Maximizing Your Budget: Eating Out

Maximizing Your Eating Out

In 2015, we’re putting extra emphasis on budgeting since it’s a must for financial success. Each month, we tackle a different category, and by years’ end, we’ll have one big resource for maximizing your entire budget. 

It seems like a nice dinner out is almost mandatory on Valentine’s Day. Johnny and I typically buck the system and have a nice dinner at home (this one!). But this year we’re going out… tonight, actually, to avoid the Valentine’s Day crowds. And so, as we all prepare for a dinner out this month, we thought it’d be a good time to talk about the Eating Out category of your budget.

Of all the categories of budgeting, Food tends to be the most troublesome. It’s a necessary category for obvious reasons, and it’s fairly consistent. We all need a certain amount of food each day — that never changes. But sticking to the money we’ve allotted ourselves for food from month to month is always a struggle. Johnny and I struggle more with groceries than eating out, but if you’re the opposite, we wanted to share our tips and tricks for keeping your Eating Out category under wraps.

Eat out at home.

Johnny and I do this about 90% of the time we “eat out.” To avoid paying for everything that goes with a sit-down restaurant, as well as a babysitter, we usually grab takeout for our date night. We have a movie, a yummy treat, and good food from a local restaurant. And we do all of this once Sally’s in bed, so we still get that quality one-on-one time that a night out brings.

Cut back somewhere else.

If eating out is your thang and you just can’t live without it, that’s fine! Just find another area of your budget where you can cut back. Everyone should be able to indulge somewhere, so if you’re a foodie or if eating out is how you tend to socialize, don’t give it up. Instead of dinner AND a movie, catch a flick at home. Or cut back your cable plan, your clothing budget, your pedicure budget, etc. There’s usually somewhere else you can cut back.

Start meal planning.

On months when eating out has been a trouble area, it’s usually been because we didn’t plan our meals in advance. I’d realize our dinner option was either one-eyed-jacks (toast with egg in the center, what’s your name for it?) or eating out, and we’d opt for the latter. Currently, we plan at least a week’s worth of meals at a time and buy all the items with one big trip to the grocery store. That way, there’s no question of “What should we eat tonight?” when dinner rolls around — and no temptation from the cheap Chinese joint down the street.

Know the prices.

Another common eating out pitfall is not realizing how expensive a restaurant is until you’ve already committed to it. If this is a weak spot, it’s time to familiarize yourself with Yelp. Beyond offering restaurant reviews and meal photos, they also offer a price estimate from $ to $$$$. Before we pick up the phone to place an order or step foot in an eatery, you better believe we’ve taken a peek at their price rating. Johnny and I have a range we’ve talked about and that we try to stick to, save for special occasions like International Lefthanders Day. Take the time to decide on your price range now to help you stick to a price point you can afford in the future.

Designate an “eating out” night.

Along with meal planning, Johnny and I plan a night each week designated to eating out. It’s almost always Friday, but occasionally we switch it up. On nights when I really don’t feel like cooking or when nothing in our fridge sounds appetizing, it’s really helps us resist eating out if we know we have an “eating out” night coming up.

Don’t be afraid to say “No.”

One of the hardest aspects of being on a strict budget when we were paying down our debt was having to say “No” when people invited us to dinner. Of course, we didn’t say it like that. It was more of a, “We’d love to, but [insert excuse here].” or “We already have dinner plans, but [offer another idea here].” It wasn’t hard because our friends actually cared (they didn’t), but because we cared about being lame friends to our friends. Looking back, though, it really wasn’t a big deal. Was saying “No” sometimes worth taking control of our finances? Heck yes! It’s all about keeping a big-picture perspective.

Throw all those together, and that’s how we’ve kept our Eating Out category in check. And now I’m hungry. Any tips you’d add to this list?

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  • Reply Petrish @ Debt Free Martini February 6, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Meal planning saves me so much that I don’t bother with coupons anymore. I also don’t fill my pantry up to the brim, and only purchase what I will eat for the next two weeks at a time. Good luck with everything.

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      It’s crazy how much meal planning helps with the grocery budget! And it really helps to eliminate wasting food, which is another plus.

  • Reply Kristina February 6, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Eating out is a tough category for me. I’m single, so it’s easy for me to rationalize spending money on eating out (or ordering in) just so I don’t have to cook. The reality is, I like to cook, just not all the time.
    Lately I’ve been talking myself into cooking a big meal a few times a week so that I will have leftovers to bring for lunch because I get burned out eating the same things for lunch from the different restaurants near my work. (run on much?)
    Accountability to self is no fun.

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      It’s hard to cook for yourself, especially when it’s time consuming. If you can come up with some easy, go-to meals, it might help on those nights you don’t feel like cooking. Even when Johnny’s out of town for a few days, though, I find myself wanting to just order out, so I hear ya!

  • Reply Michael February 6, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Good idea for a post! Will be interesting to read some of the responses. I would suspect most people have no idea how much they’re actually spending on eating out each month. I know it’s kind of a black hole in our budget.

    Other than the obvious of cutting back… I would suggest opting for water instead of soda/tea. Most of the sit down restaurants we go to charge over $2 for a large drink – between the two of us that adds $5 to the dinner bill. Multiply that by however many times we eat out in a year and it really adds up! If the service isn’t great and you don’t get a refill then you really feel screwed. =P

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      It’s a category of budgeting that people underestimate their spending in more than almost any other. And good tip… opting out of a drink at restaurants saves a lot!

  • Reply Caity February 6, 2015 at 10:07 am

    We plan our meals every week and I go grocery shopping sometime during the weekend. We are on a pretty tight budget, so we usually only eat out a few times each month. I would suggest finding small local restaurants that have daily specials- we have a few restaurants where we can both eat for $10 total and it’s really good food. 2/$2 fish taco Fridays are my favorite! Also, sometimes we’ll opt for dinner at home on a Friday or Saturday night but then go out and get a drink somewhere later. Sometimes it’s nice just to get out of the house, even if it’s not to eat 🙂

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      Good tips! When we weren’t living in NYC, we did Taco Tuesday, and it was such a cheap meal for us! Until we’re back living in the suburbs, I’m really gonna miss those kinds of deals. Enjoy them for us!

  • Reply Dave February 6, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Great post! Food was and continues to be one of our biggest expenses every month, so even though we use Mint and don’t do a manual budget like y’all, I decided to track food expenses manually. The first month I tracked it, we cut our food expenses by ~$150. I’ve found it extremely helpful to see everything in specific categories to see how much we spent and how much is left in each at any point in the month. We split food into groceries, out-to-eat restaurants, work lunches, take out, and alcohol and bars. While this may be excessive over-categorization on my part, it has really helped see what all that money is going towards!

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:31 pm

      Wow! Isn’t it crazy how keeping track helps reign in your spending? And I think that’s great to be able to see all those categories. It keeps you guys super aware, which will set you up for success.

  • Reply Courtney February 6, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    We don’t eat out often, not because we don’t want to, but because of the expense. I’ll bet we eat out at a restaurant 5 times a year (that we pay for, aside from being treated by parents at big family dinners or something like that). When we do we always do little things to keep the bill lower- we always get water instead of a fountain drink and at many restaurants we split an entree. Most restaurants give you plenty of food for two people, and then sometimes we have enough money/room left to split a dessert as well. We do try to compensate our waiter with a larger tip, since we know we are going against all of their techniques to create a higher bill and thus higher tip. But I can buy a whole weeks worth of groceries for our family for about the same amount as one night at a restaurant costs us!

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:33 pm

      We’re the same way! It makes us feel kind of sick to spend so much money in one sitting… but on the rare occasions that we do go out, we try to enjoy it.

  • Reply Kara February 6, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Meal planning saves me so much money, but it can be a double edged sword because I tend to plan healthy meals. And during the week, when I’m usually too tired or busy to do anything else, healthy meals are great. But I always get caught up on the weekends when I really don’t want eggs with kale for breakfast or a salad for lunch. So planning in less healthy, “junk food” meals like bacon Mac and cheese and big bagel sandwiches has really cut down on my eating out budget. I’m going to eat those things anyway, so I might as well not set myself up for financial failure and plan to make them myself.

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Ha, same here! I try to keep most of our meals healthy, but I have easy, less-healthy meals for the weekends especially. Very smart that you keep those staples on hand to help save you money.

  • Reply Tarynkay February 6, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    We call that pirate toast! I don’t know why, though. One-eyed jacks makes a lot more sense.

    I write out extensive meal plans, and this does save a lot of money. I probably spend way too much time thinking about food, but I also find that it’s helpful to plan when I am going to do things. If I can prepare part of the meal during nap or even the night before, I do. But I also keep things like frozen pizza on hand for days when everything went wrong and I forgot to soak the beans or whatever. I do not want to spend $20 on desperation pizza delivery when we can spend just $3 on frozen Costco pizza instead.

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      The nights I do our meal planning are pretty intense. It always takes longer than I’d like. And good tip! So true that you have to have those easy, go-to meals for the nights when cooking something from scratch just isn’t in the cards.

  • Reply Amanda February 6, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    If we are eating out with our little ones, we do an Internet search for “Kids Eat Free” offers in our area, and choose accordingly. A lot of restaurants offer these on certain days of the week, and saving on two kids meals is a pretty good chunk of change!

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      Great tip! Kids meals are surprisingly expensive, so that really can help lower the tab a lot!

  • Reply Tabitha Nelson February 6, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    We went out tonight too – utilizing giftcards which kept the bill lower. About the one eyed jack – which is a great name for it – we’ve always called that dish egg in a basket 🙂

    • Reply Johnny February 8, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      Using gift cards is the ultimate guilt-free option. I actually like getting them as gifts because it’s the only time I really don’t feel guilty spending money.

      I’m sticking with “one-eyed jacks.” 🙂

  • Reply Halsy February 7, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    We call it eggs in a basket. We do takeout/quick casual instead of eating out and paying a tip…unless we are on a proper date without the kids 🙂 A way we save money when eating out with the kids is bring their own sippy cup because kids drinks are often extra and is often juice. We also opt to share parts of our meals with the kids or order a side dish for the kids as kids meals usually aren’t that healthy. It is often cheaper to order a side or 2 as well.

    • Reply Joanna February 8, 2015 at 10:01 pm

      I’ve heard at least half a dozen different names for it… so funny!

      That’s smart to bring a sippy cup and share meals with the kids. It’s crazy how much kids meals cost at restaurants! I had no idea until a few months ago when Sally started being old enough for them.

  • Reply Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank February 7, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Since I started meal planning, it has helped me save much money and enjoyed the food we eat at home or out. I see results not only financially but also in the physical aspect.

  • Reply Jonathan Craig February 11, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Eating out at home is a great idea — we do this far to little.

  • Reply Nancy Williams February 24, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    I was able to save more when I started meal planning and learning to say ‘NO’ kindly when being invited. These tips are awesome! I’m already practicing some of these, but I’m glad you added more.

    • Reply Joanna March 22, 2015 at 7:00 pm

      Thanks, Nancy!

  • Reply Melanie March 3, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Meal planning is something I dont really do very much…might you consider a meal planning blog post to “teach” people how you go about it? I always wonder how much detail people go into and how much food to make etc (Im single and live alone). But id love to see a post on this!

    • Reply Joanna March 22, 2015 at 7:02 pm

      I will try to do a post on this soon! I’m not sure how much help I can add, but I can definitely share our process!

  • Reply Digging Yourself Out of Debt | Finances | Home Jobs by MOM March 5, 2015 at 10:24 am

    […] It’s crazy how much of my budget was going to food. I started by first cutting back on the lunches and dinners out, but soon I was ready for a bigger challenge. I took the time to prepare work lunches at home, assembly line style, every Sunday evening. I made dinner menu plans, choosing quick, easier to prepare foods. Soon it was second nature. On the few instances when I just couldn’t bring myself to cook, I’d stop by the grocery store deli and pick up an oversized sub sandwich or bag of chicken – still expensive, but at a fraction of the cost of the fast food alternatives. […]

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