Vowing to pack lunches, make weeknight dinners, and skip the morning coffee runs to save money is easy. But when happy hour turns into dinner out, or you order takeout after a long day, it can end up costing you twice. Not only are you spending money eating out, but the groceries at home also go to waste.
Americans throw out about 25% of the food and beverages they buy, with costs estimated at $1,365 to $2,275 annually for a family of four, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council that cites American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It).
Realistically planning for eating out can help you save money, stick to your budget, and enjoy those meals without guilt. "If dining out is something you enjoy, but it's draining your budget, consider alternatives like happy hour specials, taking advantage of restaurant deals, or better yet, having a potluck with friends at home," says Holly Perez, a consumer money expert at Intuit and spokeswoman for Mint. "Budgeting is not an exercise in sacrifice. It's about understanding and making smart financial choices."
Follow the nine steps below to lean in to eating out.
Track Food Spending
"The biggest mistake people make with their food budgets is not accurately estimating how much they actually spend," says Barry Choi, personal finance expert and founder of Moneywehave.com.
Looking at exactly how much you spend on food and beverages will help you create a budget going forward, Perez says. "Personal finance apps like Mint are great tools to help you see where and how you've spent money," she notes. "Next, identify patterns in your spending and where you might be able to cut back. Too many fast food runs? Too many happy hours with friends? Knowledge is power."
Be Realistic About How Much You Can Cut Back on Eating Out
Not setting up realistic budget goals can set you up for failure — and for ordering a pizza while groceries languish in the fridge. "If you're used to eating out four or five times per week, maybe you don't set a goal of eliminating eating out entirely," says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of the personal finance site Money Crashers. "If you cut it back to just once per week, you'll still have the enjoyment of someone doing the cooking for you, and you'll still save money in the long run."
Make Changes to Your Budget and Schedule Gradually, and Adjust
You may not get your food budget right the first time, so make some room for adjustment. "Honestly, it's a bit of guesswork and experimentation," says Crystal Sykes, freelance writer, co-author of How to Become a Food Budget Ninja, and co-founder of Simply Playful Fare. "Set a goal of what you want to spend, and if you're over or under, adjust it accordingly."
For example, of the average $53 per week Americans spend on lunch, about $20 goes toward getting lunch from a restaurant twice during that time, according to a 2015 Visa survey. The survey also estimated that lunch from a restaurant costs about $11 versus $6.30 for a lunch prepared at home. If going out to lunch is something you do almost every day, make gradual changes so you don't give up completely.
"Don't bite off more than you can chew," Perez says. "Start with small goals. Commit to taking lunch to work once or twice a week or minimizing the coffee splurge. Once you get into a habit, look to increase that commitment over time."
Soon you'll establish a routine and find more cash in your pocket, she adds.
Break Down the Budget Weekly
"One big mistake folks make when creating a food budget is that they come up with a monthly amount to be spent, but then don't break it down and plan and monitor it weekly," Schrage says. "For example, if you overspend in the first week, but aren't aware of that, you'll have a hard time getting back on track and will usually end up not meeting your goal."
Pay for Food With Cash
Another surefire strategy for keeping your dining budget under control is to only use cash, Perez says. "Allocate a certain amount per week to spend on food and beverage," she recommends. "This will help you understand where you might need to make changes in your budget."
Plan Your Meals
Planning meals is key if you're trying to keep within a budget. "With a meal plan in place, you'll know exactly what you'll be eating so you don't grab takeout when you have nothing prepared," Choi says. "Get into the habit of planning your meals so ingredients overlap, which helps reduce food waste further. If you really want to save, plan your meals based on what's on sale at your local grocery store."
Like the budget, a meal plan won't work unless you stick to it. "We avoid food waste by being diligent about sticking to our menu," Sykes says. She adds, "Of course it's easier to eat out when you're tired instead of sticking to a weekly menu. But then you end up spending money you don't have, especially if you allocated it elsewhere in your budget."
Incorporate meals out into the plan. "Your restaurant trips or takeout food should be planned around your weekly trip to the grocery store, and you should purchase accordingly," Schrage says. "If you don't, you could lose a bundle of money."
Look for Discounts When Eating Out
When you do embrace your dining out and takeout habit, indulge wisely. Money Crashers recommends looking at restaurant websites for deals and discounts, scanning Restaurant.com for discount gift certificates, and acquiring OpenTable dining points toward credits of various amounts. Also look for deals on sites like Groupon, Living Social, and Gilt City.
A new service called MealPass is geared toward budget-conscious folks who eat lunch out often; subscribers place a lunch order from 7 pm to 9:30 am Monday through Friday at participating restaurants, and then pick up lunch at a designated time. Subscribers pay $119 per month in New York City and San Francisco, and $99 in Miami and Boston, with cheaper three- or 12-meal-per-month options also available.
Don't Waste Your Grocery Budget on Perishables, Impulse Buys
To avoid grocery waste, "Purchasing nonperishables always helps, which reduces the risk of spoilage," Schrage says. "Cooking extra, or at the very least freezing any leftovers you may have, is another option as well."
Make the freezer your friend. "A few prepared/frozen foods do have their place," Sykes says. "You can be flexible if you've got a frozen pizza in the freezer that can be put on next week's menu. ... Frozen vegetables are a great way to go because they last longer and have most, if not all, of the nutritional value of fresh vegetables."
Perez has some additional tips to help avoid grocery waste. "Don't shop when you are hungry," she says. "While it seems like a logical rule of thumb, this is how many consumers cave to impulse buys. Next, stick to your shopping list. The best way to avoid waste is by only purchasing the items you truly need."
Decide How Eating Out Fits Into Your Life
How do you know if you're allocating the right amount for food and eating out? First consider the overall 50/20/30 common budgeting practices, Perez says, with 50% of take-home pay allocated to fixed costs and essentials like rent and utilities. "Then allocate 20% toward your financial security such as paying down debt, retirement, or an emergency fund," she says. "And finally, the remaining 30% can be put toward more flexible spending like groceries, clothing, and entertainment. The 30% category is where individuals will have the most flexibility to reallocate."
Schrage offers a more food-specific guideline: "On average, Americans spend about 5% of their monthly income on eating out, and an average couple will spend about $600 per month on groceries."
Percentage-wise, Choi says, "I think spending 10% to 15% of your income on groceries is pretty reasonable." Sykes says that 15% to 25% of that amount could be delegated for eating out and takeout. "That's about four to eight nights a month," she says.
Choi recommends keeping your grocery budget separate from eating out, and including the latter in your entertainment budget. "Since your entertainment budget ends up being separate, you shouldn't feel guilty when you decide to eat out," he says. "Look at your overall budget. If food and entertainment are taking up 35% of your overall budget, you're probably spending too much."
Readers, how do you balance your restaurant and grocery budgets? What are your strategies for minimizing the amount of food you waste? Let us know in the comments below!