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Going Broke From Eating Out

Going Broke From Eating Out

The three biggest expenses in most budgets are housing, food, and transportation.  I feel like I’ve got a good handle on our housing and on transportation as well.  But sometimes (like monthly) it feels like I’m going broke from eating out.  Restaurants do some serious damage to my budget and from what I read on Twitter and other personal finance blogs, lots of you feel like you spend too much money eating out as well.

Oddly enough, it took figuring out how much money I was spending at the grocery store to finally motivate me to change my dining out habits.

Broke Family, Table for Two

I like eating out because it’s convenient, fun, and a break from the norm.  I’ve always known that I spend a lot eating out, but really it’s my only vice so I don’t sweat it too much.  I’d always assumed that I was spending about $300 per month eating out.

Most of that comes from me going out for lunch while I’m at work.  Mandy and I like to go out to dinner on our weekly date night as well.  The average restaurant bill on date night is higher, but we don’t drink alcohol so the bill isn’t that bad.

You know what they say about assumptions

I’d just always assumed that I was spending an average of about $10 per day eating out; $300 per month.  Boy was I wrong.  It wasn’t until I started tracking my expenses and categorizing them that I realized just how ridiculous my restaurant spending really was.

Check this out.  According to Personal Capital, my average monthly spend in restaurants last year was $517 per month.  Ouch.

Going Broke From Eating Out
Personal Capital Screenshot: Restaurant Expense was $517/mo

Going Broke From Eating Out

My actual spending is a heckuva lot more than the ‘about $300’ per month I assumed I was spending.   You can see from that image above that near the end of last year it wasn’t uncommon for me to spend over $600 per month dining out, with my all-time-high coming in over $800.  In fact, my monthly AVERAGE was over $500.

That image also shows you that my total spending in the Restaurant category was $6,222.35 last year.  That’s an average of $17.05 every single day.  Using math from the 4% rule, I’ll need to have $150,000 invested to support my $6,000 per year dining out habit ($6000 x .04 = $150,000).  Do I really like eating out that much?

Now look at this.  My average monthly grocery bill, at $648, was only slightly higher that my restaurant bill.

Personal Capital Screenshot: Groceries Expense was $648/mo

You might think that as my restaurant bill grew my grocery bill would go down.  Not so. I was just consuming more.

It was only by tracking my expenses that I finally realized exactly what was really going on.  No more assumptions.  This was stone cold reality kicking me in the rear.

What gets measured gets improved

Calculating what the cost of a home cooked meal should be has been the catalyst that’s driving me to change my eating out habit.  Here’s how I’m calculating that cost.

My grocery bill for last year was $7,790.10.  That’s $21.34 per day to feed my family of six.  At three meals per day x 6 people, the average cost per home cooked meal = $1.19 per meal, per person.

Compare that to the average cost of a restaurant meal: $17.05 per day eating out.   Just ONE of my trips to a restaurant could buy 14 meals fixed at home.  Yowza! That was an eye-opener.

Now whenever I go out to eat, I feel incredibly selfish and that guilt has been enough to slowly start changing my behavior.  I still eat out more than I should, but I’m doing much better.

Plugging the hole in my budget

If you’re like me and feel that eating out is leaving a huge hole in  your budget, then you can try doing what I’m doing to get that restaurant spending under control.

  1. Don’t assume you know where you money is going.  Start tracking your expenses with free money management apps like Mint and make sure you know where every penny is going.
  2. Figure out the cost of a home cooked meal.  Knowing what an average home cooked meal actually costs can help you put your restaurant bill into perspective.  Here’s the formula to calculate the cost of each meal:
    • ((Monthly grocery bill x 12)/365) / (number of people in your home x 3) = avg. cost per meal, per person.
  3. Prepare work meals in advance. Eating out at work is my biggest problem.  To keep that cost down that I’ve been preparing my work meals in advance.  Having a meal ready to go in the morning works much better for me than trying to throw something together as I’m rushing out the door to work.

Ever feel like you're going #broke from #EatingOut? Knowing how much you spend on #food at the #grocerystore, on #fastfood, and at #restaurants will help you control how much you spend #diningout

Chime in!

Is eating out a problem for you?  Do you know what the cost of a home cooked meal is per person?  Do you think knowing that number would help you curb your own restaurant bills?  What areas of your budget do you think you could do better in?

By Ty Roberts

Ty Roberts is the founder of Camp FIRE Finance, and a husband and father of four living in the Seattle area. He's a fan of the 4% rule, 80s movies and music, dad jokes and cast iron cooking.

25 replies on “Going Broke From Eating Out”

Yowza, Ty, that’s some serious $$ in the restaurants! Love the way you looked 1 meal out = 14 at home. Great way to reframe the reference, and put facts behind your assumptions. We’re empty nest, and spend ~$200/month in restaurants. I always work out at lunch, then grab a quick bite at my desk.

I totally get it. Eating out was one of my worst habits and I had a few
that needed cleaning up. I used to eat out for lunch daily and then
have several meals out every week and that would include a couple drinks
with dinner. I was throwing money away. Worse than that, I was
modeling horrible financial behavior for my daughter.

When I finally got my act squared away, I realized what I fool I had been. Now, I eat at home almost every night with my girlfriend and our son now, giving ourselves only a couple nights out a month. And those nights aren’t extravagant affairs.

I don’t eat lunch out any more as I’m now king of the lunchbox. The guys in the office give me a hard time about packing my lunch, but I carry it as a badge of honor. I’m making up for years of foolish choices. If anyone wants to ask, I’m happy to explain why.

We take great pride in eating at the dinner table with our son every night. Our focus is on family and talking about how our day was. The financial benefits are bonus at this point. We will occasionally talk about how inexpensive a meal was that we made and then marvel at what it would cost if we at out. I’d rather have dinner home any day, than go out. That’s 180 degrees from the person I used to be.

It’s really embarrassing to think of how many thousands of dollars were wasted by eating out.

Hey, Colin. I take grief at work for riding the bus instead of buying a second car and driving that. I need to take a page from your book and turn this bad habit around. I’d probably be happier, healthier, and wealthier if I did so. Thanks for sharing your story!!

Great post, Ty! We don’t eat out much – but I’m sure we have a category that I am in total denial about. My brother’s family used to eat out 2-3 times per week (and not fast food). We might eat out 2-3 times per month (and some month’s even less). They were also in major debt and we are FI… But I’m definitely not in denial that we have categories where I WAY underestimate too…

Great post, Ty! I’ve read articles from some in the personal finance community who downplay the impact of let’s say, taking a lunch to work every day instead of dining out, as though it’s nothing more than a drop in the bucket. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, for many people who are in a real tough spot financially, cutting down on this kind of discretionary spending can be the fastest, most immediate way to begin to transform their finances. For example, if you’re locked in a bad mortgage, or stuck with a vehicle that you can’t afford, you may not be able to correct those situations overnight, it may take months or a couple of years, but discretionary spending can be adjusted immediately.

By the way, I laughed out loud at the “grocery cart” Instagram post, as much as the first time I saw it. Hilarious…but don’t tell Mrs. GRQ I said that. 🙂

Thanks MMM. I agree 100%. Nailing these quick wins is a great psychological boost as well. Seeing the immediate impact from something as small as eliminating the restaurant expense from your budget can help drive you to go for the bigger, long term wins.

Awesome post! I enjoy making sumptuous-looking (according to my husband’s coworkers) high-meat packed lunch and we rarely (say 4x a year) eat out even on weekends. Our average monthly food expense now is $400/2px (with a goal to reduce it to $300 this year). That is about $7/px daily, if my calculator is right 😛

That is such a great way of thinking about that. How many meals you can make with the cost of eating out? I kind of always justified our eating out by, oh we both work, or we don’t drink alcohol or we don’t get appetizer just entrees. I tell you what..I can sure cook up a storm for the same price.

Now eating out is just when I take my mom to Bellingham to see her brother and that is it. Even basketball games now…when it was always…don’t have time…well where do I am want that time to go. Do I want to work another 10 years just so I can eat out…..ummm NO!

The other thing that surprises me is how expensive kids lunch are? School lunch is $3.50 each. I thought I was saving a bunch of time by just having kids do school lunch but with 3 kids(at home) so that times $3.50 times 100 days of school is $1,050. I can make them home lunch for a dollar a kid a day($300).

What gets measured, gets improved. I like that! It’s funny how we assume we are spending a reasonable amount without actually tracking it. I used to do this with going out to eat too. Now I’m struggling to allow myself more pleasures and stop being so strict with myself. I guess it’s all about balance. I currently have my grocery budget running smoothly on less than $100 a month. It’s kind of insane but I’m a single girl (no family yet) and buy organic, vegan meals from costco! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story!

I was *shocked* at how far off my assumptions were. Finding the balance is tough for sure. I have no intention of cutting out restaurants completely from my life – I just enjoy it too much. But I will absolutely work on scaling things waaaay back! Thanks for stopping by @thebudgetawakens:disqus and may the funds be with you.

This exact thing happened to us before we started tracking spending. We had begun cutting back, and I supposed we’d cut down to about $100-$150 a month, but when I went back and actually tracked every dime, we were spending an average of $275 a month on eating out!! That doesn’t sound bad for a family of six, but we were supposed to be cutting back!! Now we keep it closer to $100 a month average at the most. BTW, you guys are doing a great job on the grocery budget. Ya got that going for you. 🙂

you know why we do good on groceries? Because my wife handles that. lol. I’m 90% responsible for our restaurant fiasco! 🙂 But now that we’re tracking this, I expect that this will begin to fall (at least I hope it will!)

Ugh I love reading these types of articles. I love seeing how huge of a difference it makes, and how much I could save monthly by not eating out as much. But damnit I love food too!

We had the same problem as justifying going out to eat so our grocery bill would go down…big mistake. Convenience also plays a huge role in the issue as well. With a little one driving by Chipotle before getting home is so much easier! We have tried to at least budget for it and not go over like we used to. Crock pot meals, leftovers, and quick sandwiches have saved me at lunch time as well. Instead of $10 drive through a $4 sandwich saves quite a bit.

So glad to see you have found some things that may work for you. It is unbelievable how much we spend on food in this country. Also the amount that gets thrown away!

Great post!

oh man, Chipotle. LOVE that place and they just opened one w/in walking distance of my office. I’m screwed.

I’ve got a half-written post about waste that I can’t seem to find the motivation to finish. One of these days I’ll get around to it.

Speaking of waste, we currently have that problem. We are about to stay in Asia for 3 months as part of our “practice” retirement and we still have tons of frozen beef and fruits. And we will just be putting all our stuff for storage. I have to come up with a really good meal plan for minimal or zero waste.

I made a post about that challenge and plan to update it every week. I hope you post yours soon, for sure I will learn a lesson or 2 there.

wow – a retirement dry run sounds awesome @savvynewbie:disqus. Do you have a link to your challenge?

My waste post might be slightly different. Have you seen those ‘no spend’ challenges? They seem to be quite popular, but they don’t interest me. However, a ‘no waste’ month interests me quite a bit. I imagine the monetary savings from having a no waste month would be surprising. I’ve got it mostly written, but am trying to make some observations around my own household before adding in the details and posting it. We just thought it’s a perfect time since we had our first baby.

I might have seen one of those ‘no spend’ challenge a long time ago but I can’t remember how they deal with food. I’ll probably need to look at them again.

I’ve been trying to minimize our food waste with ‘reverse meal plan’ for months now, and it significantly reduced our grocery bill. But now it needs to be a little hardcore with time constrain.

It will be so encouraging to see how ‘no waste’ month works for a family of 6.

Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out! I’m interested to see how it goes for our family as well, but I imagine something like this:

Kids: What’s for dinner?
Dad: leftovers
Kids: awwwww – we don’t like that.
Dad: tough. You’ve got two choices for dinner: take it or leave it
Kids: awwww. c’mon, dad!
Dad: No new meals till the old one is gone.

Wash, rinse, repeat. 🙂

That’s a good training for kids though. I was a picky eater before since my parents spoiled us with food, and I struggle with that until now.

I eat subway,Chinese food,pizza,and breakfast burritos.
Within 14 days , I am completely out of out of $360 dollars.
8 $30 pizzas in two weeks
15 $8 dollar meals from restaurants in two weeks.
Eating out is making broke as hell!!!!!

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