This article is by staff writer Holly Johnson.

In 2010, my husband and I were pregnant with our second child. And although we were making plenty of money, we were burning through all we made at lightning speed. Yep, we were wasting it. In fact, we were spending money we didn’t even have by financing cars, miscellaneous purchases, and trips. And, even though we had a baby on the way and two rental properties, we didn’t have much of an emergency fund to speak of either.

Although I can’t put my finger on it, something about having another baby on the way finally prompted us to become weary of the path we were heading down. All of a sudden, we got serious. It was then that we took a hard look at ourselves and our spending habits. We started by sifting through old bank statements in an effort to find out where in the world all of our money was going.

What we found was shocking. Along with the regular ol’ bills like our mortgage and utilities, we were spending massive sums of money on car payments and entertainment. And even worse was the fact that we were spending more than $1,000 on food each month…for three people! Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I mean, what we were eating? Gold-plated caviar? I’m still not sure, but I know that nothing we were eating was worth that much money. Nothing.

Reining it in

Once we came face to face with the awful truth, we started making the changes that were needed to turn things around. We began by tracking every penny that we spent, and we cut our regular expenses down as low as they could go. We also made drastic cuts to our grocery budget and whittled it down to a manageable $500 per month for our family of four. And since the main culprit of our food overspending was at restaurants, we resigned ourselves to eating mostly at home. And surprisingly, that was all it took. Within a few months, we were spending less than $500 on food with very minimal effort.

Using the debt snowball method, we paid off all of our debts one by one. And as we learned to live on less, we became addicted to our frugal and simple lifestyle. And with the giant pay raise we created by becoming debt-free, we started saving and investing more than half of our income most of the time.

Once we became vegetarian in 2012, it became much easier to eat at home. After all, the town we lived in had only a sad collection of restaurants for those who don’t eat meat — a few steakhouses, a Ponderosa, and a handful of Chinese buffets that fried everything, included bananas, for the masses. Eating at home quickly became a no-brainer.

When bad habits attack

But then we moved.

And when we did, a whole new world of dining options was suddenly within our reach. And, despite our best intentions, we found ourselves falling back into bad habits. All of a sudden, my husband began picking up bean burritos on his way home from work. Or, I would get the kids a $5 Little Caesars pizza through their insanely convenient drive-thru window. We also tried several of the local restaurants, and even fell in love with a Thai spot that serves all of my spicy faves.

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love going out to eat. Even if it’s just a baked potato at Wendy’s, I feel like I’m living the dream. There’s just something luxurious about having someone else cook our dinner and clean up.

Unfortunately, it isn’t cheap. And I was quickly reminded of this fact when I was going over our monthly budget details for December. I totally freaked. In fact, I screamed so loud that my husband came rushing in from the next room.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“We spent $850 on food in December,” I sobbed.

My husband just shook his head.

All of a sudden, all of those spicy Thai dishes and veggie burritos weren’t sitting so well.

“We have to do something about this,” I said. “I absolutely hate wasting so much money on food.”

Sure, dining out is awesome, but totally not worth it in the grand scheme of things. I know from experience how quickly that extra $350 per month can turn into a wallet-crushing $4,200 per year if left unchecked. And over five years? Those spicy Thai dishes would run over $21,000 bucks, enough to pay a few years at community college for my kids, a decade of family vacations, or health insurance for ten years.

Nope, $350 per month isn’t worth satisfying my desire for food I’m too lazy to cook. $4,200 per year is completely out of the question. And twenty-one grand? You’ve got to be kidding me. One month off the wagon was more than enough to remind us that we’ve come too far to let this happen again. We needed to get back to our frugal roots and we needed to do it quickly. Fortunately, we had a war chest of frugal food strategies to fall back on. And once I realized what we were falling back into old habits, we quickly got back into the swing of our old routine.

Keeping bad habits at bay

Eating out is delicious and convenient, but way too expensive for us to do on a regular basis. In order to keep our food spending under $500 per month, we had to get back on the wagon. Here’s how we reined in our food spending several years ago, and how we’re getting back on track yet again.

  • We’re making large batch meals — We’ve had posts about batch-cooking in the past, but I had never really gotten into it until recently. This month, I made two batch meals — one giant pot of lentil soup and another pot of vegetarian chili. I simply froze additional portions separately so that we could thaw them out as needed. And so far, so good.
  • We’re planning our meals -- It’s easy to stop for fast food when nothing is planned for dinner, but much harder when you’ve got the ingredients ready for something you can make yourself. So we’re getting back into the habit of planning our meals for the week and making one big trip to the store. This strategy has always worked great for us, and there’s a reason that it has been effective for so many other people as well.
  • We limited restaurant dining to twice per month — Budgeting $500 per month for food usually allowed us to eat out once or twice per month without blowing our budget. Plus, eating out less means that it is more of a special treat.
  • We’re making an effort to eat our leftovers -- In a world where so many people have nothing to eat, food waste is practically unconscionable. Yet, I have found myself throwing away far too much food over the past few months, mostly due to poor planning. I used to go to great lengths to make my family eat leftovers and reuse ingredients, and I’m happy to report that I’m back in the habit of doing just that.

Going out to restaurant is, and probably always will be, my guilty pleasure. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s worth sacrificing our long-term financial goals. Not even close. And that $20,000 I could potentially spend over the next five years? Yep, that’s just too hard for me to swallow. So for now, you can find us at home, noshing on thawed-out batch meals, and eating leftovers. There will probably be some hemming and hawing from the peanut gallery, but I can live with that. At the very least, I know that I’m doing what is best for my family.

Do you have your restaurant spending under control? What are your strategies for saving on food each month?

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