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.