7 Money Rules Every Restaurant Addict Needs To Know

restaurant

I love restaurants. I love the whole experience — the good lighting, the friendly server, the thoughtful menu (which I read approximately four times online before going out, then once at the restaurant itself). I love food, from the light appetizer to the rich, stick-to-the-spoon dessert. I love perfectly-cooked meats and roasted vegetables and everything whipped, sautéed, or covered with bubbly cheese. I love the shape of duck confit, the sound of a crab being cracked open, and the steam that comes up from a little pocket of foil that something has been roasted in. I love wine, and the sound of a new bottle being opened next to our table. I love a pre-dinner cocktail with little nibbly things, and a nightcap in a tiny glass with the owner of a favorite neighborhood spot.

I’ve never been the kind of girl to spend hundreds of dollars on a whim in a downtown boutique, I’ve never particularly loved trying on new clothes, and the phrase “It Bag” inspires nothing in me besides a mild feeling of nausea. And while I do enjoy pretty things, in my home and in my wardrobe, I’ve always bought them in moderation, and the joy that they bring is limited. There are only so many throw pillows I can buy, so many strappy sandals I can own, and beyond the one or two that I really like, the rest is just superfluous. And frankly, if I have that money leftover, I’d much rather spend it on a good night out. I’d much rather have the beef carpaccio and endive salad with a nice glass of red and a few hours of good conversation than a new handbag, any day of the week.

But this love of going out — this falsely-reassuring desire to spend on “experiences” rather than “things” — is terrible on the bank account. Not even counting travel (a passion that tends to go hand-in-hand with the love of trying new foods and places), just a moderate life of dining and drinking out can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. On our very worst month, my boyfriend and I managed to spend nearly 3,000 dollars on going out with our common card, and it prompted a serious lifestyle change, part of which manifested in this very blog. But it wasn’t hard to do! Yes, looking back, the number is significant, but I don’t recall that month being particularly debaucherous. We simply went out to a few more restaurants at higher price points, paid for a few more rounds, got a few extra bottles, and found ourselves 3,000 dollars poorer.

Since then, I’ve become much better about dining expenses, and keep things in the medium-low hundreds. (Part of this is because of my weight loss journey, which basically prohibits too much dining out, but it’s also a conscious financial effort.) And in order to really reduce the amount I’ll spend on going out, I’ve taken the following steps:

1. I remember that takeout is still a restaurant. I used to look at “Seamless” and “going out to eat” as two very different things, but that is ridiculous. Aside from the slightly lower tip (which the delivery fee partially makes up for), you’re basically paying the same as you would in a restaurant for this food. If you start looking at your restaurant budget as including ANYTHING from a restaurant, takeout or dine-in, you will really start having to break down what is important. I now rarely order takeout, and to me, it counts as a meal out. I bought a few things at the grocery store — frozen white pizza, the supplies for a quick stir-fry — to combat my takeout desires when they hit, and it is usually more than enough to dissuade the money-and-MSG mistake.

2. I suggest lunches instead of dinners. For people I’m looking to catch up with/have a work thing with, I recommend lunch instead of an after-work thing because a) no drinking, and b) lunch specials. As a self-employed gal, unless I’m being taken out, there is no company card, and the catching-up-with-friends lunches are something I cannot expense. The same sushi meal that is 10 bucks at noon (including sides and an appetizer) would be at least twice that in the evening, and involve wine. It’s just not worth it.

3. I drink a max of twice per week now. My random weekday meals do not include a glass of wine, and I don’t stop for a drink with friends (but propose walks instead, if I can). Usually one of those two drinking nights is at home, so it leaves only one night at a restaurant with alcohol, which is where a lot of the financial damage can be done when dining out. I no longer feel compelled to order that drink just because I can, and definitely not a fancy cocktail.

4. I have gotten to know the happy hour landscape intimately. I live in New York, which means there are way too many amazing happy hour deals to not be taking advantage of them. I now have a few go-to spots for nights out that I always recommend to friends, and all of them have amazing deals that will easily cut a night out’s cost in half. Yes, maybe afterwards you can go for one drink at a swanky place, but there is no reason to spend your whole night downing $15 dollar cocktails just because you can.

5. I treat myself when on vacation. Unless I’m going for a long trip somewhere where eating out a lot would be unsustainable, I treat little weekend jaunts as a time to relax and have fun. This past weekend for croquet in Annapolis, Lauren and I had three days and just enjoyed ourselves. We went out, had drinks when we want to, and spent more than we normally would. And yes, we spent. But now that I’m back, I feel invigorated to have a weekend of clean, simple eating at home, and a quiet weekend in. Allowing yourself those moments of indulgence is important to being balanced the rest of the time. If I’m obsessing while I’m supposed to be relaxing, I’m going to come home and immediately want to treat myself again.

6. Treat some things as a meal, and some things as a taste. I’m one of those people who needs to end their meals on a sweet note, which often leads me to ordering a dessert for myself that I can never finish (and frankly, wouldn’t want to, given how heavy they often are). So I’ve found that it’s way smarter to order one dessert for the table with a few spoons, and let everyone have a few bites. It’s the perfect way to enjoy the flavor and end on that sweet note while saving serious money. And for appetizers, I always look for something everyone can share, like a cheese plate or a finger food. Having everyone order an individual app or dessert is an easy way to spend a ton more money while not really enjoying the meal that much more, because with those things, a few bites is all you really need. Your main course should be viewed as the thing that you came to eat in large quantities.

7. I only eat half, religiously, and supplement my leftovers with veggies. I was always a big only-eat-half gal, and having a lunch or dinner of restaurant leftovers is one of the most beautiful things to look forward to in a day. But the key, I’ve found, to making these meals really last and be filling (and somewhat healthy) is to supplement your leftovers with veggies. I now look at my trip to a restaurant as two big, filling meals for the price of one, and I simply add a bag of frozen broccoli or other veg to whatever I’m heating up, and maybe lightly season it if there isn’t enough sauce to go around. It’s delicious in everything from stir-fry to pasta to chicken and potatoes, and leaves you way more full while upping the health factor. And instead of taking home a little extra that will basically serve as a snack, you’ve managed to transform your indulgent meal into two really satisfying ones.

When it comes to restaurants and going out, I have a really hard time just setting a dollar budget and following it. Instead, I find that it’s more effective (and sane) to make general rules around how I eat and strive to be smarter each passing month. I’ve noticed my monthly spending in this category going down steadily, and I no longer have the same habits I once did, whether it’s ordering an appetizer for myself or turning to Seamless when I’m too lazy to cook.

Like any diet, a financial diet is not about radical shifts but gradual and sustainable lifestyle changes. And for me, changing my habits around going out have been the hardest to implement, but the most rewarding to see progress in. Because there is nothing better after a long week of eating healthily and cheaply at home than looking forward to your one big meal out of the week, where you know that you can really enjoy yourself, because after years of treating yourself at basically every meal, you’re finally living a balanced culinary life.

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  • Summer

    I’m also more of an eXpErIeNcEs oVeR mAtErIaLs person and have often loosely justified that extra cocktail or the choosing of a fancier restaurant over a simpler one on this “yolo” premise. Unfortunately, when these splurges become a regularity, they’re no longer a splurge in either the sense of being a treat or as a foundation for creating memories. It’s just another Friday night out, which essentially means I’m spending money I don’t really have on calories I definitely don’t need.

    I have gone through my checking account on more than once occasion and calculated how much I’ve spent on weekends out over the course of a month, and I wasn’t happy with the result. I’ve been able to cut way back by shifting my Friday night exploits to meeting for beer immediately after work, which means happy hour prices and leaves a little legroom for deciding on something casual to eat after, then cooking a nice meal at home on Saturday instead of going out. I still get the indulgent “weekend” feeling, but without the pricetag. Plus, if there are leftovers, boom, there’s Monday’s lunch at work. Yay financial dieting!

    • chelseafagan

      That’s a nice idea, I love doing a BIG homecooked meal on the weekends too 🙂

  • Caitlin

    I identify entirely with this. I can pretty easily go a couple months without spending a penny on clothing, but I just love the entire process of eating out. I love trying new places, I love going to my old favorites, I love it all. I have challenged myself before to go weeks and/or months without eating out, and I’ve done it, but for me the money saved isn’t worth the loss of joy. It did, however, give me a better idea of what I consider to be “worth it.”

    I almost never order pasta when I go out to eat because I’ve gotten really good at making it at home. I also know the price of ingredients, so I can spot the best values on a menu. On the nights when I just want takeout, my biggest savior has become a bag of frozen potstickers. I would estimate that buying $7 bags of potstickers at Costco has saved me well over $500 in the last six months. Sadly not an exaggeration. I love Thai takeout.

    This has been supremely rambly and I apologize. To wrap things up, I appreciate that you are all about being smarter about eating out rather than cutting it out entirely like many financial blogs. <3

    • chelseafagan

      Awesome comment! Good idea re: potstickers

  • Mrs. Lewis

    Eating is directly linked to the pleasure neurons in your brain. Of course eating makes you happy! And the fact that food tastes so damn amazing is no help either, and they plate the food so nice these days. But let’s face it we’d eat sushi even if it was lumped into a bowl with extra spicy sauce. Eating out is by far the biggest financial hurdle I still struggle with today because no matter how much good food I eat at home, cooked by me, I still want and cheeseburger from in-n-out and a giant bowl of pho. If you’ haven’t made pho at home yet, i Highly recommend it, just make enough for two.