Say what?!? Surely the headline's a typo. Eating out too often has been shown to destroy budgets and slow progress towards reaching financial goals. There’s no way eating out more can be good for our finances, right? Eating out has gotten a bad rap in the personal finance community. However, I’ll show you how sometimes eating out can sometimes be the cheaper option.
Since we are just getting started here, let me get a few things out of the way. If you want to take my advice to eat out more, you need to read this entire article. Not all eating out is good for your budget. Secondly, the strategy laid out here may not work for everyone. In my house, it is just my wife and I, and these strategies work best for two people (or at least an even number of people). Cooking cheap for two (on a meal/ person basis) can be harder than cooking cheap for six. The more people you add to the mix will change the dynamics of how cost effective eating out is.
A simple way I look at evaluating meals is the cost per person for a nutritious meal. Or, put into a simple formula: Total Bill/ Number of People Eating. I don’t have a hard and fast rule on what the number should be because the number is situation dependent. It might be okay to spend a little more on a Friday night out with friends than during the rest of the week. For my wife and I, I feel really good when the two of us can eat out for $10 total. You might think that is impossible, but I’ll show you a couple of ways.
1. Sharing an Entree
My wife is 5’2, 100lbs and I’m 6’4, 215 lbs. When we were dating and through our first couple years of marriage I benefited from my wife’s inability to finish her meal by cleaning off her plate after I was done with mine. Consequently, I was left with an ever expanding waistline and paying full price for two entrees was putting a drain on our finances. As I’ve gotten older and tried to eat healthier, I’ve also realized I don’t need to eat as much as I did when I was a growing boy (unless I want to grow out and not up). Now, instead of eating 1 ½ entrees, I can usually get by splitting an entree with my wife and eating about 60% or so of an entree, with my wife eating the rest.
We don’t split entrees 100% of the time but we can easily get by splitting something like a salad bowl at Chipotle (while praying it’s Listeria-free). We get a fairly healthy meal that fills us both up for about $7.50 total or closer to $10 if we splurge and add guac. This brings our cost per person for a nutritious meal to between $3.75 - $5.00. It may be possible, but I find it difficult to cook a nutritious meal at that cost. With both of us working outside the home, there is also a convenience factor to not have to cook a meal when we get home.
If sharing an entree isn’t enough food to fill your belly, consider a second option.
2. Using a Coupon
I’m not a huge coupon user but I use them when I can, especially restaurant coupons. Many times, it’s the coupon which allows me to eat out in the first place. We have a farm fresh, fast casual restaurant in our area that we can get a great, healthy meal for about $10 total for the two of us. How do we do it? The restaurant has an apparent perpetual buy one get one free coupon that allows us each to get a $10 entree for the price of one. At $5 per person for a nutritious meal, it is a meal that would be hard to replicate at home for cheaper.
Costs can vary widely when cooking at home, as you change what’s on the menu. Keep an average of what you are spending at home to compare to what you spend when you eat out. You could also break your recipes into cost ranges (i.e. $1-$15, $15-$25, $25+), to help you better track your expenses per meal.
Word of Caution
If you don’t stay disciplined, eating out can quickly get out of hand. Add a few drinks to the mix, and your cost per meal can quickly elevate to a level that makes it no longer cost effective.
I’ll let you define nutritious for yourself but I would caution you against consistently ordering fast food even though the cost per meal might be low (your waistline will thank me). When it comes to food, cheaper isn’t always better. In a lot of cases cheaper can lead to poor health, leading to more health related costs down the road, offsetting the money saved on a cheap meal.
We don’t eat out every night (although it sometimes is tempting), but we don’t feel guilty when we do. If you do decide to eat out more in an attempt to save money, be careful. The key is to be honest with yourself and at least take some time to compare how much it costs make a home cooked meal versus how much you spend when you eat out. Remember, it’s possible to save money by eating out more.