What I Spend on Restaurants and How I Do It

A recent restaurant meal I had in a hotel bar on a rare trip to Los Angeles, CA

Happy July, everyone! This is the latest post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, you can check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $500 per year on restaurant meals. A lot of people really blow it financially in this area. I’m in a particularly fortunate situation, which is why my restaurant spending is exceptionally low. A reasonable amount to spend on restaurants could certainly be higher in most cases – maybe $1-2k a year or even more if one has the resources. But on a minimum budget, you would spend $0.

Why is my restaurant spending so low? I eat at restaurants for a living – often very nice ones. Wining and dining people is in the job description. So psychologically, I’m usually pretty restaurant-ed out and prefer to eat food I make at home – which is often as good or better than restaurant food anyway in my humble opinion. I do go out on dates and what not and in my imperfect system of recording spending, some of that winds up in this category and some in the “fun” category. But as you will learn next week, Monday, I don’t spend terribly excessively in that area either. Mostly, I live a fairly quiet, low key lifestyle since I get that stuff out of my system on someone else’s dime while I’m working.

But how would I keep restaurant spending reasonable if I didn’t have the job I have? The underlying mindset is the same as everywhere else; figure out what I actually enjoy about the experience, cut out the superfluous stuff, and keep everything moderate overall.

I come from a lower class background and even after eating hundreds of meals over the last few years at restaurants ranging from sandwich shops all the way up to high end steakhouses and seafood restaurants where the menu prices are in whole dollar amounts with many items sporting three figures, I haven’t quite gotten comfortable with the idea of someone else serving me. So that element is not primarily what I enjoy about restaurants, even though I can certainly appreciate that rare waiter or waitress who has taken the craft to the level of art. The parts I truly enjoy are delicious food and spending time with other people.

And as it turns out, neither of those requires going to a restaurant at all. Instead, whenever I can, I enjoy both of those things at home. That offers the bonuses of knowing exactly what is in my food and being able to optimize everything for nutritional value, cost, and personal taste. I’ve even learned to enjoy the process of preparing food; there is certainly a creativity to it if you’re doing it right. And while not everyone sees things this way, I take pride in my entertaining and I think cooking for a special someone amounts to sharing much more of myself than what I would by going to a restaurant with her.

Besides, the restaurant experience, like so many others in our historically rich society, has become so routine that it has lost much of what used to make it special. I believe eating in restaurants several times a week is unhealthy for us on multiple levels. So I probably only go to restaurants a handful of times a year outside of work. And when I do, it is usually an event. Even if I didn’t have the job I do, I probably wouldn’t go more than once or twice a month. So that’s my biggest tip to saving money at restaurants – learn to enjoy cooking for yourself and in the process, keep restaurant meals the special treat they really should be. And that doesn’t have to cost you a minute either. My repertoire includes time consuming recipes but also plenty that can be produced in no more time than would be spent waiting at a restaurant anyway. Sometimes I take the scenic route but a lot of times I take shortcuts. It gets easier with experience.

When you do go to a restaurant, there are certainly ways you can minimize the expense. First, keep the drinks to a minimum. It’s very easy to double a restaurant bill just by ordering a few drinks per person and in most cases, you are drinking the exact same thing you could have at home for 10-20% of the cost. Another technique is to be mindful of portion sizes. Most restaurant meals contain over half the calories a typical person needs to consume in an entire day. So appetizers really aren’t necessary and in fact, you should probably eat half the food you are served, or even less than that, and then save the rest to bring home and enjoy again later. If it’s a romantic evening, you may want to share an overpriced dessert. Otherwise, you almost certainly don’t need one at all.

I want to end with an important point. To a financially responsible person, restaurants are a luxury spending item. Please do not stiff the wait staff. Like it or not, here in the United States, the restaurant business model involves paying these people practically nothing – so they rely heavily on tips. If you can’t afford to tip (when and where appropriate, of course), you shouldn’t be eating at a restaurant at all in my opinion because in effect, you are not paying for the service portion of the experience. Imagine what it would be like if your employer left it up to customers to decide how much you got paid. I didn’t create the system, but I definitely don’t believe in screwing people over to save a buck, regardless of whether I agree with the way their employers operate. That is a great example of the difference between financially responsible (as I’ve mentioned, I hate the word “frugal”) and cheap.

Have a great week, folks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s