13 Recreation: Dining Out

Without question, Americans love restaurants. According to the 2011 CES, the average household paid $2,620 for food consumed away from home. For SLN!’s purposes, however, the real question is how much do you scarf down? To figure that out, you need to cook up your own statistics.

If you use credit cards to pay for all your dining, then you can look at your online statements. A year’s worth of data is optimal, but even a single month gives a good snapshot. If your credit card records are incomplete, track your dining expenses for the next 30 days. Every time you visit a coffee shop, fast food joint, or corner deli, pocket the receipt—it’s your record of where you ate and how much you paid. When the bill is split with friends, jot down your share on the receipt or leave yourself a voice mail. For a realistic baseline, spend in line with your current habits.

Once you collect the dining data, chart the facts. How often do you dine out? How many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, and coffee runs? Whose meals do you pay for? How much is your yearly burn rate? (If you only have one month’s data, multiply by 12 for a rough estimate.) In addition, list your main reason for each meal: (1) socializing; (2) convenience (time constraints, failure to plan, too late to cook); (3) hunger; (4) tasty food hard to duplicate at home (sushi, Thai, exotic presentations); (5) entertainment (live music, people watching, TV sports); (6) atmosphere; (7) service (pampering, hospitality); (8) celebration; (9) habit (the usual hangouts); (10) novelty; and (11) any other reason.

As an example of a working chart, here’s one for the decidedly unfrugal Jane Dough.

Jane Dough
April Dining Out

  1. Where: McDonald’s Who: family  Reason: hungry Cost: $27.12
  2. Where: Deli Who: me  Reason: convenience  Cost: $8.97
  3. Where: Applebee’s Who: 2 of us Reason: date night Cost: $42.98
  4. Where: Deli Who: me Reason: convenience Cost: $7.97
  5. Where: King Leo’s Who: family  Reason: tasty food  Cost: $72.36
  6. Where: Bob’s BBQ Who: family  Reason: tasty food Cost: $61.15
  7. Where: Morton’s Who: 2 of us Reason: celebrate raise Cost: $101.56
  8. Where: Subway Who: me Reason:  convenience Cost: $6.17
  9. Where: Deli Who:  spouse Reason:  convenience Cost: $7.39
  10. Where: Starbuck’s Who: spouse  Reason: caffeine habit  Cost: $6.24
  11. Where: Wendy’s Who: me Reason: convenience Cost: $5.39
  12. Where: Pizza Who: family  Reason: entertainment  Cost: $35.10
  13. Where: Anthony’s Who: spouse Reason: convenience  Cost: $4.89
  14. Where: Deli Who: spouse  Reason: socializing  Cost: $7.57
  15. Where: McDonald’s Who: spouse  Reason: hungry  Cost: $4.97
  16. Where: McDonald’s Who: Me Reason: hungry  Cost:  $4.29
  17. Where: Bill’s Tavern Who: 2 of us  Reason: entertainment  Cost: $34.02
  18. Where: Bob’s BBQ Who:  Earl and I Reason: socializing  Cost: $25.00
  19. Where: Deli Who: me  Reason: convenience  Cost: $8.12
  20. Where: McDonald’s Who: kids Reason: convenience  Cost: $15.80
  21. Where: Deli Who: me Reason: convenience  Cost: $7.50
  22. Where: Diner Who: family  Reason: entertainment  Cost: $62.30

Total Cost: $596.86

Jane’s chart reports April dining of almost $600, and this suggests an annual burn rate of about $7,200. Let’s just say that, once again, Jane has ample room for improvement. But back to you. Once you make your own chart, use the data in two ways. First, seek to understand your reasons for dining out and use that knowledge to reduce restaurant visits. Second, when you do venture out for a meal, adopt new habits that cut costs. A portable checklist that summarizes both strategies appears in Appendix 3.

13.1  Reduce Restaurant Visits

If you visit restaurants four or more times per week—in other words, if you’re a typical American diner—substitute some of your meals out with meals in. Here’s a modest example. A chicken dish at a casual restaurant chain comes with rice, sautéed veggies, and costs about $12. Add alcohol and your cost bumps up to $17. But there’s more. You need to leave a 20 percent tip for your server—don’t go cheap on someone else who works for a living—so this adds $3.40. In addition, the tax man insists on his due: 8.5 percent on $17 is another $1.44. This brings your total bill to $21.84—but, hey, at least it tastes like chicken. In contrast, the same meal at home costs you only $2.63: $0.89 for a half pound chicken breast, $0.15 for a scoop of rice, $0.59 per serving of vegetables, and $1.00 for a beer from the fridge. By the way, you don’t tip at home and, in many places, you don’t pay sales taxes on groceries. Cook at home one time, and you save $19.21. Skip the weekly meal for a full year and you save about $1,000, or $2,000 if you pay for two diners.

As you salivate over these savings, look at your data. For each meal, focus on the main reason you visited the restaurant. Several good alternatives can meet your needs for much less.

   13.1.1  Socialize Elsewhere
Economize with takeout, delivered pizza, pot lucks, dinner parties, or progressive dinners (one course consumed at each home). Gather your after-work crowd at happy hours and coffee shops. Did you dine out on work days so you could hang out with friends? It’s just as pleasant to meet them at the park for a brownbag lunch. Or socialize without restaurants. Join book clubs or schedule friends for at-home workouts (see 10.1.5).

   13.1.2  Switch to Other Conveniences
Bulk cook on weekends so that during the week you can plunk leftovers into the microwave. The BBQ is great for this—it’s lit anyway, so you might as well grill a few extra chicken thighs for later feasting. Another idea: in the morning, throw a few ingredients into a slow cooker so that a fragrant home cooked meal awaits your return. It’s like living with your parents again, only your mom doesn’t yell at you to make your bed. Do you buy sandwiches on workdays in order to save time? Instead, make a sandwich in the morning—it’s quicker than standing in line for one at a crowded deli. Forget to pack lunch? Buy yogurt and fruit at a downtown convenience store. Although it costs more than a home-packed meal, it’s still cheaper than a full-priced sandwich.

   13.1.3  Try New Hunger Games
Did you eat fast food because you were starving? A better choice for wallet and waistline: food caches. In your car or purse, stash some energy bars. These tide you over without nearly as much damage—fiscal or physical. At work, convert a spare desk drawer into a pantry. Stock it with apples, soup, tuna—you get the idea.

   13.1.4  Consider New Paths to Specialized Cuisines
Learn to cook your favorite cuisines with cookbooks from the library or online recipes. For esoteric dishes, try pre-packaged products (your grocer sells $2 stir-fry kits that are ready in 15 minutes). If home preparation falls short of the restaurant original, you still can save by choosing takeout instead of a sit down meal.

   13.1.5  Create Atmosphere Elsewhere
For upscale ambience at home, light candles and turn on the stereo.

   13.1.6  Pamper for Less
Trade chef services with other household members. You can also cook large batches so that you labor once only, but receive several meals in return. Visit your grocer’s deli counter for takeaway ribs, meatloaf, and salads. Visit your warehouse club for ready-to-eat rotisserie chickens, which somehow cost less than uncooked fryers.

   13.1.7  Ditch the Dining Habit
Are you a restaurant rat? Discover a new habitat. For date nights, download popular recipes and cook at home. Visit Epicurious.com.

   13.1.8  Seek Newer Novelties
Do you like to visit new places? Mix up locales for less by using your formal dining room. Set up a table in the backyard. Host a picnic at a nearby park.

The above tactics reappear in Appendix 3, which takes two distinct approaches. The first approach organizes tactics according to your primary reason(s) for dining out. The second approach lists the leading alternatives to restaurants. Whichever framework works best for you, use it whenever you feel the urge to splurge for meals away from home.

13.2  Spend Less at Restaurants

Sometimes, even the most saintly fringer yields to temptation and dines out. Whenever this happens to you, choose from among these a la carte options.

   13.2.1  Match Eateries to Occasions
Dinners at nice places create special memories. However, you should go big only on truly big (and rare) occasions. Frequent fine dining is nothing but a habit, and a costly one. If you suffer from this expensive routine, give yourself a break from the nicest restaurants for a few weeks to gauge how often you really need to see cloth table linens. You may find that you can switch to more casual places without major sacrifice.

   13.2.2  Choose Value Alternatives
You don’t have to downshift to less-than-fine greasy spoons. Instead, pick restaurants that offer good quality at value prices. For example, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro provides great food in upscale dining rooms, but it also operates a similar no frills chain: Pei Wei Asian Diner. Pei Wei offers many of P.F. Chang’s dishes, but at lower prices. Is it only a coincidence that Pei Wei is pronounced “pay way,” as in “pay way less?”

   13.2.3  Help Kids Eat Free
For listings of local restaurants that offer FREE kids’ meals, visit MyKidsEatFree.com.

   13.2.4  Visit Restaurants Without Waiters
You can have as much fun at limited service restaurants that don’t require tipping, among them: Whole Foods, Corner Bakery Cafe, Au Bon Pain, Qdoba Mexican Grill, and Wahoo’s Fish House. This saves you 15-20 percent on every visit.

   13.2.5  Look for “Special Offers”
If you owned a restaurant, how would you retain high-paying customers and still attract cheapskates to fill the open seats? The options are many. Frugal diners know them and eat for less.

  • Off-peak Dining. Some restaurants charge less for late lunches, early dinners, or midweek meals. Find the discounts and enjoy your prime rib during off-prime hours.
  • Coupons, Daily-Deal Sites, and Entertainment Books. Find dining deals at Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com. In most metro areas you can buy entertainment books loaded with restaurant deals. Keep one in your car.
  • Senior and Student Discounts. If you fall into these favored groups, patronize places that bestow discounts.
  • Memberships. For each of your groups, keep lists of discounted eateries in your car.
  • Frequent Diner Rewards. Discover places that reward loyalty and register as a frequent diner.

   13.2.6  Skip Items
Lower your bill by declining the typical extras: appetizers, soups, salads, sides, drinks, and desserts.

   13.2.7  Eat Bread to Save Bread
It’s easier to skip items with a FREE basket of rolls. Ask for refills.

   13.2.8  Share Dishes
Many restaurants charge “plating fees” to discourage shared dishes. When you come across such places of parsimony, tell them “no thanks, the only one here who gets to be parsimonious is me” and take your business elsewhere. Another sharing idea: look for restaurants that serve “family style,” where groups eat for less.

   13.2.9  Eat Appetizers Only
If the restaurant serves oversized appetizers, order one as a meal.

   13.2.10  Eat at the Bar
Some places offer smaller meals at the bar for less.

   13.2.11  Use Doggie Bags
Order big servings and box up the remainders for a second meal.

   13.2.12  Know Your Plastic Rewards
Math question: if one of your cards offers three percent cash back for restaurants and another offers one percent, which should you use?

   13.2.13  Limit Sales Taxes
In many metro areas, rates vary widely. Dining in cheaper tax districts saves you 1-5 percent (see 20.1.2).

   13.2.14  Compute a Fair Tip
One small savings point: tip only on the meal’s pre-tax value. Also, when using a coupon or other discount, tip on the amount the meal would have cost had you paid full price. This is fair to your waiter. Don’t make others subsidize your personal quest to spend less.

*  *  *

A summary of these tactics appears in Appendix 3. If you like, make a copy and take it with you.

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