If you’ve ever sworn off alcohol only to dive into your drink of choice soon after, you might have gathered that cutting back on booze can be both alluring and, well, hard. Overall, we are a nation of pretty prolific drinkers. Think I’m exaggerating? Research from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which polled over 68,000 Americans above the age of 12, indicated that 56 percent of respondents 18 and over had consumed alcohol in the past month. About 27 percent of people 18 or older had engaged in binge drinking (having four to five drinks within two hours) in the past month.
Our love of drinking seeps into our social lives; quality time often involves making toasts, attending happy hours, and participating in boozy brunches. It’s no wonder that cutting back might prove harder than it seems.
Since you clicked on this article, chances are something about your drinking isn’t sitting well with you. You might even wonder if your alcohol use meets the threshold of alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder. This essentially means you drink compulsively, lack control over your drinking, and experience a strong urge to drink because going without alcohol feels crappy in one way or another, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). But also, you don’t need to have alcohol use disorder to decide you don’t want to drink as much (or at all). Maybe you’re a mostly moderate drinker (up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men), but you still don’t love something about how alcohol makes you feel or the effect it has on your life.
Whether artisan cocktails are draining your wallet or hangovers are draining your life force, it can be hard to change your drinking habits. So, we talked to five people about what made them cut back and what advice they have for people looking to do the same. Hopefully, their stories provide a little guidance if you’re hoping to sit out the rest of frosé season and beyond.
1. “I stopped liking who I was when I would drink.”
“In my early 20s, I was all about going to bars or having a few glasses of wine to unwind after a long day. But, somewhere along the way, I stopped liking who I was when I would drink. I’d say or do something awful and then I would spend days regretting it. As I get older, the stakes are too high. I have a great relationship and a good job. I am not going to blow this over alcohol. Plus, that two-day hangover is real. Now, I try to drink only on special occasions, like weddings or other celebrations.
When I first cut back, not keeping alcohol in the house unless guests were coming over was really helpful. I also rewarded myself. For instance, if I went out and everyone was drinking beer but I abstained, then I would get to have an extra cookie or some ice cream. It helped me not feel so deprived.
The hardest part has been fielding questions from people who don’t understand why I don’t drink much anymore. When I decided to do 30 days of no alcohol, my fiancé’s college friends came into town and met us at a bar. I’d never met them before, and they immediately asked why I wasn’t drinking. I lied and said, ‘Surprise! This guy got me pregnant!’
Eventually, I told them it was a joke, but I doubt they’ll ask anyone why they aren’t drinking anytime soon.” —Amanda T., 30, cut back in June 2017
2. “My relationship with alcohol wasn’t healthy.”
“I used to consider myself to be a social drinker, but when I turned to drinking alone on a daily basis, I had to be honest with myself: My relationship with alcohol wasn’t healthy, and it was time to cut back. For me, cutting back means that I pay attention to my body, and I know my limits. I used to consume anywhere from four to six drinks a night. Now it’s two or three, max, on special occasions.
Drinking less has also been part of the fitness and weight loss journey I’ve embarked upon since January. I’ve been paying more attention to what I’ve been putting into my body and how it impacts me negatively or positively. I’ve lost a lot of weight in these past eight months. I know that’s mostly due to changes in my activity and overall nutrition, but cutting back on alcohol specifically has also helped. Also, my mind is clear, and I now face my problems head on instead of coping with alcohol.
That said, being around my relatives can be a bit challenging because we are a drinking family. We might hang out and have wine or have dinner and drinks. I don’t impose my lifestyle on my family, but when I’m with them now, it’s water or tea, and an alcoholic beverage every so often instead of at every Sunday dinner. ” —Chineye E., 34, cut back in January 2019
3. “It’s expensive to drink.”
“Before I cut back, I drank with friends for any and every occasion, and I drank my way through the dating scene. A few drinks felt necessary to deal with all the ridiculousness that’s out there. But it’s expensive to drink.
Now, I’ll still drink, but I just make sure to be smart about it. Instead of ripping shots, I’ll nurse a beer or a cocktail for a while. I also ask myself if I’ve fulfilled all of my financial obligations before I start drinking. If I’m having a tight month, I’ll abstain. But if I’m in a good place, I might have a couple of drinks to unload a little.
The hardest thing about being sober is having ridiculous conversations with someone who’s already wasted. I’ve always felt that no one wants to be the sober person at a party. And why is this? Because drunk people are kind of the worst. They can’t speak, and if they do, most of the time they repeat their stories over and over. But when you’re the sober person, you are a walking tome for the events of that evening and are totally allowed to laugh at the people making fools of themselves. As long as no one is in danger, of course.
If you’re thinking of cutting back, my advice would be to remind yourself why. It’s going to be tough, and there might be days ahead where you totally fall off, but a couple of bad days won’t ruin the process. Keep your head up and start again. The friends that are nearest to you will understand, and the others will fall by the wayside.” —Bobby M.*, 35, cut back in April 2014
4. “My mental strength goals were more important to me than drinking.”
“I used to drink Thursday through Saturday. I probably had like 15 drinks or so a week. I drank because I enjoyed how it made me feel in the short-term: sexy and free-spirited. But I was not being healthy about it mentally. I was using it to find confidence.
My biggest motivator in cutting back was the sadness I knew was linked to drinking in order to feel better about myself. After talking it through with my therapist, I realized that my mental strength goals were more important to me than drinking. I made the decision to stop drinking out of emotion and decided to put my energy into weight training, and that’s helped me develop a stronger sense of self. Now, I barely have one drink on the weekends. I save drinking for when I am on vacation or at a nice dinner. My energy level is better and I don’t feel sluggish.
Most of my friends are either supportive or impressed, but there are a few who try to coerce me to drink. Even then, I don’t. I grab a soda or seltzer, stick some lime in it, and if someone asks, I’ll tell them I am not drinking.
Ultimately, I think cutting back on any habit that isn’t making you a better person is a good thing. If having drinks doesn’t make you feel good about yourself and you have feelings of guilt, then you should start to make choices that feel right for you.” —Kayla S.*, 36, cut back in Fall 2017
5. “I was unhappy and using alcohol to cope.”
“I cut back after going through a divorce and feeling that I needed to become a healthier version of myself. I never had more than three drinks in a night, but I felt alcoholic beverages would further depress me.
What surprised me about drinking less in the beginning was how my true introverted personality started to reveal itself. Not drinking made going out with friends who still drank heavily hard for me. And I’m a chef, so drinking is basically like tasting food, but going to events for free drinks didn’t have the same appeal.
Instead of going out drinking, I started to use hot yoga, indoor cycling classes, and jogging to fill my time. I also started reading more books to improve my career ambitions and my spiritual life, and to help me understand my own behavior patterns. I concentrated on nurturing myself and didn’t focus on what I was missing by not drinking. Instead, I focused on what I was beginning to gain, which was the clarity I needed to move forward without wearing my wedding ring. Now I sometimes still have a drink, but usually, after one, I will drink seltzer with lime for the remainder of the night. I feel happy and stay hydrated that way.
My advice to anyone who might be thinking about cutting back? If you can, just do it, and don’t dwell on it. If it seems too hard to cut back on your own, then perhaps a meeting or counseling will help. Never be too proud to stop, and try not to deny when drinking may be a problem that potentially masks deeper issues. Looking back, I realize that I was unhappy and using alcohol to cope.” -Tia C., 43, cut back in June 2013
*Names have been changed upon request. Quotes have been edited for clarity.
If you’d like more information about cutting back on alcohol, check out the NIAAA’s support and treatment resources guide or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.