“Want to go out to dinner?” I asked Kris last Monday night.

“No,” she said.

“Want to go out to dinner?” I asked Kris last Tuesday night.

“No,” she said.

I asked her again on Wednesday and Thursday and got the same response. “How come you never want to go out to dinner anymore?” I asked.

She gave me one of Those Looks. “J.D., are you kidding?” she said. “We’ve been going out to dinner a lot since you’ve been working from home.”

I was flabbergasted. “No way,” I said. “We never go out to dinner. Hardly at all.”

When we told this story to our friends Mike and Rhonda over the weekend, Mike pointed out that there was an easy way to determine who was right. “Check your receipts,” he said. “Bank statements don’t lie.”

Because it’s been six months since I examined my spending, I sat down this morning to do just that. I went through Quicken (for my personal expenses) and QuickBooks (for my business expenses), verifying that all accounts were up-to-date. I juggled some money around between accounts. I ran some “what-if” scenarios and updated my spending plan.

When I’d finished, I ran the category summary report. The results both pleased and shocked me. My frugal habits are holding steady in some areas but are slipping in others — like dining out.

Here’s a table of certain key expenditures, broken into half-yearly columns:

[table demonstrating that my spending is doing well, except for dining out]

As you can see, I’m doing well in some categories, but dining out is not one of them. It seems, in fact, that Kris was right: I’ve spent a lot more in restaurants since I began working from home. Digging a little deeper into Quicken’s reports, I learned that:

  • We dined out 40 times during the first half of 2007, for an average of $23.51 per meal.
  • We dined out 44 times during the second half of 2007, for an average of $25.26 per meal.
  • We’ve dined out 41 times so far this year, for an average of $41.98 per meal.

I know inflation has boosted food prices, but they haven’t gone up that much. It turns out that we’re eating in restaurants just as often as we always have — nearly twice a week — but that our tastes have grown more expensive. Looking through the detailed reports, I can see this is exactly the case. Whereas before we often chose cheap places like Burgerville, Mike’s Drive-In, or Imperial Garden, this year we’ve been eating at Gino’s, Ciao Vito, and Nostrana. The food is better, it’s true, but it also costs much more.

Obviously, this is something I need to work on.

Some other notes about my spending:

  • I have $327 in untracked cash expenses over the past three months. I’ve taken money out of the bank, but haven’t noted where the cash is going. I hate that. It needs to stop. Any tips?
  • My fuel costs are beginning to fall. The last time I filled my tank was June 5th. Because I’m working at home, and because I’ve been walking and biking when possible, I’m buying less gas. (If gas prices were at last year’s levels, I’d have only spent about $500.)
  • My comic book spending is creeping up a little. I need to watch that. During the last half of 2007, I was able to keep myself to about $60/month, which I can live with. I’m spending nearly twice that now.
  • I have, however, finally been able to reduce my spending on books. I’ve been intentionally focusing on books I already own but have not read. And I’ve been using the library. This helps. It also helps that I’m staying away from bookstores. For the past year, my spending has been at acceptable levels. (Though it’s not reflected in the table above, I used to spend about $1000 on books every year.)
  • My entertainment spending has been pared to the bone. I’ve purchased no DVDs or CDs this year. I’ve spent $80 at iTunes. And the bulk of the rest? Tickets to see The Decemberists, a round of Golf in April, and our recent culinary walking tour of Portland. Not bad.
  • Pet spending is holding steady. I read a lot about how expensive pets are, but I don’t agree. They seem pretty inexpensive to me, especially for the pleasure we get from them.
  • Important clarification: The grocery number represents only about half of our household spending on that category. Kris and I split that expense.

Overall, I’m pleased with my long-term progress. Though you can’t see it here, my spending on these categories was over $6,000 during the second half of 2004. I’ve managed to cut that by 33% while also eliminating debt and increasing my income. These changes make a huge difference to my monthly cash flow, allowing me to save and invest, and to breathe easily about money. Even when I spend too much on food.

Remember: There’s nothing inherently wrong with purchasing things that bring you joy. But problems come when you finance these purchases with debt. If you’re meeting your other financial goals and have money left over, it’s good to indulge your interests and passions.

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