The Benihana Effect: Lifestyle Inflation in Action

Kris turned 42 yesterday. And as we’ve done for 24 consecutive years now, we celebrated her birthday at the Japanese restaurant Benihana.

This year was different for a few reasons. Most obviously, we’re no longer in a relationship. (Although we’re no longer married, we continue to maintain a friendship.) But also, Benihana has changed their menu slightly. This might not sound like a big deal, but it was kind of odd to us.

You see, for 24 years we’ve been ordering the same thing. Every year, Kris orders the “Splash and Meadow” combination, which consists of shrimp and beef. And every year, I order “Rocky’s Choice”, which is a combo of beef and chicken. (Plus I get fried rice.) We’ve been ordering these same birthday meals every June for more than half our lives. That’s kind of amazing.

Benihana Grill

In the Beginning

When we first started this tradition, we had just finished our sophomore year of college. We were both waiting tables to bring in spending money, and we couldn’t afford much. We did our shopping at the discount grocery store. If we went out to eat, it was to Dairy Queen. That first trip to Benihana was an extravagance!

I don’t remember exactly how much we spent on Kris’s birthday dinner back in 1989, but I’m sure it must have been about $50 or $60 after tip. I remember getting the check and feeling overwhelmed. That was like a week’s worth of tips from my job in the coffee shop at the Holiday Inn. It almost felt obscene to spend so much on one meal.

(In the years that followed, of course, I’d charge most of these birthday meals to my credit cards. In those early days, when I wanted to splurge, I had to splurge with cash. It’s all I had.)

As time passed, our incomes grew. Kris got a job teaching high school. I started selling boxes for the family box factory. Our annual trips to Benihana still seemed expensive, but not terribly so.

Then, one year, something changed.

Lifestyle Inflation in Action
Benihana Cooking

In 1998, we took a one-week vacation to Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia. Because the exchange rate was extremely favorable, we decided to eat in some fancy restaurants. We’d never done that before. And wow! what a discovery. Turns out food in fine restaurants is better than at Dairy Queen. Who knew? We ate well on that trip, and for cheap.

When we returned to Portland, we began to dabble in some of the nicer restaurants in town. We learned that we liked them. But eating out was expensive. Again, it cost us $50 or $60 per meal.

The next year, we returned to Benihana for Kris’s birthday. Again the check came to about $50 or $60, the same as always. But this time, something was different. Though the total bill was the same, it seemed much less. We’d grown accustomed to paying for nice meals, and now what used to seem like an extravagance somehow seemed acceptable.

And here we are in 2012. Now, after 24 years of birthday dinners at Benihana, the price for our dinners remains virtually unchanged. My Rocky’s Choice costs $25.75 and Kris’s Splash and Meadow has a similar price. After tip, our meal costs about $60 or $65. (Well, that’s not exactly true. It cost closer to $100 this year because I ordered spicy tuna rolls and then we both had a cocktail.)

Whereas this $60 used to seem like a small fortune, today it seems perfectly reasonable. During the last couple years of our marriage, we had many restaurant meals in this price range — and we’d often spend more.

By the Numbers
Benihana Dessert

Long-time readers know exactly where I’m going with this. The “Benihana Effect” I’m describing here is a classic manifestation of lifestyle inflation. Normally when I write about lifestyle inflation, I describe it by saying it’s what happens when you increase your spending to match the increase in your income. That’s not exactly what’s happening in this case. Instead, something with a (relatively) steady price has seemed to grow less expensive over the course of time. As our incomes increased, the relative cost of the Benihana birthday dinner decreased.

Here’s what I mean:

  • In 1989, the meal at Benihana cost about $50 or $60, which was the equivalent of about two days of my work.
  • In 2012, the meal at Benihana cost about $60 or $65, which is the equivalent of about one hour of my work.

So, this Benihana Effect represents lifestyle inflation, but seen from a different perspective, from the perspective of a fixed point.

Lifestyle inflation used to play a huge role in my life. Not so much anymore. For one thing, I maxed out my consumption some years back. Since then, I’ve been de-flating my lifestyle. I’m not ready to live in a tiny house (like some of my friends do), but everything I need — and then some — fits into this 735-square-foot apartment.

If there’s still lifestyle inflation in my world, it takes the form of the products I choose to buy. It used to be that I’d pay middle-of-the-road prices for middle-of-the-road products. Not anymore. Today, it’s all or nothing. I’ll pay top dollar for top quality, or I want to buy the cheapest possible option. My quest for quality could be viewed as another form of lifestyle inflation, I guess. But you know what? I’m okay with that. It’s also a form of conscious spending.

Footnote: I’ve begun dating. As a result, I’m meeting a variety of women with a variety of relationships to money. It’s fascinating. It’s curious to see where people choose to spend, and to see who does (or does not) have strong financial habits. But it’s also interesting to see how much a date costs now compared to what it might have cost when I was in college. Talk about lifestyle inflation! If this keeps up, I’ll be posting a list of “100 fun and frugal date ideas” — but I sure hope it doesn’t come to that…
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