How We Broke Our Eating Out Habit In 9 Steps
In the past 15 months, Mr. Frugalwoods and I have eaten out exactly twice. To be precise, we’ve paid to eat out exactly twice. We’ve eaten out a handful of other times on someone else’s dime, like work, our generous parents (thanks mom and dad!), or once with a friend who kindly bought us dinner as a thank-you.
This wasn’t accidental kismet, but rather a concerted alignment with our year of extreme frugality (which, by the way, continues on). Pre-homestead and early retirement aspirations, we ate out fairly often—on average, once a week, which now seems unthinkable to us. But at the time, it was what we were accustomed to.
The Cost Of Eating Out
There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating out and I have no moral opposition to it, in fact, I quite like it! I merely take umbrage with the extreme cost of doing so. Since Mr. FW and I eat from the grocery store for about $330/month for the two of us, a meal out would comprise a disproportionately large percentage of our sustenance budget.
When we outlined our aggressive savings rate goals, to facilitate buying our homestead and retiring to it at 33, we knew–though we were loathe to admit it–that eating out was first on the expenses chopping block, or cutting board, as it were.
And, eating out was a comparatively easy thing to cut with a pretty high pay-off. Since we were eating out about once a week at circa $60 each time, that’s a cool $240 per month (aka $2,880 per year) we now save, just by eating at home. $240/month is pretty substantial for us, considering we only spent $793.90 (minus our mortgage) for the entirety of June.
Plus, when coupled with the savings of all our other extreme frugality regimes–cutting our own hair, drinking cheaper coffee, frugalizing our groceries, and more–it all adds up to create our 71%+ savings rate. I don’t want to sound like a broken frugal record, but, every single line item counts when you’re trying to attain sky-high savings rates and reach financial independence in short order.
The Ease Of A Zero Tolerance Policy
While we certainly could’ve simply reduced the frequency of our eating out–say, to once a month–I often find it’s easier to adopt a zero tolerance policy. Similar to my clothes buying ban (17 months in and still going strong!), I find it easier to follow these self-imposed “bans” when there are either no, or only rare, exceptions.
For us, the allowance of one meal out per month would quickly translate into a slippery slope of us “borrowing” nights out from future months and swearing we’d “make it up” in other parts of our budget.
I liken it to the way in which Frugal Hound is never fed human food from the dinner table, and hence, never whines, begs, or is underfoot while we’re eating. Since she doesn’t even know it’s an option, it doesn’t compute in her houndy brian to beg. Similarly, since we know eating out isn’t an option, it doesn’t enter our minds as a possibility when we’re casting about for dinner ideas. Yep, I do indeed think dog psychology works on humans here.
Your individual experience will certainly vary but for us, adopting a policy of never eating out has been our way to ensure that we, well uh, never eat out.
A Note On Special Occasions
Having just said that, of course we do in fact have exceptions to our ironclad rule because we’re not frugal automatons, but rather weak humans who love french fries. Our very precise exceptions include: our birthdays and our anniversary. However, it’s key to note that we’re not required to eat out on these occasions.
I chose not to go out on my birthday this year, preferring instead to commission a dinner from chef Mr. Frugalwoods. And for our anniversary, we used a gift card to cover the majority of our meal.
We think it’s important to mark noteworthy events in our lives and since we don’t give each other gifts, eating out is a way to share an experience and yummy vittles. I’ll also note that when we do eat out, we go where we want to. We make no effort to choose the cheapest restaurant or the cheapest item on the menu–we go somewhere we know will be excellent.
From Eating Out To Not: A Frugalwoods How-To
Since this line item was all about giving something up, as opposed to substituting a cheaper option or learning a new skill, we had to devise a few strategies to cope with the loss of restaurants from our lives. It might seem overblown to have a “strategy” for not eating out, but here’s the thing–I’ve found that anytime we don’t take a proactive, constructive approach, our resolve falters and the idea doesn’t stick.
Here’s what we did to wean ourselves off the convenience (and expense) of eating out:
1) Commit to the decision.
Sounds obvious, but this is actually the most crucial aspect of the whole experiment. If you’re not bought in with your whole heart (and stomach), you’ll fail. And if you have a partner, this goes doubly–you’ve got to both be in it to win it.
2) Define what you mean by “never eating out.”
Sit down (either with self or partner) and articulate your goals for this challenge. Will you never eat out? Eat out only for certain occasions? Do take-out, prepared foods from the grocery store, and coffee shop visits count? (For us, they do–our ban is all in). Be as specific as possible. If Mr. FW and I were to only eat out for say “celebrations,” you better believe we’d be finding something to celebrate every single week.
By outlining specific parameters for our eating out, we’ve found it relatively painless to adhere to them. We don’t debate the merits of eating out vs. staying in and, we look forward to our rare meals out as delightful deviations from the norm.
3) Do it for one month.
If after conducting steps 1 and 2, you’re still a bit on the fence, or unsure of how this’ll play out in your hectic life (which always has more unexpected variables than our simple spreadsheets of frugal intentions), try it for one month. That’s what Mr. FW and I did. We devised the Uber Frugal Month Challenge and decided to go an entire month without eating out–no restaurants, take-out, coffee shops, or prepared grocery store meals. Just us and our kitchen, day in and day out.
What we’ve discovered is that once we commit to anything for a full month, it’s actually rather straightforward to just keep on doing it. There’s something about the month timeframe that feels very doable at the outset, but that’s long enough to actually ingrain a habit.
A week is way too short, and a year feels like an impossible eternity. I can’t tell you how many habits we’ve changed/broken/created through our one-month test horizon. And if you seriously hate the results after a month, go back and recalibrate the decisions you made in #2.
The Secret to Maintaining Frugality
I call it the Uber Frugal Month. An email a day to provide encouragement and guidance as you reset your spending priorities. Join over 10,000 fellow frugal sojourners making a difference in their savings. Totally free. No Spam. Together we can do it!
4) Create a rock-solid meal plan.
Once you’ve identified your ideal version of not eating out, get yourself a foolproof, tasty, kick-butt meal plan. When you’re eating at home for three meals a day, seven days a week, it’s kinda tough to wing it (unless of course, wings are on your menu plan. Sidenote: I do love a good chicken wing. Mmmm wing sauce–we buy it at the grocery store and slather it on scrambled egg tortillas. Yum.)
I won’t go into depth on our meal construction plans here since I’ve addressed the topic in several previous posts. Suffice it to say, the top line tenets of our meal plan are that it’s: healthy, easy to execute, inexpensive, and (thus far) totally foolproof.
Check out these posts if you want to see what we eat:
- Our Frugal Grocery List Revealed
- Why We Don’t Meal Plan
- Our Epically Frugal Lunch Recipe
- Are You Going To Eat That? Never Waste Food Again!
- Breakfast: The Hidden Destroyer
- Eat ALL the Things!
- Frugalize Your Groceries
Everybody has their own food predilections and preferences, so it’s vital to figure out what works best for you. For example, don’t put salmon on your weekly plan if you know you don’t actually like salmon. You’ll end up dreading salmon Wednesdays and I bet you’ll find an excuse to either not eat it (ack, food waste!) or succumb to the siren call of the take-out menu. Be honest about what you, 1) enjoy eating, and 2) can reasonably prepare given your other responsibilities in life (work, kids, greyhounds).
5) Keep weekday meals simple to prepare.
Don’t be putting Beef Wellington on your regular rotation–it takes hours to make, is complicated, and the raw ingredients are freaking expensive.
It might sound like a stellar idea when you’re meal planning on a lazy Sunday afternoon with a cup of coffee in hand and the idyllic sounds of NPR wafting on the radio, but by 6pm on Tuesday night after work, taking out the trash, and walking the dog, you’re not going to want to make it (unless you’re a kitchen superhero or already early retired, in which case the world is your oyster and you can take all the time you want to make dinner).
6) Indulge your culinary creativity on the weekends.
Referring back to the aforementioned Beef Wellington (which to be totally honest, we’ve never made because we don’t buy beef, but it sounds intricate… ), consider putting it–or an analogously involved meal–on your menu for a Saturday night. Mr. FW, who genuinely enjoys the art of cooking, likes to indulge his iron chef tendencies on the weekends when he has the luxury of starting the prep at 4pm if he so desires and we’re in no rush to hustle through dinner and get to bed.
Having intriguing feasts on the weekend keeps things interesting and spicy in our home-eating regimen and allows my chef man to flex his culinary muscles. He might bake a tricky bread recipe, try out a new method for grilling asparagus, or otherwise invent a delectable new concoction.
7) Have treat meals.
Containing elaborate fare to the weekend has the side benefit of limiting our caloric intake for the week while still building in treat meals. Our weekday food is pretty ruthlessly healthy, so the weekends are our time to indulge in more ways than one. We eat quite a few more carbs and calories for our Friday and Saturday night dinners, which are much appreciated! Who doesn’t like to eat?!
These repasts give us something scrumptious to look forward to and help limit our cravings for the unhealthy during the week. Sometimes I’ll even bake up something sweet to add to festivity. Since we frequently have friends over for dinner on weekend nights, this makes for the perfect synchronization of fancier meals and socialization.
8) Learn to love “frugal takeout”–aka the leftover.
Mr. FW and I are leftover connoisseurs. After all, what’s not to love? Leftovers are the literal experience of reaping what you’ve sowed. You’ve already gone through the hassle of buying the food and cooking the food—all you have to do now is eat the food! I cannot imagine a more perfect situation.
We view leftovers as “frugal take-out.” You just take it out of the fridge and eat it! Nothing could be easier. I’ll be totally honest with you, if you want to succeed in lowering your grocery bill, eliminating food waste, and avoiding eating out, you’ve got to embrace the leftover.
Some folks are devotees of the freezing method, but we prefer to just eat everything in the days immediately following preparation. We feel this way for several reasons:
- We’ve already paid for that food, so to freeze it and buy more would just add unnecessarily to that week’s grocery bill.
- Food doesn’t always come out of the freezer tasting as divine as it did when it went in. Some things are just not meant to freeze.
- It’s possible to forget about frozen food. We’ve totally done this and excavated well-meaning tupperware months later, after the food has passed its prime.
If you have a legit technique for freezing and then actually consuming food, go for it! But if you kinda think in the back of your mind that your freezer contents are destined for the trash… don’t do it.
9) Keep emergency frozen pizzas on hand.
I saved the most imperative point for last. It’s rare that I’ll tell you something is non-negotiable, but folks, this is non-negotiable. You don’t have to keep frozen pizzas in your freezer, per se, but you must have some sort of easily prepped, pre-made dinner on hand in your home. Frozen dinners, frozen pizzas, frozen calzones (not sure if that’s a thing, but it sounds good)–basically something that requires nothing more than the application of heat to prepare.
This could be the most pivotal element of the success of this entire no-eating-out operation. Why? Because we all have stressful, long, frustrating, unexpected days where multiple things go wrong and we get home late and hangry.
A few recent examples that spring to mind for us: getting home late from the airport after a trip due to a delayed flight, being hit by a car while biking, and arriving home at 8pm after a day of hiking that started at 4:30am. These are all times when we (before we were the Frugalwoods) would’ve ordered take-out so fast, Frugal Hound’s head would spin.
Let’s be honest, there’s no way we were going to cook a full meal after any one of those experiences. But a frozen pizza? No problem. We just pop that puppy in the oven and relax. At $3 per ‘za from Costco, our frozen pizzas are cheap and quite delicious.
They’re not healthy in the least, but that’s OK. An occasional very unhealthy pizza isn’t going to kill us and I happen to think it probably helps to reset the metabolism. Also, pizza. Full disclosure: I love pizza. I’d eat it every day if I could (but I shouldn’t and I don’t).
Keeping these pizzas in reserve ensures that we don’t cave to the convenience of food made by others. Plus, they give my full-time chef (Mr. FW) a way out. When he’s sick, tired, or fresh off a bike accident, he has a viable option for still feeding us that doesn’t involve breaking our budget. These pizzas are our insurance policy that we’ll succeed in our challenge no matter what.
And yes, we know how to make dough from scratch. And yes, Mr. FW has made many a fabulous homemade pizza, but that’s not the point here–the point is to have a super simple, so easy a greyhound could make it (well, maybe a greyhound smarter than Frugal Hound…) meal ready at hand (or paw).
By following this methodology, we’ve found it’s fairly elementary to avoid eating out. We don’t feel deprived, we enjoy the foods we eat every week, and we have our frozen pizza option for emergency situations.
All in all, we’re thrilled we’ve been able to save this additional $2,880 per year. And the best part is–we don’t miss eating out at all. Once we got into the habit of eating at home, it became our second frugal nature. It’s very similar to the absence of desire we feel to buy a ton of stuff–it’s just one more thing that costs money and that we don’t need in our lives.