10 Steps to Cut Back On Drinking

By Peg Rosen

Drinking can creep up on you. It might start as a weekend thing. Maybe you overdo it once in a while and regret the hangover.

Then, at some point, you realize things have changed. One or two drinks has turned into three or four. You’re throwing back a couple on weeknights to take the edge off. Those occasional weekend binges are becoming a regular thing. Drinking has become less of an occasional way to relax and more of a habit.

Lots of people have been in exactly the same place, and many have found ways to cut back without quitting altogether.

Cutting back on your own, though, isn’t realistic for everyone.

If you have signs of alcohol use disorder (AUD), you may need help from a support group, substance use counselor, or medical provider. If you think you might be physically dependent on alcohol and are having withdrawal symptoms, it could actually be dangerous to cut back without being medically supervised.

If that’s not your situation, the following strategies can be super helpful—whether you just want to resist the pressure and temptation to drink or you want to regain control of how you use alcohol. 

Think About Why You Drink

Is it purely social, or do you sometimes drink or pregame alone? Do you drink to loosen up and have fun, or do you drink to cope with stress and anxiety? Understanding why you drink can help you strategize and set goals for cutting back. It can also help to think about the positive changes that will happen when you cut back. 

Some patterns and behaviors may also be signs of AUD. Here is how to find help.

Track Your Drinking Up Front

Before you try cutting back, keep a log on your phone for a week or so. Don’t fudge anything. This is for your eyes only. There are several free apps that can help you, including DrinkControl and Less Alcohol Tracker. You might be surprised to see certain patterns, such as when you drink the most and with whom, or how much you really drink. This information can help you pinpoint triggers to avoid and set goals.

Set Clear, Realistic Goals

For starters, try something like not drinking on weeknights and limiting yourself to a certain number of drinks on weekends. You could also decide not to drink for at least a certain number of days a week. These specific rules get rid of gray areas and keep you accountable. After you’re on a roll, you can create a new set of goals, such as drinking only one night per weekend. Keep building until you get to a point where you feel comfortable and in control.

Don’t Keep Alcohol Around

Avoid temptation by not having alcohol nearby. When you decide to drink, it should take a conscious effort.

Find Other Things to Do During Trigger Times

If you tend to drink when you’re anxious or stressed, chill out by going for a run or doing a little gaming (unless that is a trigger for you). If Friday afternoons are a kickoff for the weekend with your friend group, take a class at that time or sign up for an extracurricular activity. 

Try other ways to relax, such as playing a musical instrument, yoga, making art, listening to a favorite playlist, or meeting up with friends at a coffee shop. Look for groups that get together for activities that don’t involve drinking, such as hiking or biking. Once you start looking for different ways to fill the void, you’ll realize how many people stay busy without being buzzed.

Be Real About What a Drink Is

A Solo cup filled to the brim doesn’t count as a drink! 

According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism guidelines, one drink is considered:

  • One 12-ounce beer
  • One 5-ounce glass of wine
  • One 1.5-ounce shot of liquor (which can be in a mixed drink)

Moderate daily drinking counts as two drinks for adult men and one drink for adult women. That doesn’t mean it’s fine to have a drink every night. It also doesn’t mean you should save up those drinks for weekend binges, which are harmful on their own. 

Slow Down and Alternate With Nonalcoholic Drinks

On nights you decide not to drink, sip from a full glass of something nonalcoholic, such as seltzer with lime in a Solo cup. There are also lots of mocktails that look and taste pretty good. 

When you are drinking, clock your intake—maybe one alcoholic drink every hour or so. As soon as you finish that drink, break out your nonalcoholic beverage and stick with it until it’s time for—and you’re interested in—more alcohol. Be sure to bring your own, since you can never assume there will be nonalcoholic options where you’re going.

Strategize How You’ll Say No

You don’t owe anyone a detailed explanation for not drinking or drinking less. “No, I’m OK” or “I’m drinking this,” as you hold up a cup filled with whatever, works fine if someone offers. If they ask why you’re not partying, “I’m trying to cut back” should do the trick. If you don’t want to get into things, these lines also work fine: “I need a night off” or “I have to get up early tomorrow for [fill in the blank].” Knowing your “no” and having stock responses ready beforehand will help you handle these situations. 

Reward Yourself

Drinking less has a lot of payoffs, but you might actually feel kind of crappy at first as you adjust physically, emotionally, and socially. Be good to yourself. Get enough sleep, work out, and build in downtime to help you manage stress. You may have a little extra cash now that you’re not spending as much on alcohol. Sign up for a yoga or meditation class, or get a massage or tickets to a concert. You’re doing something great for yourself. You deserve to feel good and reward yourself.

Get Some Help

Even if you are underage, you can reach out for support without being judged or lectured about how you shouldn’t be drinking at all. You can talk to a therapist or school counselor. There are apps such as Sunnyside, which help you track your progress and provide ongoing feedback, although it’s sometimes for a fee. 

You can also connect with a controlled drinking group such as Moderation Management. The free, peer-led program requires you to stop drinking for 30 days before you work moderate drinking back into your life. Some participants want more control over how they use alcohol, while others want to work slowly toward stopping altogether. Check out this directory for other alcohol-management programs.

Cutting back on alcohol is great for you, but it can also be a challenge. Give yourself a break if you slip up at times. That’s just part of the process. Think about why it happened and what you can do differently to avoid having it happen again, and plow ahead. If you are really having trouble drinking less, you may need some support. That’s OK! There’s plenty of help out there. You can do this.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.