Eating out is convenient. Many of us have become used to doing it so regularly because it saves us the time and effort of having to buy ingredients and make the meals. However, if you’re trying to save money, it probably isn’t the best way to go about things.
In this article, you’ll learn how to avoid eating out and save money in the process. This lets you use that money for something better, be it your retirement, your kids’ college education or paying off debts.
The best part about eating out less is that you’ll find yourself eating better as well. Because you’re on top of what you eat, how much you eat and how the food is cooked, you’re in total control of your health. In the long run, it will help you stay healthy which also saves you more money.
- 16 Cheap Dinner Ideas That are Light on Your Budget
- 15 Simple Budget Meals for Two to Help You Save Money
- 17 Delicious Meatless Meals for Families on a Budget
- 18 Cheap and Easy Grilling Recipes
How Much Does It Does to Eat Out?
If you’re trying to save money, this is the question you really want to know. Unfortunately, there isn’t a straight answer.
That’s because it depends on what kind of restaurant you go to. For fine dining, the mark up is usually between 2.5 times to 3 times the wholesale value.
Fast food chains are somewhat different. That’s because they make more money on the side dishes and add-ons. This is why your server never fails to ask you, “if you want fries with that?” Or, if you want to get the value meal instead.
Additionally, casual restaurants may tack more on their extras. The soft drinks or beer you order, the side of guacamole or fries have better margins than many of the main dishes.
You Pay Extra for the Food and Drinks
Bottom line is, you pay extra for all the food and drinks when you eat out. To give you a better idea of what they cost, here are some comparisons of the original cost of ingredients to the prices that appear on the menu.
The data comes from a study done by Plate IQ, which is a software company that handles invoice processing for food establishments.
Here’s what Plate IQ found for two types of popular pizzas, the meat pie, and the Margherita.
Yup, you pay 5 times more for a similar pie that you could make at home. Of course, you wouldn’t have their wood fire oven that some places have. But, that’s a HUGE markup.
Another example that they found is for omelette. This breakfast and brunch staple can set you back 3 to 5 times your money if you enjoy it at your favorite diner or casual sit down place.
Then there are the add-ons. Things that you order extra on the side are nice to have when it comes to variety. But, they do pack quite a punch when it comes to markups.
You’re Not Just Paying for the Food
The other thing glaring thing that you’ll notice on your restaurant bill is that there are other costs added to your food and drink total.
Sales tax easily runs up to 10%, although the percentage varies depending on where you live. The tip costs you the standard 20%, which you may sometimes increase if your server does a great job.
Finally, there’s the cost of transportation and parking. Driving to the establishment or taking the bus will also set you back a few bucks for the round trip.
It’s Not the Restaurant’s Fault
As much as the amount that they add to the original costs may seem high, food establishments are just trying to make a living.
Most of them actually try to give you the best price possible.
Unfortunately, the high costs of rent, electricity, hiring chefs and servers along with other operating expenses really add up. This forces them to include all these costs come up with the price you see in their menus.
To give them credit, you’re also paying for more than just food. There’s the atmosphere, the service and the convenience of not having to buy ingredients, prep them and cook. Of course, there’s also the chef’s expertise, which, if you’re like me, aren’t ever going to get close to.
Bottom line here is, eating out is fun and delicious. But, it does cost considerably more than preparing your own meals at home. If you’re trying to save cash for retirement, your kids’ college funds, or to pay off debt, it’s a luxury you may need to cut down on.
How Much Should You Be Spending for Food If You’re Trying to Save Money?
According to the 2018 Official USDA Food Plans, a family of two will spend about $88.90 a week or $385.40 a month if you’re trying to save money. The averages quickly shoot up if you decide to enjoy a more moderate budget. The cost of which pushes the total amount up to $141,20 per week and $611.70 per month, respectively.
That’s a big jump from the thrifty plan to the moderate cost plan.
For a family of four with younger kids, the costs go up to between $129.60 to $147.70 per week or between $561.50 to $644.50 per month on the thrifty plan.
That should give you a good idea of how much it costs to feed a family of 2 or 4. And, you can likewise use it for comparison when you’re trying to save as much as you can on food.
How to Compare Your Food Costs Eating Out and Staying In
One of the biggest eye openers for me was when I took the time out to count and compare how much it costs to eat out against making food at home.
I highly recommend doing so yourself. It helps make your mind aware of how big the cost difference is. Doing so helps deter you from eating out too often because you know how much more of a hit your wallet gets.
Here’s an easy way to compare your costs when you eat out as opposed to buying the ingredients yourself and cooking at home.
Option 1: Don’t eat out for 1 week, then eat out the entire week after that
This is the method I used for my experiment because I used to eat out for lunch every day. I think I got used to doing this to save my mom from having to prepare my lunch back when I was in 6th grade or so. But, I never got rid of the habit even after graduating college. Probably because it’s just more convenient to buy food.
A good way to start this method is to begin on a Monday and end on a Friday.
On week 1, bring your own lunch to work.
On week 2, eat out like you would normally do. Do this from Monday to Friday. But, make sure to keep all your receipts.
To make it as realistic as possible, try to order as you normally would when eating out. Don’t order more or less food or drinks during week 2.
At the end of week 2, tally the total of our food receipts. This will give you an idea of how much you generally spend when eating out.
You can then compare it to how much you spent for your meals on week 1.
If you want to know how much you spend on average per meal you can just divide the total amounts by the number of meals. That makes for a more straightforward comparison.
Option 2: Shop for groceries the entire week and divide the food cost by the meals you were able to make from them.
This is a shorter experiment you can do.
Start by buying an entire week’s worth of groceries. From the grocery receipt, deduct all the non-food items and those not related to preparing the food.
This will be your week’s total cost.
Next, eat as you normally would during the week.
You’ll only keep track of the meals you eat at home, specifically, how many meals were eaten.
Let’s take a family of five as an example.
For simplicity sake,
Let’s say your husband doesn’t eat breakfast while everyone else enjoys breakfast at home.
So, total meals for breakfast of the entire week is 7 days multiplied by 4 meals a day, since four of the 5 family members eat breakfast at home. That’s a total of 28 meals for breakfast.
Next, let’s say the kids have lunch money at school. But, eat at home for lunch on weekends. You and your husband both bring food to work and eat lunch at home on weekends. So the total number of meals at home is 5 meals x 2 adults on weekdays and 2 meals x 5 people on weekends for a total of 20.
Finally, everyone eats dinner at home. So you have 7 meals x 5 people for 35 dinners at home.
Adding breakfast, lunch, and dinner gives you 28 + 20 + 35 = 83 meals eaten at home for the week.
So, if your total food grocery bill was $180. The average cost of each meal comes out to $2.17.
That means every time you eat out, you can easily compare the $2.17 per meal cost at home with whatever cost per person the meal at the restaurant comes out to.
This comparison is a quick way of seeing the difference of how much less you spend making your own meals at home to eating out on a per meal basis.
In general, option 2 is easier to perform for the entire family since you’re only counting the total number of meals at home. And, it also saves you money since you don’t spend the extra week eating out.
More Ways to Avoid Eating Out and Save Money
In this section, I’ll go through some more effective ways that will help you avoid eating out.
Make Up Your Mind
Everything starts with the right mindset. You need to feel good about it and be positive that you’ll be able to complete the transition towards eating out less.
The beginning is always where everyone does well. That’s because you feel motivated. But, be careful not to rely too much on motivation.
If it becomes your driving force, you’ll soon get tired of it and feel like burning out.
Instead, the goal is to transition from that initial motivation and turn it into a habit. This is like how you brush your teeth and shower every day. You don’t need motivation or any driving force to make you do them. But, you just do them.
That’s the primary goal you want to achieve when it comes to eating.
Preparing your own food becomes a regular habit such that eating out becomes the exception.
Baby steps is the name of the game when trying to cut down on eating out. It’s hard to go cold turkey because you’ll quickly miss the taste of foods you’re used to.
A good way to start is to cut down eating out by 25%, at least in the beginning.
For example, if you eat out 4 days a week for lunch. Try cutting it down to 3 times weekly for the first week or two. Then, go down to twice a week after that until you gradually get to bringing your own lunch to work daily.
The same is true for nights or weekends. If you eat out for dinner twice on weekdays and once on the weekends, try cutting it to one on weekdays and once on the weekend. After a while you’ll have a more routine schedule you can go on.
Once in a while, you can likewise give yourself a “cheat day”. This is something athletes and fitness enthusiasts do to keep them from strongly craving certain foods. It also helps you stay away from junk food or eating out too much in the long term.
After a while, you’ll find a comfortable balance of how many times you can eat out during the week while still staying within your budget. This equilibrium point is your main goal for the long term.
Delete Delivery Apps from Your Phone
We’re all guilty of having food delivery apps on our phone. They make it so easy to get food to your doorstep wherever you are whenever you feel hungry.
As good as that sounds, it doesn’t help you save money.
So, while it may hurt to do so, deleting apps like Seamless, GrubHub and other food delivery services really help limit the times you eat out. In the process, it helps you save money because you’re paying less for each meal.
Plan Your Meals
Planning your meals has been a game changer for us. Before we’d decide on what to cook or eat just a few minutes or hours before mealtime.
While it works, it puts you in a time crunch. So, you don’t always make the best food or money decisions.
I’ll admit that planning meals ahead of time takes a bit of work. In the beginning, it did feel overwhelming trying to make sure that we didn’t miss anything. Otherwise, we’d end up running to the grocery store or be forced to eat out.
But, it quickly gets better as you get used to it. A pleasant side effect of planning your meals is that you’ll unintentionally memorize recipes as well as the things you regularly get from the supermarket.
Nowadays, Sundays are when the meals for the next week are planned. Mondays after work are grocery days mainly for convenience.
For some reason, there’s less traffic and also fewer people at the supermarket during Mondays. Maybe it’s because people have just gotten back from their weekend break. I’m not sure why. I would really love your thoughts on this.
Bring Your Own Lunch to Work
Bringing your own lunch to work is one of the more effective ways of saving money on meals. Just think about it.
If you pay about 3 times more for food in restaurants. And, you eat out every day for lunch, that easily doubles your weekly food expenses compared to if you had you brought your own lunch to work.
Most offices have pantries where you can eat with coworkers. If you work in a building, many of them have cafeterias in the lower floors. Thus, you can enjoy your homemade lunch there. Just don’t get tempted by what the food stalls are selling.
The only hassle is that you do need to get up earlier in the morning. But, the extra 5 to 15 minutes really does pay off.
Meal planning and making meals ahead of time really helps a lot here. It lets you have breakfast and lunch almost ready to go. So, you spend just a little more time placing the finishing touches in the morning.
Collect Recipes that are Easy and Affordable to Make
One of my biggest challenges is cooking. I remember when I didn’t know how to cook eggs. I mean any kind of eggs. I’m not even talking about Gordon Ramsey perfection scrambled eggs. Just eggs, anyway that’s edible.
Now, I’m not much better.
But, I can cook simple dishes and follow recipes. Just don’t ask me to bake or make desserts.
If you’re starting out, simple things like eggs, pasta and rice meals are good choices. They’re quick and don’t take a lot to learn. Best of all they’re very versatile and forgiving. You can mess them up and still taste okay.
I can tell you this from experience.
If you’d like to get better, do it on the weekends. You have more time then, and you’re not in a hurry or tired from work.
Cheap recipe books or online databases are amazing resources for finding these recipes and learning how to cook. Online recipe sites also let you search and filter them for the level of difficulty and cooking duration.
And, if all else goes wrong, try an instant pot or crockpot. These are the best cooking appliances in the world! Just dump everything there and set the program to what the recipe says. Then wait. That’s it.
The one thing I learned about cooking is that don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You’ll have blunders. I can tell you that I have a ton of them!
But, as long as you don’t burn your house down, you’ll have the chance to try cooking it again.
Copy cat recipes are great because they let you create your favorite restaurant foods at home.
This is a great way to appease your craving without having to go to the restaurant itself, where you’ll likely order more than just the dish.
What’s great is that many sites on the web show you how to make these recipes. All you need to do is search Google and see which of the recipes that come up is closest to the actual thing.
Make Special Meals at Home
Don’t forget to make special meals for yourself and your family. Making a special steak and potatoes dinner for your hubby every now and then goes a long way in helping you forget about eating out.
For us, we like pizza, pasta, and Japanese food. So, we make pasta and pizza which are fortunately fairly easy.
We also have a small portable stove top for cooking sukiyaki or shabu-shabu that can double for Korean BBQ nights.
While pizza and pasta are fairly affordable choices when eating out, Japanese isn’t. So, being able to make our own yakitori on a small grill or donburi bowls on our own really save a lot of money.
Make Sure to Go by the Grocery Store or Farmer’s Market Every Week
Going to the grocery and the farmer’s market exactly once a week limits how much time you spend there. This keeps you from spotting something that will likely tempt you into buying it. And, it also makes sure you have all the food you need for the next week.
Doing so reduces the risk of running out of food or any ingredients, which can lead you to buy extra items or untimely eating out.
One of the side benefits I accidentally discovered from reducing the number of visits to the supermarket is you learn to organize everything in the kitchen. You know exactly what’s in the pantry, in the fridge and freezer.
And, you can somewhat tell when meat, veggies or eggs are about to run out. I don’t know how it came about, but just doing the routine week in and week out will give you a better feel of your kitchen and its inventory.
Buy in Bulk
Warehouse memberships are great! You can buy bulk at affordable prices.
Depending on where you live and what you’re buying, Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s are great places to get affordable items. You do need to do some comparing. And, after a while, you’ll find one is more suited to you than the others.
The most important thing when buying in bulk is to figure out what you should and shouldn’t buy.
For us, it comes down to things you can store for long periods of time. This includes:
- Things you can freeze like packed vegetables, berries, meat and poultry.
- Snack foods like walnuts and almonds as well as oats.
- Peanut butter to a certain degree
- Cooking oil
- Canned goods like salmon and sardines
- Coffee or tea (I’ve been told that coffee loses its flavor if stored for long periods but I don’t have a good enough palate to tell the difference)
- Toilet paper!
Things that spoil quickly are no no’s. This includes bread (unless you want to freeze it), fruits, vegetables, milk, juice,
Invest in quality Tupperware
I cannot tell you how much I’ve learned to love Tupperware. I remember when I was young, and my mom would always pack Tupperware for my snacks and lunch in school.
Back then I never quite understood why we had a cabinet full of Tupperware. I mean, we had them in all shapes and sizes.
I also remember not liking them because I had to wash so many of them by hand at the end of the day. And yes, we didn’t use the dishwasher.
That said, Tupperware lets you store food easily. You can use them for leftovers as well as for bringing food to work.
But, they’re most useful for making your meals ahead of time. These plastic containers let you organize food for the entire week. And, they come in different sizes as well, which lets you portion your lunch and dinner servings uniformly.
Always have Snacks Around
Snacks are one of the things that really help me from munching at odd times. The key is to have the right kinds of snacks around you.
I learned that the hard way.
I remember having all sorts of snacks like Pringles, Oreos, and Skittles in the pantry. The problem with having junk food around is that your brain knows it.
And, when it gets hungry, you’ll start craving for junk food more than healthy snacks, which sometimes require some preparation. This makes them even less enticing.
So, getting rid of junk food and keeping affordable, healthy snack options around you helps prevent you from binge eating.
Know How to Cook Leftovers
I grew up being taught not to leave any leftovers. In fact, my mom had quite a few myths that may have scared me into always finishing my meals.
One of my favorites is that if I didn’t finish my food I would end up with a girl with a lot of acne. Glad to say that didn’t come true! Although, I can’t be too sure because I remember always finishing my plate back then.
As you can imagine, I’ve outgrown my mom’s myths. But, I still do clean my plate nearly 100% of the time. Those rare times I don’t finish food is when there’s just too much on the table or we miscalculated a bit.
What’s important is that you shouldn’t be afraid of leftovers because you can make them into something else.
I’m not a good cook so I do have to plan my leftovers. That is, when I start feeling full, we take a look at what’s left on the table and what we know or don’t know how to turn into a leftover dish.
The ones we aren’t too sure of, we finish eating that meal. This makes it easier to come up reuse the leftovers.
But, that’s just us.
Thanks to the internet, you can now find awesome recipes for all sorts of leftovers. It’s just a matter of matching what you have in the fridge and pantry.