Listen: I’m depressed and have limited economic prospects, so I absolutely will be going out to eat this weekend. “MaYbE yOu’D hAvE bEtTeR eCoNoMiC pRoSpEcTs If YoU DiDn’T gO oUt To EaT sO mUcH,” some complete fucking idiot might say. Yeah, maybe I’d also have better economic prospects if like, the entire economy transformed, but that’s not happening, either.
But still, I am forced to admit, I probably would have a bit more pocket change if I could figure out how to not spend $16 on a fat box of Indian food and a few happy hours every week. Here’s the question, though: Would it even be worth it?
For context, I’m a pretty frugal bitch. I almost exclusively shop at the dollar store and Goodwill, and I’m a frequent extreme couponer. My first instinct is always to save rather than spend. But for some reason, spending money on food (and booze) feels very different to spending money on, say, clothes. Thirty dollars on drinks and snacks after work? Here, take my card. Thirty dollars on a shirt? The fuck do I look like, Jeff Bezos?
Personal finance blogs and frugal-living influencers often suggest that adding up exactly how much money you’d save by eating at home is the best motivator to actually do so. Indeed, it’s frighteningly easy to realize that, oops, I spent $250 on food and drinks at restaurants and bars last month. Estimating that I spend around $3,000 a year on dining out (the average per household in the U.S., and yes, one person can count as a household), were I to invest that annually with 6 percent returns, I’d have $45,000 after a decade. That’s enough for a downpayment on a house! Not here in L.A., but, y’know, somewhere.
Other supposedly helpful advice for cutting back on restaurants frequently centers on meal-planning. The couple behind Frugalwoods.com recommends developing a “rock-solid” weekly meal plan with simple midweek recipes. “It might sound like a stellar idea [to make a complicated meal] 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 6 p.m. on Tuesday night after work, taking out the trash, and walking the dog, you’re not going to want to make it,” states Mrs. Frugalwoods.
GoodCheapEats.com offers similar advice, explaining that meal-planning works because, “If you’ve taken stock of what you have and made a meal plan for the day or week, you’re more likely to act on that plan than if you have no clue what to fix. Haphazard, spontaneous meals are great, but they often get trumped by haphazard, spontaneous take-out.”
And sure, that is, again, likely true. But what this advice neglects to take into account is not only the monetary cost of purchasing groceries you actually want to eat for every meal, but the cost in time and labor of preparing them.
They further suggest that rather than going out, one should “just eat something,” but dining out is rarely just about the food itself — the advice doesn’t consider the value of the enjoyment one gets from eating a meal outside of your leftover-smelling hovel. Dining out is often a social act, with restaurants serving as a rare third space beyond home and work to be in the presence of others. With our public lives becoming increasingly digital, going to a bar or chatting it up with your waiter is literally essential for our sanity. Looking at it that way, $3,000 a year doesn’t even seem worth saving.
Look, I’m not saying we should all just say “fuck it” and convert our kitchens to storage. Being able to afford to go out to eat is an immense privilege many simply cannot afford at all, no matter their budgeting. I do, in fact, eat the majority of my meals at home, which further empowers me to enjoy spending money on dining when I choose to. Half the time, I’m eating whatever cheap garbage I can easily procure from my fridge — I’m like the guy who falls apart when his wife is out of town, or one of those dudes who documents their distressingly sad meals on Reddit.
Case in point: Recently, when my boyfriend had to work a late shift, I ate a toaster strudel and a pouch of tuna for dinner. Considering what a bleak meal that is, I’m not going to feel guilty for not saving that $20 I spent on ramen and a beer yesterday.