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 in my budget: Eating Out. If I stopped eating out for thirty days and cooked at home instead, could I both save money and eat better?
I was up for the challenge, but the results were…interesting to say the least.
“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 on mindlessly eating out. I was there for three weeks, and yes, NYC is a town where most people order out, 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.
….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 including 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. 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 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. Get out of the damn house. 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.
Just 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. This adds up in your budget very, very quickly.
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.