“I won’t be home too late,” I’ll often tell my husband before a night out. “I’m just going to have a couple of drinks.” My intentions are always genuine – but after 25 years of drinking, I should know by now that things don’t always go according to plan.
Whether it’s going in on the wine when I’d planned to stick just to G&T or succumbing to that tasty-sounding new variation of a margarita, if I’m having a good time I often find it hard to say no. In fact, if I’m having a mediocre time, I often find it hard to say no, too, because there’s always a chance another drink will improve matters.
I’m not alone – while it might feel like many of my friends are successfully cutting down their alcohol intake or even going completely sober, NHS research into drinking habits in the UK shows the opposite to be true: professional women are drinking more than ever.
While alcohol dependency is often depicted as a bigger problem for those in poverty, it’s actually higher earners, living in the least-deprived areas, who are necking the most booze these days: 24 per cent of women in the top income bracket drink at least 14 units a week, compared to just 8 per cent in lower-income households.
Today’s female drinking culture is more subtle than the pint-swilling ladette imagery of the Nineties and Noughties. Instead, many women are inadvertently downing two or three cocktails or glasses of prosecco for every pint of beer their male peers and colleagues are nursing.
Wellness culture might be doing big business, but most corporate socialising still revolves around alcohol. Sure, that successful woman bringing home six figures might practise yoga and extol the virtues of a plant-based diet, but she’s also quite likely to drink like a fish a few times a week.
“I’m in a male-dominated industry,” says one 43-year-old mother of two working as a communications director at a large corporate. “There’s a lot of networking and it usually involves wine. My team also work really hard, so I like to regularly reward them after work with drinks on me. I frequently find myself trying to keep up with both middle-aged men twice my size, and 20-somethings who can sleep off their hangovers while I’m up at 6am with the kids. I constantly feel run-down and wish I could pace myself better.”
The trouble is, a woman’s professional peak often coincides with caring responsibilities, menopause symptoms and related mental health struggles – none of which go well with a hangover. So, if we don’t want to quit the booze completely, how can we be more moderate while still enjoying a tipple?
Tips for pacing yourself
Chances are you’re not the only one who’s trying to reduce their alcohol intake. Before a big occasion, sound out a few of the people who’ll be there and see if you can help each other to rein it in.
It’s easy to get carried away when your colleague has put their card behind the bar or your friend keeps pouring stealth top-ups, but if there are two or more of you keeping an eye on things, you’ll likely be more mindful. Starting the evening with soft drinks, or alternating throughout, is much easier when you’re not flying solo.
It might sound obvious, but how many times have you got to the end of an evening and realised you haven’t consumed a single sip of water (and no, tonic water doesn’t count if it’s mixed with vodka...)? Always asking for a jug of tap water for the table, or asking for a few glasses with every round of drinks, is a great habit to get into. It will dilute the alcohol flowing around your veins without diluting your enjoyment of the evening.
Plan something unmissable
There’s nothing more shameful than ruining a family day out or missing out on a planned sporting activity because you’re hungover. Knowing you have a commitment looming over you can be a great way to exhibit some control. The problem is, when you’re three drinks in and having fun, it’s easy to get carried away – but setting a reminder on your phone (“parkrun tomorrow 8am!”) or getting a friend to send you a well-timed text will help. Focus on how smug you’ll feel when you’ve been for a swim or painted the downstairs loo before 10am while your colleagues are still festering in bed.
Gamify your drinking
No, not drinking games – those are definitely a bad idea. Instead, let tech be your conscience by downloading one of the many apps designed to help track your drinking. I use Try Dry to keep an eye on how frequently and how much I drink – and it’s pretty satisfying when it rewards me for a 10-day sober stretch, and even more so when it also tots up how much money I’ve saved.
Seek out tasty alternatives
These days being sober isn’t a taboo – nor is being a little bit less drunk. Club Soda offer courses and resources on drinking less or quitting completely, as well as signposting plenty of low-alcohol or alcohol-free alternatives to the hard stuff. Some of them look and taste so much like the real thing that the people you’re with don’t even need to know you’re going easy - which can also be handy if you’re hiding a pregnancy!
Don’t mix and match your drinks
If you’re a social sort or people-pleaser, one of the biggest pitfalls can be getting roped into drinking things you don’t actually want to drink. Sharing a bottle of wine when you don’t really fancy it, or making the most of happy hour 2-for-1 offers, can often feel like the right thing to do in a social situation. Stating your intentions from the outset and buying your own drinks will help you keep control - and you’ll likely spend a lot less too!
Make it about something other than booze
A lot of us instinctively cringe at the idea of organised fun, but having something to do with your hands that isn’t just raising a glass can make it much easier to pace yourself. If you’re the one doing the organising, trying something creative, heading outdoors or booking an activity like bowling can be a great way to slow down – as well as being more inclusive of non-drinkers generally.
For goodness’ sake, EAT!
Probably the most useful rule of all – but also one that’s very easy to break – is to always line your stomach before you start drinking. If you’re heading for drinks after work with just a vague idea of ordering some nibbles at some point, it’s a recipe for bleary-eyed disaster. Instead, plan ahead by grabbing a sandwich at 5pm or, better still, ordering pizzas in for the whole team before you head out. They will thank you for being so generous and you’ll thank yourself for not descending into drunkenness – it’s a win-win!