Frugality Confessions: We Love Dining Out and We’re Not Ashamed of It

We in the personal finance community – especially those of us focused on frugal living – sure love to harp on the same few targets when it comes to frivolous spending.

Coffee seems to have gotten the worst of it. Mentions of the “latte factor” even appear regularly in major media these days. Fair enough: good coffee is easily made at home for pennies in lieu of dropping five dollars a day at Starbucks. (I suppose you could stop drinking it entirely, but then what would be the point of living?)

Cable TV isn’t far behind. With the proliferation of Netflix, Hulu, and borrowed Xfinity passwords, is there even anyone left who pays a hundred bucks a month for television service?

A couple others get regular mentions. Leased vehicles (gas-guzzlers, especially) are a big waste of money, of course. Gigantic houses take their share of flak too – the cost of mortgage interest, property taxes, and utilities can add up to a mighty sum.

And then there’s dining out. “You’re just throwing money away!” the common refrain goes. “Cooking at home is a fraction of the cost. You should never spend more than a couple hundred dollars a month on food.”

Whoa. Hold up. Now it’s gotten personal.

Frugality Confessions: We Love Dining Out and We're Not Ashamed of It

Here’s our frugality confession for the day: We love, love, love dining out.

And for the record, I’m not talking about getting an overcooked chicken sandwich at Applebee’s or crappy breadsticks at the Olive Garden. If those were our only choices, we would cook at home every time.

For these past few years, though, Daniel and I have lived in two of the best culinary cities in the country: Seattle and Portland. There are awesome local restaurants on every corner serving up recipes from across the world. Some of it – like the food carts in Portland – is actually quite affordable. For us, food is one of the great joys of living in the city.

Dining out is a core part of our travel experiences, too. This year, we’ve been wine-tasting in California and brewery-hopping in Oregon. We’ve sought out burritos in San Francisco’s Mission District, hole-in-the-wall barbecue in Kansas City, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, and pasties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We’ve tried seafood in Croatia, doner kebab in Turkey, goulash in Hungary, and Guinness in Ireland. How could we not?

Dessert in Göreme, Turkey

Dessert in Göreme, Turkey

Dining out serves as our entertainment, too. It’s a great setting for conversation with friends and family. On the road, it gets us out of the van for a few hours. We love people-watching in new places. And although we’re reasonably skilled cooks, it lets us try new cuisines we either couldn’t pull off ourselves or for which we wouldn’t have the patience.

Related frugality confession #2: We blow a ton of money on food.

Last month, we had a particularly obscene total for restaurant spending (it’s what prompted this post). We blew over $1,000 on restaurants and bars in October, not even including another $200+ spent on groceries. That’s over a third of our total spending for the month on something completely optional – yikes!

This meal in Kansas City took at least a year off my life

This meal in Kansas City took at least a year off my life

[Related post: Our Frugality is a Sham]

We’re not alone in our penchant for dining out. In 2015, for the first time ever, Commerce Department data showed that Americans are spending more money at restaurants and bars than on groceries. For our millennial generation, in particular, going out to a restaurant seems to be the default option for socializing. Suggest a potluck or cooking together at home and you might just get strange looks.

[Related post: When Did My Friends Get So Expensive?]

For many people, this is a recipe for financial disaster. Take, as an example, our friend who invited us to a meal out at an expensive brunch restaurant last weekend:

That, my friends, is certifiably insane.

Here’s the difference for us: We can afford it.

Yes, we love the experience of restaurant dining. Yes, it’s one of our favorite splurges. But it’s still a splurge – and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. We’re comfortable indulging for a few reasons:

We have no debt. Zero. No credit cards, no student loans, no mortgages. It’s all paid off – or never taken out in the first place. If we were sitting on high-interest consumer debt, you bet your ass we’d be cooking rice and beans every night.

It’s built into our budget. We’re spending an amount of money well within our comfort zone. Our spending projections for FIRE didn’t assume we would suddenly start spending less on food, either. It’s always been part of the target.

We still monitor and adjust regularly. In some of Croatia’s more touristy cities, for example, entrée prices were way out of our comfort zone – $40-60 for a single dish, in some cases. Instead, we sought out the local grocery stores, bakeries, and farmer’s markets. On the road in the States, we make sandwiches and cook dinners regularly with our two-burner camp stove. Just because we’re comfortable splurging sometimes doesn’t mean we’re comfortable splurging all the time.

What do you think, readers? Do you share our love of restaurant dining? What’s your splurge?

29 Comments

  1. Dining out has always been my weak spot. I’d say $500 is probably a normal month for me if I don’t cook at all

    I’m with you- why go the chains? The independent mom and pop places aren’t any more expensive and taste drastically better. I have been cooking at home a lot these past couple months for health reasons, but I’m not sure if I’m even going to take a camp stove on my road trip. There are too many new restaurants to try on the road! I guess I probably should for the nights I overnight at a national park campground or whatever, but knowing me, I’d buy the damn thing and never use it, so why pretend that I’m not going to go out, right?

    • With regard to the camp stove, we really like having one for the health reasons you mentioned, and because we’ll spend days in places like Canyonlands or Yellowstone without many other options. You could always do ready-to-eat stuff (sandwiches, salad, packaged food) for those nights, though.

  2. Oh boy, we get this. Big time.

    In our spendy days, we would splurge on a regular basis. Check out the menu at Menton, Boston. Yep, spendy indeed…..but wicked fun. ?

    These days we have dialed it back considerably, But good meal for two we are ok with $150-200. Intentional spending on great food, what’s not to love!!

    • We’ve done our share of dining at places like Menton, too. I wish I didn’t love it, but I do. Have to get the tasting menu, right?

  3. I’m a big believer in spending money on things that you value. If you built it into your budget and you are reaching your dreams. Then you definitely have me cheering behind you!!!

    I too enjoy good meals out so I definitely am in your camp 🙂

  4. We eat out a TON. As full-time RVers, it’s hard not to eat out a lot, because we like to try popular foods and restaurants out in all the places that we visit. I guess we use that as our excuse, haha!

    • Definitely a good reason, Michelle! We’ve found that we’re more likely to cook at a campsite when the weather is nice. This time of year, it’s hard to want to cook out in the cold (or the dark)!

  5. We eat out a decent amount. Mostly on the weekends. After a long week of work it’s nice not to have to cook and to enjoy a nice meal with friends and relax over a pint. I’m on the road for work a few days a month which also helps quench my hunger for restaurants. We enjoy eating out and therefore we don’t mind spending money there.

    • I can’t decide if traveling (and dining out) for work helped or hurted when it comes to restaurant dining. It definitely was nice to enjoy nice restaurants without paying for them, but it also built a bad (or at least expensive) habit!

  6. You and me both. In a previous life, my roommate and I would go out to eat for lunch and dinner every day. And when I say “every day”, I don’t mean *most days*. I actually mean every damn day. Unless he was out of town, we’d find a place to eat and dine out – and even when he wasn’t around, I would still pick a place and usually at least get some takeout.

    Personally, I don’t enjoy cooking. I especially hate cleaning up afterwards. Although we now spend less than $50 a month dining out, that is the only thing that I truly miss about our old budget.

    I love the experience of dining out at a restaurant. It’s not just about the food. Everybody around you is usually happy. People are laughing and smiling. And you have a wide array of food selections at your finger tips. All you gotta do is sit back and enjoy the experience until the food comes. Even places like Chilis, On The Border or other chains, I enjoy those places too for these same reasons.

    Even as a child, I would usually get “dressed up” whenever we went out to eat. Nothing formal, but not exactly a cut-off shirt and basketball shorts, either. I treated the experience with pride. I felt it was an honor to go out to eat. It thoroughly makes me happy. It really does.

    I can honestly say that I miss absolutely nothing about our previous non-frugal life…except for the restaurant part. I do miss that.

    • Wow, that’s a remarkable transition you made from 60 meals out every month to less than $50! That surely makes a huge difference in the FIRE timeline. We still think of restaurant dining as a big luxury, so it would be one of the first things on which we would cut back if the market corrected substantially. I’m with you on the experience — I’d rather go to an okay place with a fun atmosphere than eat the best food in an empty restaurant.

  7. Great post, I love how you also touched on some of the other areas of spending that get a bad rep in the PF community, such as coffee and cable. I think harping on areas of spending like this is really easy to do since it’s not necessities, but as you clearly explain, every situation is different! There’s no black and white. It’s 100% possible to have dining out or going out for coffee as part of a financially responsible lifestyle. Continuing to phrase the “cut out coffee and eating out” argument as a “no-brainer” gets very judgmental and can be a barrier to entry for people looking to live a well balanced life that includes some splurges.

    • Good perspective, Matt. We’re as guilty as anyone of getting a bit “high and mighty” at times about what’s worthwhile spending and what’s not. Like you said, while some of these things are good guidelines as a starting point, they’re not no-brainers for everyone.

  8. Totally agreed and omg, I want ALLLL that fresh fruit. Yummm

    Also, question: your rental property/condo/former home is entirely paid off?!?! (Or did I miss something somewhere else?)

    • If it is paid, I would love to read about how you did it!

    • That whole meal in Turkey was amazing. I love fruit desserts like that.

      Yep, the condo is paid off. I liquidated pretty much my entire investment portfolio at the time to buy it with cash, so I never had a mortgage. I had failed to take advantage of any 401(k) or other accounts up until that point (for better or for worse!), so it was all accessible. Looking back, it probably was not the wisest financial decision and definitely wasn’t diversified asset allocation, but that’s what happened.

  9. Dining out, coffee, and good beer and/or spirits are my favourite things to spend money on. I categorize them as my entertainment expenses, and I think they are well worth it. I don’t go crazy with it, but I don’t hesitate to spend the money, either. I think it’s just a matter of, as you said, spending within your means, being thoughtful about it and considering the value to you, and planning for it. Too often, people who spend money on dining out, or drinks, or coffee, are doing it out of laziness or habit, and they don’t fully savour or appreciate the experience, which in my opinion makes it a waste.

    • That’s very much how we think of it, too, Katrina: it’s not just our food expense, but it’s also the majority of our entertainment spending. I rarely regret a nice meal when we really enjoy the experience and savour it; those lazy/habit meals, though, often feel like a total financial blunder!

  10. I love to eat outside the home, rediscovering new flavors in dishes which I do not do at home cooking, such a culinary journey.

  11. I need my date nights! I used to eat out less when we lived in Colorado (fewer good options). The Bay area is killing me though! So many good restaurants! The benefit of FIRE is that as long as you are sticking to your budget, you can choose your lifestyle! Good for you!

    • Living in the Bay Area would be a budget-killer for us in so many ways, food especially! And it doesn’t help that some of our friends there think a “reasonable” night out is $100 each 😉

  12. I also suffer from this affliction. Even though I love to cook and avoid buying lunch at work, eating out is still something I really enjoy. Good food, good atmosphere and good company is a lot of fun. Sometimes you just gotta live life, (as long as you budget for it!)

    • Yeah, I’ve genuinely tried and tried to not want it. But I’ve now mostly accepted that it’s one of our favorite experiences and that we can work it into a reasonable budget.

  13. Amen, brother! We will never stop dining out, and will always hold room in our retirement budget for meals so expensive it would make a lot of PF bloggers’ hair curl. I know that sounds bratty, but we looooooooove experiencing things you can only taste if you drop a huge wad of cash on them (in addition to cheap street food as well, of course!), and we forego a lot of other things in the interest of keeping that room in our budget for dining out. This coming weekend we’ll be in Las Vegas, and I will never share what we are likely to drop on meals while there, but I will at least confess to you that we will spend a goodly sum. 🙂

    • Haha, I’m glad to hear it! I could share some stories about a few (well, more like several dozen) work travel meals that cost more than many people’s rent. We’ve also dropped $400 of our own money on fancy prix fixe meals a few times. It’s crazy, I know, but that’s why we try to be economical on other expenses.

  14. Ha! No judgment coming from over here. I tend to spend kind of a lot on restaurants (mostly take-out poke bowls and delivery Thai, if I’m being honest), but that’s okay with me. I cook at home sometimes, too, but with working long hours and blogging and keeping an eye on investment properties and such, I do end up relying on restaurants more often than the average frugal blogger probably does. Oh well. Spending money on things that keep you sane or things that you place a high value on are OK in my book so long as you have the funds to support it. Besides, there’s NO WAY I could make a Thai chicken basil rice or pad kee mao the way our local Thai place does it. *drool*

    • Right on — thanks for your support of our expensive habits! 😉 I totally agree about getting authentic food from around the world; I’ve tried to recreate a variety of Asian dishes at home, but it’s hard to find all the specialty ingredients or have it turn out nearly as well.

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