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.
While I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew’s advice to learn to cook, and by extension “eat at home more often,” I am somewhat resigned to believe we’re swimming against the current of convenience on this one. Yes, typically going out to eat at a restaurant, fast food or otherwise, is more expensive than cooking a meal at home. But factoring in both “time is money (opportunity cost)” together with the veritable explosion in take home foods in places from gas stations to Whole Foods, one can see that this market is exploding, not shrinking. Being a home cook, on the still somewhat infrequent occasion where I’m looking for a fast meal, I’m still guided by the cost of alternatives, and typically will go the route of drive through at a fast food outlet where I typically have mobile order “deals.” So my gentle recommendations, when asked (for example, by my children) is to keep an eye on their dining spending, and if they aren’t going to cook at home (they’re actually modestly good about this for their ages), then separate dining out for functional subsistence from dining out as entertainment, and budget accordingly.
Many years ago (back in the 60’s) our family took my grandparents on a weekend road trip. I’ll never forget my Grandfather complimenting the waitress on cooking his bacon just right. He had to be in his 60’s at the time, and being a farm family, never ate out at restaurants and he thought the waitress took the order and then went in back and cooked it. Now, I’m trying to help my 30-somethings figure out that they are eating themselves out of retirement if they keep up with the bar hopping and take out routine. My Grandfather would pass out if he could see what restaurant meals cost today, and what his great-grandkids are spending on meals!
Thanks for all the kind and interesting comments.
I just had an email from a retired judge who is one of the smartest lawyers I ever knew. He recalls bringing a sack lunch to work while many of the court staff went out to lunch every day, along with a stop at Starbucks or Duncan Donuts on the way in most mornings.
I probably don’t need to add that the judge is a very successful investor.
Meals eaten out is a phenomenon that I have seen unfold in my lifetime. When I was a kid in small town Oregon, my parents could not afford meals out, and there were few places to go anyway. As an older adult, I am more sympathetic to both meals out and takeout. It may not save money, but it saves time and avoids the boredom of eating my own cooking.
Speaking of cooking, I too am amazed by the elaborate and seldom used kitchens I have seen in many houses. How many people need 2 dishwashers? How about a 6 burner gas stove with a griddle? Or multiple wall ovens? And, don’t get me started on the acres of marble and hand made tile that seem to adorn most modern kitchens.
I confess, however, that my wife and I spent some of our pandemic savings that we didn’t spend on travel on a refurb of our own kitchen. We live in a 100+ year-old house and the cost to re-do our kitchen, plus inevitable repairs to the old structure, was several times more than the cost of my first house. Its truly amazing what you can spend on a project like this, which begs the question why someone would make this sort of investment and then not use the end product. But perhaps, showing off their kitchens rather than actually using them is the point.
I must admit, we eat out more than we should. In fact this morning we were checking out the best rated restaurants in our area looking for French and German especially, but yikes, the prices.
Last week I made Mac and cheese and grilled a pork loin, the day before we ordered Chinese.
Sometimes I just get tired of cooking.
I rarely eat out or even get take-out since my budget took a nosedive in 2015 with the loss of a full-time job in my field. I hate to spend even $25 on dinner when I know how much food I can buy at Trader Joe’s or Aldi for that same amount. I actually hate cooking and washing dishes (need to get the dishwasher replaced!), but I eat way more healthily. When I do eat out, I am stunned by the huge portions. I almost never finish my meal and take the rest home or share with a friend or family member. And way too much salt!
We can afford to eat out, but we can’t afford the calories, and it can be really hard to moderate at restaurants even with the best of intentions.
I like cooking and trying new recipes, and I love kitchen gadgets. If anything, I had to make a point during the COVID shutdown of getting takeout from local restaurants at least once a week because I wanted to help keep them in business.
Holy Sheep, $800 bucks a month eating out?! I can’t imagine.
The kitchen, it appears,must be one of the most under-utilized rooms in the typical American household. Too bad; and the thing is, it doesn’t take a kitchen full of fancy equipment to learn how to cook meals that equal and exceed the typical restaurant fare, at a fraction of the price. And what better way to spend time with family, while controlling your waistline (and bank account!) at the same time? It’s a win-win-win, in my book, and should be done as often as possible.
I agree. In fact, my husband and I also include the “cost” to our health and waist line when eating out, along with the time spent driving, parking and waiting for our table. We can cook, eat, clean up and take our evening stroll in the same amount of time it takes to go out for bite. Yes, grocery shopping does take time, and investing in good kitchen equipment is a cost, as well. But I enjoy shopping for groceries, and I have only purchased kitchen equipment that I really needed or truly relished, so my investment is paying off. I find with the right planning and inspiring recipes, anyone can save money, and probably improve their overall health, by cooking at home.
Fine article Andrew. Restaurant prices in our area, and on our recent rip through the Southeast, have risen significantly during the pandemic. We enjoy going out to breakfast, which used to be a bargain, but no so much anymore.
We enjoy wine, which can really jack up the bill. We have a number of good BYO restaurants locally which helps.
My wife and I tend to eat out once a week and it’s usually lunch. Although there are specific dishes at certain restaurants that we really enjoy, you are so right – the food at home is usually better (and better for us!).
Spot on, Andrew. Thanks!
Plus, you don’t put on the extra weight from eating out 🙂 Thanks for the reminder, Andrew!