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How Much Money Can You Save by NOT Eating Out?

By Kevin M

Redeeming Riches has been running a truly good series, 10 Money-Saving Tips to Help You Stash $10,000!, which includes tips in each post on how to accumulate such a pile of cash, one expense at a time. The initial post in the series ran back on February 22nd, and took aim at cutting back on going out to eat as the first tip in the quest.

It’s almost standard fare on the personal finance blogging circuit to take aim at eating out as a rich source of savings, either to build up a bigger bank balance, or to reign in a runaway budget. But how much money can we save by cutting back on this expense?

Running the numbers on eating out

Let’s do some quick calculations to illustrate just how much money we’re talking about.

It costs about $25 for a family of four to buy a meal at a typical fast food restaurant. Averaging just two trips per week totals $50; continuing the pattern each week over the course of a full year comes to $2600.

A daily fast food lunch runs at least $5; in a typical five day work week, that’s $25. Over the course of a year, $1300. Just for lunch. Just for one person. How many people in your household might be doing that?

At mid-priced restaurants—Appleby’s, Ruby Tuesday, etc–$40 for a couple is pretty standard. Done weekly over the course of a year exceeds $2000. For a family of four it double to $4000. That’s starting to look like an annual grocery budget for a typical family, and all we’ve satisfied is one meal per week.

Some households eat dinner out two or three times per week, so we can multiply accordingly and see that thousands of dollars can be spent with little effort or concern.

Look at those numbers and consider how much of that spending might actually be better spent or invested elsewhere.

Do we really like restaurant food, or are we just bored?

Driving home from work one day a few years back, I flipped on the radio to hear an interview with a nutritionist who said the fundamental problem with eating home is that most of us get caught in a rut where we rely on preparing the same 7-8 meals all the time. We do this largely out of habit, but it becomes boring and the craving for something different typically leads us to a restaurant, where the food is anything but healthy.

I think that describes the situation in most households, mine included. Following this pattern we quickly reach the point where eating at home becomes nothing but functional, something we mostly tolerate but seldom enjoy.

Thrift is almost always a matter of trading time for money, and that seems especially true when it comes to eating out. If we want to save money by not eating out then we have to make eating at home more compelling. That will require an investment of time.

I often wonder if eating out is properly classified as “food” expense in a budget, or would it be more appropriate to think of it as entertainment? Since we mostly use it for diversion, to experience something different, it probably really is a form of entertainment.

Observation: go to restaurants enough, and eventually they get boring too.

Maybe it’s time to spice things up a bit…

It won’t be enough to say “we’re not eating out anymore”; unless we have alternatives that will make eating at home something more than functional, we’ll risk turning back to the cultures default setting of “getting something out”. It’s a matter of replacing bad habits with good ones, and yes, that will take time.

1. Take a survey.

Eating meals that we like shouldn’t be something we do only in restaurants.
Find out what everyone likes, or would like to try, write it down and then do it. If we want to eat fewer meals out, we need to satisfy more preferences at home.

2. Do some experimenting.

Part of the reason people go out for dinner is because they want something different, maybe even exotic, but you can and should do this at home too. We all have a repertoire of meals that we prepare, but we can gradually work in new meal plans over time. My wife and I try to add a couple of new recipes to our meal plan each month so that we’re rotating our dinner selections continuously.

3. Avoid defaulting to packaged meals.

Packaged (or pre-prepared) meals are the idiot cousin of restaurant meals, often seen as a happy medium between eating at home and eating out. However, by price, many packaged meals are about the same as what you would pay in a restaurant, but not nearly as good. They’re more like take out and have nothing in common with home cooking. Think of them as appetizers for restaurant meals that will set you up for a return.

4. Side dishes can make a difference.

Even if you hate cooking and don’t consider yourself up to the challenge of preparing different meals, you can still make your meals more enticing. Adding homemade bread (bread machines are really easy to use), fresh fruit or a nice dessert can make an otherwise ordinary meal into something special. You’re not breaking your food budget here, just adding at the fringes.

5. Get some cookbooks.

Unless you’re one of those people who are naturally creative in the kitchen, you’ll need inspiration in order to keep fresh ideas coming. Cookbooks help immensely in this regard. Get one or two, but don’t overwhelm yourself with a small library. One I highly recommend is The Backyard Barbecue Cookbook. It’s filled with user friendly recipes, especially for fish and chicken.

6. Change the atmosphere.

In many households dinner gets too routine. Try changing the atmosphere by turning off the TV, turning on quiet dinner music, lighting a candle or two or making whatever changes necessary to make eating at home a more positive experience. Dinner shouldn’t be just about eating; when it is, restaurants begin to beckon.

7. Bring in some company.

When I was a kid “going out” to dinner meant eating at someone else’s house, and we frequently had guests at our house for dinner as well. The camaraderie we enjoyed as a result made eating at restaurants mostly unnecessary. It’s possible we’re going to restaurants today mostly in search of that camaraderie. Be more purposeful about getting together with others for dinner—it adds a dimension to an everyday meal and eliminates the need to pay for a restaurant. Though it does cost more to have company for dinner, reciprocal eating arrangements and pot luck suppers can easily offset that.

8. Make cooking a creative endeavor.

Do you watch cooking shows on TV? Stop watching and start imitating! Cooking is very much a creative endeavor, and we tend to miss that in our drive for convenience. In fact, many of us complain that our talents aren’t being properly used on our jobs, and while that may be true, there are opportunities to spread our creative wings at home, and one of the places to do that is in the kitchen. Engage in creative cooking they way you might if you decided to paint, sculpt or compose music. Make cooking an art form, and it’ll seem less like a chore.

What are you doing to cut back on eating out?

( Photo courtesy of alinesalazar )


25 Responses to How Much Money Can You Save by NOT Eating Out?

  1. JoeTaxpayer says:

    A few weeks ago, my daughter and I sat down to a pasta with shrimp sauce for dinner. Knowing my ‘secret identity,’ she asked me some money questions about the meal. What it cost to put together was $7 total. We decided it would cost nearly $40 (this was a full pound of shrimp between us) in a restaurant and after drinks and tip, $50 for this meal. Funny, some people would ask about my time. That it needs to be added to the cost. Not so, as I’d have spent more time going round trip to the restaurant than I did cooking.

    The NOT eating out is really the low hanging fruit of savings, it’s a change in habit, granted, but it’s not giving up anything. I am the cook in the house and I can put a better meal on the table than we can get eating out at a fraction of the price. Just don’t try to get me to give up my cable TV.

  2. Kevin M says:

    Joe – very true! We tend to think that we’re buying food when we eat at restaurants, which is not true. We’re buying the preparation of that food.

    There’s little we can buy in a restaurant that we can’t get at home for a lot less money. Plus, no tax, tips or extras!

    I also agree on the time factor; unless you do fast food all the time, which is harldly healthy, you don’t save any time in restaurants. Driving there, waiting to be seated, waiting to be served, waiting for and paying the check–the whole idea of saving time is way over blown.

  3. I think you are right on track. One reason I’ll always go eat out is to get something it doesn’t make sense to get at home. I love steak and cheeses and I just don’t know about making those at home…but as I type this it sounds like fund to try. I’ll have to think about that one. My point is that meals out are a good thing to add variety. It’s all about moderation…maybe once every two weeks? It’s going to be different for everyone.

  4. Kevin M says:

    EOW – I’m with you on the variety idea, that’s what we should use eating out for. But if you look at various surveys and at the parking lots at restaurants at dinner time nearly any day of the week, it looks as if something more is going on.

    We’re increasingly eating out as a substitute for eating at home. That has it’s place from time to time, but we should add up the money we spend eating out over the past 12 months and the amount may stun us. It could be five figures in some middle class households. Eating out is increasingly becoming a default choice, but it can also be a real budget buster.

  5. Thanks for the mention Kevin. My wife and I have a head start here since we both love to cook. I’m a big grill guy, but you are right on with the boredom factor. We oftentimes rack our brain to come up with meals and we just keep repeating the same ones over and over.

    In fact, I told my wife the other day that we should come up with a spreadsheet of all the different meals we’ve had and then try new ones and if we like it we add it to the list, that way if we can’t think of something to make we can refer to “the list!” =)

  6. Kevin M says:

    Spreadsheet…someone will make a fortune on a spreadsheet for mealplans! Seriously, that could be the magic bullet for would be chefs the world over. Brilliant idea.

    If we could have a list of meals we’re capable of preparing that would eliminate the need to know, all we’d need to do is check the spreadsheet. A click of a mouse would bring up necessary ingredients and a list of suggested side dishes.

    Any would be programmers out there willing to take this on???

  7. Ted says:

    Thanks for doing some math. When we started to reign in our eating out, we found cookinglight.com. Awesome simple recipes. They are now indexed with a few other sites at myrecipes.com. The best part is the user rankings. So you can search for a recipe based on what you have and pick out 5 star recipes that folks have made and commented on. Makes the hit or miss of cooking a little easier. And, I can cook certain meals faster than going to a restaurant or fast food place.

    I used to eat a lot of lunches for work (which were covered by the ‘salary’ they gave us and not reimbursed). That got old fast, I got fat fast, and our paycheck went fast.

  8. Matt says:

    It’s not even eating out that eats (ha ha) at the savings.
    It’s the bageling for breakfast, lunching out with co-workers, and THEN eating out that really puts a hurtin’ on the budget.

  9. Kevin M says:

    Ted – those are some good leads on recipe sources. We need to have those to break the chains to the eateries. We’re actually having some fun with whipping up some new stuff and start looking forward to it even. The time and expense of going out seems less appealing now. So many times we went out for “a quick bite” that ended up being anything but. And you’re so right about the weight gain with restaurant meals, we should be wanting to drop them just for that!

    Matt – That’s the pattern we’re falling into culturally more than a concious choice. “Everyone’s eating out” so we follow. When I worked in an onsite office, I used to pack lunch from home, go to a nearby park, eat my lunch and take a short nap (timer in tow!). I took some ribbing for that, but I found that not only did I save a good bit of money on lunch, but I was also fresher and more focused when I came back to the office in the afternoon. No matter how much you might like your coworkers, we all need a break from them.

    Speaking of coworkers, it seemed that the ones on the lower end of the payscale were the most likely to go out to eat. And it wasn’t always fast food either. Often they’d go to mid-range places and pay a lot more, sometimes even getting a drink or two. Then at the end of the month they’d complain they couldn’t pay their bills!

  10. Money Blogging says:

    I’m interested in using some of your content for my blog. Please let me know if that’s OK and I will link back to this page.

  11. Kevin M says:

    Money Blogging, please contact me via email on the About Us page to discuss, thanks!

  12. If I eat out breakfast and lunch 5 days a week, I could spend $50 a week easy. $200/month. Eating out is expensive.

  13. Emily says:

    Please, please, PLEASE, before heading to Amazon to buy a new cookbook, check into your library. You have the luxury of copying the recipes you want to try, but you don’t have to pay for OR store that cookbook forever. I’ve been slowly piecing together a looseleaf cookbook of likely dishes, and lately we’ve been experimenting with Indian cuisine. Do you know how much it costs to eat out at an Indian restaurant???? Our wallets are fat and happy. :)

  14. Kevin M says:

    Emily, that’s a great idea! We bought The Backyard Barbecue Cookbook because it had more recipes we liked than it was worth copying. We use it all the time and the recipes are top notch. Seriously, not a bad one in the book.

    I can certainly see copying if there are only 2-3 recipes that you’ll make.

    Arthur – if more people did the math before eating out, restaurants would be half empty and bank accounts would be full!

  15. Everyday Tips says:

    For me it is about planning ahead. I have 3 kids, all in sports and we are on the road a lot. Therefore, I pack what I call ‘cooler dinners’, so I can avoid eating fast food when not at home. Rotisserie chicken has become my best friend! I am at the point where eating out is ‘old hat’ and we all love a nice, home-cooked meal. Spring is the most difficult time of year for us, and I am so excited for the bbqs to start soon!

  16. Frankly, all you pay for is for somebody to overload your food with salt. I much prefer being in control of what I eat…although the occasional Chinese buffet does make me smile. (I did say “occasional”.)

  17. Kevin M says:

    David – good point on the health risks. Most restaurant meals pack in salt and gravies loaded with fat and calories. Also, back when eating out was a rare event, it was something special. Today it’s gotten so common that it’s no longer special. It’s now a regular part of the typical household budget, and has to be considered when it’s time to cut.

  18. I use to spend $50 a week eating out. it’s not cheap.

  19. Kevin M says:

    I’ve worked with people who made no more than $25-30,000 per year who spent $50/week on lunch, and wondered if they realized that they were spending 10% of their gross income just on lunch!

  20. Hey Kevin,

    This is an excellent review of the eating out shift in our contemporary culture. I was just speaking to a group of twenty and thirty-somethings about eating out. I asked, “When you were growing up, wasn’t going out to eat a special occasion?” They all nodded their heads in the affirmative.

    When I was little we’d go out to eat to this middle-of-the-road Chinese food restaurant once a month, but I’d always wear my nicest shirt because we were “going out as a family.”

    Today, restaurants have been comoditized – you find a fast food or slow-food-fast (read: Appleby’s, TGI Fridays, etc)on nearly every corner. Eating out is no longer a luxury, but when you return to that mindset, you begin to enjoy eating out more and it doesn’t bust the spending plan.

    I often wonder how many people have eaten the equivalent of a retirement nest egg simply by spending in restaurants what they could’ve invested.

  21. Kevin M says:

    Derek – Very well put…”I often wonder how many people have eaten the equivalent of a retirement nest egg simply by spending in restaurants what they could’ve invested.”

    What it’s come down to is that eating out has become so “normal” in our culture that many people do it without thinking. We can’t imagine NOT doing it. Meanwhile, cookbooks, cooking shows, master chefs and designer kitchens have become all the rage–to a society where few actually cook anymore. Maybe cooking has moved into the realm of fantasy.

    But getting back to retirement…one of the under rated aspects of retirement planning is reducing cost of living. It’s hard to imagine how that will work in a society wedded to the idea of paying someone else to perform a function as basic as preparing our meals. The habits we develop in our younger/working years will follow us into retirement, rest assured. The implications are staggering.

  22. Jamie says:

    I really think this article is on point. I often get bored with eating at home and eat out.. I think spicing it up and trying something new is a good point.

    Although I do like to go out with my girlfriend. I don’t like spending a lot of money but I don’t want to be cheap so what I do is I’m a member of this savings and discount plans through usadvantageplans.com. I can get a $25 dollar gift certificate for $17.50. This is a typical savings on a restaurant. It really varries. Some restaurants have better discounts.

    anyhow, I also onlyyyy drink water. rarely eat steak.

  23. Barb says:

    What I find is that my husband being diabetic, I do not know what carbs have been added to the entrees at a restaurant, and we have to add those up every meal. Plus, I cannot handle a lot of air conditioning in restaurants due to a respiratory problem, so I am not always comfortable eating, and I would never eat with my coat on.
    Incidentally, glad I found this, can I use it for a reference on some research?

  24. Aaron says:

    Assuming people eat 2 meals a day for $8 each, they’re looking to spend about 480 dollars a month.

    I’m a larger eater, but I also like my money. I can go to costco and buy a week’s worth of chicken, spinach, strawberries, some roasted garlic bread, and some sorts of dairy for less than $50 a month for myself only. I’m saving $200 a month just by cooking in my own house and that’s assuming I go eat to eat junk food.

  25. Hi Aaron – That’s pretty much how I see it. Going out is a waste of money – necessary sometimes, but a waste of money. Another thing is the nutrition issue. Restaurant food is packed with fat and calories. I saw a dietician on TV last night (Biggest Loser?) and she was saying that salad is often, ironically, the worst thing on the menu. Not because of the salad itself, but the half a cup of dressing (600+ calories) put on the average restaurant salad. We could be poisoning oursleves while going broke!

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