Some Thoughts on the Cost of Eating Out

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A few weeks ago, I found myself in a situation where I was really hungry but there weren’t many food options around. I decided to keep my costs as low as possible, so I went into the only restaurant I could find, a nice little diner. I want to be clear during this article that I am not picking on this diner. It was a nice place to eat, the service was good, the food was good, and I was happy with it.

At the diner, I ordered an extremely simple breakfast. I had a cup of coffee, some scrambled eggs, some fried potatoes, and two pieces of toast. The total bill was about $10 – really, not that bad – and then I left a $2 tip, so the cost was $12.

During the meal, though, I couldn’t help but calculate the costs in the back of my head. I was served roughly three scrambled eggs with a little bit of cheese on them, probably a single potato’s worth of fried potatoes, two cups of coffee, and two pieces of toast with maybe a teaspoon of butter between them.

So, let’s look at the ingredient list of that meal:
+ three eggs
+ 1/4 cup shredded cheese
+ 1/2 potato
+ a small amount of onion in with the potatoes
+ two slices of bread
+ roughly a tablespoon of butter
+ two cups of black coffee
+ a negligible amount of salt and pepper

I could assemble those ingredients into a breakfast at home in about the same time it took them to get breakfast out to me at that restaurant, and then I’d have a few items that would go in the dishwasher afterwards.

So, what would the ingredients have cost me?

+ I can get a dozen eggs for $1.99, so three eggs cost $0.50.
+ I can get eight cups of shredded cheese at the local grocery store for $5, so 1/4 cup of shredded cheese would cost $0.16.
+ A typical potato weighs about 12 ounces and I’d estimate that I had half of a potato on my plate, and a pound of potatoes these days comes in around $1, so the potatoes cost about $0.38.
+ The small amount of onion was probably $0.05.
+ I can get a loaf of 20 slices of bread for about $2.50, so two slices cost $0.25.
+ I can get a stick of butter for about $0.75 and that contains 8 tablespoons, so a tablespoon of butter costs about $0.09.
+ I can make two cups of coffee at home for about $0.70 using my usual coffee making technique.
+ We’ll add on another $0.10 for seasonings like salt and pepper.

The total cost of those ingredients is $2.23. Even if you might quibble with the cost of each item and think that it would be more than I stated, you’d be hard pressed to get this over $3 unless you went very high end with each item.

As I noted earlier, I think my time investment would have been similar if I prepared and ate this meal at home, though I would have been busy in the kitchen for 15 minutes instead of reading the menu, ordering, and staring at my phone for 15 minutes waiting on the food. However, that effort would have saved me about $10.

The meal quality probably would have been pretty similar, but I’m pretty sure I would have at least liked my coffee at home better. I’m kind of picky about coffee and I really like my home brew recipe.

This experience reminded me of a few key principles of food frugality (and taught me a few things as well).

Eating out consistently is a very expensive endeavor. When you compare a meal prepared at home and a meal eaten out of similar quality, the meal eaten out will always be more expensive. When you eat out, you’re not only paying someone to prepare it for you and someone to serve it to you and often someone to clean up for you and someone to manage those folks, you’re also paying for the facilities to make and serve the food, the taxes, and some profit for the person who invested all the money to pay for all of these things.

Sure, you can sometimes find a decent meal at a restaurant that’s less expensive than a great meal at home, or a low quality meal at a restaurant that’s less expensive than a good meal at home, but you’re taking a serious cut in quality, and if you apply any sort of frugal planning and use low cost food staples at home, a restaurant is never going to consistently beat – or even come close to – the low cost of preparing food at home.

I was really paying for convenience, not the food. When I went to that restaurant, my focus was on getting a decent meal relatively quickly. It seemed to be the fastest option available to me at the moment, and thus I was really paying for convenience rather than the food itself.

That’s often a big consideration when people eat out. They do so because they’re hungry and they’re not near any options for preparing food themselves or to acquire low cost and quick to eat items. There are many places in America where the only convenient options for food are convenience stores and fast food restaurants, even in places where you might not expect this to be true.

Situations where you need to spend for the sake of convenience are often prevented by better preparation. Whenever you find yourself in a situation where you’re turning to a restaurant or a convenience store not because you want a nice meal on a special occasion, but because you need to do so out of convenience, it’s usually because either you didn’t plan ahead at all or you’re in a crisis moment.

An emergency is understandable, but many meals that people eat out do so solely because they didn’t plan ahead when they knew that there was a good chance that they might need to eat a quick meal or a hearty snack in a convenient way.

There are a lot of ways to prepare for those kinds of situations, where you need a quick, convenient meal. You can make a lot of meals at home in advance so that you have items that can be popped in the microwave or oven at your convenience. You can use a slow cooker for a lot of meals. You can mostly prepare meals in advance, leaving only final assembly for busy evenings. You can prepare sack lunches to take with you.

Or you can do this:

I could have prepared better by keeping more food items in my bag. My favorite technique for keeping hunger at bay when I’m out and about is to have a few food items in my backpack, which is pretty much always with me when I leave the house for more than a few minutes. It’s because I didn’t do this that I wound up in that “I’m hungry, there’s no other food options, time to go to a restaurant” situation.

My routine should be that if I know I’m going out and about soon, I make sure that my bag has some food items in it, just in case. Toss in an apple, some granola bars, a water bottle, a bag of nuts, maybe some crackers or something. The key is to just have something that’s low cost and easy to eat in my bag.

In fact, I usually have several granola bars and/or protein bars in my bag all the time for situations just like this one, but I’d consumed them all over the previous few weeks and there was nothing in my bag.

Eating out should be an experience you can’t recreate at home. The meal I ate was perfectly fine, but it was one that I ate solely for convenience. It wasn’t a special experience or a memorable experience. In fact, I probably would have forgotten about it had I not planned on writing this post. It would have become a forgotten $10 expense, the kind of “lost” $10 that ends up paving the road to financial struggles.

The best financial approach to food that I’ve found is to eat meals mostly prepared at home and mostly made out of low-cost staples and only eat out (or have treats) on genuinely special occasions. It’s easy to learn how to cook a ton of great meals with low cost staples, especially if you have a reasonably well stocked pantry.

On the other hand, special occasions are usually best when they’re really meaningful – you’re eating with someone special or it’s a truly special occasion – and when they’re planned in advance so you can anticipate it. I have far more financial concern about a $15 meal from a restaurant three or four times a week than a $75 meal at a restaurant once every month or two.

If that’s the financial path you’re on, it’s time to rethink the costs of eating out.

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