What I Learned From Setting a Limit on My Restaurant Spending

Photo credit: kennijima, CC BY 2.0.

In July 2017, I set a goal to spend no more than $80 on dining out that month. This limit applied not only to restaurants, but also to food trucks, ice cream shops, bars, etc. I had spent $217.30 on dining out in June, and previous months hadn’t been much better, so I knew it would be challenging.  

I met my goal, spending exactly $79.90. After squeaking by in July, I set a new goal to see if I could maintain this for a total of six months. I managed to keep my under-$80 streak going for five months before spending $87.58 on dining out in December — and I plan to keep this goal going in 2018. Here are some of the strategies I used to help me stay within my budget:

Get an Instant Pot

Instant Pot totally deserves to be at the top of this list. This incredible machine is an all-in-one rice cooker, pressure cooker, slow cooker, yogurt maker, steamer, sauté pan, and warming pot.

My Instant Pot allows me to cook two weeks’ worth of food in one go (I freeze half), and it is fast. I can make a soup using dry black beans — no soaking required — in  just over an hour. Lentil dishes take 20–30 minutes. I can hard-boil eight eggs at once in 15 minutes, and they peel perfectly every time.

Being able to dump ingredients in a pot, wait a little bit, and end up with a lot of food that I can freeze and reheat makes it easier to stay committed to cooking most of my meals.

Satisfy your cravings at the supermarket

Here’s a common scenario: I want ice cream. During such times of temptation, I could walk to the ice cream shop down the street and spend about $6 on a serving of bougie but delicious ice cream. Alternatively, I could walk to Whole Foods, the closest grocery store, and spend $10 on a pint of the exact same ice cream.

Unless I’m craving the shop experience or a very specific flavor, I usually opt to go to the grocery store. Because my grocery store budget is bigger than my dining out budget, I can satisfy my ice cream craving without diminishing my dining out funds.

I do this with other cravings, too. The freezer aisle offers me Saffron Road pad thai for $5.49 and 365-brand personal pizzas for $3.99. They’re not as good as my favorite Thai restaurant or pizza joint, but they’re tasty and do the job. Normally I would stay away from expensive frozen entrees, but when I consider how much I’d be paying for the same type of food at a restaurant, it seems like a reasonable purchase.

Disclaimer: I’m a 5-minute walk from the grocery store, so this strategy might not work for you if the grocery store is far and the restaurants are close. However, you can still stock up on some ready-made meals in advance so you can be prepared for when when a craving strikes.

Buy in bulk

When I started this six-month challenge, I was budgeting $200 a month for groceries. Then in September I got interested in reducing waste, and I tried a week of zero-waste grocery shopping. I planned out what I wanted to eat that week and bought exactly as much as I needed. Dry goods such as lentils and steel cut oats came from the bulk section. I bought loose greens instead of greens boxed in plastic. When the cashier told me my total came to $22.26, I was shocked.

Whole Foods doesn’t have to mean Whole Paycheck. Since realizing this, I’ve reduced my grocery budget and now I  spend $30–$40 per week on groceries. My low grocery costs is another reason I feel comfortable buying overpriced frozen meals. When I shop frugally for the main groceries, there’s usually enough money left for a few indulgences.

Pack a PB&J

Unless your job gives you free meals, you’ve got to bring your own lunch and snacks for this $80 budget to work.

When I don’t have the time or energy to cook lunch for work, I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When I don’t have the time or energy to prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I bring all the ingredients to work and make the sandwich when I’m hungry. I also usually have hard-boiled eggs in the fridge (thanks, Instant Pot!) to accompany my sandwich on those PB&J days.

Live close to work (if you can)

In May, I moved to an apartment that was a bit more expensive but closer to work, and it was worth it.

Whole Foods is located mid-distance between my apartment and my work building. On days when I don’t bring lunch, I sometimes walk the 5 minutes to Whole Foods and buy a frozen meal. It’s not dining out if I’m just buying groceries!

If I walk another 5 minutes, I can eat whatever is in the fridge at home.

Create microbudgets

Try breaking big monthly budgets into smaller weekly budgets. Having $80 at the beginning of the month basically seems like unlimited money when I’m at a restaurant. I could spend $50 on food and drinks in one sitting and still be within my budget? I’m rich! However, if I were to spend $50 on, say, a New Year’s celebration brunch, I’d have $30 for the next three weeks. That’s only $10 a week, including tip.

I also tend to underestimate how much I’ve spent when I use monthly budgets instead of weekly budgets because I forget about things I bought early in the month.

I got better at pacing my spending when I started dividing the monthly budget by 4. $20 a week was surprisingly sufficient. By sticking to $20 a week as closely as possible, I was able to treat myself all month long instead of just at the beginning of the month.

Keep travel food separate

In November I spent $277.95 on dining out, but that’s because I took a vacation to Kyoto and Tokyo. The actual breakdown was $190.71 on food bought while traveling and $87.24 spent on dining out where I live in St. Louis. I should note that I don’t count the the latter as overspending — I use YNAB to budget, and money that rolls over into the next month is allowed to be spent without counting towards the $80 limit. My budget, my rules.

Save your dining dollars for friends

I learned pretty early on during this challenge that if I used my allowance to buy food for myself when I didn’t feel like cooking, I’d have to say no to my friends when they wanted to grab drinks or food. I now try to reserve the bulk of my dining out money for meal time with friends.

By cooking for myself dinner on weekdays, I am able to hold on to my money for the impromptu meal or drinks with friends that tend to occur on weekends.

Don’t skimp on tips

Do not cheat your server just so you can have more money for your dining out budget. This former server will judge you if you do. Tip your servers, and tip them well.

If it’s the end of the month and a meal plus tip would make me exceed my budget, then I don’t get the food, and I let the money roll over into the next month instead.

Don’t buy bad pizza

December was the sixth and final month of my $80 challenge, and I was feeling confident. Unfortunately, that confidence led me to overspend my budget… by $7.58.

I was so very close! I was on track to meet my goal, and I stumbled right before the finish line. It wasn’t even on a good meal — I bought $30 worth of delivery pizza because I wanted to treat myself. Heed my advice: the celebratory mood dies somewhere around the third slice of pizza, and now you’re out 30 bucks.

Remember that $10 is $10 no matter where you spend it

Two days after I’d bought the regrettable pizza, I went to the zoo with some friends to see the winter illuminations. Afterwards, some people suggested that we go to dinner. This was not part of the plan, and my mind went straight to my already stretched budget. If I took a Lyft home, then I’d be done spending money for the night, and my dining out budget would be intact. If I went to dinner, I’d be spending money on food (and possibly on drinks, if more plans were made) and I’d go over budget for December.

I caught myself making these calculations and felt ashamed. What was I doing? These were people I wanted to spend time with, and I was considering calling it a night because of money. Money that I knew I had.

I went to dinner, and I had a great time. A friend gave me a ride home. At the end of the night, I’d spent about the same amount of money on food as I would have spent on a Lyft, but I’d prioritized friendship over arbitrary goals.

My overspending in December could have easily been avoided, and I don’t see myself breaking the budget in January. The strategies I’ve employed to get me this far still work, and I ended up spending $720 less, over those six months, than I usually spent at restaurants.

Anyone else up for a similar challenge?

Dera Luce is a writer living in St. Louis. Follow her on Twitter at @deraluce.

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