20080722PicnicSpread.jpgMeeting up with friends for food and drinks in the city always seems to end with me bemoaning the state of my ATM balance the next morning. Last weekend, my solution to going out without going broke was to skip the wine bars and take advantage of the beautiful weather by having a wine and cheese outing in Central Park. With wine from Trader Joe's and cheese and bread from East Village Cheese, it was a great way to catch up with friends, people watch, and most of all, relax.

Trader Joe's love is not an unknown sentiment on the pages of Serious Eats, but you can never sound enough praise for their three-buck-chuck. If you've never had it before, go out and buy a case—now. It goes for cheap, but doesn't taste like it, and will put your $10 Barefoot wine to shame. I met my friend in front of the NYU dorms on 14th Street, conveniently located next to the Trader Joe's Wine Shop. After picking up a bottle or two, we turned the corner at 3rd Ave and headed down to East Village Cheese to complete our Friday afternoon picnic.

20080722BalthazarBaguette.jpgI first discovered this inconspicuous East Village cheese haven on my way to sample Otafuku's okonomiyaki. After noticing all the people bustling in and out, I stopped and stared at the hand-written signs that covered every inch of the shop's window space. Very cheap cheese. Along with the most wallet-friendly cheese you've ever encountered, the shop also carries a number of pastas, jams, breads, crackers, and even a deli. We picked up an enormous half-round of Brie and a Balthazar baguette, both ringing up at only $1.99 each. Remember, this place is cash only—lucky for me that day, I managed to have ten bucks left in my wallet. It tends to get very busy with people getting off of work, so if you can, try to go during your lunch hour when you won't be cramped and rushed—plus, the Balthazar baguettes won't have run out already.

Once we got to the park, we discovered that perhaps drinking red wine in 95 degree heat was not the best of ideas. Paying for a suntan has always been a strange concept to me, even as people like to chime, "Nothing in this world is free." Yet, sitting beneath the merciless rays and surrounded by sunbathing park-goers, my friend looked on the bright and budget-minded side and said, "At least it's cheaper than a tanning salon."

The rest of the weekend continued to prove that going out with friends doesn't mean spending all the money you don't actually have. At the Greenpoint Tavern in Williamsburg, bartenders serve up a $3.50 32 oz Styrofoam cup of Bud that's so big you have to hold it with two hands—not exactly eco-friendly, but budget-friendly and greener for your wallet nonetheless.

On Saturday, the Village Voice's Siren Festival on Coney Island (a behemoth day of free live music) was a fantastic time that was topped off by a trip to Nathan's (sadly, Totonno's was closed). The calorie counts almost scared me off, but I opted for the Kid's Meal, which was just enough food at a good price: one hot dog, small fries, a drink, and a toy to keep me occupied on the long Subway ride home—all for $4.49. You may feel silly ordering food off the kid's menu, but I have no shame—plus, the portion size makes me feel a teeny bit less guilty about chowing down on fast-food, especially with the sky-high caloric values staring me in the face.

East Village Cheese

40 3rd Avenue, New York NY 10003-5504 (b/n 9th Street and 10th Street; map)
212-477-2601

Trader Joe's Wine

138 E 14th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n 3rd Avenue and Irving Place; map)
212-529-4612

Greenpoint Tavern

188 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (b/n North 6th Street and North 7th Street; map)
718-384-9539

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