The Cost of Dining Out: Are restaurants robbing you of your quality of life in retirement?
Man, do I like saving money and getting good deals! Hey, who doesn’t? I also like to eat out. What can I say, I like food. Because I like food so much, it’s easy to let a passion for eating out or the necessity of convenience snowball into hundreds of dollars in restaurant spending each month. Well I, for one, am tired of spending lots of money at restaurants. The average consumer spends $2,434 per year on food away from the home according to a 2004 survey. That’s over$200 per month. Now, our household has never come close to that monthly total, but just the same let’s run the numbers on the opportunity cost of loving restaurants so much.
If you took that $200 and invested in a good mutual fund averaging 10% over your working lifetime from age 20 to age 65, you’d have $2,113,970.41. That’s one tasty steak! Yes, I know it’s not entirely realistic to spend zero on restaurants (although it is very possible in the short term), so I ran the numbers on just $75 per month. If you spend $75 per month on restaurants and invest $125 per month, you’d have $1,321,231.69. Still not bad.
If you’re already spending less than $75 per month on restaurants, good for you! If you’re spending more than $200, you need to take a serious look at your eating habits. Either way, I’d like to be able to stretch my dollar a little when I do eat out, so here are some ideas that may save you money when you do dine at a fine eating establishment.
- Pay with cash. I can’t overstate how powerful cash can be in avoiding overspending. When you set an amount you want to spend and take that cash to the restaurant with you, you will only spend the amount you budgeted. When the cash is gone, it’s gone. The temptation to splurge goes away when you don’t have the money with you to splurge.
- Consider sharing a meal with your date (if you have one). Most restaurants serve you way more food than you should be eating anyway, so why not cut back on your calories and save some money at the same time?
- Watch out for the “Special of the Day.” Often the so-called special actually costs you more than if you order the same items individually from the menu.
- Watch what you drink. Most restaurants charge you through the nose for alcoholic beverages and other specialty drinks such as milk and juices. Plus you have to pay for each one. If you order a soda, you at least get free refills in most eating establishments. Better yet, if you order a water, it’s usually free (and fewer calories).
- Ditto for desserts. For two slices of cake or pie, you’ll likely pay as much as you could for the whole thing at the grocery store or bakery. Consider going to a dessert shop or buying some ice cream at the grocery store to keep in the freezer at home & avoid the temptation to spend.
- Don’t be afraid of the dollar menu. If you’re on a fast-food kick, the dollar menu is your friend. For only $3 you can get a good sized burger, fries, water and one other menu item. It’s a good way to eat cheap as long as you aren’t afraid of drinking water. Of course, after the big greasy meal you might want some caffeine to stay awake…
- Take advantage of promotional nights. I’ve compiled a list of restaurants in the Sheboygan, Wisconsin area that offer family discounts and specials. Here’s a list. If you’re in the Sheboygan area, that’s great. If not, all you have to do is ask your friends, check the restaurant’s web site, or simply call them and ask. It’s not difficult to save money at a restaurant. Most of the time you just have to be willing to eat on a night other than Friday or Saturday.? Here’s the short and not-all-inclusive list:
- Applebees: Kids eat for 99 cents Monday thru Wednesday. Drinks are extra.
- Pizza Hut: Kids under 3 yrs old eat free.
- Perkins: Kids eat free after 4 pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
- Brisco County Wood Grill: Kids eat free Mondays and Tuesdays from 4-9 pm.
- Pizza Ranch: Kids under 10 eat free Tuesdays nights.
Notice all of the special nights listed involve not paying for the kids’ meals. Some restaurants offer other deals not involving kids. You just have to look around and pay attention. Don’t be afraid to ask for veterans’ or other group discounts, especially in a small, family-owned restaurant.
Finally (and this is one of my favorite new options) check Restaurant.com for local participating restaurants. I’ve pasted their latest deal in the link below. Most days, you can buy a $25 gift card for $10 or less. That’s a heck of a deal as long as you have a participating restaurant in your area. There are over 12,000 nationwide so your chances are pretty good!
The bottom line:? Don’t settle for retail! Pick a different night and enjoy the same food without the crowds, or watch your menu choices to save. Most importantly, make sure you use the all-important cash envelope system to keep from going over budget! Bon appetite!
Matt Wegner is a personal finance, career,small business and leadership coach dedicated to teaching his clients the tools for L.I.F.E (Living In Financial Excellence). Start enjoying L.I.F.E at www.financialexcellence.net.