Anyone in the personal finance world will tell you that one of the fastest ways to cut your spending is to stop eating out. It’s no secret that dining at restaurants is far more expensive than cooking at home. Still, we’ve justified our eating out habit for years.
At the beginning of our marriage, Renaissance Man worked at a hospital and received deeply discounted meals from the cafeteria as a perk of his employment. He ate breakfast, lunch, and snacks there. I was still in college and used leftover scholarship money to make daily runs to the bagel shop in the engineering building or the Union for meals. For dinner during the week we cooked overly-processed pre-prepared junk and hit up restaurants over the weekend.
It wasn’t until I started working full-time and Renaissance Man switched to a cafeteria-less job that we started to notice how much we were spending. It was nothing for us to drop $500 a month just on lunches out!! We quickly realized how insane this was and limited ourselves to just one work lunch out per week.
But you know what? Sometimes that one lunch becomes two. And sometimes I don’t feel like preparing lunch all week, and so we go out every day. And if I don’t feel like prepping lunches, then I probably didn’t feel like cooking dinner either. Which means we go out for dinner every night too. All this in addition to our usual routine of eating out 3-5 times over the weekend. I know. I know. You don’t have to tell me how ridiculous it is.
And get this. I love to cook.
It’s true. I think nothing is more fun than spending an hour or more preparing a complicated meal. I’m even pretty good at cooking. But I often fall back to the “I don’t have time” excuse. It’s extremely easy to say I don’t have time with a toddler and a husband who doesn’t get home until 6pm or later due to his soul-sucking commute. We regularly eat dinner around 8 or 9 pm.
So why are we finally interested in making a change? Well, I’m not 100% sure that Renaissance Man is, but I am.
Not only is food the third largest expense in our budget, it’s also the number one contributing factor to my weight. I’ve noticed that with more meals out, the scale goes up. I tend to consume less healthy food and more of it at restaurants.
I also just don’t find meals out as enjoyable as I used to. I get stressed out dining with a toddler: wondering if he’ll sit still long enough for me to eat, worried he’s making too big of a mess, not wanting to bother other diners. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to willingly add stress to my life.
As the primary cook in our house, I know that if I want our family to spend less on eating out that I have to be the one leading the charge. Here are my tactics:
1. Buy whatever I want from the grocery store.
That means splurging on fancy cuts of meat, the good ice cream, and produce that’s not on sale. My goal is to get us in the habit of eating at home first, then I’ll put a bigger focus on optimizing our grocery budget later. I know that for this to work for us we can’t feel like we’re being deprived.
2. Don’t shy away from “difficult” or time-consuming dishes.
If I’m going to cook, I want to cook. Standbys like spaghetti with meat sauce made with jarred sauce doesn’t create the desire in me to cook or to want to eat at home more. Homemade lasagna is a different story.
3. Be better than the restaurants.
If I can make fancy coffee or a killer steak at home, there’s no need to dine out to fill those cravings. Restaurant food isn’t cooked by magicians, it’s cooked by a person. Usually a person just like me (no fancy-pants chefs at most of our favorite spots). Therefore with a little practice, I should be able to cook food that’s just as good or better at home. Even the simple stuff makes a difference. Breakfast is forever changed after adopting Alton Brown’s scrambled eggs recipe.
4. Reduce food waste.
I hate when I only need a small amount of an ingredient for a recipe then have no idea how to use the rest of it. Or when we can’t stomach the same leftover meal a third time. Nothing makes me angrier than throwing food away. It seriously feels like throwing dollar bills in the trash. So I’m taking steps to learn to properly store fresh ingredients and seeking out new recipes to recreate leftover or use-up extra ingredients. (The Kitchn is my favorite resource for storing produce.)
I’m still struggling with exactly what my specific goal should be. It’s hard for me in envision us completely eliminating eating at restaurants from our budget since it currently makes up such a large part of our food consumption. I think I just want to start spending less on eating out each month – maybe at least $100 less each month. I definitely see this being a slow process for us. It’s ok; you can call me weak. I’d even agree with you. But I think this is the best way for us to set ourselves up for success. And don’t worry; I’ll update y’all occasionally on how things are going.
Continue the conversation…
How often do you dine at restaurants? Where do you fall on the Goldilocks scale (too much, too little, or just right)? Who are your favorite food bloggers?