How to Solve the Eating Out Problem

Eating out is a budget leak for a lot of people.

It’s just so easy to grab something and it’s nice not to have to clean up. The problem is, though, that eating out is expensive compared to eating at home. By the time you pay for overpriced drinks and then tip, you’ve spent three, four or more times what the same meal would have cost at home. Even fast food is no bargain. Despite knowing this, many people still have trouble plugging this leak.

Several years ago I had the same problem. I tried prepping meals ahead of time, learning to cook more adventurous things, learning to cook simpler things, and meal planning and yet I still found myself in too many restaurants. The thing that finally broke this habit for good was to put my restaurant habit and the dollars it was costing me under the microscope. For one year, I wrote down everything I ate out. Even if it was just coffee, I wrote it down.

When I got home at the end of the day, I wrote down where we ate, what I/we had at each meal/snack that was eaten away from home (including the drinks), and the price of each item. I also wrote down any tips that were given. (I did all of this in an Excel spreadsheet that kept a running tally of my totals, but you could use a ledger, or a text document and use a calculator when it comes time to add up the numbers.)

At the end of the year, I looked at that total. I don’t remember the exact number now, but I know it was somewhere around $3,000. And that, I know, was modest by comparison to what many people spend because we rarely choose expensive places or alcoholic drinks. As appalled as I was, it could have been worse. I saw that number and instantly thought of all the other things that I could have done with that money. It would have paid for that cruise I’d been wanting to take, among other things.

But seeing the numbers alone wasn’t what cured me. During that year of record keeping, I also wrote down any feelings I had about the meal. Comments like, “Food wasn’t that great,” “I can make this at home,” “Had to wait too long for a table,” “Restaurant full of screaming kids or too much loud music/TV’s ,” or “Service wasn’t great,” far outnumbered the positives. When I looked back over the year, I determined that I had gotten very little value out of that $3,000. Eating out may have been convenient, but I’d received sub-par food, poor service, and heaps of aggravation. And that doesn’t even take into account the poor nutrition I’d received from much of that food. (I could and maybe should have written that down, too. It would have been even more of an eye opener.) Looking at all of that in black and white, I felt like a sucker.

After that, I decided I’d had enough. I no longer wanted to eat out so much. I got serious about meal planning and making things ahead of time. I bought some great cookbooks and learned new things. I invested in good kitchen equipment. We still eat out but rarely, and we only go to places that we know we will enjoy and receive full value from the experience. When I go out now it is a conscious choice, not out of habit or desperation. I’ve lost weight and gained more money (not to mention cooking skills). If you have trouble stopping the eating out leak, I encourage you to write it all down for a year, six months or even just a month. Write down your feelings, too, so that you can fully assess the value for money paid. If it will help, record the nutrition information (although you might find that too scary to contemplate). Chances are that at the end of your writing it down period, you’ll wonder what you ever saw in eating out so often.

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4 Responses to How to Solve the Eating Out Problem

  1. Alexandria says:

    I don’t have the money to eat out. Period. That pretty much solves that. 😀

    I share because people seem to consider not eating out as deprivation. Thing is, if eating out was so great, and that important to me, I’d probably make it more of a priority. But, too often we have high expectations for a nice meal out, and it rarely seems to be really worth it. Our track record for finer dining runs about 50/50. (Have had a couple of AMAZING meals, and many more that were pretty “eh” – especially for the price). Anyway, we are used to good home cooking, and that is hard to compete with. Second for us is probably lower cost chains where at least food/quality is consistent.

    The other thing I notice, without a doubt, is that eating out always equals weight gain. Certainly for my family. It doesn’t matter if I order a salad with dressing on the side. IT doesn’t matter that I regularly stretch one restaurant entree out into a meal + 2 lunches of leftovers. I don’t know how many times I noticed the scale before I noticed the month-end credit-card bill. It NEVER fails. Gained a couple of pounds? Ooops – ate out a lot that month. We stopped eating out when I became pregnant with my first child (mostly ate out before then). My already underweight husband promptly lost 10 pounds. I’d say, if you value your health, eat at home.

  2. Sarah says:

    Great idea about writing down how you felt about the food when eating out. It often seems like such an easy solution but can really leave you feeling let down!

    I think you wouldn’t be able to count the whole $3,000 as savings if you hadn’t gone out anywhere because you would still have to buy food for many of those meals at home. Still, it would be a decent amount of savings.

  3. ms06880 says:

    These days when my husband and I do eat out, we make sure that we use coupons (e.g.,, gift cards (received as presents or promos), promotions (restaurant week) so as not to have to pay full price. Dining out is a treat, instead of convenience. Also, when we do go out, we try to do so locally; support local business.

  4. Gail says:

    Rarely eat out since we live/work at home. I do purposely go out to eat for lunch at times when running errands since I can go weeks at a time without seeing anyone other than hubby and son. I like to go to Burger King or McDonald’s and just people watch (we don’t have an easily convenient mall to do this). This is just part of my way of being connected to others which is something you don’t always think about when someone is disabled. It can get lonely, so whatever the cost (I keep it low) it is worth the occasional out time for me as physically it is about all I can do before needing to get home to take a nap.

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