How much should I spend on restaurants? How to make a food budget and not go takeout-broke
"I spend about $1,000 per month on food, which is way, way, way too much for the amount of money I make," 26-year-old Danielle, who asked to remain anonymous, recently told me about her restaurant spending.
According to a 2015 report from MarketWatch, millennials spend more dough on dining out than their parents do. While the boomer generation spends about 38% of their food budget on eating out, millennials spend 43% of their food dollars on food outside of the home. Needless to say, Danielle is not alone.
"I spend money on food because, frankly, I like it better than most things," Danielle said. "More than clothes. More than bars. More then seeing movies or concerts. I just really like food so that's where my money goes."
But, after spending close to half of her after-tax pay on dining out and paying her rent, Danielle is out of money for the month.
So, what's an Instagram-posting, new cuisine-seeking, restaurant-loving millennial to do? Well, planning ahead, creating a sensible budget and trying some tried and true tips for going to restaurants without blowing your bank account will help you make the most of your money, however you choose to dine. Check out the guidelines below.
Step 1: Make a budget
If you're eager to curb your restaurant spending, or at least get your finances in shape to make every $6 donut splurge not seem outrageous, you need to make a budget.
Ash Exantus, financial empowerment coach at BankMobile, says that priorities need to be in order for Millennials who eat out on the regular. "No matter where you are in the income spectrum, you can prioritize financial goals," Exantus said in an interview. And when you're meeting your financial goals, dining out doesn't have to be a splurge or debt-worthy experience, but rather something you've saved and planned for and can totally enjoy.
To create your restaurant budget in your 20s and 30s, Exantus recommends the following:
• 10% of your income must go to savings. You should have at least 6-8 months of expenses in savings in case of emergency. (This story of one woman's "Fuck-Off Fund" will likely inspire.)
• 10% of your income should be dedicated to greater financial goals, including going on vacation, buying a house, saving for grad school, a wedding or other larger expenses down the line. That $400 tasting menu on your bucket list? That can go in here, too!
• 10% of your income should be dedicated to your retirement fund or investing.
• 50% of your income should go to your household expenses and debt. This includes your rent or mortgage, bills and general cost of living you need to survive. Depending on your level of debt and the expenses you have — is going to a personal trainer a priority for you? do you have large car or insurance expenses? — this may be up to 60% of your income.
This all leaves 10-20% of your income for a discretionary fund, which includes eating out. And if eating out is your source of entertainment and shopping style of choice, that's 20% of your income you can potentially spend at restaurants without worry!
Anne Luong, a 23-year-old San Francisco-based associate at Inner Circle Labs graduated college last year and has since dedicated about 15% of her income to dining out and grabbing drinks. She's integrated some thrifty habits into her routine, restricting herself to one drink with coworkers a week and using savings apps like Hooch, which gives you one free drink a day at local bars for $10/month.
Others turn to apps like Groupon, Scoutmob, Gilt and even buffets, happy hours and nightly restaurant specials (all you can eat wing night! BYOB night! family style feasts!) to not sacrifice the going out experience, but rather prioritize cheaper deals for the same quality of food, drink and social time.
Step 2: Do lunch
"A dinner for two in New York City could easily run $80-$120 per person (without tip)," Gary Duff, a 24-year-old executive producer and host at The New American Kitchen, said via email. "So, I opt for coffee dates, and sometimes lunch spots, which offer [prix-fixe] menus at a marginally lower cost than dinner." Eating lunch at a high-end restaurant is a fantastic way to enjoy the experience and the cuisine without paying the entire dinner price tag.
Some of Duff's local favorites include beloved New York institutions (read: multiple dollar signs) like Gramercy Tavern, which offers a soup and sandwich lunch special for $22 from Monday through Friday, and Gotham Bar & Grill which has a $35 prix-fixe lunch menu. Duff's favorite spot in the city, Gabriel Kreuther, offers a $52 prix-fixe lunch menu, which is half the price of their dinner menu.
Duff said lunch can be a smart choice because your group is less likely to order cocktails, which at some eateries, can cost a pretty penny. "I can't tell you how many times I've been astonished to find out that my bill was doubled by the price of cocktails I drank over dinner," Duff said.
The self-described "foodie" also saves money by compartmentalizing his budget and supplementing restaurant meals with healthy prepared meals from the grocery store. He buys dishes like grilled salmon and fingerling potatoes to sustain him for a few meals and he'll also buy a 3-4 pound organic chicken (about $20) and cook it on Mondays to eat throughout the week. Leftover chicken and bones are turned into broth!
Step 3: Doggy bag it
Here's something big: Restaurant portions. Just because a 16 ounce steak or half a chicken is served as an entree doesn't mean you have to devour the entire plate.
"If you're going out to eat at a restaurant, make the most of your meal and take home your leftovers for lunch the next day," advised Jon Lal, CEO and founder of BeFrugal. "That way you're getting two meals out of the cost – chances are the portion was larger than an average dinner anyway." A $30 pasta entree is a lot more reasonable when it covers dinner and lunch.
And even if the leftover portion of your meal doesn't seem enough to sustain you as a stand-alone entree the next day, take it home and get creative by stretching out your food with greens to make a salad, scrambled eggs in a frittata, between bread as a sandwich or over pasta or grains for a bowl full of food that doesn't even feel like last night's meal.
Lal also suggested buying discounted gift cards during restaurant promotions or from sites like Cardpool or Groupon. If you plan ahead and spend $300 in restaurant gift cards for a month, that can be your budget!
Step 4: Take advantage of social media
Social review websites like Yelp, Foursquare and TripAdvisor sometimes offer discounts, free appetizers or more for checking in or leaving a review at certain venues. Have the apps ready to go on your phone when dining, especially when traveling, to make the most of potential discounts.
Step 5: Get creative in the kitchen
This one's a doozie, but it's worth it.
Challenge yourself to not order anything in restaurants that you can easily make at home, whether that be due to your limited cooking technique or lack of professional equipment (deep fryer! pressure cooker! sous vide!) in your own kitchen. This will not only make your restaurant experience more special, but also encourage you to make avocado toast or spaghetti with butter at home on the cheap rather than default to a restaurant and its elevated menu costs for essentially the same dish.
Alex Phillips, a 25-year-old blogger and digital account manager based in Melbourne, said after accumulating new expenses, she needed to reduce her dining out budget. She found that cooking at home has helped her save money, but also be more selective of menu options.
"Once you develop an interest or passion for cooking, you will notice your restaurant budget naturally drop as you realize a lot of what you order out can be made in the comfort of your own home, at a fraction of the cost," Phillips said in an email.
Step 6: Use cash
Marine Corp veteran-turned-entrepreneur and speaker Connor Cranston has a simple system for his restaurant budgeting: Use cash only. "We tend to be more careful when we are holding onto the physical cash itself," Cranston said via email. He also enlists groups of friends to order shared foods, like pizza, to help split the cost of restaurant food. Cranston as also learned to enjoy cooking at home, and has curbed his dining out to only about once every two weeks.
Step 7: Play restaurant
You're never too old to play pretend. If you're into restaurants for the ambiance, take some time to set one up in your home, using romantic candles or some cool dish ware and tablecloths off Etsy. Cook a new recipe or order takeout and serve your own booze to save money. Even better, host a potluck and cocktail shake-up with your culinarily talented friends. In short, think about what you like about restaurants and see what elements of that enjoyment you can take home or recreate on the cheap.
If you're just dining out to keep up with the Instagram community (your favorite influencers are all dining for free, by the way) slip that credit card (or cash, if you're paying attention) and head back home to 'gram that cool food you just made. You're so much better than that. And now richer, too!