COUNTLESS ARTICLES on HumbleDollar speak of the need to save, especially for those early in their careers, so they can eventually retire in comfort. The powerful effect of compounding means that the sooner those dollars are saved and invested, the greater the sum down the road.
But where can folks find those extra savings? Let me offer a suggestion: learn to cook.
The amount Americans of all income levels spend on eating out, whether it’s sit-down restaurants, fast food places or takeout, is staggering, according to studies cited by Richard Quinn in an article last year. Americans spend an average of $787.28 a month on meals outside the home, found one survey.
The timing of this screed may seem insensitive. After all, the restaurant industry was decimated by the pandemic and its underpaid workers were hit hard. I have nothing against the restaurant industry. I worked as a waiter during college. Two of our kids have also worked in restaurants, and my niece is part owner of two successful restaurants and bars.
But I have an old-fashioned view of restaurant meals. Eating out is a treat, an occasional indulgence, not a several-times-a-week habit.
I’m not saying to give it up entirely. For those retirees and others who enjoy it and can afford it, by all means indulge. Among those who have a future to save for, however, I’d suggest calculating what dining out is costing you and then look to reduce that sum.
The total tab can be quite surprising. Years ago, my wife checked the bank account of one of our kids, then in college. In one month, the cost for restaurants was around $600. That was a shocking amount even to our dining-out college student, who promised to reform.
You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to take on cooking at home. I’m lucky to be married to a woman who’s a great chef. But even I, in my clumsy way, can manage a dozen or so decent dishes. The truth is, much restaurant food is mediocre, plus their shortcuts to taste are often exorbitant amounts of salt, sugar and fat. Cooking at home means you know exactly what’s going into your meal, and can control every ingredient.
To work up enthusiasm for home cooking, it helps to have an angle. If you’re a natural host or hostess, inviting friends over to sample your latest dish might spur you on. Maybe you enjoy exotic and spicy dishes, so trips to different ethnic markets would be part of the fun.
Meal prep is a lot more enjoyable with a well-tuned chef’s knife, so my hobby of knife collecting and sharpening comes into play. One of our daughters began trying recipes from The New York Times cooking app—she’s now tasted well over 200.
I’m not blind to how things have changed in America when it comes to cooking at home versus eating out. At the gym my wife used to attend, the women in her exercise group were astounded to hear that she cooked “almost every day.” When our kids were in high school, and we had more contact with their friends’ parents, we were amazed at the number of families whose homes included magnificent kitchens—which were rarely used to cook a meal. I realize I’m asking people to buck a widespread cultural trend.
Our kids are all grown now and we’re proud of them. Some of them likely overindulge on restaurants, food trucks and takeout. Still, they’re all capable in the kitchen, so—even if they never eat out again—I’m confident they won’t starve.