Drinking alcohol is a popular pastime for many Americans. A 2019 study cited by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that approximately 70% of Americans reported drinking at some point in the previous year. About 55% of Americans reported drinking at some point in the past month.
Alcohol use has many benefits, both real and perceived. It’s a social lubricant, an enjoyable taste experience, and may even have health benefits when consumed in moderation.
But alcohol use also has a darker side. It’s a major cause of preventable death and long-term health problems like heart disease and liver disease, a drag on productivity (notwithstanding the trope of the “high-functioning alcoholic”), and an expensive habit to boot. Indeed, many of the drawbacks of alcohol abuse (or even regular use) have financial components, whether directly tied to the cost of alcohol or not.
Are alcohol’s financial and health downsides serious enough to swear off the stuff altogether? Are the benefits of giving up alcohol worth the hit to your social life or personal sense of well-being?
That’s a difficult question to answer in the abstract. If neither you nor your loved ones are concerned by your drinking habits, quitting likely isn’t a top priority for you — and that’s probably fine. However, if you suspect your alcohol use is a drag on your finances, personal relationships, or work life — or you worry it may become a problem in the future — you might be ready to explore the benefits of giving up alcohol.
Reasons to Voluntarily Stop Drinking: Benefits of Giving Up Alcohol
In the United States, one “standard drink” is equivalent to 12 ounces of 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) beer, 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (40% ABV), according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That’s a standard-sized can or bottle of beer, glass of wine, or shot of spirits, respectively.
High-ABV beer, fortified wine, and intermediate-strength liqueurs require special calculations based on proof and drink size. The NIAA’s Rethinking Drinking portal has a useful drink serving calculator that incorporates some nonstandard drink types.
According to the CDC, the generally accepted “moderate” drinking rate is no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Binge drinking is defined as four drinks or more on a single occasion for women and five drinks or more on a single occasion for men. Heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men, regardless of the number of distinct occasions.
Generally speaking, public health authorities frown on any alcohol use at all. For example, the CDC counsels individuals who don’t currently drink to continue abstaining. In other words: If you don’t drink, don’t start.
If you do drink alcohol, consider quitting or cutting back. In the shorter term, doing so could reduce your risk of health and safety hazards associated with alcohol addiction or excessive alcohol consumption (such as motor vehicle accidents and alcohol withdrawal) and alleviate consumption-related financial strain. In the long run, abstaining or drinking in moderation could have significant benefits for your finances, relationships, and health.
1. It’s a Direct Financial Drain
Anyone who’s been surprised by a hefty bar tab knows that alcohol is expensive.
In big cities, a single pint of craft beer sets you back $8 to $10, and a fancy mixed drink runs anywhere from $12 to $16. That’s $40 to $80 per week for those who consume five drinks per week, not accounting for indirect costs like hailing a taxi or rideshare to get home safely. And these are midrange bar and restaurant prices; you can expect to pay even more at high-end establishments.
Drinking at home is cheaper, to be fair, but replacing alcoholic beverages with nonalcoholic drinks is even better. For inspiration, read up on popular mocktail recipes (Town & Country Magazine has a great list) or learn how to make kombucha at home.
2. It’s a Net Negative for Your Long-Term Health
According to the NIAAA, alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, after tobacco and the combined effects of poor diet and physical inactivity. A separate NIAAA study found alcohol mentioned over 70,000 death certificates in 2017 — 2.6% of all U.S. deaths that year.
Alcohol-related causes of death include:
- Cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure
- Certain types of cancer correlated with alcohol use
- Serious mental health issues (including alcohol use disorder itself) leading to increased risk of death
Though moderate alcohol use does have modest ameliorative effects, according to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the adverse effects of heavier drinking far outweigh any health benefits. If your goal is to do right by your body over the long haul, abstaining is the best course of action.
3. It’s a Significant Cause of Traumatic Injury and Death
Alcohol is bad for your long-term health, but it’s even worse for your short-term well-being. For example, the CDC reports that 10,497 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2016 — 28% of all U.S. traffic-related deaths that year and 17% of all traffic deaths among children ages 14 and under.
And the consequences of impaired driving extend beyond the tragedy of fatal crashes. Impaired driving is a very costly problem, accounting for about $43 billion in total costs as of 2010.
4. It Impairs Decision-Making
It’s no secret that alcohol impairs decision-making. One or two drinks might not lead to a dangerously bone-headed move, but excessive drinking certainly can.
As a younger person, I made plenty of questionable choices after a night of social drinking, including some with direct financial consequences. Perhaps you can say the same. The surest way to avoid making alcohol-driven choices you’ll later come to regret is not to drink at all.
5. It’s Not Pleasant the Next Day
If you’ve ever overindulged, you know firsthand just how unpleasant the morning after a night of heavy drinking can be: pounding headache, dry mouth, sour stomach, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, chills, dizzy spells, you name it.
In severe cases, a hangover may necessitate medical consultation or treatment for complications like dehydration or alcohol poisoning — a direct cost that’s likely to be higher for victims without health insurance.
6. It May Put You in Legal Jeopardy
Not all alcohol-driven bad decisions are created equal. Some, such as buying a round of drinks for the table on a low bank account, have manageable, temporary consequences.
Others are far more serious. One of the most consequential decisions you can make while impaired is to get behind the wheel of a car. Even if you don’t get into a serious accident, the costs of driving under the influence are impossible to ignore. In 2013, the FBI reported approximately 1.17 million drunk driving arrests.
Drunk driving arrests are expensive. A Nolo survey pegged the average cost of a first-offense drunk driving arrest at approximately $6,500 and nearly $11,000 when accounting for lost wages. Arrestees often miss work for court appearances and other case-related matters, and many employment contracts list a drunk driving arrest as cause for suspension or termination.
7. It May Adversely Impact Relationships
Research from the University at Buffalo reports that couples who drink heavily or unevenly (one partner drinks regularly while the other abstains) face multiple potential issues. These couples may experience:
- Lower marital satisfaction
- Higher rates of domestic abuse
- Higher rates of divorce and marriage counseling
- Higher rates of negative interaction and lower rates of positive interaction
- Financial strain related to poor money management, job loss or unstable employment, and other factors
These issues are particularly pronounced when one partner is a problem drinker and the other is a moderate drinker or alcohol-free entirely. In the worst cases, they may culminate in divorce, which can be costly.
8. It May Lead to Dependency and Associated Costs
CDC data suggests that the vast majority (9 in 10) of adults who drink too much alcohol (occasional binge drinkers) are not dependent on alcohol per se.
However, 1 in 30 American adults – more than 3% of the population – is alcohol dependent. If you have a history of alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, or other dependency disorders in your family, you may be at elevated risk for alcohol dependency.
If you suspect alcohol dependency, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about your options, including whether you should abstain altogether or seek inpatient or outpatient treatment. According to figures collected by WebMD, either option carries significant cost: $3,000 to $10,000 for a 30-day course of intensive outpatient treatment and $5,000 to $80,000 for longer inpatient stays. However, the financial cost is far outweighed by the benefits to your physical health, mental health, relationships, and career.
9. It’s Bad for Productivity and Career Advancement
Several studies cited in “Alcohol, Work and Productivity,” a major paper by the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum, suggest that moderate and heavy alcohol use negatively affect productivity at work and school. One cited study found that “delaying drinking onset by one year increased schooling by 0.47 years for men and 0.36 years for women” in the United States. Others found a connection between drinking and poor educational outcomes.
An occasional drink probably won’t derail your career or cripple your lifetime earning potential. But it’s worth pondering the effects of regular or heavy drinking on your productivity and performance in the workplace.
Is Moderation Better? Potential Benefits of Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Moderate alcohol use does have benefits. Some are supported by peer-reviewed medical research; others are anecdotal. It’s up to you whether they outweigh the potential consequences.
It May Be Good for Cardiovascular Health
Moderate alcohol use is correlated with higher levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which helps protect against cardiovascular disease.
According to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, more than 100 scientific studies showed that moderate drinking reduced the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
The observed effect ranges from 25% to 40% above the baseline — a substantial reduction. Studies suggest that continued moderate alcohol use is indicated even after acute cardiovascular events.
It May Prevent Ischemic Stroke
The same studies cited above show a significant inverse association between moderate alcohol use and risk of ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke. Like a heart attack caused by one or more blocked coronary arteries, ischemic stroke occurs when one or more blocked blood vessels prevent oxygen from reaching parts of the brain. Ischemic stroke is a leading cause of disability and death in older adults.
It May Prevent or Mitigate Type 2 Diabetes
Some studies suggest that moderate alcohol use can forestall the onset of type 2 diabetes, a costly chronic condition caused by insulin resistance. A 2005 meta-analysis published in Diabetes Care found the risk of type 2 diabetes was reduced by 30% for moderate alcohol consumers compared with nondrinkers.
It’s a Social Lubricant (in Proper Context)
In the proper context, alcohol is a social lubricant – a boon for introverts and a salve for awkward encounters.
Perhaps you’re dreading a work-sponsored happy hour, a first date, or a holiday dinner filled with cringe-worthy uncle stories. Whatever the occasion, a drink or two can help.
The challenge lies in not using alcohol as a crutch. This is a fine line to walk for many.
American attitudes around intoxicating substances continue to evolve. Millennials and Gen Zers are drinking less than older generational cohorts did, according to a 2019 feature by The Atlantic. They’re also finding more palatable alcohol alternatives, such as nonalcoholic craft beer, high-end nonalcoholic wine, and spirit alternatives for mocktails.
This embrace of moderation coincides with an apparent countertrend: rapidly liberalizing attitudes toward cannabis (marijuana). More than a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, turbocharging a “green rush” into cannabis stocks and derivative investments.
Perhaps it’s best not to read too much into these trends. If the occasional drink or (legal) edible improves your well-being with no ill effects on your finances, career, or relationships, it would appear to be a habit worth keeping. But it’s also important to listen to what your body, bank account, and — perhaps most importantly — loved ones are telling you. Should you decide to significantly reduce your consumption or stop drinking entirely, there’s a well-worn path for you to follow.