Budgeting, Food / Groceries, Personal Finance, Saving Money

I Hate to Eat Out

Eating out used to be one of my favorite things to do. I loved to relax and be served great food with a minimum of effort on my part.

This was before my husband and I implemented a budget, tracked our spending and were shocked at what we spent on restaurants. We didn’t even remember most of the times we went out.

We could have used some of the money we spent eating out to make an extra payment on the mortgage or knock down the student loans. I know you can’t un-spend money that is already out the door, but you can learn something from the experience.

For instance, I recently went out with my friends to a lovely restaurant. While the main function was to relax together away from our children so we could complete our conversations, we also went to a nice restaurant to have a meal.

The evening was a success; we had a great meal and several complete conversations. The cost was $24 per person. Reasonable, I thought, until I realized later that money could have paid to feed my family three complete meals.

I still reserve the right to eat out for special occasions, such as anniversaries and birthdays, but I’ve found I’d rather have the money than spend it eating out.

Meat is cheaper: It is hard to steer away from meat at restaurants. It is usually the main part of the meal and brings the cost of the bill up. At home I have taken meat out of the center of the meal. It is a complement, rather than the focus. When we do have meat, I buy cheaper cuts when they are on sale and cook them in the slow cooker so they are more tender.

Know your ingredients: I heard on the radio one day that MSG causes health problems. While I’m not certain if that statement carries weight, it gave me pause to think about how I cook for my family. I read food labels and discovered many polysyllabic chemical-sounding words in our pre-packaged seasoning packets, such as those for spaghetti sauce or pot roasts. Now, I buy my spices in bulk to save money and mix to our tastes.

Healthy habits are easier: I find it is so much easier to model healthy eating habits by cooking at home because my family is less likely to choose healthy foods at our favorite restaurants. When I cook at home, I can include a lot of beans, vegetables, brown rice and dairy that we miss when eating out. I can load our crisper with seasonal fruits and vegetables for snacks that we actually eat. When we were going out to eat more often, our fruits and veggies rotted because no one was eating them.

Variety is reasonable: One of the best things about eating out is the ability to enjoy foods from all over the world. I’ve found my variety fix by scouring the Internet for recipes for my new favorite foods – Asian and Indian recipes. Ingredients for these recipes were a little pricey initially since they weren’t staples on my shelves, however I’m amazed that I can find some of these ingredients at our local discount grocery.

Plan convenience: There is really no substitute to the convenience of eating out. There is no need to plan, shop and cook. Cooking at home isn’t so convenient, especially after a long day when everyone is tired, so I’ve had to make it convenient for myself. For me it involves my slow cooker. If I can throw a meal into the slow cooker in the morning, the bulk of the work is done and it’s easier for me to scrape together the energy in the evening to make a salad and cook the rice.

Clean as you cook: Letting someone else cleanup is another benefit of eating out. My naughty cat has helped with that. He was born with a hollow leg and will hover in the kitchen while I’m cooking and steal whatever is left on the counter. The only way to stop him is to clean while I’m cooking. Thanks to him, once the meal is cooked, the kitchen is clean!

Pay yourself for the meal: My husband and I decided to put the money we would have spent on eating out into savings and see how much we save by the end of 2009. I’ll bet we have enough to make a couple mortgage payments.

15 thoughts on “I Hate to Eat Out

  1. That’s really cool … my Future Husband and I don’t eat out much in the evenings, but my biggest culprit is eating out during the day instead of brown bagging it for lunch. Of course, one of the best things about cooking at home is you have leftovers for the next day to bring to work!

  2. This is a little tangential, but I plan on hiking the Appalachian Trail starting in March. In researching this I’ve found that most of the money people spend on the trail is a result of eating at restaurants along the way. There is a strategy of mailing dehydrated food ahead of yourself called maildropping that some people do, and I intend to.

    However, with the cost of shipping it is debatable how much money you actually save doing maildrops. And it was in figuring out cost per meal that I really, really started figuring out bargain shopping.

    It will take between 120 and 180 days to walk the 2176 miles of the A.T. Consider at the low end of that you are still planning 360 meals. If you can shave a nickel off the cost of a meal, you just saved yourself $18.00.

    It is an exercise in planning though, because if you mail too little, you need to buy to augment along the way (which I know I will need to do anyway, but the less I do this, the better), but if you send too much you need to throw it out, or give it away to fellow hikers, because every ounce of weight counts when you are hauling it up a mountain on your back.

    The point of this comment, is that I have found myself engrossed in testing recipes for the past several months and eating out a whole lot less. That and for a small reasonable investment of a food dehydrator and a vacuum sealer you can stock pile years of easy to prepare food that tastes really good and is healthy, if you are inclined to learn how. I find that just amazing.

  3. I’m like you. I love to eat out. I love the atmosphere, the service, the opportunity to have foods that I don’t get at home, the whole deal. Then the bill comes and I realize that we’ve just spent a week’s worth of grocery money on one dinner.

    I’m not willing to give up the dining out, but we have been trying to take better advantage of specials and coupons. With the economy being what it is, many nice restaurants have started advertising and offering coupons when they never did before. BOGO entrees or 20% off coupons have become commonplace and not just at the lousy chain restaurants. We also took advantage of a couple of gift card promotions this month – buy $100 worth and get $20 free, so that earned us $40 in free dining.

    Of course, there are always the standard hints like sharing meals, drinking water, skipping dessert (or at least sharing one dessert). One local restaurant now serves mini desserts in little glasses that are $2.00 each. I’ve found that even one of those is a nice sweet ending to a meal and sure beats spending $6 or $8 for a regular dessert portion.

    So I’d say eat out less and economize when you do.

  4. In the last month, I gave up going out for lunch. Sob, because I really like to not be cooped up in my office for that hour. However, I’m up about $300 and I’ve lost 5 pounds this month by brown bagging the lunch and the afternoon snack.

  5. Eating out for us is once-in-awhile type of thing, maybe once a month for dinner. Occasionally, on payday, I will treat myself to lunch out. But overall, we really just don’t eat out.

    Like Disney Steve, I have recognized that when hubby and I go out to eat, we spend way too much, nearly 1/2 of our weekly grocery budget. I can much more easily buy a steak at the store on sale and cook us a very nice meal at home.

  6. It’s not always that simple; especially if you’re cooking for one, and are not a skilled cook.

    I’ve recently begun trying to learn to cook, more for health reasons than money, although I do try and watch that, too.

    I made a chicken recipe last week:

    3 chicken breasts: 9.89
    1 can chicken stock: .89
    1 can olive oil spray: 3.49
    1 small onion powder: .99
    1 small mustard powder: 2.49
    1 small garlic powder: .99
    1 small dried basil: 1.99
    1 small thyme: 1.99

    That comes to a total of 22.72. I got two meals out of it, so that comes to 11.36 per meal.

    Now clearly, the spices and olive oil spray have a lot more use in them, but I can go to Whataburger and get an AWESOME grilled chicken sandwich with a drink for 6 bucks that tastes better than anything I can cook myself and is much more convenient.

    I stopped by a neighborhood New York-style pizzaria tonight and picked up a 10-inch cheese pie for 6 bucks (including tip). I couldn’t make it myself for that.

    Every situation is different, and everyone’s reward threshhold for savings is different, too.

    For me, cooking for myself, the savings reward of cooking for myself isn’t great enough to justify it when I can eat out intelligently for about the same thing with a lot less grief and effort, and I don’t light the kitchen on fire nearly as often.

    I should write an article on how to save money eating out. For example, going to a restaurant that spreads a big salad bar. If you buy a meal, the salad bar is usually only a few bucks more, so I’ll order the dinner to go, then eat the heck out of the salad bar. Two meals for the price of one.

  7. I find I just truly don’t really enjoy a meal out anymore unless I’ve scored some kind of “deal” on it, coupons, half price, free and even then, I’m usually not that impressed. I especially hate paying for beverages out. It’s just no fun for me anymore since I found out I’m not a half-bad cook and can do anything from steak to a fancy desert to a great mixed drink myself and would just as soon stay home and cook for myself and/or othes. I’ve collected quite a few cookbooks over the years at garage sales and thrift stores (I’m kinda enjoying those from the 1950′ and 60’s right now, ) and enjoy trying something different pretty often. I live alone but am involved in a church where we do carry-ins monthly plus my mother, sister and her kids all know if they come over I usually have something going on in the kitchen, and I enjoy doing it.

  8. I agree with Sean. Too often it is assumed that eating out costs more than cooking at home. I like to cook, because I can eat whatever I want, and have control over the health value of my food. It’s also a satisfying feeling to eat food you’ve cooked yourself, and I enjoy the food more.

    However, I’ve found little savings, if any, to cooking at home vs. eating out. Jennifer, you quote a figure of $24 per person eating out. Sounds like you’ve gone to a nice restaurant and gone all out. When I eat out it generally costs me between $4 and $8. I don’t buy beverages or dessert. The food cart where I work can be even cheaper, and they give you a lot of food. A Thai restaurant I order from costs $8 for an entree, and the food lasts me for two meals. Eating in at the restaurant, if you want to dine with family or friends, costs the same.

    I think I’m a bit better cook than Sean, and I actually have spices on hand. Still, it costs me $5-8 per meal to cook. While expensive cuts of meat or fish do drive the price up, I don’t find that cheaper cuts of beef, chicken or pork ($3-5 per pound) are unreasonable.

    In fact, I find that many common fruits and vegetables cost at least as much as meat. They can easily cost $5-6 per pound. You don’t notice it because they tend to be labeled by count. While they are delicious, provide many essential nutrients, and should make up the majority of a healthy meal, they also provide fewer calories than meat, which means you need to buy more of them to get a full meal.

    What’s cheap tends to be less healthy: grains, sugars, etc. If you survive on pasta you could get by for $1-2 per meal, but you won’t be very healthy.

    I also watch out for organic food. While I don’t like the idea of chemicals being unleashed into the environment, I don’t worry much about ingesting the tiny amount they actually spray on food. If it’s reasonably priced I’ll go organic, but it often costs twice as much.

    I’m sure if I payed careful attention to sale prices, rather than walking in with a predetermined menu, I could save more. But it’s a lot of work. I could also save if I bought large quantities of food and stored them in a freezer. I don’t have that kind of luxury, since I have two roommates and have to share a fridge and small pantry. Besides, it would cost a lot more to live on my own than what I’d save by storing my food.

    It also makes a big difference where you shop. Whole Foods or New Seasons, while they have great food and are pleasant to shop at, generally cost twice as much as standard supermarket chains, such as Safeway. You might also check the prices at your local coop or farmer’s market. CSAs (community supported agriculture) can be worth it if you are regular enough in your cooking and don’t mind the surprise vegetable of the week.

    All told, it generally costs me $400 per month for this 165-lb. male. I have gotten away with $300 when I tried hard to follow sales, stayed away from expensive meats, and ate more pasta.

    Eating out can easily be accomplished for $400 a month as well, if you don’t eat out for breakfast.

  9. Sean, your numbers really aren’t accurate. For the chicken dish, you still have everything but the chicken and the stock, so you really only spent $10.78 plus a small portion of the spices, so probably less than $12.00 total for two meals, not nearly $23.00. You also spent an awful lot for the chicken. It isn’t nearly that expensive around here.

    Same goes for the pizza. We make pizza at home every Thursday night. A pack of 2 ready-made 12-inch crusts is under $3. Another couple of dollars for cheese and sauce and a couple of dollars for toppings. So we can make 2 12-inch pies with multiple toppings for about $7-8 (depending on toppings). A plain cheese pizza would be about $3.00 each. Make your own crusts and it would be even cheaper.

  10. Lyle – What fruits and vegetables are you buying that cost $6/pound. We pay about $1.99/lb or less for green peppers, $3.29/lb for mushrooms, $.99/lb for zucchini, $1.99/lb for onions, etc. I don’t think there is anything we buy in the produce department that costs more than $5/lb. Spinach is probably the most expensive at $4.99 but it takes a lot of spinach to make a pound.

    Fruit is cheap, too. Apples are under $2.00/lb. Grapes $.99/lb. Berries about $2.50/lb. Bananas $.49/lb.

    And I’m quoting supermarket prices, which are higher than produce store prices. If we went to Produce Junction, we could get stuff much cheaper.

  11. Hey, Sean. I don’t know where you are located, but I live the midwest. Unless you buy your food in some kind of gourmet store or something, your prices look awfully high. I think a lot depends on where and how you shop. I bought chicken legs just the other day on sale for $.96 per pound (down from about $1.96. There were 4 pounds of chicken legs. I used 2 pound to make chicken soup. I am not sure what I am going to do with the rest.

    So, here is the price break down for my soup.

    $1.92 chicken legs (cost for 1/2 the pkg.)
    $1.00 chicken broth
    $0.10 some filtered water from home
    $0.00 for spices/seasonings I already had so cost is minimal
    $0.00 for storage reusable glass containers I already had

    I made six servings of soup, with a cost per serving of about $.50. I take soup with me to work everyday in a thermos. If I were to buy my lunch instead, it would cost me a minimum of $6.00 (sandwich and a drink). It enables me to eat healthier and more cheaply. Even if it wasn’t cheaper, I would probably still do it because I have food allergies that make eating out difficult. This is not an isolated case. I can do this easily every single week.

  12. Steve, you got me on that one. I admit to faulty research. I’m basing my idea of vegetable prices more on intuition than real numbers. You obviously have a better grasp on prices than I do.

    In 2007 I was on a strict diet that involved eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. I noticed that my food costs went up. That’s probably because they cost more than grains, rather than costing as much as meat.

    I still eat the same thing for breakfast every day: apples or other fruit, cheese, nuts, and yogurt. I’m constantly surprised by how much the fruit costs. I wish I could give you a price but it’s hard to find supermarket prices when you’re not there.

    OK, I found prices on the Safeway web site. These are for delivery, but I don’t think they’re marked up; they charge for delivery. They look like the prices I’ve seen in the store.

    Here are some current fruit prices straight from Safeway:

    Apples: $2/lb.
    Bananas: $2/lb.
    Pears: $2/lb.
    Nectarines: $2.50/lb.
    Cherries: $4/lb.
    Grapes: $4/lb.
    Blackberries: $5.76/lb.
    Raspberries: $11.76/lb.

    I guess if fruit is out of season, it’s more expensive.


    Carrots: $0.70/lb.
    Zucchini: $1.50/lb.
    Asparagus: $4.49/lb.
    Green peppers: $5/lb.
    Red peppers: $10/lb.

    I’m not kidding about peppers. Green peppers are $1 each, red peppers $2 each. They weigh about 1/5 lb.


    Store brand chicken breast: $2/lb. (not so tasty IMHO)
    Foster Farms chicken breast: $3/lb. (tasty)
    Ground beef: $4/lb.
    Pork loin chops: $4.29/lb.
    Strip steak: $5.49/lb.
    Organic chicken breast: $9/lb.

    I live in Portland, OR, which probably has average prices. None of the above prices are for organic produce.

    Maybe I should try a produce store. I used to have some near me but I moved. It’s been a while so I don’t recall the prices. However I don’t find it terribly convenient most of the time to shop at one store for this, one store for that, one store for something else, when I want to make dinner tonight.

    I do stop at a butcher to get meat, which is on the way home. It’s not any cheaper than the supermarket, but it’s better meat.

    crazyliblady, I appreciate your frugality, but your chicken soup is not very healthy. Chicken legs are 60% fat, and all of that is going into the soup. It also has no carbohydrates and is missing many important vitamins and minerals found in vegetables.

    Also, you don’t seem to be eating very much. An entire chicken leg also has only 200 calories and weighs about 1/4 lb. So your bowl of soup is less than 300 calories. That’s a reasonable size meal if you eat 5-6 meals a day, but I think Sean’s calculation was based on 3 meals a day, and he may have higher caloric needs than you.

    Sean, I recommend you buy your spices in bulk instead of whole jars. Just buy a teaspoon, or whatever you need for the meal, and it’ll be cheaper. Although those spice jar prices you quote look like half of what I’d pay.

    Overall, I think it’s difficult to compare eating at home and eating out, if you don’t control for factors such as the quality and quantity of the food.

  13. Lyle, it is definitely cheaper to buy produce in season. You listed a bunch of out of season stuff. $4/lb for grapes, for example, is 4 times what we pay in season. And I’ve never seen green peppers for $5/lb at any time of year. In fact, I’ve never seen them sold by the piece either. Yesterday, they were $1.99 here. At the produce store, they are probably 3 lbs for $5 or something like that.

    Check your local produce stores. Also, see if there is an Asian market nearby. They generally have lower produce prices (but not always so you need to know what you are comparing to).

    We eat a primarily vegetarian diet and I think it is far cheaper than a meat-based typical American diet.

  14. I hate the standard burger joints (Mcdonald’s, Burger King, etc). I used to eat out for work lunch Mon-Fri at those types. Gave it up for a pretty healty sack lunch (I cave on dessert; oreo double stuff or junk like that). Now, when I visit one of those occasionally, it generally upsets my stomach more than anything,

    However, we have found some places that offer good or great food at a a great price. We bugdet for one or two eat out meals a week (two if we go cheaper on both). Sometimes its nice to get out of the house and eat out. There is a local fresh-mex/southwestern food joint that has tremendous food at a great price (three can eat there for only two-three bucks more than at McD’s and the food is vastly superior in taste and healthiness).

    I would say bugdet for it, make it a nice treat, look for deals, etc, but there is no need to hate eating out. It has its place and can be a great experience if done right.

  15. Wow, some of those produce prices are sky high! Who would pay over $10 a pound for raspberries? I do admit to buying the more expensive pre-made salad bags as I never now how I am going to feel so it is easier to throw the salad in the bowl, top it with some sunflower seeds and dressing and I have a nice lunch for less than a dollar. I like finding the marked down produce and was able to find some great red peppers marked down to less than $1 for 3 of them, took them home chopped them up and put them in freezer bags so when I need them for cooking I have them. Frozen chicken breasts are usually no more than $2/lb on sale and they go on sale regularly which is why it pays to follow the ads and start to stock up so you have enough to last from one sale to the other if you have enough freezer space. Learn how to cook and keep learning. Practice makes perfect.

    We don’t go out much although I like to occassionally and I when we do I enjoy going to a buffet so I can get salads and the main dishes in the amounts I want. Now that I have gotten older with health problems, I have learned not to stuff myself at a buffet and I know my eating limits.

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