The American middle class has apparently slammed the breaks on restaurant spending over the last few years.
On average they are spending about 10% less on dining out.
The simple answer is people are dining out less and cooking more of their meals at home.
Our dining out expenses are too high. This used to bother me. I often reflected on the one area of my financial life that I’d like to improve, and it was always dining out.
It’s the one category in our budget that we consistently had trouble controlling. If I could only review one category of my budget it would be this one. It was always embarrassingly high.
Mrs. PT and I spend on average $400 a month on dining out or take home meals. Plus, we spend another $300 on groceries for eating at home. I used to say this was ridiculous. And to some it probably is. But I’ve learned to accept the fact that this is how we like to spend our money.
We like food! We really enjoy the dining out experience and it’s worth it to us to keep this expense in our life. At the same time, we look for ways to save money when dining out.
Why do most people dine out too much? Well, for us back in the day, it was just the two of us (no kids), and we both worked full-time. It was easier, after a long day at work, to just pick something up on our way home or to meet somewhere for a nice meal versus cooking something and cleaning up.
After all, no one had been at home all day preparing something. We did this once or twice a week during the week and another two or three times on the weekend.
Another reason we dine out a lot is because of our friends. Having a meal together is probably the #1 way we socialize with the friends we have. Lastly, I’m lazy and don’t usually bag a lunch for every day of the week. While these lunches are usually around $7, it adds up to a considerable amount over a month.
Save on Dining Out
Here are some of the strategies we’ve used, and other’s have suggested, to help save money when dining out:
Budget and Withdraw Cash – In the past I used a modified budget system which actually targets this expense. I shared this new budget method a while back. To attempt to stay within our budget we would withdraw cash every two weeks and tell ourselves this is the only amount we can spend. See the other cash envelope tips from readers below.
Use Coupons – We use a heck of lot of coupons when dining out. We usually find these in the mail, online, or coupon books. This past weekend we had a free pizza from a local restaurant. It was a nice meal for the price of the tip, and I had enough left over for a lunch this week. Review every half-off and freebie coupon that comes in the mail and stash the good ones in a kitchen drawer or some place else close by. Every time you’re feeling up for a meal outside the house, check the deal drawer first. In the past I also used www.restaurant.com, although you usually have to spend a lot to make their deals worth it.
Mobile Deals – I’ve increasingly been taking advantage of the restaurant deals you can find using Foursquare and other local/mobile deal services. Every time I go to Chilis, I “check-in” and get free chips and salsa.
MoneyBeagle.com offers up some advice on using restaurant.com. Try looking at Restaurant.com, as you can buy a $25 gift certificate for $10 or a $10 gift certificate for $4 at participating restaurants. If you typically wait until the end of the month they usually have a promo code for 80% off which makes it dirt cheap. While this can often work out to a better deal than even the Entertainment book, just keep an eye on the small print as some of the restaurants will only accept them on certain nights of the week, there’s usually a minimum limit on your bill, and some restaurants will only let you pay cash. Still, it can work to be amazing deals especially if it’s a place you would go anyways.
Split Meals – With the exception of a few restaurants, when Mrs. PT and I are dining out we usually split a main course. This is becoming easier and easier as portion sizes get bigger at restaurants. Here in Texas we also eat a lot of Tex Mex so the free chips and salsa allow us to fill up quicker on one meal. Most places will even serve the split meal on two plates for you. Tacky? Maybe. But so is stuffing yourself with today’s huge portion sizes, and/or wasting a bunch of food.
Taking Half Home – If you don’t feel like splitting the meal, consider taking half of your meal home and have it for a lunch the next day.
Maximize the Free Lunch – No less than once a week at my old job, my boss liked to head out for a business lunch with our team. This meal was usually picked up by my boss, so I never missed one of these.
The Entertainment Book – You can actually buy a coupon book online: The Entertainment Coupon Book! This is a nice way to make dining out more affordable.
Kids Eat Free – If you have kids, do a search online for a list of the current places that kids eat free. Most are on slow nights or days of the week. But it may be worth it to you to get a free meal for your kids.
Holidays and Birthdays – Many restaurants will send you a coupon for a free meal or dessert on your birthday. You might need to sign up on their email list or download their app first. Also, many restaurants have special deals based on holidays. For instance, on National Donut Day, places like Dunkin will often offer a free donut. Lastly, if you’re a military member (former or current), don’t forget about Veterans Day deals, Memorial Day deals, etc.
Copycat Recipes – Consider bringing the restaurant to you. There are many copycat recipe blogs where chefs have reverse engineered recipes from popular restaurants. You can also find cookbooks with copycat recipes. Christine from MoneyFunk.com says, “I love copycat recipes. I made the CC recipe for In & Outs secret sauce and my family totally dug it! The difference from regular thousand island…add vinegar, salt, and sugar.”
Dessert at Home – Ice cream would make a great dessert you can eat at home after your dinner out.
Skipping the Soda – The cost of a coke, soda, or pop (whatever you call it) at a restaurant is kind of ridiculous. The markup on drink prices is huge. If you can, try and go for water instead. This is a tough one for me, so usually fail. But I do ask for a to-go cup, which stretches the money I am spending on soda.
Make the Most of Your Experience – Remember back when you were young how special it felt to “go out” to eat? As a kid, our family dined out maybe once every two weeks. It was a big deal. Now-a-days it seems (in most urban dwellings here in the States) we’re dining out at least three or four nights a week. The whole thing is a big boring and routine. My point here is, bring back the special feeling to your dining out experience by simply going less. And when you do go, choose quality, so that you’re left with a satisfied feeling.
Tips from Readers
We decided a few months ago to cut our food spending in general. It is the one category that we use cash in envelopes for. We use $20 per day (grocery and eating out) as our rule($140 per week when we take it out). When it is gone, we eat at home. Their are exceptions for birthdays and the like, but usually if we plan something, we’ll cut elsewhere in the week. We have cut food expense from $1000 to $600 a month; that’s 40%. We could do more, but for two adults and two kids under 3 it works. We even convinced our most common dining friends to do this as well. – Mike
We put our budgeted “eating out” cash into our “eating out” envelope every month. This allows us to enjoy the times we do eat out, knowing it is in our budget, but also puts a halt to eating out too much once the envelope is empty. We have used the envelope budget system for years and love it. – Joe Plemon
If you’ve got a tip for spending less on dining out I’d love to hear it. Let us know the comments.
Image by moriza