Ya gotta eat: Our strategies to reduce restaurant spending

A note on the title: When I was in grad school, Mr. Vine frequently used this line to get me out of a study hole and out in the world. He’d deploy this phrase to great effect. The logic behind it was that I could spare a couple of hours to go out to eat with him (and sometimes other friends) because after all, I had to eat. Even if making a smoothie or a PB&J would have taken less time, the short break invariably left me refreshed and better able to tackle my studies.

It could have quickly become too much, though. If I took a two hour break to go out for lunch and dinner every day, those hours add up. This translated to the financial context; our monthly restaurant spending exploded. We do have to eat, but that doesn’t mean we need to blow the budget at every meal. Perhaps it was this mindset of going out that makes food-buying one of the final frontiers of our budget. It is a spending area where we’ve perpetually struggled. Eating out appears to be an affordable luxury. If we keep restaurant bills small, sticking to happy hour or weekly specials, those $20-30 bills don’t seem like such a budget buster. A gourmet meal at home typically costs less than half of that amount. And the reality is that many of our restaurant bills were much higher. Using our monthly average restaurant tab, we spent over $5,000 in 2017 on restaurants. And because we tracked these expenses, I confirmed that this estimate was accurate. Yikes.

Step 1: Identify the problem

Through tracking our spending, we identified key areas for improvement. Each month, Mr. Vine makes a note of our highest restaurant tab. Typically, it is a fancier dinner with friends that includes multiple rounds of drinks. Monthly tracking also helped us determine the frequency of our restaurant visits. If we ate out weekly, but never spent more than $25 per outing, our annual total would be under $1,500.

Our eating out “problem” was twofold. First, weeknight restaurant or takeout runs because we were tired and hungry from our day jobs (i.e. the “frequency problem”). Second, expensive meals with drinks on weekends with friends (i.e. the “social problem”). Each problem requires different strategies to overcome it.

Step 2: Strategies to cure the frequency problem

It’s easier for me to avoid restaurants than it is to try to keep the tab down. This is also more effective because eating at home is always cheaper than eating in a restaurant. Cooking dinner every night also makes it easier for me to pack a lunch to bring to work. Strategy #1: Choose cooking at home over eating out.

Although cooking takes a little more planning up front, and perhaps more active prep and clean up time, eating at a restaurant usually doesn’t put the food in my mouth any faster. I come home from work hangry basically every day. I should probably start eating an afternoon snack, but that’s a separate issue. Understanding that I’ll get to eat dinner faster if I cook it myself helped me get behind cooking at home. I just have to plan what’s for dinner before I get home. Strategy #2: Cooking at home is a faster food delivery method.

I don’t mind cooking. In fact, I enjoy it as a creative outlet. I get a lot of satisfaction from putting a delicious meal in front of Mr. Vine and watching him enjoy it. There’s no better feeling than when one of my friends comes over for dinner and says “I don’t normally like this food, but everything you make is delicious, I’ll try it.” But I don’t like the planning. And my creative juices aren’t always operating at full power after a long day at the office. I also don’t like making a detailed plan for the week or month of what I’ll cook each day. That totally stifles my creativity. This is where buying bulk pork and a CSA share for veggies has helped me. Strategy #3: Planning for the spontaneous cook.

At the beginning of each week, Mr. Vine and I shop from our freezer. We pick out a few different cuts of pork to move to the fridge. A good example might be a package of pork chops, ground pork, bacon and pork shoulder steaks. That’s about the extent of our planning. In the morning, while packing a lunch or eating my breakfast, I’ll consider what vegetables we have on hand. If it’s CSA season, I’ll prioritize anything that’s on the turn or needs to be used up quickly like leafy greens. Our vegetable situation is more predictable during the winter. Colder weather, storage vegetables like celery, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower are usually in the fridge. I’ll often purchase frozen vegetables as well. Our pantry typically has dried beans, rice, potatoes, and canned tomatoes. We also give some thought to the daily schedule–is one of us working late? Do we have errands to run? Our dinner will come together based on what’s on hand, how long it will take to cook, and who can cook it. Mr. Vine is the pork chop master and he can also throw spaghetti together. He’s great at following recipes; I’m the improvisor. So, if he’s cooking, it needs to be something he’s comfortable with or a recipe for which we have all of the ingredients (I’m always substituting and modifying). Grocery shopping, and how we prioritize certain foods, is a topic all its own, deserving of a future post. Strategy #4: Stock the kitchen to allow for creativity and improvisation.

By employing all of these strategies, we find that we are ready, willing and able to cook dinner on most weeknights. Using quality ingredients, like pastured pork and organic produce directly from local farmers means that most of what we cook tastes better than what restaurants typically offer. We actually want to eat at home.

Step 3: Strategies to cure the social problem

This problem felt like it solved itself. When we first bought a half pork, we suddenly had a huge stock of meat. Some of the cuts were 2-3 lb roasts. These cuts beg to be used when entertaining. After we started cooking this pork and realized how delicious it was, we wanted to share it with our friends. We found ourselves inviting friends over for dinner so we could cook for them. It was easier than fighting crowds to get a table. We didn’t have to worry about parking or driving anywhere. Strategy: Simplify by cooking for your friends.

Many of our friends, like us, do not have kids. As a result, we have a tendency to eat out a lot. Cooking for these friends often feels more special than meeting up a restaurant. There’s something meaningful about cooking for the people you care about. (Just me? I totally show love by feeding people!). We’ve found that we enjoy entertaining at home more than dining out. There’s the added benefit of curating: we serve the wine I like best, I know where the meat came from and how it was raised, the vegetables are at their freshest, etc. Strategy: Take pride in entertaining at home.

I never thought it would happen, but we’ve shifted our friends towards entertaining at home, too. I thought our social life would suffer if we stopped going out to eat. But now we find that our friends are inviting us over to grill out on their decks in the summer, or join us for a picnic at the beach, or invite us over to watch a movie at their place. It’s amazing that we’re helping them save money, too! We find these get togethers more fulfilling and personal than paying for restaurants or entertainment.

We haven’t yet eliminated our restaurant spending. But we’ve reduced it by more than half, and continue to see reductions. That’s a big deal. It is true that our grocery spending has increased, in part because we’ve started spending more for certain types of foods. The way we buy produce and protein results in big spending spikes. In the short term, this makes it more difficult to analyze the spending. Later this year, I plan to write a post on groceries, which will also discuss the net effect of these restaurant strategies on our total spending. 

How often do you eat out? What motivates you to cook at home or visit a restaurant? Tell me about your strategies in the comments!


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