7 Ways to Stop Eating Out From Killing Your Budget

If there was ever a statistic about why modern budgets fail again and again, I am certain that eating out would be on the list, if not the leading act! More than any other habit of the modern American family, eating out is positively the worst thing you can do for your financial and physical well-being.

If you’re ready to break from the habit and kick eating out goodbye, here is my exhaustive list of the best eight ways to go about it, Fiscal Fizzle style:

#1 – Pack Your Lunches

This is fairly common advice for curbing your lunch habits, so why is it so hard to follow? Because not all of us are morning people, and it takes a few minutes to prepare a lunch that we won’t get tired of. It’s also difficult to prepare “wet” dishes or things that need re-heating, unless a microwave is available (which doesn’t always taste very good). Here are some tips if you jump on the brown-bagging bandwagon:

  • Prepare as much of your lunch the night before.
  • Have 4-5 “standard” lunches in your arsenal so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every night.
  • Pack wet items, like sauces or tomatoes separately and add them just before eating.
  • Prepare microwave-friendly foods that won’t taste like rubber coming out.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a stovetop at work, consider packing things to fry up quickly.

For more tips on brown bagging, read my post – Make Brown Bagging Efficient and Fun.

#2 – Learn to Cook Well

One of the main reasons people like to frequent restaurants is because the food simply tastes better. However, if you’re ever been around someone who has spent a little bit of time learning how to cook foods properly, they will probably tell you that they can make better-tasting food than most restaurants (I say most because there are always a few that are just out-of-this-world delicious).

Start slow and develop your own style of cooking. Don’t worry about setting things on fire, food tasting bad, or the dog not wanting to touch what you made – every new skill takes time. Start with recepies that are easy to follow and you’ll pick up the “basics” through repeated experimentation. Some resources:

#3 – Take a Lesson From Smoking

If you know someone who has quit “cold turkey,” tell them congratulations! You also probably know that it was an incredible challenge of their willpower and determination. A great alternative to stopping in mid-action is the gradual step-down plan. I recommend this if you’ve been addicted to eating out for a long time.

Consider your average monthly budget for dining out, or the average number of times you eat out every week. Then commit to reduce either number by a set amount each week or month, until you are dining out very infrequently.

#4 – Set a Very Desirable Goal

What’s the one thing you want so badly in your life that you would give up almost anything to get it? That one financial goal that’s so desirable that it can literaly stop you in your tracks when you think about spending money somewhere else.

If you don’t have such a goal, it may be a good idea to sit down and develop one. Maybe it’s a summer vacation in the Keys. Or an engagement ring for your girlfriend. The more emotionally attached you are to the goal, the better it will work! Next time you think about eating out, just bring that one, undeniable goal to mind and say No!

#5 – Start Weight Watchers

I’m serious. I ate out less than I ever had the minute I started Weight Watchers, and continued on the plan for about 6 months. You simply can’t be on a well-structured diet like WW and eat out – most restaurant foods contain so many calories you’ll blow through all your WW “points” immediately.

You can imagine the health benefits of not eating all that calorie and fat-rich food on a daily basis – maintaining a healthy weight becomes a much easier proposition.

#6 – Compare to Your Hourly Rate

One of the best tools I’ve heard of for combatting impulse spending is analyzing the purchase based on your working hourly rate, in order to determine the amount of hours or days required to pay off that purchase. Why not do the same thing for lunch?

If you spend $20 on lunch every single day, and your hourly wage is, for simplicity’s sake, $10/hour – you just used what took 2 hours to earn on lunch. That doesn’t even consider the cost of driving to your destination, or the potential cost of health implications. If you work an 8-hour day, that’s 1/4 of your entire day spent of paying for meal out. Does anyone else think that’s crazy???

#7 – Calculate the Cost of Dinner at Home

This is one of my favorite motivational strategies and one that I use regularly between myself and my wife. Based on the ingriedients used to make my lunch or dinner dish, I will calculate out the total per-person cost of that meal (not taking into account the time it took to make it, of course).

Last night’s dinner cost $3 for each of us…find me a restaurant other than McD’s where I can eat that cheap and I will bow before you!

Bonus: #8 – No Time is No Excuse

Many people complain that there is not enough time in the day to cook dinner at home, particularly in this new day and age of getting everything instantly and working 100-hour weeks. To you I say – if you choose to burn yourself out with work and miss out on the daily pleasures of life, go right ahead. But if you can spare as little as 10 minutes per day, there are ways to make dinner without having to dive into your freezer for a meal pack.

One of the great tools I use regularly to save on cooking time is the slow cooker, or “Crock-Pot.” About a month ago, Squakfox wrote an excellent article on 6 reasons you should use a crock pot; check it out if it’s something you’d like to consider (you should!).

Get To Know Your Family Again

Stop eating out to save your money and save your health. But you’ll also reap the most intangible benefit of all – getting to spend some quality time cooking and eating with the rest of your family. There’s nothing like a regular dinner with loved ones to remind you why you do whatever it is you do.

Bon Appetit!

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/spine/ / CC BY 2.0

24 thoughts on “7 Ways to Stop Eating Out From Killing Your Budget

  1. Pingback: Personal Finance Buzz
  2. I like eating out as much as I like cooking with my fiancée at home. We have taken to the practice of splitting meals when we go out. This is both economical and the proportions are better divided.

  3. That’s a fantastic idea! It allows you to continue doing something you like, but at a much lower cost, and you don’t walk out feeling stuffed. There’s nothing worse in my mind that ordering “with your eyes” (which I am guity of) and then not being able to finish most of your meal. What a waste!

  4. Eating out can be a huge issue but another thing I found is finding people who share a similar view with you on not needing to go out to eat and instead staying inside and cooking. It is so much more cheaper.

    1. Absolutely! I think the case is the same when it comes to shopping – if you go with someone who loves to spend, you’re going to feel pressured to spend a little money too. When someone enjoys eating in with you, that not only stops you from going out, but motivates you to make a better meal!

  5. You inspired me to calculate the cost of my family’s home cooked dinner tonight – and I was please to calculate that it came to only $6.00 for my family of 5! 🙂

    Dining out is always a major threat to our budget though. It is one we are constantly battling with! Thanks for the post!

    1. Jennifer – That’s incredible! I’m glad you went through the exercise, as it really opens your eyes to the differences between eating out and cooking at home. Thanks for sharing.

  6. We’ve cut back drastically on dining out over the past few years. We may go out 2 or 3 times a month at most. Even then there are ways we save. We have some restaurants we enjoy which include a full salad buffet with the meal – and the buffet has plenty of non-salad foods. We’ll order one of the least expensive items on the menu, primarily dine from the buffet and have the entree wrapped to go. That’s a second meal, whether for lunch or dinner the next night. In general, we will get our leftovers wrapped to go – we paid for it, we’ll eat it – no sense letting it go to waste.

    Since we predominantly eat at home, and as others have found the costs are significantly lower, you can easily have that expensive dinner periodically in your dining room…at lower cost. For example, when the supermarket has live lobsters on sale, no question – it’s on our table that night. Dining out maybe you get a lobster tail for $20 a plate. Our market routinely has lobster on sale for $4.99 a pound in season. That’s a whole lobster for each person in our family . Add a salad (25 cents/person), baked potatoe (maybe 25 cents and 15 minutes in the microwave) and/or vegetable (25 cents/person) and a halfway decent bottle of white wine for $10 and you’ve got yourself a fabulous dinner that will rival most expensive seafood restaurants.

    With the recession, I’m certain most folks, like myself, are very aware of what restaurants have done – smaller portions, higher prices, cheaper ingredients…and they expect bigger tips. Why put up with that? Make it at home, enjoy it, and know you saved big bucks!

    1. Howard–I hear you on the wrapping strategy. Most restaurants serve so much food these days that I’m having trouble even finishing a lunch portion. Combine that with my efforts to lose weight, and I end up eating about 1/3 of what’s on my plate. Makes for a great meal the next day, and definitely spreads out the cost of the occasional restaurant trip.

  7. #2 Learn to cook well is huge! I’ve recently gotten into cooking, and as a picky eater, making food that I enjoy are the best thing I’ve ever done for my cooking budget. The best part is, once you start learning how to cook well you can host your own dinner parties, and that is much cheaper than going out to eat with friends.

    1. I am on the fence about dinner parties. On the one hand–you’re absolutely right–it’s definitely much cheaper than going out to a restaurant. On other other hand, my own personal experience has shown that when we do dinner parties, we will typically cook unusual items with ingredients that we often don’t have or regularly use.

      It ends up being more expensive than just your typical dinner, but for spending time with friends, I think it’s definitely worth it. Maybe just not all the time…

  8. I recently got a couple of new cookbooks to look for some fun, new recipes to try. My husband and I both cook but it’s easy to get in a food rut and make the same old recipes. I think that makes it more tempting to reach for the takeout menus or go out to eat.

    1. We struggle with the same thing, since we have a few “go-to” ingredients that we’ll always get at the store, and they can get old quick. My favorite things to try out are FoodNetwork.com’s “quick recipes” that usually feature only a handful of ingredients and are fairly easy to make. Tasty, too!

  9. My strategy – avoid having friends so you don’t have anyone to go out to eat with! haha.

    But seriously, I find that when I’m dating girls they find it romantic if you cook for them, so my frugality comes off as being romantic and at the same time I’m teaching myself a new skill. Kind of a win, win, win… Now if only I could find more girls to date…
    .-= Ryan @ Planting Dollars´s last post: Free Balance Sheet =-.

    1. LOL! That’s a good thing, most of the girls I know (not dating anymore, obviously) find it romantic when you take them out to an expensive restaurant. Definitely not frugal.

  10. I like the tip on taking a lesson from people who have quit smoking. I have never thought about eating out as an addiction, but I guess this is the case for most people who eat out all the time. It is a habit you have formed that you must stop and replace with a new habit..which takes time.🙂 Thanks for this tip!

    1. Absolutely! I think it’s not only a habit, but a frame of mind that says “this is easier…let’s do it regardless of cost.” It’s very destructive.

      You can also draw the conclusion that since many people see over-eating as an addiction, eating out definitely contributes to it.

  11. I recently calculated exactly how much of my budget goes to merely eating out…not including groceries. It was almost $300 for a single student. I encouraged my friend to do the same with her husband and it was nearly $800. I decided that I don’t want to pay that much each year just to eat out. I appreciate your helpful hints and links to help me with this goal.

    I also like the idea of splitting meals when you do go out. I think that if my boyfriend would go for that, we could greatly reduce our bills.

    1. We did the same thing while we were at school and counted over $500 per MONTH in eating out (granted, our monthly grocery bill was closer to $50). But it can definitely get out of hand quickly!

  12. Good article – thanks…

    What fool would spend $20/day on lunch? Especially what fool making $10/hour?!

    I try to spend $4-5 on lunches out, and the max would usually be $6. It’s still a big hit to our budget, though.

    I hope I can seriously put some of these tips to use.

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