Tl;Dr: My most cost effective meals are the meals I make at home. I pack a lunch for work but go to restaurants when I'm closer to home because it's cheaper. I can still save time by buying dinner when I get home on busy nights. Now when I do eat out, it doesn't wreck my budget, and I can have better food choices.
It goes without saying - you can't save money by eating at restaurants. Most attempts to find balance between fine dining indulgences and cereal binges leave the eater unsatisfied or their wallet unhappy.
So how do you know when you should or should not eat out? Ask yourself 3 questions.
- Is this a required event?
- Do I have the money to eat out?
- If I eat at home right now, will it cost me more money in the long run?
The first two are pretty self explanatory. If you have a lunch date with your friend and her mother, you can't just pack a lunch and bring it to the restaurant. Moreover, if your rent is the only thing left in your account - put down the debit card and go home. The third question - I'll explain.
I'm going to share my perspective of when and why I eat out. Maybe it helps you. If not, as C.S. Lewis would say, cast it off. BTW: I am not a big breakfast eater. This analysis applies to lunch and dinner.
My former motivation for reserving my dining budget for on-campus bites, was time savings. I know that I rush out of the house most mornings and can't pack a lunch daily. Like most anyone, I also don't have the time or the creativity to make a meal every night. However, prices are hard to find in Manhattan and even when I thought I could make my budget work, I ended up over spending each week and eating dirt the last week of the month. So what changed?
I Order Food When I'm At Home
I order-in or eat at a local restaurant once a week when I am at home.
Why on earth would I do this?
I did some quick calculations and found that two meals at a restaurant a week in Manhattan costs me the same as three meal options at home. This was based off of my most conservative food options. So it only makes sense to replace any non-essential restaurant meals in Manhattan, with home packed ones.
Unless you can get a meal for $5 or less, it's cheaper to eat food that you cook at home. The average cost per meal is low when you buy ingredients and cook multiple portions (Think $2-4 on average). But money isn't the only cost to worry about.
Saving The Bank Can Mean Saving Time
This is a matter of opportunity cost. The main meals for me, are lunch and dinner. That means 14 meals for the week. Assuming I can make 3 meals at 4 portions of food with my groceries, I have 12 meals to spread out between work and home. Then I still need to buy two meals. I could pack my lunch 5 days of the work week, eat lunch at home on the weekends (2), and eat a home cooked dinner 5 nights a week at the cost of my weekly grocery budget. Then I could spend my entire dining budget on dinner at two decent places in Brooklyn - not bad.
My old method involved eating from home "as much as possible" - except when I didn't have the time on week days. This left me scrap for cash, buying a lot of food some weeks and no food on others, just to make the budget balance. Worse, the more I had to eat out, the less money I had for good quality food. I was always over budget and out of time to do anything about it.
What about you, how often do you budget for eating out?