Before we start, let me explain the somewhat sensationalist title of this blog post, which was originally titled “Saving Money 101: Cutting out Eating out.” (In hindsight, probably a good idea that we didn’t use that title either; we’re already found for searches for prostitution, and don’t want to also be found for “eating out” related searches.)
Quite often when I’m waiting in line to buy groceries, I’ll stare at the contents of my shopping cart and think, “All this food… It’s just going to become poop.” It’s a strange, and some might think, disgusting, perspective to have, but when you get serious about saving money you begin to break everything down in the search for savings.
There’s also the important but completely overlooked angle that we all need to eat less and eat simpler in order to minimize the impact of human waste on the environment. But when we can’t even get people to recycle plastic water bottles, we’re clearly a long way from confronting the realities of saving the environment. That’s a discussion for another time, though 😉
So the point is you need to save money, but you gotta eat, so obviously you’ll never be free of food expenses (unless you’re a dumpster-diving fregan, and in which case you are light years ahead of everyone else). What you have to do is examine the intention behind your food spending, and whether it’s a necessary expense or not.
When does food spending become poop spending?
Eating is an important social ritual in our society, and sometimes you have to spend money going out to keep your social network intact. This includes meals and coffee to catch up with friends or contacts, and special occasions that require you to spend more at a nicer restaurant or buy things you normally wouldn’t, like a bottle of wine or drinks.
This is a necessary aspect of modern life, and this is spending that’s not quite food spending, and more social upkeep. Hopefully your friends aren’t nonstop partyers, and your social circle isn’t so big that you have to go out in some form multiple times a week. I’ll provide some alternatives for social eating later in the article, but it’s up to you to limit this area of spending in a way that works for you.
Food spending becomes unnecessary spending, poop spending, when you spend money on a meal at a restaurant that you could have easily prepared for yourself. Buying take-out lunch and dinners- that you’ll just eat at your desk in front of the computer, or on the couch while watching Netflix- when you could have spent just a little bit more of your time making food yourself? It’s just poop.
You were going to make that poop regardless, and instead of keeping it cheap, you decided to waste money on it (and I bet the take-out wasn’t even that good).
How People Over Spend on Poop
Young people especially are terrible at limiting food spending. Eating habits left over from college and a lack of proficiency in preparing basic meals mean that they resort to buying most of their meals out of convenience. A lot of people I know, most of them young, also have no reason nor desire to budget, so they’re mostly blissfully unaware of their own spending habits.
One day I got into quite the uncomfortable situation at work. While discussing student loans, I mentioned that mine were paid in full. Almost everyone else in the conversation balked and seemed irritated mentioning the tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt they had compared to my $0.
I am free from student loan debt, and while I didn’t have more than $20,000 to begin with, I made it a point to pay it off as soon as possible after I graduated by cutting my expenses. I don’t think a lot of my coworkers have this same mentality, because I see some of the people with the most debt eating out for lunch almost every day.
When they lamented about having no money to spend on things like trips, I pointed out to them that they would have plenty if they cooked more at home. While they were initially skeptical, quite a few of them have come around to bringing food from home, with some even asking me what dishes I usually make! Score!
How Much Can You Save on Food?
You can easily save thousands of dollars per year by keeping your food spending in check. And that doesn’t mean by starving yourself. Cutting down spending on food has been an important way that I’ve maximized my budget and not only paid off all of my student loan debt in less than two years, but put away more money in savings for my trip than I ever had in loan debt.
From experience, I know this can be hard to believe. So we’ve gone ahead and crunched the numbers for you so you can see just how much you’re spending on eating out.
Eating out for Dinner
We’ll start with prices typical of Atlanta, where we’re from, and a little on the budget-conscious side to boot. This may be more or less expensive depending on where you live. Say you eat out for dinner 3 times a week, the average amount for a working young person. Let’s say dinner is $15.
Let’s do the numbers: 3 times a week, at $15 a meal is $45 a week. Or $180 a month, $2,160 a year on dinner at restaurants.
How to Kinda Save
Cut down to eating dinner out twice a week, only $120 per month, and $1,440 a year. You save $720 a year. Nice!
How to Really Save
If you have to get dinner with someone, schedule just one per week. That’s only $60 per month, and $720 per year, saving you $1,440 more per year than when you were eating out three times per week.
$1,440 is about the cost of a round trip flight to Asia. Wouldn’t it be cool to have that already paid for?
You’ve probably thought about how you’re going to eat without going out to restaurants. The answer is that you’re going to have to make your own meals. Cooking your own food has the added benefit of honing a skill, and being healthier for you. Unless you’re eating out at a salad bar everyday, you’ll have a hard time recreating the greasy meals you get at a restaurant in your kitchen at home.
If you don’t know how to prepare food and make some basic dishes, it’s time to be an adult and learn. Don’t know where to start? Here you go.
Eating out for Lunch
Why do people eat out for lunch? Reason 1: they want to socialize over a lunch break. Fair enough. Reason 2: they ate out for dinner, or didn’t make enough food to have left overs.
Let’s say you go out to lunch at work, maybe 3 times a week (or if you’re like some of my coworkers, every f—–g day of the week). Let’s also say the average lunch costs $7 (so cheap! I bet you’re spending more than that!).
Let’s do the numbers: at 3 times a week that’s $21 a week, $84 a month, or $1,008 a year for a budget lunch. I’d wager that most of the time you don’t even have time to enjoy your lunch. You just scarf it down as quickly as possible so you can get back to work.
How to Kinda Save
While eating out for lunch is cheaper than for dinner (most of the time), it still adds up, and to save you need to cut back.
Twice a week: You spend at least $14 a week, $56 a month, and $672 a year.
Once a week: You spend at least $7 a week, $28 a month, and $336 a year.
How to Really Save
Unless someone else is buying, always bring your lunch. Always.
To save money on lunch, a friend of ours would buy a can of black beans, tortillas, and salad ingredients. He would buy a variety of sauces and dressings to spice up his black bean burrito and salad and each day his lunch would only cost him a few dollars at most. If you’re not going to enjoy your lunch while you scarf it down at your desk, you might as well keep it simple and cheap!
I like to have more variety than some lettuce and a can of black beans, so I make sure that whatever I make at home for dinner, I increase the serving size a few times so I can bring what I made to to work for lunch for two days, and eat it again for dinner one more night.
The Coffee Shop- Den of Spending Sin
Many of us have the privilege of working in offices that provide you coffee, unfortunately the coffee usually sucks (at Nikita’s office they referred to it as “mud”; at my office the taste of coffee was comparable to the smell of a Sharpie). If the office coffee sucks it’s likely that you substitute with Starbucks or some other coffee shop in your area, but Starbucks can get expensive. Quickly.
Let’s do the numbers: 5 times a week, at $1.75 per drink, plus 15% tip = $2.00 per trip, minimum. Or $10 a week, $40 a month, $480 a year. That’s a lot of money to keep you awake and focused throughout the day.
But if you’re like a lot of people, when Starbucks makes things like Caramel Macchiatos or the seasonal Pumpkin Spiced latte that people seem to have to have, regular coffee is just too disgusting by comparison.
Let’s do the numbers: 5 times a week, at $3.45 (for a “grande” plain latte or “tall” specialty latte), plus 15% tip = almost $20 per week, $79.35 per month, and $952.20 per year. That doesn’t include tax!
How to Kinda Save
You have a coffee addiction, clearly, but it’s ok. Everyone does. Let’s work on cutting back on that addiction to 3 times a week; $6 per week, $24 per month, $288 per year.
You save $192 a year just by avoiding the coffee shop for 2 days. Your next challenge is to buy coffee even less.
Fancy Coffee: This is the real problem, you’re blowing a lot of money every week not just on caffeine, but on empty calories. While coffee may be healthy for you, you just ruined it with all of that whole milk and sweetener (and you really don’t want to know how many calories are in the sweetened flavoring). Even if you cut down to fancy drinks just twice per week, while buying a regular cup of coffee the other 3 days ($288 per year) you slim your fancy drink budget down to $380.88 per year: for a total coffee budget of $668.88, and $283.32 less per year.
Fancy drinks are the enemy, and you should only indulge occasionally if you don’t want to spend retarded amounts of money.
How to Really Save
You guessed it: make your own coffee!
Bring your own pot to work and brew your own beans. Nikita showed up to work one day with a coffee pot and bag of good beans and starting brewing his own coffee with the motto “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”. He works at a small company with less than 50 employees and one kitchen for all to share. When others noticed that Nikita started brewing his own coffee they asked if they could share. He and some coworkers started a “coffee club” and after up-sizing their coffee pot, there were five of them that brewed good coffee twice a day, keeping everyone fully caffeinated and functioning.
This option isn’t free, but much cheaper than the daily Starbucks plan. Each person brings in approximately one bag of coffee a month. At $10 a bag and 40 cups a month (2 cups a day, 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month) the cost of the coffee club comes down to $0.25 per cup or $0.50 per day.
“What about my fancy drinks?!” So glad you asked. Let me introduce you to International Delight, which is really just the ready-to-use, consumer-friendly version of sugary drink mixes coffee houses use. Put it in your home-brewed coffee and you have your sugary, caffeinated fix.
Like any good American, you go out for drinks maybe once or twice during the week, and one time on the weekend. Happy hour can be important for your career and relationship building with colleagues and no one likes to be the only person awkwardly standing around with no drink in hand. In many towns the most popular activity on the weekends is drinking.
Let’s start with the base model for drinking: beer. Beers are still expensive: a couple of beers plus tip, two times a week can easily cost you $30 a week, $120 a month, or $1,440 a year.
How to Kinda Save
If you need alcohol, you have a bit of a problem, but we’ll accommodate that. Learn to drink shitty beer, like Miller High Life, because it’s close to what you’ll find in many parts of the developing world, and also cheaper than other options (which don’t always provide a higher alcohol content).
You can also opt to drink at breweries instead of bars. There are quite a few local breweries in Atlanta, and $10 is the average price that will get you 6 glasses of freshly brewed, non-shitty beer. As a general rule, they don’t pour full glasses for the brewery tours, as they are supposed to be tastings, but you’ll find that they become really lenient about this as the event goes on. Six glasses of beer is a lot, and most people can’t drink them all. Even if you drink 3 1/2 glasses, you’re still getting more money’s worth than at a bar.
If you need to get sloshed sometimes, whether to stay in your group of party people, or just to let loose, a brewery tour is the way to go.
If you don’t need to party it up? Just buy a six pack and split it with your friends. Common sense, people.
How to Really Save
I don’t know about you, but I tired of drinking shortly after college when I could no longer get buzzed without painful consequences the next day. Fortunately there are other options that leave you socializing and seemingly involved. Instead of buying a beer while you’re out with friends or networking, ask for a tonic water with lime. What does a tonic water with lime look like? A gin and tonic! You don’t look like the awkward non-drinker in the room, you can continue socializing, and at most bars your drink will be 100% free of charge!
Alternatives to Going Out
It can be hard to stay included in a social group who doesn’t care about saving money, when you really need to. While it can suck to go out with your friends and pinch pennies, or avoid spending altogether, you can balance it by hosting a get together at someone’s home. A potluck or themed drink night, coupled with games or a movie can be just as fun as going out.
Maybe you and a coworker love to escape the office together on your lunch break. You don’t have to buy lunch to do this. Take your lunches somewhere outside of the office and eat together that way. Or enjoy each others’ company over coffee instead of lunch- you’re still spending, but you’re spending less.
How Do We Do It?
I cook 80% of the food we eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m also vegetarian and cook to my own diet, meaning we both eat vegetarian at home and spend even less on groceries by not buying meat.
Lunch: Nikita eats out 1 – 2 times per week for lunch, but I made it a rule to never do so, unless there’s a good excuse. So I usually eat out for lunch less than once per month.
Dinner: For dinner we eat out between once or twice a week, usually on the weekends as a social activity with friends.
Coffee: We brew our own coffee, both at home and at work, so a coffee shop is a treat we indulge in about once a month or less.
Drinks? It’s so rare that we go out for drinks, but probably less than one time a month. And usually a beer or two is all we can handle. Lightweight drinkers, lightweight budget.
Your Budget is Your Ticket Abroad
The numbers really begin to add up. If you substitute your drink for a tonic and lime, eat a quick and cheap homemade lunch, and brew your own coffee, can save over $4,500 a year on food alone. Imagine how quickly you could pay off your debt or save up for something awesome if you applied this to other areas of your life. A couple years of staying frugal and you have yourself an around the world adventure!
It all comes down to being budget conscious. Some weeks you’ll spend more on eating out, maybe you just had a lot going on and didn’t have time to prepare food. You just need to accommodate that increase in spending, and spend less- eat out less– the next week.
And let’s really think about what it all comes down to: everything you eat is going to become poop anyway. Why overspend on poop?