Reigning in Restaurant Spending

Restaurant bill

“Eating yourself out of house and home” is usually just a figure of speech. But if your restaurant eating spending habits are out of control, you might be putting your greater financial life in danger.

Restaurant purchases are one of the greatest areas of discretionary spending in Western countries today. And while there’s nothing wrong with eating in restaurants, doing it to excess can really mess up your budget. Last week, we took a closer look at restaurant spending, and saw how some very normal restaurant habits can cost singles more than $400 per month, and families $800 per month or more.

The truth is that you probably can’t afford to drop $400-$800 per month in restaurants. I’m not here to tell you that you must abandon restaurant spending completely (although it may be wise to do that temporarily if you’re trying to pay off debt or get your financial life back on track). But I do want to give you some ideas about ways you can reign in your restaurant spending and get  your budget back in balance.

Restaurant expenses can be tricky because there are a lot of variables that factor in. Many of us go to restaurants to socialize; others go because it’s convenient on a busy night. So, in light of the complex nature of our modern restaurant culture, here are five ways that you can reduce your restaurant spending without turning into a hermit.

1) Seek out value.

We’ve all had restaurant experiences when the final bill at the end of the night shocked us. “How can what I ate cost this much?” The fact is that some restaurants are better values than others. Some places provide good food at reasonable prices. Others are inexplicably overpriced (TGI Fridays, I’m looking at you!). If you want to enjoy eating out without busting your budget, a good place to start is by seeking out restaurants that present a good value and a reasonable price.

There are numerous ways to do this. Laura and I frequent Smashing Tomato, a great brick-oven pizza place in Lexington that offers a “buy one, get one half-off” deal on the weekends. We also tend to visit restaurants that offer some kind of loyalty program — “buy nine meals and get the tenth one free” — which helps cut down on the cost over time. We’ve also identified places around town that are just well-priced. We can have a great Cajun meal at Gumbo Yaya for less than $15, and good Mexican at Q’doba for less than $20. And when we do go to a full-service restaurant, we stick to moderately priced establishments (unless we’re celebrating a special occasion).

2) Watch what you drink.

The highest-profit item on any restaurant menu is the beverage. Many restaurants, both full- and limited-service, make more money on drinks than anything else. Limited-service restaurants these days often charge $1.75 or more for soft drinks; it’s not uncommon to see a $2.89 bill for a Coke at a full-service restaurant. Is it just me, or is that ridiculous?

If you’re trying to limit your restaurant spending, cutting back on beverage charges is a great way to go. If you’re going out with a family of four, drinking water instead of soda can save you as much as $10. The savings can be even greater if you account for alcohol. Our calculations in the previous article didn’t include any alcohol, so if you’re a frequent beer, wine or cocktail drinker, you could be spending significantly more than the $400-$800 per month figure we quoted above. Cutting alcohol from your restaurant habits can easily shave $20 or more from your bill every time you go out.

3) Get creative with social time.

Many times we find ourselves at restaurants when we’re spending time with friends. If you’re a highly social person, this can lead to a whole lot of restaurant spending. But it doesn’t have to be this way: Use some creativity in setting up your social dates to help you stay out of expensive restaurants.

There are all kinds of ways to spend quality time with people. If you’re catching up with old friends, you can save at least $5 by going out for coffee instead of out for a meal (or even more than that if you have them over for coffee at your house). If the weather is good, a walk, a run, a picnic or some other outdoor activity is a great way to spend time without spending money. And if your socializing is of a romantic nature — if you’re dating, in other words — being creative in planning your dates can help you save money and have a whole lot of fun. When Laura and I were dating, we put a $15 limit on every date we went on, meals included. We had a great time, and avoided going broke in the  process.

4) Budget and track.

The ultimate way to keep your restaurant spending in line is to set limits on what you will spend in restaurants before the month begins, then be disciplined to stick to those limits. The best tool for doing that is a budget — the document that you use to plan your household spending every month is the key to limiting your restaurant expenditures. Since eating out is a luxury and a discretionary expense, it should fall near the end of your budget, once you’ve accounted for your more important household expenses and other priorities like tithing, giving and saving. If you still have some money left over in your budget, you can earmark it  for restaurant spending.

Budgeting is only half the battle, of course — if you spend more in restaurants than what you allotted in your budget, your plan didn’t do any good. Laura and I have found that the way to avoid this is to track our restaurant spending as we go. In our budget, we have eating out set up as a weekly expense, and I keep track of what we’ve spent in restaurants every week using an app on my phone. if we get to the end of the week and there’s no money left in the eating out budget, we’re not going to a restaurant that night. On the other hand, if we end up with money left over at the end of the week, we can roll those funds over and treat ourselves to a nicer meal out later on.

5) Learn when to say “no.”

Though we’ve been trying to give you ways to moderate your restaurant spending, sometimes there’s no substitute for simply saying “no.” In the end, the best way to cut down your restaurant spending is to cut down on the number of times that you go to restaurants. In order to do that, you’re going to have to change some habits.

Learning to say “no,” can be hard, but it can also pay off really well. To succeed here, you’re going to have to say “no” to co-workers who want you to go out to lunch every day, to friends who want you to go out every weekend, to your kids who clamor for Happy Meals, and most importantly to yourself, when you’re feeling lazy and just want a quick fix. We’re not saying that you have to eliminate restaurants from your life altogether. But if you want to bring your spending back to appropriate levels, you’re going to have to eliminate some of them.

So, there you have five tips for reigning in your restaurant spending. What other ways have you found to keep your food expenses low?


Photo by Robert S. Donovan. Used under Creative Commons License.

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