How to reconcile eating out while on a budget

Every person who’s seriously chased after a financial goal (becoming debt free, saving for a big purchase, etc) has encountered the difficulty of balancing current enjoyment with an all-hands-on-deck savings approach. Having financial goals are great, but it’s important to still enjoy your day-to-day, within reason.

Dining out is a big area of confusion, as it is easily targeted as an unnecessary spending category. That said, eating every meal at home and doing consistent meal prep is a Herculean effort. So how do you balance staying within a budget with being able to eat out every once in a while?

Skip the appetizers… and the drinks… and the dessert

These are the additions that turn a $30 meal into a $50 meal. Beverages, whether it’s the fountain soda at a fast food place or a bottle of wine at a fancy restaurant, are the biggest profit centers within the food industry. Thirsty for something other than water? Drink before you eat! This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever order anything outside of an entree. However, it’s good to know your local happy hours and specials, so you can make your hard-earned dollars stretch farther.

Starving before dinner plans? Eat something beforehand. It may seem counterintuitive to eat before an enjoyable meal, but you’ll end up spending less. When you’re hungry, you’re more likely to spend money.

Big entree? Split it, or take half home

Ian and I have made do before with splitting a single entree and an appetizer. Some restaurants have huge portion sizes, so you should take that into account during your meal. Plus, there are perks to sharing a meal during a date. If you can’t share your entree though, there’s nothing wrong with putting a portion aside for leftovers. Some restaurant environments encourage patrons to eat quickly. You’re more likely to eat more than you need during a fast meal. With the caloric cost of restaurant meals higher than almost anything you could cook at home, it’s better for your wallet and your waistline to box away half immediately.

Don’t eat out for the first two weeks of the month

Trust me, this will make a big difference. If you’re concerned with reconciling eating out while on a budget, that means that you have a budget. By not eating out the first two weeks of each month, you’ll have a better idea of how your spending is tracking, and how much you can actually afford on dining out. Better to hold off on restaurants until the end of the month, than to treat yourself at the beginning of the month and then spend the rest of the month worrying about staying within your budget.

Set a hard limit for yourself

Go back over the past few months and quantify how often you dined out, and how much you spent doing so. Set a goal. Do you want to focus on reducing the cost per meal, or lowering the frequency of restaurant visits? If this is a tough goal, target just one instead of both. Either way, you’ll be working on a behavioral change that will positively benefit your wallet.

Find coupons and discounts

Groupon, LivingSocial, Restaurants.com; there’s no reason to pay full price for a meal out. If you’re just looking to try something new, use one the other above sites to find places to try. Otherwise, know specials offered by local restaurants. Just last month, Ian and I found a beer hall that offers 50% off your entire meal on Tuesdays if you pay with cash.

 

Being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself up indoors and never socialize. It’s all about finding the right balance. You can have the experience of eating out without breaking your budget, and have a clear conscience. What other tricks do you use to stay frugal when dining out?

Comments

  1. I love the simplicity of your suggestions. Skipping apps, beverage, and dessert is not only better for your wallet, but it’s also sooo much better for your waistline. Haven’t thought of the skipping eating out for the first half of the month. I’ll have to try it.

    1. Author

      Thanks! Holding off for the first two weeks is really the secret. If you budget on a monthly basis, it’s better to structure your eating habits similarly. You can eat out at the same frequency, but be more knowledgeable about how much breathing room you have your budget if you wait until the end of the month.

  2. Great tips! We built happy-hour date nights into our budget and plan meals for the rest of the week. We tried cutting down to bare bones with no eating out and re-evaluated after the first 2 weeks. This way, we’re able to enjoy life while making progress toward our goals.

    1. Author

      That takes stamina! Dining out can really be a big money drain. If you can make meal planning an enjoyable experience for the two of you, you’re killing two birds with one stone. Good on you for sticking to your goals!

  3. Love number 2! In fact…I just did this with my work lunch 😛 My thought is, “Entree, I will FORCE you to be $10 per serving!”

    1. Author

      Yes! Some servings are so big at restaurants that it’s really so much better to subdivide it.

  4. Some other things I do are to use rebate programs such as Mogl or Yelp that also give cash back, and to pay with credit cards that gives 3x points or miles such as the AARP and Costo Visa.

    1. Author

      All great tips! I also used to use the OpenTable app to pay at eligible restaurants and get points towards future meals that way. There are so many ways to get freebies and discounts to lower the cost of dining out. Thanks for stopping by!

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