When I was a kid, I would finish lunch and ask what was for dinner. Not because I was hungry, but because I was already looking forward to what I was going to eat next. My Dad often remarks on how my appetite outpaces my brother’s. It’s truly a testament to my metabolism (because it sure AF isn’t my workout habits) that I haven’t managed to gain a lot of weight since college.

In a culture where women are still supposed to want salads and chardonnay, I want meat and three with a cocktail. I love food. All kinds: from fast food (Captain D’s is my biggest, dirtiest, dirtiest guilty pleasure) to the more high brow restaurants that get written about in magazines. And in a city like Atlanta, trying the newest, hippest restaurant can go from a casual night out to weekend hobby very, very quickly.

Which is why I wanted to take a minute and zero in on my largest discretionary expense: Eating Out.

What Happened When I Stopped Eating Out for 30 Days….

“Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” –Joe Biden

Looking at my budget you’d suppose I value three things: projects on my home, traveling to see my friends, and eating out.

You know how in one episode of “Sex and the City” Carrie sits in a shoe store and wonders where all her money has gone? I had a moment like that upon my return from NYC last month, when I realized just how much money I spend each month on mindlessly eating out.

New York was an anomaly. It’s an expensive town, I was on an extended vacation, and had a crazy schedule that didn’t super lend itself to cooking.

But my spending in NYC was only a tick higher than what I’d been averaging back home in Atlanta. In an average month, I spend about $200 on groceries, and $375-$425 on eating out.

I’ll pause for gasps from the more frugally minded bloggers and folks who read this site.

Continuing….This number excludes the ~$100 each month I spend on lunches with clients and colleagues and coffee at the shops I work from. I’m excluding it because it’s from a separate account/income pot, but I thought I’d include it if folks want to know what your average solopreneur spends on such things in a month.

These monthly averages are down from last year (2014) where I spent close to $5k on eating out (NOT include groceries). The lower number is largely thanks to my spending freeze for the $8k in 90 days challenge I did in Jan-March, but if I’m being really, really honest here, since ending the challenge my monthly “Restaurants” budget has been out of control, echoing monthly numbers from 2014.

Vowing to do something about it, I decided to attempt not eating out for 30 days.

Why A “No Eating Out Challenge”?

Well, for two reasons.

One, I just returned from two weeks in NYC where  all I did was eat out, which quickly makes restaurant food lose its luster.

The last time I got burnt out on restaurant food was when I was renovating my house in 2013 and didn’t have a kitchen for five weeks. Even for someone who doesn’t like to cook, that was brutal. And I’ve never looked at a Lunchable the same way again.

Two, After the hustle and bustle of the city, I was bored when I got home at the end of July.  I wanted to take on another challenge because I believe it’s important to stretch yourself from time to time and you learn a lot about yourself.

I obviously considered the health benefits and (obvious) money saving advantages, but they weren’t the real reasons I’m doing this. Mostly, I just wanted to see if I could implement a change in my life to both be healthier and spend more mindfully.

How to Make Eating At Home Easier (And Also, Not So Boring)

The best way to be successful on a “no eating out” challenge (or any challenge, really) is to prepare, prepare, prepare. Here are some ways I did it.

  • I used my time at home to try out meal shipment services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, and I really enjoyed it. It kinda took the “blah” out of staying at home all the time and I even invited friends over to participate. You also have to cook them quickly as the premium ingredients often go bad, and when you’re paying that much for a subscription service, you want to get the value. It forces you to cook at home in a way.
  • Meal planning is key to keeping your grocery costs low. If you don’t meal plan you can absolutely go to the grocery store and spend hundreds creating glamorous meals so you don’t go hungry.  I like the $5 Meal Plan service. 
  • Do a “big cook” at the beginning or end of the week so you don’t have to stress about preparing food during the work-week. Here’s my favorite tutorial post on how to do that. 

Here’s What Happened When I Stopped Eating Out

Because I decided to do the challenge at the spur of the moment, I had lunches with clients on the calendar for August already. So, in essence the challenge was already null and void.

But I decided to allow myself a “cheat” of one lunch (business related) each week, and a celebratory date night with C for passing his big CFA exam (because he’s awesome.) Aside from that, I did a personal record breaking 83 meals at home from July 24- August 24th.

At first it was tough to make a change. I had to plan more meals and be more consistent with my grocery runs. I had to sit and think for a minute about how to use what I bought instead of just grabbing for the easiest thing in my fridge and pantry. Here’s one thing I did that I’ve never done in my entire LIFE: I saw bananas going really ripe and threw them together to make these awesome muffins to eat for breakfast.

I felt really good about that.

Socially it was hard, especially since I work from home and so much of my time is spent there. As a solopreneur, eating out isn’t so much a means to an end as a way to take a break for a little bit and see some folks. But, my lovely friends were accepting of the challenge- we met for drinks or cooked at one another’s houses instead of going out for fancy lunches and dinners. It was nice.

But the most remarkable change of all was how much better I got at cooking when I had to practice every day. I started putting together some really, really good meals, but like the personal finance blogger that I am, I forgot to take pictures.

But trust me, they were delicious. So delicious that I didn’t lose any weight. Instead I gained four pounds. If I wanted something or had a craving, I decided to make it myself…which led to lots of delicious experimentation and (I suspect) the extra pounds.

And for all my fellow money nerds… I saved about $225 off my monthly eating budget. I didn’t get super frugal with my groceries since I knew I was cooking at home, I allowed myself to try new things and buy upgraded products to try and make the transition easier.

The Biggest Shift

It’s crazy how much stuff adds up when you’re not looking. Seriously, you know this, but it’s worth repeating again. Stuff adds up when you’re not looking. Failing to make a grocery run could lead to three meals out. Even if they’re not expensive, that’s $30-40 each week, or around $150 per month.

Now I’m much more aware of how much I’m spending on eating food outside my home.

But the biggest shift of all is how much I want to eat at home now, and in me seeing that eating out isn’t a weeknight necessity, but rather a treat to be enjoyed.

For example: I just returned from 3 days at the beach with my family. I must’ve done a really bad job of ordering at every place we went, because for the exception of one restaurant, I hated every single meal we had out.

“I can make it better at home.” I found myself saying. And for the most part, I’m right.

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One of my hardest challenges yet: I stopped eating out for a whole month. See what I learned (and if I was able to do it!)

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  • Melissa

    We’ve started to eat a lot more at home too and, while I didn’t think this could be true, we really do make a lot of things better than they do at restaurants! I still like eating out with coworkers once a week (or so), but eating at home has saved us money and we’ve lost weight. Win-win! 🙂

    • I mentioned in the comment above I got a coupon for Blue Apron meals and I’m excited to see if this helps facilitate eating at home more. I’m excited to learn a new meal or two and switch things up!

  • Emily @ evolvingPF

    Wow, that seems like the best possible outcome for an eating-out freeze! That is so great that you gained skills and confidence in cooking!

    I think we’ve had 1 or 2 months where we never ate out, but it was accidental – for a good bit of grad school we were only eating out 1-3 times per month, so if the average dropped a bit we wouldn’t really notice. I like keeping eating out at a level where it feels special. When we drove cross-country in July we ate out for nearly every meal and it did get tiring.

    • “Eating Out Fatigue” —> This is what I am calling it. It’s so real. I feel it when I come back from vacation, and definitely when I got back from NYC. Mostly I just feel like I’m really bloated and full of salt 🙁

  • That’s a great outcome. You saved money AND learned new skills? Awesome. My husband and I are in the middle of a conscious scale-back of our eating out habits. We ate out a ton when we first moved to our new city, but it was getting ridiculous. Now we trying and limit it to drinks only or just an appetizer (by eating at home first) and it makes such a difference!

    • You guys have more discipline than I. I’m not sure if I could go out for apps and zerts and not get really, really hungry. Or blow $50 on glasses of wine 😉

  • Thanks for sharing your experience! Eating out at restaurants is my one guilty pleasure. I love food and drinks and it’s my form of entertainment. In Portland there is so much good food, so it’s hard. I also hate cooking. It’s tough for me. I want to kill this last bit of debt and then save and invest. I don’t want to eat all my money!

    • When I went to Portland in early 2014 I noticed all the awesome places to try. I bet it is hard!

  • I love your last paragraph the best. I don’t mind going out and spending money on good food — it’s one of my favorite ways to socialize — but most places to eat are really *not* that good. In my city, there are only a couple of places that are worth the cost to me just for the food, though I’ll go to other places if my friends specifically ask me. Meanwhile, we have a wonderful farmer’s market and local produce. In that situation it just seems crazy to spend money on eating out when I could be cooking much better food myself, even if it would be more convenient. (I agree, too, that practice makes creativity much easier.)

    • Now I’m wondering what else I could get better at if I just sat down and practiced. 🙂

  • Thank you for sharing! This is an area in my budget that really needs some work!

  • Ali

    I try to limit my eating out at much as possible. In the past, I have tried to cut it out entirely, but that just isn’t sustainable for me. Now, I try to only eat out with friends (no drive through or take out to eat alone in front of the TV for me), always bring my lunch to work, and eat out only once per week. I cook a lot at home, and feeling like I can make my favorite “treat’ meals for myself really helps me not want to eat out as much. Tonight I know that I have some leftover lasagna in the fridge and I’m super excited to go home and eat my home-cooked meal!

    • I’d love to have a “no eating out” week…but in order to make that happen I’d have to start planning two weeks in advance. Modern life really isn’t conducive to eating at home all the time– I get it. Very frustrating. Hope the lasagna was good 🙂

  • BOOM! “Treat to be enjoyed” – yes, yes, yes.

    • Thanks for putting this up on Rockstar Finance!

      • it def. needed to be shared around 🙂

  • I have a kid with a ton of food allergies, so we never eat out as a family. I make nearly all of his food, and we eat at home every meal. I meal plan like a fiend. But I hate cooking. I’m good at it, but and I prefer eating homemade food to mediocre chain restaurant food, but I really don’t enjoy the act of cooking. I budget one fancy meal and one inexpensive meal out a month for me and the husband (usually Ruth’s Chris for the fancy expensive meal, and one taco trucks or burger place around the corner for the inexpensive meal–I like to eat out at places that cook foods that I’m not very good at). The one item that really busts our food budget is that we live within walking distance of a Sees Chocolates. I’m embarrassed to admit what I spend there.

    • Mine is the wine store. And chic-fil-a.

  • What we used to spend each month at restaurants was just crazy! We stopped cold turkey earlier this year, saved a ton of $ and lost some weight in the process–we had no idea how much good would come of such a simple change.

    • Glad it worked out for you! I’ll probably do another spending freeze before the year is out.

  • Yup! I have been bringing my lunch to work most days since mid-June and it’s reinforced the fact that I’m more okay with paying for incredibly delicious food than I am with paying for mediocre food. Paying for the cafeteria food is not worth it! I also very, very rarely eat out by myself. I spend on average $8/month eating out by myself and about $60/month with friends. My boyfriend pays when we go out together and we usually eat out about once a month or so for a really nice dinner/brunch.

    We don’t try to optimize our grocery spending too much, so long as it’s cheaper than eating out. That means that we buy amazingly delicious things like fresh pasta, lots of fresh fruit, and eat as much meat as we want…so long as we cook it at home! I’ve tried to take a delicious restaurant meal and figure out how to cook it at home. If I can’t cook it better at home, THEN and only then will I eat out!

    • I think buying premium (and splurging on new ingredients) has made all the difference in how I feel when I cook at home. You want to get excited about things, ya know?

  • Giulia Lombardo

    This choiche about make meals by yourself is good, savvy and healty option, someyears ago I was eating out with collegues a ot and my stomach wasn’t so happy about it, then I decided that was time to have a budget and I decided to have one real meeting with friends once per week, eating at home or using leftovers more often is possible keeping a meal put once-twice per month…meal planning is good and cooking daily means exercise brain to use fantasy and creativity there is inside of us! Good job!!!

    • Thanks Giulia! I’m not opposed to like a fancy night out but it’s the little takeout dinners here and lunches there that truly add up.

  • Awesome job! I always feel that it is empowering when you can make a choice NOT to do something. It’s like the difficult choice you have to make to put off immediate gratification feels really good after the choice is made because you know it will result in something bigger in the future. Savings compound! Plus, we just like to cook and eat at home.
    -DP

    • I’ve had a crazy schedule this week and have eaten out a fair amount. Definitely feeling the change in my body. I’m going to be riding the “Everyone eat at home” train for awhile!

  • You started your challenge on my birthday LOL! I love, love, love eating out….but I don’t do it that often because I really love to cook and I’m really good at it. When I do go out it’s such an awesome treat and I enjoy it so much. Now I make coffee dates instead of dinner/happy hour. It’s very European.

    • Coffee is a great alternative! Oddly though, I have a lot of folks in my life who don’t drink it, so we usually end up out for a cocktail…or four 😉

  • I adopted for whole foods / plant-based diet 3 years ago, which pretty much means I eat only food prepared from scratch at home. I like eating out too, but I like feeling good and living long even better. 🙂

    • What’s your favorite thing to make?

      • I have several different chili recipes, all of which are very good, centered variously on lentils, sweet potatoes, quinoa, or beans. I also make a vegan mushroom stroganoff that my (meat-eating) wife loves! I’ve accumulated ~100 recipes–most people are shocked at how tasty and satisfying vegan dishes are. I eat A LOT of food, yet my BMI is between 20 and 21. Amazing how much you can eat and not gain weight when you cut out most vegetable oil and other rich sources of saturated fat and animal protein. 🙂

  • Kim

    I love to cook at home; most of the restaurants here are fried pub food – it can get old after a while. I’m going to be revamping my food and eating habits to be healthier and enjoy my food more – make all the foods I want to eat but can’t find around here. make me actually better my cooking skills.

    • I just signed up for a few Blue Apron meals (because I had a coupon.) I’m excited because the recipes are a bit outside of what I normally cook like Thai and vegetarian dishes. I’ll let you know how the experience turns out!

  • Kendal

    Congrats on your one month of cooking at home! I think that’s huge — I’m not a confident cook at all so I understand how challenging this must have been. I married a great cook so we don’t eat out often, and he always says “I can make this better at home” when we do. I like dining out once in a while, though. There’s nothing worse than paying for a meal you don’t like, so I’m very picky about where I go. Yelp is my bestest friend and hasn’t led me astray yet. One of my biggest indulgences is meeting up with my best friend when she flies in from Vegas – I make reservations at a fine-dining establishment and we pig out on multiple courses and top it off with a coffee. I wouldn’t trade that for a million takeout meals!

    • Love that you tie in eating out with a fun memory-making experience. Girls nights are always worth the $$

  • Mill Street Times

    Thanks for sharing! Traveling has thrown me off track. This gives me hope when braving frequent grocery store trips and facing the “what should I cook?” question. It’s like being afraid to walk into the gym after I haven’t been in…a while.