Redeeming Riches once ran 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 took aim at cutting back on going out to eat as the first tip in the quest. It begs the question: how much money can you save by not eating out?
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 $2,600.
A daily fast food lunch runs at least $6; in a typical five day work week, that’s $30. Over the course of a year that’s over $1,500. 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 – $50 for a couple is pretty standard. Done weekly over the course of a year exceeds $2,500. For a family of four it double to $5,000. 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. We’ve found a lot of excellent seafood recipes in that book, and strongly recommend it. The recipes call for meals to be grilled, but we’ve improvised where necessary, always with a good outcome.
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 the 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?