Going Out Without Going Broke
Even with menu planning, list-making, and shopping at discount stores, your food costs may still be out of hand if you’re frequenting restaurants. Many people budget dining as “entertainment,” but there’s nothing entertaining about paying exorbitant prices and having nothing to show for it except those extra pounds everyone wants to lose. Controlling your restaurant spending is the other side of the food cost coin. Here’s my three-tined approach to going out without going broke:
- Make it special
- Order less
Make it special
Tune in to a different frequency of going out by making it a special occasion. As a daily or weekly habit, eating out fritters away your hard-earned money. Even a daily Chipotle lunch habit, at $7 per weekday (no drink, no chips), costs about $150 a month. That’s loco! I can feed my family of four for two weeks on that. We love Chipotle as much as the next gringo, but we save it for a special treat a few times a year, not a month. What motivates me is keeping in perspective how far that money can go at the grocery store. For example, I can cook a whole chicken, a pound of rice, and a pound of vegetables for $7. That’s enough for at least two family meals.
Going out for lunch during the workday plus other fast food stops causes a restaurant cost-creep. The individual bills aren’t large but they sure add up. As with grocery shopping and saving money in general, planning ahead is the best way to avoid this huge hidden expense. I hate being hungry and I hate spending money so I always have a plan to avoid both. Here’s how:
- Decide how often you’ll frequent restaurants—fast or slow ones—each month. We plan for one dinner at a decent restaurant every month.
- Pack a lunch of leftovers or a PBJ. It takes less time to pack than to drive to a restaurant and wait for your food. If I’m going to be gone more than a couple hours I pack food. Pulling a peanut butter sandwich out of my purse is pretty much my signature move.
- Create an Energy Reserve. Keep a snack like nuts or granola bars in your car, desk, or bag to help you avoid the drive-thru when you’re too hungry to make it home.
- Try copycat recipes for your favorite restaurant dishes (like Chipotle chicken).
- Have a quick meal or leftovers planned for busy nights. Cook big batches and freeze meals to have on hand. Stocking one or two pre-packaged frozen meals is still less expensive than getting take-out. When all else fails, make spaghetti.
If you regularly depend on restaurants for sustenance, it’s time to cut back. Going out to eat should be more about socializing than survival. There are much cheaper, healthier ways to eat.
No one needs to order drinks and three courses. Skip drinks and get water. It’s healthy and free, and that isn’t true in every country. Alcohol is the fastest way to run up your tab. Even soft drinks add about $3 each after tax and tip. Pass on dessert and have a treat at home.
During our planned dinners out, we found ourselves spending too much and bringing home half our food. So we often split entrée’s, and sometimes a starter, too. Restaurant portions in our country are super-sized, anyway. (Fine dining is a notable exception, but you’re probably not still reading this blog if that’s your style.) We’ve never gone hungry from sharing food. And I’ve stopped feeling awkward about splitting. It’s our prerogative. Just don’t skimp on the tip.
So what about social gatherings at restaurants? We don’t want to miss out on good times with our friends just because we’re pretending to be poor. Seeking financial flexibility shouldn’t make us inflexible. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but eating before you go out is a great way to keep dining out more about socializing than sustenance. These outings are usually not to the greatest restaurants. Don’t feel obligated to spend a lot on food you don’t even like.
So how can you linger without loitering? Order a side item or half-price appetizer. I’ve even been known to split these. The cheapest items on a menu are usually French fries or coffee. While soft drinks are a huge rip-off, they’re also a low-ticket item if that’s all you get. If fries are too high-fat for you ask for a baked potato, side salad, or cup of soup (or oatmeal if it’s breakfast).
For spontaneous outings, hit a drive-thru dollar menu on the way, fill up for $2-3 and order as above at the restaurant. Your night out costs $6 instead of $20-30. Again, tip well on your tiny tab, 50-100%.
Not arriving hungry also has social advantages. You don’t care where people decide to go, you’re not crabby, and you don’t have to search the menu (while hungry) for a good deal. Pre-gaming leaves you free to focus more on conversation than food.
When travel or other circumstances necessitate fast food stops, stick with the dollar or value menu and order water to drink. In my opinion the Taco Bell bean burrito is the best fast food value for being filling, relatively nutritious, and inexpensive. Clip fast food coupons and keep them for “emergencies”—those unplanned times when you need to stop for food or go out with a friend. Don’t go just to use the coupon; spending money to save money isn’t saving at all.
So there’s our basic approach. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.
How do you keep restaurant costs under control?