In January, riding the high of New Year’s Resolutions, I decided to tackle my meals out budget. Reviewing my 2016 numbers, I realized I had been spending an average of $290.12 per month on fast food and restaurants! Not. Good.
To cut back, I knew I needed to trick myself into not spending money. I’m not a fan of willpower – I believe that to make lasting changes we need to set ourselves up for success at every turn. Enter habit tracking.
If you’re not familiar with habit tracking, the idea is that you record every time you complete a positive action, or avoid a negative one. If your goal is to spend less money on eating out, you would mark every day that you spent $0 on meals out. The aim is to create a daily habit by making the longest chain you can. It sounds too simple to work, but it’s unbelievably motivating! Once you get a decent chain going, you’ll do almost anything not to break it!
There are so many habit tracking apps out there, but you can also use calendars, spreadsheets, printables, or bullet journaling. Think back to the school charts with gold stickers from our younger days!
Using the habit tracking method, I reached a record of 110 days of $0 spending on meals out! In four months, I had only spent $21.72 or an average of $5.43 per month. More importantly, I saved myself about $1,200!
I finally broke my streak by having dinner out with a friend while I was away at a conference. I was nervous about falling back into my old habits after months of self-imposed deprivation. Then I had one of the worst restaurant experiences of my life.
We arrived at the restaurant during the Saturday night dinner and drinks rush, after a four hour flight during which I had two small packets of airline pretzels as sustenance. We were seated at around 6:00PM – our server didn’t join us until much later, and that should have been our cue to leave! Sadly, my starving lizard brain couldn’t contemplate finding a new restaurant so we stayed. Our server proceeded to forget to bring us bread, or our drinks. She also forgot to enter our order (for about 20 minutes!). When she did finally place the order, she made a mistake with mine. (By the time it came, I was so deliriously hungry I didn’t even contemplate sending it back.) I didn’t finish the meal so I asked to take it with me. She left it on a counter in the back and it was thrown out. Then they started re-making the meal for me to take home, without asking. After all of that, it still took ages to get our bill (at least they only charged us for my friend’s meal). We were at that restaurant for a few hours, most of it spent waiting rather than eating.
I’m grateful for this experience, because I learned something about myself.
I don’t like restaurants.
Seriously. How does a person who doesn’t even like restaurants spend almost $300 a month going to them?! Thinking back, there were very few times that a restaurant trip was effortless and peaceful. Those times were fantastic, but the majority of my restaurant experiences have been lackluster.
Once I interrupted the habit of eating out, I could step back with a clear mind and consider the things that add real value to my life.
Time. When you go to a restaurant, everything is about waiting. Waiting to be seated, waiting for someone to take your drink order, waiting for everyone to decide what they want, waiting to get drinks, waiting to get meals, waiting for the bill. At home we can cook and eat at our own pace, and listen to podcasts or have a conversation while we do it. If we want drinks or snacks while we wait for the meal to cook, we don’t have to flag anyone down – everything is at our fingertips!
Quiet. It’s nice when you can hear your favorite people! Since we work weekdays like most of the population, it’s tough to schedule a meal out at non-peak times. Often, restaurants are crowded, busy, and loud, and I leave feeling like I’ve been yelling the entire time. Meals at home seem so relaxing now!
Health. Ingredients at a restaurant can be hit or miss. If you cook meals yourself you know exactly what goes into them. When I do eat out now, I really notice how much fat, sugar, and salt is loaded into these dishes! It’s been much easier to maintain my weight since we started cooking more of our own food.
After this experiment, did I never eat at a restaurant again? No, but I go much less often and I’m mindful about making the experience an enjoyable one. If we do decide to go out to eat, we try to pick our favorite places and arrive before or after the rush, or get takeout and eat it at home. I don’t plan to cut out restaurant spending completely, but to treat it as an occasional luxury rather than a routine. My 2017 spending is now closer to $50 per month rather than $300 – a savings of $250 per month or $3,000 per year! Using the 4% withdrawal method, that means I’ll need $75,000 less in my retirement savings!
Is there something you don’t think you could remove from your budget? Try cutting it out for just 30 days, and see if you really miss it! Don’t break that chain!