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During one of our monthly money check-ins, my husband, Mike, and I realized we were spending more than $20,000 a year on food because of eating out so much. When we looked at the numbers on a weekly or even monthly basis, it didn't seem like much. After all, you have to eat, right? But on an annual level, those numbers were really big, life-changing even. That's when we really started to pay attention to our eating habits and make drastic changes — fast.
It was hard not to pare down our food budget once we realized all the ways that money could be better spent. Today, we eat nearly every meal in, and it’s helped us free up massive amounts of money to invest, pay down debt, even buy and renovate a home.
Here’s how we made a habit of cooking in.
We Crunch the Numbers on Our Savings
While it may not be fun to throw together a meal of salmon and couscous on a Tuesday night when you’re exhausted, it is fun to think about the amount of money you’ll save eating in over time. Here’s what it used to look like when we ate out several times a week — and what it looks like now.
Weekly Budget When Dining Out:
- Groceries: $100
- 4 to 5 dinners dining out/ordering in: $200
- Husband’s lunch for the week: $40
- My lunch for the week: $60
- Total: $400
This works out to be $9.52 per person per meal. We also wasted a lot of food by overbuying groceries, not meal planning and eating out even when we had food at home.
Weekly Food Budget When Cooking In:
- Groceries: $125
- One dinner out: $40
- Husband’s lunch for the week: $40
- My lunches for the week: $0 (I work from home and make lunch from our weekly groceries)
- Total: $205
This $205 covers all meals for two people for one week, 42 meals total at $4.88 per person, per meal. We live in the suburbs, so a meal out for us costs about $40 altogether. Of course, that can fluctuate wildly depending on where you live. Also, my husband does eat lunch out everyday at the subsidized cafeteria at work, which costs around $8 a day.
These days, we spend roughly $10,660 per year on food. We’ve cut our annual food budget in half, resulting in an impressive savings of $10,140 each year. When we think about that $10,140 in our 401(k)s, our newborn son's 529 account or in our investment portfolios, making dinner at home is all the more satisfying.
We Meal Plan and Shop Smart
Every Sunday, my husband and I sit down and plan our grocery list for the week. We plan the number of dinners we'll eat at home (around six), what I’ll eat for lunch that week, and any other necessary staples we need, like eggs, coffee, milk, cereal or fruit. We don’t really coupon; rather, the bulk of our savings comes from meal planning and avoiding the last-minute takeout or restaurant run.
When we lived in a city, we used a grocery delivery service to save time and cut back on impulse buying. Since moving to the suburbs, we order our groceries online and pick them up in-store.
Another thing that's helped us stay on track with eating in is buying several meal kits per week. In addition to the Blue Aprons or Hello Freshes of the world, there are many other less-trendy (and cheaper) options, from Peapod packages to ShopRite meals (the chicken marsala is my favorite). Check your local grocery store for their meal kit options. It’s becoming more popular and can save you money and time in the long run.
We Bond With Friends and Family Over Cooking
In college, my roommates would tease me because I didn’t know how to make a box of macaroni and cheese. Today, I’m not an accomplished cook by any means, but I do enjoy preparing a meal.
Among my friends who are amazing cooks, whenever they make something for me that I like, I ask for the recipe and commit it to my monthly meal rotation. It’s a great way to expand our monthly meal repertoire.
My husband, who also cooks, has been a good influence in the kitchen, as well. He’s Italian, loves food and has taught me a lot about making traditional Italian dishes, from Sunday gravy (not actually gravy, FYI) to perfecting the perfect al dente pasta.
Cooking dinner together is forced together time with your partner — sans phones, TV and other distractions. There’s no better time to talk about your day, daydream about an upcoming trip or vent about something that annoyed you that day. Bonus points if you add a glass of wine and put on some music.
When We Do Go Out, It's More Meaningful
I used to think people who ordered water at restaurants were boring. Now I’m one of them.
When my husband and I actually go out, we spend a lot less money than we used to, because it feels special just to be out to dinner. We usually hit up one of our favorite local places, which costs us between $25 to $50 for a meal for two, including an appetizer. Another huge cost-saving measure? We rarely order any alcoholic drinks, because a glass of wine at a restaurant costs roughly the same as the entire bottle at a store. No, thanks — I’ll think I’ll buy my own on the way home.