbaca, 21, is in the business of liquid entertainment. He runs Evolve Management, which provides marketing and management for various nightclubs in Toronto and on a typical Saturday night, he and 10 friends might spend about $2,500.
“It’s worth the good time. Go, spend money, talk to girls, have drinks, it’s nice,” he says. “To tell a 19-year-old to save your money and to not go out and party, it’s a waste of breath. They’re going to go out and experience, just like everyone else did, like their parents did and my bosses did. It’s maturity, the older you get, you realize, ‘I’m not going to go out every night.’”
How you drink depends on where you live. A report in the Canadian Journal of Public Health paints a picture: Men in the Maritimes like beer. In the Prairies, people prefer spirits (it makes up a third of their annual intake). In Quebec, Ontario and B.C., those who drink, drink more often, drink more wine and drink more with a meal than other Canadians.
Robert DeFilippi, a 26-year-old Vancouver resident, drinks only wine. He spends about $5,000 a year or 15% of his income on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It’s worth every penny,” he says, while having a $16 glass of Pinot Noir with his lunch at Joey’s Restaurant. He’s pursuing a career in banking and runs a lifestyles website for men. “During my undergrad, we’d go out and drink until we were black out drunk. That was fine when I was 19 to 22. I got it out of my system. Now when I go out drinking, my primary reason is to go out and meet people. Vancouver is a city where who you know dictates what sort of job you get, what sort of opportunities that you get.”
The friends he has met at the bar have led to professional opportunities. “Every time I go to the bar, I have a specific goal to meet people, get business cards and talk to them. I’ve done the ‘let’s go out and get hammered’ and that gets old really fast; but I look at it as an activity to progress not only my social network but my professional network.”
Maybe he has a point. A 2006 study, entitled “No Booze? You May Lose” showed that drinkers earned more than non-drinkers because of their increased “social capital.” The researchers found that self-reported drinkers earn 10 to 14% more than abstainers; males who go to the bars at least once a month earn an addition 7% on top of the 10% drinkers premium.
Many bars and restaurants cater to the cinq à sept crowd.
“It’s always a busy week,” says Ms. Nguyen. “That’s a given. On Thursdays, we’re ready to unwind a little.”
By the end of the night, she’s had five or six gin and tonics and has spent $40, maybe $55 if she’s had snacks, maybe $60 if she takes a cab home. At a minimum, that’s $2080 a year. “Rude awakening, eh,” she says.
“Is it worth it? I’m spending that time having some downtime with colleagues. What else would I do with that $2,000?”
Well, if she invested $2,080 annually, with an annual rate of return of 5%, by the time she was 65, she would have more than $209,000 saved for retirement, Mr. Campanella says.
As with anything in life, we just need to plan.
“Whenever you’re budgeting in an entertainment amount, you start with what are your fixed costs to live: your rent, your car payment,” he says. “Whatever is left over, you have to allocate a certain amount to your savings or debt repayment, which should be rule of thumb 20% of your earnings if you’re living on your own or 50% [if you’re] living with parents. Whatever remains is your discretionary income. You can spend it all. Just don’t go over that amount.”
Miguel Pacheco, a 33-year-old public relations specialist in Toronto, spends 3% of his income on drinks with friends.
“That $2,600 provides memories, it strengthens my social ties,” he says. “I think there is a savings issue in the generation. But I think there are a lot of people out there living responsibly trying to do the best they can with the limited means they have…If I’m going to save almost everything that I make and I’m not going to go out to eat and not going to buy anything there, then what am I working for? Why am I here? Your life is here to be enjoyed.”