Why I’m Not Doing A 30-Day Restaurant Challenge (And Never Will)

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things I can do this summer to be more mindful of my money, and save more in (relatively) painless ways. And while I’ve stumbled upon a few things that are really interesting, and which I’m almost certainly going to try — will be writing about one very shortly, in fact — I’ve realized that there are a good amount of budget challenges and “hacks” that I’m simply not interested, no matter how much they have the potential to save.

I’ve been asked a few times, even by fellow TFD team members, about the idea of us doing some kind of challenge with regards to going out. And there are a few that I’m sure I could do for a month fairly easily — no bars, no coffee shops, no takeout, etc — there is one thing that I’m not ever going to commit to, and it happens to be the most popular: the 30-day no-restaurant challenge. There have even been a few posts on this very site about contributors’ experiences with this challenge, and I would never not encourage someone to write to us about what they learned not dining out for a month. I think it’s useful, and I think that it’s a very straightforward way to put a serious dent in your monthly budget.

But I also believe, and this is partially why I started TFD in the first place, that there is a way to be smart about your budget that also leaves room for being a human being with tastes, desires, and priorities. And with something like the no-restaurant challenge, even though I’m the kind of person who does enjoy cooking at home five or six nights a week, I know that the payoff in terms of my budget and perceived control over my spending habits wouldn’t be worth it. I love cooking, and could see how this kind of thing would be useful to someone who needs to get in the habit of cooking more, but I also love the hell out of restaurants. And yes, I can always be working to find more balance in how much I love them, but I would never cut them out entirely, even for a month. And I don’t feel badly about that.

To be honest, restaurant-going has always been, by far, my favorite thing to do with money. I love food. I love sitting around a table with friends, and getting into heated debates over good wine. I love ordering dessert and coffee at the end of a meal, and do it nearly each time. I love poring over the menu for days or even weeks before the big dinner. I love calling to make a reservation and asking if we can get a table in a window, or a nice secluded booth. I love becoming a regular at places and getting nice little extras from the staff. I love taking a plunge and trying something I’ve never ordered before. I love having my favorite meal at a favorite hole-in-the-wall that I come back to year after year when I’m in town. I love the din of forks against plates and low conversations. I love the theatre of your dish coming out from the kitchen. I love getting dressed up to fit the ambiance. I love food.

And this love means value, value in the experience and the money I spend on it. There are many weeks where uphill battles at work and personal stress mean that the awesome new Szechuan place I’m trying on Friday night is the biggest thing keeping me going. It means that when I’m feeling particularly down, I can open up Yelp or a menu and re-decide what I want to try most. It means that, on the horizon, a new favorite dish waits to be discovered, something I’ll recreate at home to varying success, undoubtedly. The joy that I get from a good restaurant extends far in either direction, and an excellent meal with friends has always been the thing I’ve spent on when some kind of financial windfall came my way.

This means that while, yes, I would technically survive a month without going out, it would be a very sucky month with decidedly less joy, anticipation, and discovery. And I don’t want to make that trade-off, because it’s not worth it to me. The money I might save from it would not be worth it, and it is better for me to think of all the other places I can cut than force myself to take something off the list simply because it’s the most easy to prune.

Yes, there is nothing physically lasting about a good meal you spend on. But there are things in life which bring us enormous satisfaction and meaning which we may never be able to classify as an investment in the physical sense. It’s up to us, then, to decide what constitutes an investment in the emotional sense: an investment in happiness, an investment in mental health, an investment in a renewed spirit to keep going and push through the drudgery.

Ultimately, the competitively (and performatively) Spartan lifestyles that many personal finance schools of thought encourage might not be for you. They’re certainly not for me, and I don’t feel an iota of guilt over not wanting to rid my life of every possible excess to set myself up for future financial success in the most efficient possible way. I want a life that is built on balance, and on weighing the joys and imperfections we have now against our need to plan for the future. I know that a life devoid of most joy in my 20s is not worth it to me, and I’m not ashamed to admit that some of my joys entail excess spending. Some of that means simply the money I spend at the grocery store for a week’s worth of cooking — and this is happiness spending I’m supposed to feel “good” about — but some of that means a trip, a white tablecloth, a steaming pot of braised pork cheek.

Joy is not always free. You are allowed to spend on things that make you happy, without feeling like a shallow person. And you are allowed to choose the kind of spending that you never want to cut, even if it would mean more money in the long-term. Everyone is entitled to balance, and no one should feel bad about seeking it.

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