We took a totally indulgent vacation with friends last fall, ate a TON of delicious delights at our destination, and spent a corresponding amount of money on all that gourmet food and booze. Mr. Green and I were both feeling guilty about the general overconsumption on the trip, so I made a pitch- for one month after our trip, we would not eat out, at all.
I do enjoy eating out. But I don’t love it, and my city is not one of those amazing food meccas with a million food trucks and trendy eateries. I like eating out as much as the next person, but even I’ll admit that eating out sometimes gets really, really old. It can also get really expensive and be very unhealthy. But if you’re not prepared with a meal plan and efficient with grocery shopping, eating out can feel like the only option during a busy week.
Our Food Budget
We are fortunate to not have to obsess about our food spending – but we both know we spend too much, and we know that we probably should obsess, at least a little bit. I’ve been tracking my finances for almost seven years now, so I have a good handle on the ebb and flow of these spending categories, and food spending is one category where lifestyle inflation has definitely taken its toll. We are able to navigate the grocery store effectively, as we don’t spend a ton on prepared and convenience foods. We could do better in this category by shopping at the lower-cost grocery stores in our city (Aldi + a local chain known for good deals), but we land at the closest grocery store most often. Unfortunately, I don’t have the complete picture of our food spending as a couple since we’re not married and Mr. Green doesn’t track his spending. Although I don’t know actual numbers, I’d say Mr. Green pays for dining out more often than me (a remnant of my graduate student days), and I probably buy groceries more often (because I’m the more motivated meal planner). Looking at the past few months of my spending – I average about $450 a month in food spending, split fairly evenly between eating out and groceries. That’s NOT counting Mr. Green’s food spending, and although I don’t know that number, I’m guessing it’s in a similar range. That clocks us in around $800 a month in food spending between the two of us. Yikes! I know this could be much, MUCH better, which is the entire point of this challenge and this blog!
Our approach to the month was an almost zero-tolerance towards eating out – with the pre-approved exceptions of some planned catered lunches at work, donuts on Saturday morning, and weekend drinks at a bar or brewery. Take-out from the grocery store hot bar or other prepared food at a convenience store we still counted as eating out. We started the challenge on Election Day, and ended on Black Friday since we were planning on taking a day trip to a nearby city over the Thanksgiving weekend.
We chose November for a few reasons – it was after our vacation and we weren’t traveling for the remainder of the month, including not traveling anywhere for Thanksgiving. We both love to cook, so Thanksgiving was a fun opportunity to try new recipes (especially with no houseguests to impress) and a chance to stock our fridge with delicious, delicious leftovers. (Our most creative turkey leftover dish was turkey “carnitas” which was actually quite delicious.) We relied on leftovers so much throughout the month that we actually regretted not cooking a larger turkey!
Although some weeks we’re really good about meal planning, there’s often an element of procrastination, a busy Sunday afternoon (when we typically grocery shop), or a last minute menu change – you know the drill. For example, Mr. Green has already made two post-work grocery stops this week, because we didn’t really have a menu planned out when we went shopping this weekend. I know this contributes to impulse buys and probably bulks up our food spending by quite a bit. We tend to hand wave and say “it’s still better than eating out!” Which, while true, it’s also not as good as actually meal planning. Ahem. We are far from perfect!
The challenge wasn’t actually all that bad once we got into a groove. We’re good about meal planning Monday through Thursday, but the weekends can be any combination of friends hosting dinner, exploring neighboring communities and eating something while we’re there, meeting friends for dinner in town, etc. Navigating those social situations proved to be one of the larger challenges to overcome. (Dinners hosted by friends at their homes were allowed.)
Challenging Scenario #1 – Weekend lunches and learning to be homebodies. I actually think we’re better about cooking dinners on the weekends than we are about lunches. With lunch, we’re usually out and about running errands, and it’s nice to hit a lunch spot that isn’t convenient to our offices during the week. Lunch at home on the weekend felt a lot more like a weekday – nothing fun, and usually whatever leftovers we had on hand. With just the two of us at home, the challenge felt really lonely at times, and it made me feel like a huge homebody. Although this is good for the budget, it seems bad for the soul! We really had to try to find new ways to get out of the house that didn’t involve going out to eat. Although lunch at home on a Saturday felt lonely at first, we eventually got the hang of it and it actually made our weekends much more productive. After a while, the appeal of a quick lunch at home was obvious – it allowed you to pause your house project for a few moments, snarf a sandwich or some leftovers, and get back to your project without losing a lot of momentum.
Challenging Scenario #2 – Being out and about far from home. November in my part of the country isn’t usually very hospitable (it was ice raining on Thanksgiving night), so our winter adventures often involve breweries, antique shops, used book stores, etc. One Saturday afternoon, we were at a brewery about 20 minutes away from home and it was getting to be dinner time. Our friends were all getting sandwiches from a food truck parked at the brewery, but we stayed strong and made it back home for dinner despite a real desire to stay at the brewery with our friends. (To be honest, if we had liked this particular food truck more we would have crumbled, but it wasn’t one of our favorites.) Dinner on this night was an emergency frozen pizza – we needed something fast and greasy!
Challenging Scenario #3 – Out of lunch ideas. Towards the end of the month I was losing steam with my lunch plans. Mr. Green can eat PB&J day in and day out, but I definitely crave variety. One day when I was at home for lunch to let the dog out, nothing really sounded appealing, and the fridge contents were looking sparse. So, I settled on a fried egg on toast, which ended up being delicious and super satisfying.
What We Learned
This month ended up being great for so many reasons:
- Because I do track my spending, I bought all of the groceries for the month. I ended up spending about $430 for the month for both of us, or about half of our typical food spending amount, and that included a holiday dinner.
- We had basically zero food waste which is great for our budget and the environment!
- We reminded ourselves that sometimes you just need to get food in your belly and move on with your life. Not all meals need to be an event.
- No back and forth “what do you want for dinner”/”no what do YOU want for dinner” and then settling on a mediocre restaurant that is neither satisfying nor tasty.
- We made more of an effort to have friends over for dinner and we tried to make weekend dinners a little special.
- Emergency frozen pizzas are necessary.
- I lost about five pounds without really trying or counting calories!
- Even though Mr. Green doesn’t track his spending, he did notice how much lower his credit card bill was for the month! And obviously seeing this in my Mint restaurant spending category was very rewarding:
So Have We Kept It Up?
Going into December, I pledged that we should try to stick to two lunches and two dinners out per week (one each during the week and on the weekend). We are probably eating out for lunch more often on the weekends than we should be, but on the whole I’d say that we are sticking to the dinner plan. As far as weekday lunches go – well, as the weather gets nicer, I’m prone to wander away from my desk and find someplace with a patio for lunch. Habits. They are hard to break!
Now that I am several months removed from this experiment, I’m determined to try harder to reduce my food spending and make more meals at home, especially bringing my lunch from home. Part of this is because I have a clearer idea of my monthly savings goals than I did in November, but another big part is the substantial spare tire I am presently carrying around my midsection. I know I can accomplish both my savings and healthy eating/weight loss goals by applying what we learned last November to our day-to-day life. And now that my garden is kicking into high gear, I should have no more excuses!
Do you eat out too often? Have you considered a personal ban on eating out?