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  1. Last year I really struggled with restaurant spending, mostly because I was just out of a relationship and the way people socialize and date in New York is very expensive. When I started dating my current boyfriend, I wasn’t ready to immediately spend nights cooking at home or watching TV on the couch, we had to get to know each other in a public space, and because it was winter, it wasn’t easy to come up with other activities (other than eating).

  2. Food is one of those areas that creates large “leaks” in your budget if you aren’t careful. We budget dining out as entertainment. This helps us keep it in persepective, dining out is rarely a sustenance issue. We also employ a lot of the strategies in the article for groceries but because our crazy family schedule is always subject to change, I found that using the “pantry principle” helps us keep from wasting food at home. We keep our pantry and freezer loaded and decide what’s for dinner the next night while we are doing the dishes. This way we can see what needs to be used before it goes bad and who will or will not be home to consume it. We waste less if we plan a day ahead instead of a week or month ahead.

    • We place our restaurant and coffee shop expenditures in “Entertainment,” too. Otherwise, it would all be lumped together, and that makes it difficult to see where you need to buckle down (IME, of course; YMMV).

      I like going out to eat, even if it’s to a quick casual place. I like getting a break from the dishes! The only problem, though, is that I usually find myself thinking “I could have made this exact dish at home for a fraction of the cost, and probably made it better.”

      • lol! Yes, that’s my problem — by the time I find something that’s allergy-friendly for me, it’s usually something I can make better and for less at home.

        For me going out is about the company. I have to eat out occasionally for work functions and dinner/drinks is hard to avoid when you’re dating. I count eating out as entertainment rather than groceries for that reason.

  3. We are guilty of over spending on food. We eat out most nights and probably have 2 minute noodles the one night that we eat in. We both can cook, it’s more so laziness from coming home after a long day and wanting to crash out on the couch. It is definitely one of my resolutions to be smarter with food.

  4. I was in a similar situation where out family was spending too much money on eating out. We finally got over the addiction by cooking better quality food at home for the fraction of the price. Excellent post, thanks for sharing.

  5. Great tips in this post! I think many of us are guilty of backsliding on one area where we’ve previously cut back. (For me, it was clothing)

    I find batch cooking keeps me in line. When there’s leftovers for lunches and freezer meals for nights i don’t want to cook, I feel guilty getting takeout!

    Also, with food allergies/intolerances, I have to do a lot of my own cooking. It’s pricey to buy allergy-safe foods, so I save a lot of money baking. (Though sometimes I do by that insanely expensive box of cookies for a treat…)

  6. I love going out to eat as well. It is probably the one thing in my budget that I overspend on regularly. I’ve started to use the envelope method of budgeting just to try it out and so far, so good. I see at a glance what I can spend and that helps to keep me in check. When I have the desire to eat out, I just remind myself that I can’t – I have no money.

  7. What if your food budget is huge and you’re NOT eating out all the time? We regularly spend more than $1000 on food in a month for a family of five. Is this normal? At the end of the week we don’t have much food left over and we don’t throw much away. We also try to eat as healthy as possible–lots of fruits and veggies, and my husband eats Paleo-style. Other than clipping coupons (which doesn’t help much since we mostly buy generic brands), what are we doing wrong? This is the largest item in our budget after our mortgage.

    • That sounds like a lot, Katy. Our baseline food budget is $500 per month and there are four of us. Are you buying all organic? I’ve started buying organic fruits/veggies from the dirty dozen list, and buying regular produce for the rest. I think it helps.
      http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/recipes/healthy/dirty-dozen-foods#slide-1

      Have you tried eating super cheap meals a few days a week? That is one strategy that usually helps keep our spending in check. On the “cheap” nights, we’ll eat something like tomato soup and grilled cheese, scrambled eggs and toast with fruit (the kids), or vegetarian spaghetti.

      • The food costs where you live are also a factor. We feed a family of 5, 3 adults and 2 boys 5 and 7, for around $850 a month. We don’t eat meat or dairy and we eat whole foods, not processed or prepackaged. But we live in northern British Columbia and our food costs are quite a bit higher than some other places.

    • How old are your children, Katy? That might explain why the number is a lot higher than Holly’s.

      I have two young boys and another on the way, and I have heard that in the future when they are teenage boys they will likely eat me out of house and home.

      If you are eating everything you buy, I wouldn’t worry too much about it if your kids are older. At a certain point, they eat the equivalent of an adult. A regular, middle class amount for two adults to spend on groceries is $300-$400. If you add three others to that number, $1,000 isn’t necessarily surprising. Sure, you can try to reduce it, but I wouldn’t imagine you are doing anything “wrong.”

      My only suggestion would be to reduce meat consumption or make meat an accent part of the meal instead of the main dish, if that makes any sense.

      • My grandson, at 15 months, easily eats twice what his five year old sister does. Feeding boys is just a lot different than feeding girls.

        • “Feeding boys is just a lot different than feeding girls.”
          I respectfully disagree. ALL boys ALWAYS eat more than ALL girls? No.
          Feeding SOME boys is different than feeding SOME girls.

    • One trick I use is to buy in bulk whenever non-perishable items we need are on sale. If giant boxes of Cheerios are on sale for $2 each, then I’ll buy 10 boxes at once even though it’s just me and my husband right now. It might take us 3 months to finish those boxes, but that means 3 months without the need to buy cereal.

      I also second eating less meat, especially red meat. Not only is beef more expensive than chicken, it is also supposedly less healthy for you. I’ve slimmed down a bit since we started limiting our red meat consumption to once a week. Turns out a lot of it was just bloating because my body finds it more difficult to digest red meat. YMMV.

      • Kat, buying 10 boxes of Cheerios is a really good suggestion. But (why is there always a but?) it’s not really going to work for apartment dwellers. Not enough space to put 10 boxes of Cheerios.

        I am sure, if I ever buy an actual honest-to-g*d-house that has a pantry and plenty of storage, I’ll be jointing Costco pronto. Until then, though, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

        • We lived in 900 square feet with three kids (two bedrooms) and to save money, we bought in bulk. And I have stored food in places other than the kitchen…. be creative. :-)

        • Yes, Waverly, I have this strange desire to life in a home (small apartment) that actually feels like a home and not a large pantry. Having excess anything in our space was getting out of hand and home it no longer felt comfortable.

    • I don’t think $1000 for a family of five sounds unreasonable– That’s right on average of what a family of 4 spent per month this time last year: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/2013/CostofFoodJan2013.pdf

      Since your husband is Paleo, I bet you get all organic produce, grass-fed beef, etc. You also don’t reap the financial benefits of cheap grains and crockpot legumes since those aren’t part of his diet.

      Because of your family’s diet, you are probably saving in other areas– Gym costs, medical bills, etc. Try to take those savings into consideration!

    • One way to approach this is how a restaurant would look at it.
      You need to hit a certain food cost to be profitable.

      Take your receipts and calculate how many meals/servings etc. that you get for each item you’re purchasing.

      For instance, if you pay $7 (example) for a whole chicken or $15 for a pack of chicken breasts you may be feeding the same number of people/servings.

      Do this for everything (boxes of cereals, loaves of bread, etc) and you can sometimes find your “leaks” as someone else called them.

      Boxed organic broth is $3 at most of my stores. You can find coupons for stock but you can make it for practically nothing using your own chicken bones, onions, carrots, etc. I make mine in a slow cooker once a week, so I’m not even doing any work. I figure we save $6 per week and my stock tastes better and I recycle scraps that would get tossed.

      Make your own salad dressings, no additives and much cheaper.
      Some things are worth the taste and probably not the money difference, like homemade pasta but it’s fun to make when you have extra time :)

    • Hi Katy,
      We are a family of 5, with 3 teens (2 of them are boys). $1000 would be a very expensive month for us, and that would include a couple of pizza parties and other entertaining. We use meat as a “side” most of the time, and we make a lot of soups and salads with meat in them as opposed to having the meat be the main thing. I try to plan our meals out the week beforehand, and I am a fan of using dried beans, lentils, etc. to help bulk up a meal.

      • I have a 6’3″ 21 year old water polo playing son away at college, a 6’5″ year old football playing son attending our local JC and a 14 year old basketball playing daughter. All of my children are slim and my sons are always trying to bulk up. When everyone is home, we easily spend more than $1,200/month on food. We rarely eat out, not because we can’t afford it but we chose not to. I shop at Costco. Lunches are packed at home. Just our milk bill alone runs over $150/month. My sons eat a lot of meat, while my daughter and I prefer fruit and veggies. I never would have imagined that I could spend this much money on food when my kids were younger. My sons also supplement their calories with protein shakes and nutrition bars which they pay for themselves.

    • Katy I think it’s high. I feed a teenage boy who eats a shocking amount of food [this is new in the last year] plus a teenage girl and a tween, plus myself [my husband doesn’t eat at home very often during the week – works much and his meal spending is in another column – he does eat home more saturday and sunday]

      My budget is around $800 and I buy ONLY organic or local free range type natural meats [from a farmer]. mostly organic produce and organic milk/eggs etc.

      So I would start writing down what you’re doing – I’m not criticizing you but I live in a very pricey area so I’m going to say $1000 sounds high for ME for five

      Are you buying a lot of premade or convenience foods? I think one of the reasons I can keep my numbers down is I do most of our cooking from scratch – I do buy some lunchmeats [made at our local deli] for school lunches and some premade breads but most of our meals are homemade, including desserts/snacks. I buy some snack type food but only when it’s very cheap [because said teenaged boy has to keep eating almost constantly or he’ll die apparently]

  8. For me, restaurants can be a hassle. From getting a reservation to waiting (to be seated, to order, to get your drinks, to get your food, to get the check, to get your credit card back), it’s less of an amazing experience to me than I used to view it. That makes it easier for me to cook most meals at home. Of course, I still like changing it up and eating interesting food every once in a while, but always as a special treat and always for the sake of the food, not the convenience.

    Oh, and to get your spicy asian noodle fix, may I suggest “Dragon Noodles” from budgetbytes.com – easy to make and super delicious!

  9. This is a huge item for us too–I took a look at this a couple of months ago and was shocked that we were spending just shy of $1K/mo. on food–for TWO people. While the eating out is part of it (two nights a week, generally Friday and Saturday nights), a careful look at the grocery bills shows that it is in part diet-related. For medical reasons we eat low-carb, which means no rice, no pasta, no “plate filler” type foods. The cost of a protein and fresh vegetable focused diet is not cheap. Even beans are fairly high in carbohydrates, so we rarely eat them.

    We buy very, very few processed/jarred foods (some salsa, some tomato sauces), so reducing spending through coupons isn’t going to cut it. We cook at home most nights. Eliminating the eating out (or cutting it out entirely) will save about $300 – $400 a month, but given our diet restrictions, I’m still going to be looking at $600 to $700 a month for food…for two people.

    • I can relate. I eat low-carb/whole foods so I do a lot of cooking and buy very little in the way of processed food. I don’t even buy organic/grass-fed most of the time and it’s still pretty expensive. My husband eats rice, beans, bread, cereal, etc. – all that cheap filler stuff – every day. My part of our food spending is much higher than my husband’s, and we barely keep it under $450 or $500 most months. I want him to start eating more like I do but it would require a serious budget adjustment.

  10. Food is one of the hardest categories for us. We tend to fall into cycles of eating well and always eating at home, to eating poorly and constantly eating out. It happens when we are both working busy schedules and don’t plan our meals. But we are trying to make a conscious effort of catching ourselves and having more meals planned out like we used to!

  11. We have our restaurant spending under control, save for a few times during the year. Our daughter plays basketball and we often find ourselves traveling to away games during the week. So basketball season sees us eating out a bit more than at other times during the year.

  12. The answer is, in part, no. We don’t have our eating out budget under control. We eat out all the time, breakfast, lunch and dinner, I love to eat out and its part of our entertainment. I work like crazy so when I get home I’d rather not cook and I’m not a fan of the grocery store at all. I do think I’ve reduced my during the week eating out, we continue to eat out on the weekend.

    But, in general we have our overall spending under control, by using the adult allowance and by tracking our spending. So although I may order in lunch 3 times a week it is well within my allowance.

    I have set a goal to cook one new recipe a month, mostly b/c I want to build my cooking skills. I met that goal in Jan. and I’m hosting book club on Sat. and I’ve got a new recipe to cook for that gathering (so I’ll meet my goal for Feb. the first day). I was going to order in pizza for book club, but I decided to cook instead.

  13. Since we make a trip to the store at least once a week we try to nor over shop and end up throwing food away when it goes bad. We have cut back on our weekly purchases and that has saved us in waste.

  14. Our policy is to only eat out when invited by friends (a couple times per month, maybe). If we have some money left in our eating out budget ($80 for both of us) near the end of the month, we might treat ourselves to a restaurant date or get take-out. Eating out for convenience alone is extremely rare.

  15. I still haven’t gotten the courage up to calculate how much I spend on food. I eat a 90%whole foods diet (tofu and yogurt are the most processed things I eat on a normal day). I only eat processed foods if they are offered to me (I never turn down free food), if someone else cooked, or during a pot luck. Because I don’t buy processed foods, and that’s what’s usually cheaper, my grocery bill I’m sure is high. I did calculate that I ate nearly $50 in avocados last month. eep.

    Eating a whole foods diet doesn’t mean I don’t order out. Just last night I went to Boston Market (my take-out-go-to, other than chinese restaurant steamed veggies and tofu)and bought enough chicken, turkey and veggies to last me for dinner for the rest of the week…$22, over $4 per meal, which is too much. The chinese food gets me about $2.00 per meal and unfortunately fresh food from the grocery store doesn’t get me a better deal…often times it’s worse. The thing is I don’t really want to know. It doesn’t matter what it is because healthy food is the toppa top for me and I will always do what’s necessary to get access to it. I could get it cheaper from other places but it’s nearly impossible for me to get there during the times they are open. My days are packed as such that I have to keep a cooler in the backseat of my car just so I can get fresh produce and seafood from the grocery stores that are on the way, in between my engagements as I don’t normally get home until after the stores are closed; Walmart tends to clear away much of their produce after a certain hour.

    Unfortunately convenience wins this battle because time is worth more than money to me for the time being. I’ll have more breathing room in summer but for now I’m going to treat my food budget like people did their 401Ks after the recession…best not to even look at it.

    • I want to add that I don’t get anything fancy in terms of organic, free-range, grass-fed etc. I’d like to, but I’m not going to even pretend I can afford that right now. My main purpose in eating as whole as possible is to keep my diet nutrient-dense. I’ve never regularly taken vitamins and don’t plan on it so I have to make sure I get the right balance. Also, I’m lazy and do not want to spend time analyzing nutrition labels to see which companies are taking advantage of my health and lack of consumer knowledge. I studied nutrition for 2 years before changing majors but even I have a difficult time getting through some of these ingredients and the truth behind their purposes.

      With whole foods a carrot is just a carrot, no matter who grows it. I know some will argue, and it may be warranted, about how the way that food products are raised/ grown affects quality…but it’s still a shorter list of ingredients than a box of fortified bran cereal (which many for some reason have up to 15% sodium, which is redic).

    • $50/month in avocados – my kind of eater!

      Seriously, avocados are my favorite food and the sole reason I got my Costco membership. We eat a fair amount of fresh produce and for a lot of it, I just go straight to Costco since it is cheap and pretty high quality. Especially if you are focusing on eating a lot of whole foods/fruits/veggies, I find buying them in bulk works really well, even though there are only two of us in our household.

      I still do get some produce at Trader Joe’s and for Asian veggies we have to go to a place like Ranch 99, but Ranch 99 is a very cheap place to shop at.

  16. This article was a great reminder for me because food (and alcohol!) is the area of my budget where I’m most likely to get out of control. Just thinking out loud here: I have a million excuses (I work late a lot! I don’t have a car so it’s hard to get groceries! Eating out is how people my age socialize!), but the bottom line is that I spent $700 on food and alcohol this month for just me – yikes!

    I need to keep working on limiting how much I drink at bars, because it’s easy for that spending to get out of control. (A hard limit of one drink per bar, maybe?) I need to do more batch cooking and planning ahead. And I need to be better about not going out to eat just because my boyfriend offhandedly suggested it.

  17. I’m glad people have mentioned that their food spending is a cyclical thing (or constant battle). I live by myself and mostly only cook for me, and can do adhere to cooking most of my meals, packing my lunches, one pot goulash for dinner for a few weeks and then – work flairs up, I get bored with the food I have, I get tired of cooking and cleaning the kitchen,I notice that my coworkers eat Subway or fast food every day (almost) for lunch without a care while I eat season appropriate, homemade cabbage and chicken soup, I start to crave Thai, mexican, curry (coincidentally the three best restaurants near me happen to serve those genres – AND I haven’t yet figured out how to reliably cook some of the ethnic foods I love) and suddenly I’m off the frugal food wagon and wading into take out world plastic fork first. It’s so good! It’s so “convenient”! Everyone else is doing it! It’s so easy to get take out on the way home and just get home and eat immediately.
    And then I look at the pile of receipts, the wasteful packaging, the extra miles I’ve driven to satiate my cravings and the overeating I’ve indulged in and I have to reign it back in. I haven’t yet beaten this cycle. It’s a constant watch item for me.

  18. I like what you say about how going out to eat less means that it’s more special when you do it. I think that’s what my friends don’t understand about my frugal ways – I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself, because I now prioritize what I like, and feel so happy and privileged when I get to spend money on the things that I truly love!

  19. I really enjoy the articles like this – probably a combination of the day to day decisions we make on spending and the focus on food, which is a priority for me. It’s really important to me to spend my money in ways that promote the kind of world I want to live in, so while I probably spend more than “absolutely necessary” on my food, I buy produce as much as possible and virtually all meat from my local CSA, grow vegetables in my small backyard, and spluge a bit on high quality foods for cooking. It keeps me from high fat, low vegetable meals out that often don’t contribute as much to the local economy. I travel quite a bit for work, so that tends to give me all the opportunities to eat out that I could want.

  20. I buy lunch at work but rarely eat breakfast or dinner out. I would say I go to sit-down restaurants maybe twice a month in a normal month. I might get takeout once a month or so.

    Buying lunch definitely adds up, but I’ve found that if I bring something like a sandwich, I’m way too hungry by 3:00 or 4:00. I probably should keep closer track of what I am spending, though.

  21. Our grocery budget is $600/month for two people. We struggle with this partly because we have two different diets (Jake is omni and I’m veggie) so there is not a lot of overlap between us. Jake doesn’t really cook much and won’t eat leftovers, so he eats a lot of processed food. I make almost everything I eat from scratch.

    Holly, if you’re veggie (going on vegan) you should really read up on cheese. Most cheese isn’t actually vegetarian (google rennet). I have a friend who lives in a very rural area and she has started making her own cheese (soft cheese, mozz for example) and says it is very easy. If you can get a reliable supply of milk straight from the farm, this might be a better option.

    I have started making my own vegan cheeses at home and they are very good, if somewhat time consuming.

    • Since we transitioned toward a vegan diet, we started eating Daiya vegan cheese. (The kids still eat regular cheese but they are not vegetarian) I would definitely be interested in any vegan cheese recipes you have. Thanks Honey!

    • i’d love to hear more about making vegan cheese! I can’t eat most brands like Daiya because of the additives/colour. Would love to make my own.

      • The cookbook I use is called the Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook, though there are others. I have done queso, dill havarti, gouda, among others. The gouda was fun because you get to use crazy ingredients like agar agar. I felt like a real chef!

  22. Our family of 5 has an ANNUAL eating out budget of $300. Our kids are young- ages 13 months, 3 1/2 years and 7 years, so the baby often eats free if we’re at a buffet place.

    We’ve eaten out once so far this year, at a Vietnamese noodles restaurant. We spent $20.96 and had three meals worth of leftovers after our stomachs were filled. My husband and I each chose our own favorite then we got one entree (chicken lo mein) for the kids to share.

    My real food spending problem is taking advantage of too many of the “deals” out there. I went over budget in January although our freezers and shelves are fully stocked. I also include toiletries, cleaning items, diapers, wipes, cat food/litter and people food.

  23. My husband and I rarely eat out–not for budget reasons, though. We just like to cook, and 90% of the time we eat sugar- and gluten-free, local, organic, grass-fed, etc. That’s impossible to do if we eat out all the time.

    Honestly, food is both a need and a want for me, so I don’t care that what I spend is pretty high. And also, I equate what I eat with an investment in my health, so food quality is very important to me. I’m thankful that I can afford to eat the way I eat, though–it’s not cheap. That said, I’d cut a lot of other expenses before I cut back there.

  24. The good news is, I haven’t dined at a fast food restaurant in over a decade for health reasons (and the fact that I “grew” out of it). The bad news is I live in a city and a walkable neighborhood where there’s so many delicious, local places to eat. Fortunately many are gluten free, sugar free, and some feature grass fed meats, organic veggies, etc.

    Working from home leaves me with cabin fever at the end of my day and I usually have to go out for errands, appointments, etc.

    I really had to budget how often I eat out and how much I spend when I do, especially when I’m alone. I also had to learn to take better care of myself and eat small meals at home on a regular basis and not starve myself to the point I have to choice when I’m out.

    Batch cooking is something I have to do more often, especially since my husband doesn’t cook that well and the fact that I have days where getting out of bed is a chore (chronic illness). Having enough for even a few days would make a difference.

    We spend more than the average person on groceries so cutting back on eating out is important.

  25. Eating out is delicious and convenient

    Maybe. I think this is worth looking deeper a little bit though because eating out can often deceive us.

    DELICIOUS

    Most restaurants around me aren’t delicious at all and that’s why I hate eating out these days. At least where I live, restaurants go from meh to worse. Yes, places worthy of a pilgrimage exist (somewhere else), but most times I can cook better at home.

    What restaurants do for sure is add more salt and sugar and fat to things. So, whenever I cooke for other people, all I do is put more salt in the food and they’re like “ooooh, that was delicious” and I chuckle to myself because I know the dirty tricks. People love the bad stuff!

    tldr: adding more salt (and/or sugar or fat) to your home cooked meals can make them “taste” better than 90-99% of restaurants. obviously not healthy! so save it only for special occasions.

    CONVENIENT

    It takes time to get ready, go to the restaurant (often by car), get seated, order, wait for the food, wait for the check, get back home, etc. Especially with kids I assume. Sure, there’s no kitchen cleanup which is nice. But the true convenient food is the one that’s delivered to your door– eg. pizza, Chinese.

    So, to make up for expensive delivery pizza, and driver tips, and terrible taste/texture disappointments, we keep bread in the freezer and make grilled cheeses when the craving for melted caseine strikes (usually evenings after long hard days). We eat our grilled cheeses on hamburger paper to avoid having to wash plates. Add a couple of Mexican cokes or a beer and we’re in pigfood paradise for maybe $3-$4 total cost, and almost zero cleanup.

    We also keep a store of other evil snacks & beverages for convenient eating during stressful times (including ramen = cheep). Sometimes life is hard and you need to be ready with some comfort.

    TLDR: planning ahead lets you eat “stress” foods conveniently and cheaply at home (just don’t eat like that all the time!).

    I hope someone finds some of this helpful! It really works for us.

    • It depends on what kind of food you are likely to eat out, I think. I have made some Thai food at home, for example, but it is VERY time consuming, the spices are expensive, and it never really comes out the way I want. So if I’m craving Thai, I usually get it out. Ditto Indian food.

      But for a lot of things, especially if you are a decent cook yourself or have dietary restrictions (like not eating meat) then eating out gradually becomes not as attractive. Anyone can heat up a hunk of meat. It’s much harder to find vegetarian meals that are creative and delicious at a regular restaurant. Even salads aren’t veggie at a lot of places.

      • YES, honey! I love Thai food and I also love to cook but the two does not mix. You’re so right, Thai food is time consuming (even just to hunt down the ingredients) and can it be difficult. My kitchen is the size of a postage stamp so I don’t have the advantage of the counter space that’s needed.

        Japanese food, especially Sushi? Forget it! At the same time Sushi should only be for special occasions so the cost to go out for a quality meal would be factored into the budget.

        • We’re really enjoying Quick and Easy Thai by McDermott. (Not to be confused with Quick and Easy Indian Cooking by Jaffrey, which is also excellent and as advertised.)

  26. I find the Food Network’s show “10 Dollar Dinners” with Melissa d’Arabian to be a fantastic way to save money and have fantastic meals at home. 10 dollars to feed four people for entree, side and usually a desert is cheaper than one entree at a restaurant. Plus, my 10 year old and I love watching, shopping for and then making the meals. Last night we has a wonderful lemony shrimp scampi meal. Highly recommended!

  27. Argh, this is an ongoing challenge for me. Dining out is my weakness. I love to cook, but somehow I still find myself spending more than I’d like on restaurants. A while back, when I realized just how much I was overspending, I utilized the envelope system. I know some people aren’t a fan of that, but it works for me. And it’s really not that inconvenient. Using cash helped me cut back a lot, because it gave me something tangible to spend with, forcing me to think about my spending. Since then, I’ve been able to reign it in a lot better.

    Another thing that helps is planning our dining out experiences. There’s a delicious Italian restaurant nearby that makes me drool just thinking about it. Knowing that I have plans for an upcoming dinner there gives me something to look forward to. When I’m looking forward to that experience, I’m less prone to spend money at, say, Taco Bell (also good, but not really).

  28. Great post! Food can be a massive problem in anyone’s budget. I would find some months I spent 90 bucks just picking up dinner on the way home or treating myself and a friend to brunch. Ridiculous! For me, the best way to ensure I don’t stop on the way home is to have a hearty lunch at work with a fiber or protein bar about an hour before I leave. Then I’m not hungry, so I’m not tempted to stop and waste money.

  29. Last year I spent 14.7% of my after tax income on groceries and eating out (I know because I just finished my “where did my money go in 2013” analysis). This excludes spend on bars and lunches at work (although this spend was minimal). Yep, I was shocked too.

    Me and my partner eat out either once a week in a nice place, or a couple of times somewhere cheap and cheerful. On top of that we order take away a couple of times a month. Foodwise, my biggest expense is groceries. And it’s worth noting that my share is just half of our overall spend, as we have decided to keep our finances separate for now.

    My partner LOVES cooking and the food I eat at home most days is “fine dining” quality. Unfortunately this does not come cheap. We do buy generic when we can, and my partner is very good at making delicious meals out of cheap meat cuts (his latest find is pig cheeks). However he will not give in on the meat quality and variety. We eat game, for example, and all our meat is either near sourced from the butcher or organic/free range. Our current kitchen is so small we cannot have a full size freezer, otherwise we would definitely buy our meat in bulk.

    We usually have one or two vegetarian days a week, however these are not much cheaper as my partner is always testing new exotic recipes requiring ingredients I’ve never heard of before.

    At least my partner is batch cooking me lunches which I freeze, so my lunch budget is minimal! And I suppose there are worse hobbies to have than cooking. You also know what you are eating when you cook from scratch. Nowadays I find supermarket ready meals tasting of fat, salt and/or preservatives.

    After some reflection on my analysis on 2013 spending I proposed to my partner we cut down on eating out. We can still have a nice meal out occasionally, but I’d like to bring that spend down, and he agreed. The groceries spend, although high, I see as a conscious choice I’ve made. It makes my partner happy and I get delicious meals made for me, leaving me time to do things that I enjoy. A win-win.

  30. I feel like you’re writing about our life.

    My wife and I are expecting #2 as well and we’ve always managed to go over our grocery budget. But now we’re using the cash envelope system so we don’t go over. And just last night, I made a big batch of pasta to take to work for the next few days.

  31. I dont’ find it too hard to stick to a food budget and I feel like I eat like a king on 200 per month food budget. I do this by not buying processed food (mostly shopping the peripheral of the supermarket). Most of my meals include a veggie, a grain, and a meat or protein. For beef, I either buy some to make stew or ground beef for lasagna/pasta/stuffed peppers, etc. I do not buy steaks. The standard organic items I buy are chicken, ready-to-eat salad mix, tomatoes, bananas (it’s only 1 buck for four), and carrots. I treat myself to more expensive stuff like lamb and salmon once every other month. For calcium, I either get it through kale, fancy cheese, or a big tub of organic yogurt that lasts a week. I cook three times a week. Sunday night with my bf where we make food to last us Sunday dinner-Wed lunch, Wed night by myself with leftovers to last from Wed night-Friday night, option of eating leftovers on friday or going out that night with the bf. Saturday includes visiting my family (mom and 5 siblings) where we would take turns to cook a giant meal that would last all weekend (3 meals)). This week for example, on Sunday, I made a shepard’s pie (carbs, protein, and lots of veggies) in a 9 by 13 baking dish which I then cut out ten palm and a half size rectangles. I gave three pieces to my bf and the remaining should feed me the rest of the week. He made corned beef and cabbage (and some of my rutabaga, onions, and carrots as well) with rice on the side, which he also gave me a portion. On top of that, I made a cup of wild rice (expands to about 3 cups) that I will mix with roasted carrots, celery, rutabaga, and potatoes (most of these ingredients were bought for the shepard pie) and kale for other meals. My grocery bill for this week’s meal: $29.64 and I have the remaining potatoes, onions, peas, wild rice, worcestershire sauche, etc. to cook with the following week so expecting this coming sunday’s grocery bill to be about 15 bucks (protein, kale, sprouts). My meals are usually so substantial and filling that I don’t bother with snacking and feel it a chore to eat outside of meal time. If I buy a bag of chips, I either eat it in one sitting or it sits there for a year or more, no joke. The reason I laid it out in so much detail is to show it’s not that hard (time or money-wise) to keep to a food budget. I probably spend 6 hours total cooking and shopping. I get to eat healthy meals and still eat out a couple of times a month. Eating out is special if it’s done once in a while. When we eat out, it’s usually ethnic food like Vietnamese, korean, indian, brazillian, mexican and not super expensive (under 20 bucks each). For special occassions (birthdays, anniversaries, vday), we eat at the more expensive places and when we have these meals, we would replace eating out the rest of the time during that month. Sometimes, I do get tired at the end of the day and my planning is off so I grab a burrito (grain, veggie, protein) but because my overall food shopping/cooking habit is so good, it doesn’t cause great pains. My food expenditure for 2013 was $113 for groceries a month and eating out was $106 a month. Note that this includes three to four crazy all-out cookouts that my family hold in the summer and thanksgiving and xmas dinners for which I pay up the most as the highest earner in the family. Further, my bf and I do treat ourselves to chicken lobsters about four to five times a year– usually, these meals run us around 35 bucks total with all the sides (bag of steamers, four corn, salad or pasta salad). For reference, I live in an expensive east coast city where a 2 bedroom rental is around 2k.
    I don’t know why it’s easy but I guessed I learned during my youth. My mom cooked for 6 children while we were growing up and she spent less than 250 bucks a month, usually less than that. We rarely ate out and when we did, it was McDonalds’s becuase it was cheap (even though as immigrants we thought it was expensive!) I’m 30 so this is not too far long ago either. I really would love to look and hear in details about the people spending 1k a month on food.

  32. This is a huge issue for my husband and me as well. I am expecting baby #1 and we desperately need to overhaul our food budget. We are currently spending somewhere in the $800-$1000 range per month for two people. I have too many emotions tied into eating out. I often feel like I “deserve” a good meal after working all day. My husband and I are both subpar cooks so it’s difficult to make food we enjoy. We’re also vegetarian (him) and not (me) so it’s hard to find common dishes. It’s great to see that so many people have a problem with this. I’m motivated to change our habits!

  33. We don’t eat out more often than a few times a year and generally prefer to spend money on good ingredients to prepare paleo style meals at home.

    Even though most of what we buy is organic, we don’t spend more than other couples who eat conventionally. I guess this is because of our emphasis on plain dairy, locally grown vegetables, unusual cuts of meat and the use of bones (marrow, broth).

    The containers my husband uses to carry his lunches have significantly decreased in size over the last two years as we have upped the fat in our diet.

  34. We don’t cook. Period. I loathe it. My husband claims he likes it, yet he never does it. We also live in a neighborhood where there are lots of great restaurants in all different price ranges. We also live right across the street from a grocery store and basically use it as a pantry. I refuse to spend the time buying, chopping, preparing and cleaning for something that’s going to take twenty minutes to inhale. No. My time, and my sense of inner peace are much more valuable to me than the money I spend on eating out.

    Also: this is just a pet peeve, but Holly, you and your husband were not pregnant. You were pregnant. It drives me nuts when couples bust out “We’re pregnant!” I smile politely and congratulate them, of course, but really all I can think is “Yeah, okay sure, YOU’RE pregnant. But only one of you is going to swell up like a balloon, have swollen ankles, backaches, hemorrhoids and a constant need to pee. Guess which one?”

    • Ha!

      You are 100% correct that we were not both pregnant. Maybe I should’ve said that we were expecting our second child instead of “we were pregnant.”

      Unfortunately, I experienced all of the symptoms you described while my husband looked and felt as great as ever =/ I’m glad that’s over with.

  35. It comforts me more than any of you know to realize I am not the only one struggling with my eating out budget – the ONLY area we really overspend.

    (1) I loathe cooking and am only passable at the few dishes I know how to make.

    (2) DH hates cooking and the few times he makes anything, “inedible” is the kindest word I can think of to describe the mess. He genuinely believes that water can substitute for any missing ingredient. (Hint: when baking, flour + water + water + water makes glue.)

    (3) Coming from a poor family where food was scarce and I didn’t always get fed, I don’t want to try making new dishes; if I only have money for one meal and it’s ruined, that means I go hungry. DH still teases me about my one attempt at quiche, which we dumped in the backyard where someone’s loose dog found it, sniffed it, put his tail between his legs and left it untouched.

    (4) My work schedule is unpredictable and I often wind up staying late, not getting home much before 8:00 sometimes. I’ve thrown out more meat than I care to think about because I put it in the fridge to thaw and after 4 nights in a row of getting home too late to cook, it was gamey and had to be tossed. Add to that that Boston has the WORST public transit and half the time my bus just doesn’t come – even when I get out on time, it can take 2+ hours to get home instead of the usual 75 minutes.

    (5) Cooking is a huge source of stress. So’s my job. Eating out relieves stress. Need to figure out what to eat? Look over the local restaurant choices (and we live near lots of them). Someone else cooks it (much better than I could). Someone else cleans up after it. All I have to do is unwind from a long day and make pleasant conversation with my family. My precious time is spent on something pleasurable instead of something stressful. Case in point: last night I DID get home early (6:45 PM! I haven’t gotten home that early in months!) and DID cook chicken. It was supposed to take 30 minutes, but it was still half raw and wound up taking 60. The orange juice in the pan used for cooking overflowed onto the stove and burned. We ate dinner at 8:00 PM, then I spent the next hour cleaning up dishes and scraping burned crap off my stove before bed. This, after a long day in the salt mines. Remind me again why cooking is supposed to be fun?

    BTW, if anyone knows where I can find chicken recipes to cook in a slow cooker that can be cooked for the ***12 hours I’m away from home instead of only no more than 6*** then let me know. Beef can tolerate overcooking but I don’t want to eat it that often. The vegan lifestyle is not for us.

    Admittedly, I have done my best this month to pack lunches for work instead of eating out, and tried to come up with a few more dinners at home. It really does help the food budget tremendously, I have to admit it. If I just had a wife at home to do the cooking and cleaning for me, I’d be all set. :)

    P.S. – for the person who said he tried packing sandwiches for lunch but was hungry by 3:00 or so – same with me. I usually pack a frozen entree or occasionally leftovers for lunch, then eat a sandwich around 5:00. That way I’m not starving by the time I get home after my long commute and/or if I have to stay late unexpectedly.

    • I put frozen meat, veggies etc. in the slow cooker all the time when needed to cook things on my away from home time schedule – maybe try that? I also have a digital cooker that turns to warm mode when the time is up. Love it!

      • Jacq, it might be helpful to list what you would season it with – veggies and meat in a slow cooker sounds kind of gross without anything else in it. Also what kind of veggies? For people who are not “cooks” it may not come naturally.

    • I also get home after 8pm most nights from a very stressful job– also in boston, taking the mbta– and grew up poor as well so I know where you’re coming from. I wrote a long post above detailing my cheap and easy meals/cooking. Basically, I cook three times a week but you might find cooking two main dishes on Sundays to be more useful.
      For slow cooker, a large roast chicken on low after 12+ hours could be moist if you throw in lots of veggies (carrots, potatoes, celery). Once you finish most of the chicken or get tired of eating it, pick the meat from the bones, throw all of it in a pot along with cups of chicken stock, the carrots and celery you have left over. Throw in a bag of egg noodles and you got yourself chicken noodle soup! Season with salt and pepper to taste.
      Last thought, here’s some motivation to give cooking a real try: The money you save by learning to cook and planning your meals on a budget allows you to do something better than eating it away. For me, I put the savings towards trips away from work! : )

  36. We do a combination of things. It helps that my husband is a chef but I like to cook too and could frequently overspend on ingredients and good wines, cheeses, etc.
    Also, I love to entertain which is where I tend to overspend.

    For regular workweeks, I generally shop on Friday night or Saturday for any essentials from the pantry we are out of and some items I want to make or prep on Sunday, like a whole chicken, roast, filet, whatever.

    I buy fish fresh during the week at my local place so I don’t have to keep fish in the fridge. I’m not big on freezing things like meat or fish or things that have already been cooked. I do freeze certain ingredients like ginger or puff pastry etc.

    On Sundays I’ll prep or cook a few things that become ingredients for meals during the week (roast chicken, pizza dough, marinate meat, chop root veggies, etc.)

    And I grow salad greens and herbs in our raised beds year round so we always have access to greens for salad or pizza or soup. (We are in Zone 9)

    We don’t have kids but if we did the first thing I’d teach them is how to cook! A great life skill, saves money and makes lots of friends happy :)

    • >>We don’t have kids but if we did the first thing I’d teach them is how to cook! A great life skill, saves money and makes lots of friends happy <<

      I can do a lot of stuff, but I'm so glad that I learned to cook early in life! I don't always want to cook, and I do like to eat out, but I'm grateful that I can take some leftovers and a few additional ingredients, and turn it into dinner.

  37. Going out to eat is my budget buster too :( I love to cook, I really do, but I despise cleaning up. There’s also something a bit sad and frustrating to put all this effort into a meal for one person. Right now, I’m at that awkward point in my life where I’m trying to meet new friends in a new place (graduated from college two years ago), and a lot of that time is spent in bars and restaurants. Gahh…

  38. Although our monthly challenge next month is cheap meals… just for fun…

    I don’t think that $4,200/year (the number referenced in the article) is particularly wallet-crushing these days. I’m much much happier making a lot of money and not worrying about the grocery budget getting to eat whatever I want. In fact, I’d even say that I’d rather spend $4,200/year not worrying about food than I would taking a $4,200/year vacation. I’d rather do $4,200 in extra work than cut back my food quantity, quality, or convenience. Food is an every day pleasure. It makes life worth living. And it just doesn’t cost that much compared to big ticket items like housing or cars or things like vacations.

  39. It’s all about planning and prioritizing. A well stocked pantry and some go-to recipes make it easy to avoid takeout meals. When you eat at home you control the quality and quantity of the food. It’s ok to splurge on that 25 year aged balsamic or a pound of shrimp. Just know how it fits into your overall budget. I’m enjoying fresh berries in the dead of winter. Two boxes of fresh berries cost less than a pizza and are much healthier.

  40. Could I just suggest that women stop saying “my husband and I were pregnant.” Pregnant is a physical condition that only applies to the woman actually carrying the baby. “My husband and I were expecting” would be more accurate.

  41. I’ve read all the comments and i didnt see any one referring to this but what if your a single parent? I suppose even in a two parent household one parent would be the primary cook but at least occasionally the other parent could take turns or have 2 incomes so that the other parent could pay for a meal out as well. Even though im a single mom work all day and come home , i cook often. I try to cook at least 3-4 days out of the week. I cook breakfasts some saturdays but lunchtime your own your own. I also find it helps when you dont have much room in your budget because it forces you to stay within that. If you have extra money or wiggle room its far to easy to eat out because you can “afford” to. I usually have on big shop at Costco once a month and go with a list. In between i’ll shop at regular grocery stores and i usually look for coupons. I tried to meal plan but it didnt work out because i end up using the ingredients for something else.

    Even with all that i still over spend in my food budget. It’s one of my biggest monthly expeneses. Next to my housing. Someone said using the envelope method helps i might try that.

    Even at work i brought my lunch from home with leftovers for about 6 months when i was without my car but as soon as i got a car again right back to bad habits because im like i can eat out! Totally making up for lost time so January was way over.

    • Try teaching your kids to cook, if they are old enough. Start with sandwiches, then move gradually on to something more substantial. My boys started cooking dinners when they turned 11. Even if they are too young to cook without supervision, train them to prepare veggies for salads or vietnamese rolls etc. I also found that once they understood the amount of effort that went into cooking, they became a lot more appreciative of my dinners!

  42. Do folks consider paper goods, food storage supplies as “groceries”? That could make a big difference in one’s food bills.

    • I always separate paper goods, cleansing products, alcohol, even prepared foods,(salad bars in Whole Foods) in Mint.

      • Thanks Carla. My husband and I are going to start tracking paper goods and food storage items separately for a bit just to see what we are spending on those items versus groceries vs entertainment food. Our costs have been creeping up from $750/month for all food and supplies to $1,000/month.

  43. This is my single-largest failure of 2013. Last year, Mint told me I spent $12,100 on food! Yes, for one person. Yes, I check every transaction for proper categorization. Yes, I still barely fit in to my jeans. Yes, that includes wine. No, I do not need a punch in the face, because I have reeled it in this year. I’ll admit it’s hard because I just moved to a new city and normally you make new friends by going out to eat. This isn’t exactly picnic weather in DC. I spend a lot of time at home alone now but at least I can use the money I am saving for a vacation.

    When I told a couple of people that I worked with that my total was that high, they thought that was not significant at all. I was floored. Apparently, $1000 a month is completely appropriate in their world. Yikes

  44. One thing we try to do, especially after the holidays, is only eat at restaurants where we have gift cards to. This way we can still eat out, but also do it for “free.” Plus, since our inventory is limited, it makes us pick and choose when we really want to go, and when it’s just for convenience!

  45. Anyone tried peapod? I’ve found it helps me not do impulse purchases and meal plan. Also we can add items (quickly and easily to the app) all week. The delivery person brings it too your kitchen so no excuse. Even though there’s a delivery fee, I save that much in avoiding icecream.

  46. I used to have a big weakness for Thai food too, but then I found a really easy recipe for peanut pad thai. I tweaked it a bit to tailor it to my tastes- made it a touch spicier and added cabbage just because I love cabbage. There’s only one restaraunt who’s pad thai I like better now, so it’s much easier to choose to make it myself when I get that Must Have Thai craving. I keep all the ingredients on hand for just this reason.

  47. This post really resonates with me because we are in a somewhat similar position in terms of spending on food. The difference though is that I don’t know if I have yet made the determination that it isn’t worth the money.

    We do love to go out to eat and we love good food. We also cook at home and cook fairly well, but we go out to eat the things we can’t make ourselves. We live in such a spectacular rainbow of cultures in the Bay Area that you can get almost any type of cuisine under the sun; it is the exotic stuff we mainly eat out.

    We do have a project to learn to make some of our favorite szuchuan dishes (my favorite dish has something like 30 ingredients and takes 2 hours to make, according to recipes online), but that is a project over time, not an instantaneous fix.

    • Is it two hours of continuous labor or two hours including simmering, marinading, etc? If its the former, you’re better off going out, especially since it requires 30 ingredients.

      I’ve seen recipes that made my eyes water looking at it and I love to cook! With a lot of foods, especially “ethnic” cuisine, I could earn enough in one hour or less to pay for a meal rather than spend 2-4 hours plus the cost of ingredients for it come out not the way I want it.

      The flip-side is you may have enough for another meal depending on how many you’re feeding.

  48. I think your plan is good – batch cooking REALLY helps me avoid unplanned takeout/eating out. I don’t know if it’s true for those without kids at home but dang these kids want to be fed actual meals three times a day – whereas I’d be fine with a bowl of cereal for dinner ;p

    So for us the real key is having what I call an ‘instant meal’ in the freezer – proteins at least – that I can turn into dinner in a few moments without effort since I’m often in the car for a couple of hours hauling kids around and then have 30-45 minutes to feed them and get them to yet another thing – in that time I can warm up a meatloaf even if it’s frozen solid, throw a salad together and find something to go with it. Having a stir fry prepped and a rice cooker on a timer is also a lifesaver

    Keeping the costs down in general for us have meant shopping the perimeter of the store for the most part – I buy few premade or convenience foods [I buy sandwich bread for school lunches, pretzels and such when they’re cheap, taco shells because I don’t want to bake them, but make most other things from scratch] so most of what I’m buying is meat/dairy/produce along with flour/spices/condiments

    I have also learned how to conquer some cravings at home – for us it’s italian and chinese food – we still eat it out or get takeout on occassion, but having learned to make really good red sauce, and pizza that everyone loves helps. Mastering a few asian dishes has cut back on the cravings for takeout – so we spend less on that too.

  49. I found this blog while doing some research for a paper that I am writing. I was so excited! These are all things that I had to learn to do the hard way.

    Buying in bulk does help curb a lot of your expenses and as noted above you can get really creative if you put your mind to it.

    My husband and I used to love to go out and have drinks or dinner with friends, then he lost his job and two months later I lost mine. We learned to knuckle down and 15 years later we are still doing it. Rarely do we go out anymore, maybe three or four times a year. Most of the time our friends come over here. I will make the main dish and they all bring the sides. It works great and keeps the expenses down.

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