This post is from GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Frugal Cool blog for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving.

A friend invites you for an evening out or a weekend away that you just can’t afford. Which of the following responses sounds the most like yours?

  • “I’d love to, but…” (Too many late nights already that week/feel guilty leaving Junior with a sitter after being away from him all day/mandatory check-in with your probation officer.)
  • “That sounds like fun, but it’s not in my budget right now.”
  • “Um…” (Waffles, hates to seem like a killjoy.) “Yes, let’s.” (Whips out plastic, mentally scribbles “self-recrimination, 30 minutes” on to-do list.)

All three strategies are problematical:

  • Excuses start to sound like, well, excuses. Friends think you just don’t want to hang out with them.
  • Using the B-word puts some people on the defensive, as though your financial goals are some kind of judgment on their choices.
  • Caving in and charging your fun creates debt/adds to existing arrears.

That’s why I’d like to suggest a fourth strategy: Compromise. Specifically, to propose less-spendy (but still fun) ways to socialize.

You shouldn’t have to decline time with friends just because their usual ideas for diversion involve serious spending. It works the other way, too: By suggesting fun outside of restaurants and bars, you don’t put financial stress on a BFF who hasn’t got the do-re-mi.

Some people seem to think that folks on a budget can never have fun. I disagree. In fact, I believe that sometimes you ought to spend money even if you think you shouldn’t.

But not all the time, and certainly not if you’re already barely making book. (Hi there, all you startled new grads! Wasn’t it fun to get that college loan repayment schedule? And isn’t ramen yummy?)

Obviously there are far more possibilities than I could list in one article. Here are 22 options to get you started.

Eat, drink and be merry
Restaurant lite. Your foodie friends love trying new places. You can afford to do this maybe once a month. Alternate strategy: Arrange to meet them for coffee and dessert two or three (or more) times a month.

Wine tasting. Provide one bottle and some snacks and ask a few friends to bring sips to share. It doesn’t have to be pricey plonk; there are some pretty affordable wines out there.

Picnic. Come on, it’s summer. Hit a city park or hike to the back of beyond, carrying vittles. Variation: Cookout in someone’s back yard.

Dessert buffet. Invite everyone to bring over his favorite sweet. You’ll all be half-sick before the evening is over, but who cares?

A happier happy hour. Search for bars that serve half-price (or free!) snacks in the early evening. Look for deals with help from apps/sites like BiteHunter or Cheapism.

The potluck. A win-win: Everybody gets fed, but no one person has to do all the cooking.

Diversion at a discount

Social buying. Groupon, Living Social, City Deals and other daily deal companies offer 50%-off vouchers for sporting events, outdoor activities, live entertainment and other fun stuff. Groupon and City Deals can be accessed through cash-back shopping sites like Extrabux, Fat Wallet or Mr. Rebates for additional savings of up to 6%.

Coupon books. National ones like The Entertainment Book or local publications such as Seattle’s Chinook Book are full of buy-one-get-one offers to all sorts of things. Note: The Entertainment Book is also available through those cash-back sites, for savings of up to 35%.

Discounted gift cards. Mostly I get movie gift cards at 15% to 20% off. Chain restaurants, from Big Boy to Ruth’s Chris, are well represented.

Low- or no-cost fun
Game night. You can get cutthroat and serious about this, i.e., actually keep score. Or just be a bunch of friends enjoying favorite games. (Don’t own any? Look in thrift stores and yard sales.)

Open mic. Coffeehouses, bookstores and bars host them. The results could be stellar or ghastly, but either one gives you something to talk about afterward.

Group activities. Sites like MeetUp, BigTent and GroupSpaces will put you in touch with casual clutches of folks who enjoy a huge variety of fun stuff. Join with a friend and learn everything from geocaching to cake decorating.

Go swimming. City pools. Public beaches. Bring sunscreen.

Learn a new language. Sites like Word2Word and LearnALanguage.com will get you started. Choose a language with a friend or friends, then watch a movie in that language (get it free from the library). Or do it with an eye toward traveling to that country some day.

Book signings. Can’t afford to buy? Listen to the author talk, then.

The big game. Suggest a sports-watching party at the apartment/home of whoever has the best television. Your contribution could be popcorn, the world’s cheapest snack, with intriguing flavors like Bombay Masala, dilly lemon, black sesame mustard and chipotle lime.

Start a club. Personal finance club. Book club. Dryer lint sculpting society. Whatever floats your boat.

Free movie previews. A site called Gofobo organizes advance screenings in partnership with newspapers, radio and colleges.

The lively arts
Pay-what-you-can night. Admission by donation to plays, museums or other events. Look for them in your area.

Theater vs. the small screen. Friends going to see “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Harvey” or some other show you can’t afford? Invite them over the next evening to watch the film version of the play they just saw, and discuss the differences. Set out coffee and freshly baked cookies.

But is it art? See if there’s a “First Friday” type of event in your area, during which galleries coordinate show openings and serve wine and cheese. Visually stimulating and you get fed, to boot.

Rush tickets. You can spend as little as $20 for a Broadway show if you work it right. (Read this article at Playbill to learn how.) Some regional companies have rush programs or discounts for the 25-and-under crowd, too.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Also a lonely one. But fun doesn’t always have to cost an arm and a leg at 18% interest.

Get creative about your amusement and you can be both optimally socialized and fiscally responsible. You may also turn into one hell of an Apples to Apples player.

Readers: What are your favorite low- and no-cost ways to socialize? Do you and your friends enjoy these things out of necessity or by choice?