Do You Spend Too Much Eating Out? Try This.

Hint: What are you really craving?

Spending too much on dining out is an easy trap to fall into for a lot of us. We get coffee on the go, grab lunch with friends and leave work too tired to cook dinner at home. Over the course of a month, all that eating out can really take a bite out of your budget.

If your food expenses are keeping you from reaching your financial goals, it may help to ask yourself…

What Are You Really Buying?

Your ‘Dining Out’ category is just a microcosm of your budget—its job is to help you organize your dollars to best support your priorities. So, when you spend money on dining out, what priorities are you satisfying? (This isn’t just about a full belly!)

To answer this question, turn a critical eye to your motivation. The restaurant gets your dollars, but what’s the best part of the trade for you? If it’s not the food, then maybe it’s:

  • A treat to get you through your commute or workday afternoon (a break/distraction)
  • Quality time with coworkers and friends (closer bonds/time to socialize)
  • Outsourced meal-planning (less to do/automation)

In these examples, the food is secondary, and there might be a less expensive way to get the thing you truly want.

Find a Budget-Friendly Alternative

To move the needle towards more satisfaction for less money, try a budget-friendly substitution:

A Treat

If your morning coffee is the carrot you need to get out of the house on time for work, how about a lesser splurge? Would the cost of a good thermos and a reasonably-priced brand of coffee entice you? Make a daily ritual of waking up early enough to prepare and enjoy the coffee. Pick a spot that’s agreeable—it doesn’t have to be in your kitchen, or even in your home.

If your afternoon snack is just the excuse you need to take a break, then buy treats at the grocery store, and keep them in your desk. Or replace your snack with a walk!

Quality Time

Instead of eating lunch at restaurants with your favorite coworkers, maybe you could meet them in the park or cafeteria (so that budgeters can brown-bag it).

If your weekends are the problem, why not invite friends over for a potluck? Or you can grab take-out together. Even if you spend a little money on the spread, staying in can be far less expensive than a night out on the town.

Outsourced Meal-Planning

If your transaction history is full of mid-priced family restaurants, then meal-planning may be your weak link. Make it easy, and commit to themes! I’ve never heard anyone groan about Taco Tuesday. While you’re at it, how about pasta on Wednesday and stir-fry on Friday (stir-Fridays)?

Choose some easy-to-fix favorites and you’ll always have a plan that gets you into your kitchen, even when you’ve had a hectic day. Toss in a grocery store rotisserie chicken night, and you’ve nearly got the week covered.

Or plan one, big batch of something that you can cook on Sunday—make enough to cover meals for at least a few nights. You could also compare the cost of a meal-planning service that delivers everything you need right to your door.

Dig in to Your ‘Dining out’ Category

To supercharge your focus on cutting down your food spending, try reorganizing your budget to highlight the reasons that you spend at restaurants. Here’s how it works:

Scrutinize Your Spending History

Spend 10 minutes reviewing your recent ‘Dining Out’ activity. On the mobile app, tap on the dollar amount next to your activity to see your transactions:

Do you see a ton of Dunkin’ Donuts? Loads of Chipotle? Or a surge in weekend spending? Make a note of your motivation (treats, socializing, automation or something else).

Now, write down no more than three priorities that you cater to when you spend your ‘Dining Out’ dollars. Which one do you spend the most on? Does your spending reflect choices that are aligned with your priorities?

Create a ‘Dining Out’ Category Group

Now, add a new ‘Dining Out’ category to your budget. First, click “Edit” in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

Next, click “New Group” in the top left-hand corner of the screen.

Move your current ‘Dining Out’ category to the new group, and rename it to match your most common underlying priority (e.g., “Time with friends”). You can move categories and category groups by pressing and holding on the gray, horizontal bars on the right-hand side of the screen.

Rename your selected category with the “Rename” button on the lower, right-hand side of the screen.

Now, add your other two priorities as additional categories, and click “Done” in the upper, right-hand corner to complete your changes.

Put Your Money Where Your Priorities Are

Now, it’s time to align the ‘Dining Out’ money that you have left for this month with your new ‘Dining Out’ categories—or, as we like to say, it’s time to “budget.”

When it’s time to budget next month, you’ve got a much clearer framework for your priorities, so allocate your dollars, accordingly! How much do you want to spend on these new categories? How can you stretch your money a bit further?

A Final Tip

Working with one, catchall ‘Dining Out’ category may work for some, but this more granular approach can help bridge the gap between what you truly want and how you actually spend.

And, from one YNABer to another, I’d pin the ‘Dining Out’ category group to the top of your mobile app—one less barrier to quick awareness. Check out how to pin budget categories next.