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Make A Food Budget & Stick To It: Part 1

Last month, our neighbors invited us over for dinner on a Sunday afternoon. We were excited to spend some time with them, because after the brutal winter we experienced in Michigan this year, none of us had really spent much time outdoors and it had been months since we’d actually spent time with them. While the men grilled dinner outside on the back deck and the kids played together, us women had a chance to talk. Our life paths have a lot in common, so unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the topic of household budgets came up. (See… even away from the blog, I can’t stop talking about budgets!) I told her about how we have been working really hard to stick to a budget each month in order to accomplish our debt snowball goals. As is often the case when I have these types of discussions with other women, we got onto the topic of food.

Besides our mortgage & utilities, most American families spend the next largest chunk of money on either food or transportation, depending on their location and life circumstances. (Obviously a family that uses public transportation, instead of owning their own car, will spend a lot less in that category – but lets be real – I live in rural Michigan, you either own a car or you don’t go very far.) Although it is possible refinance your mortgage, cut your energy bill and alter your driving habits to save money – they aren’t nearly as easy to adjust as your food budget.

Food costs can be broken down into two main categories: food you make at home and food you eat outside of your home (a.k.a. “eating out”). Dave Ramsey teaches that eating out shouldn’t really be a part of your baby steps while you’re trying to tackle debt because the average person fighting through the debt snowball needs less than 2 years. Unfortunately, at our current income we’re looking at a 13 year debt snowball. I know that we’ll never survive 13 years without eating out, so instead our family budgets a very modest $50 per month for eating out. We usually use this money for a date night or a couple of fast food meals for our family of 3. That’s where I want to start this food budget mini-series…

Your “Eating Out” Budget

I challenge you to take a look at your food spending over the last few months while doing your regular online banking this week and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much money does your family spend eating out each month?
  • How often do you eat out?
  • How much are you spending on items you could have brought from home – water, snacks, etc.?
  • How frequently do you purchase lunch instead of packing your own?
  • Do you find that your family gets take out for dinner far too often because you didn’t take the time to plan a meal ahead of time?

The answers to these questions can be very insightful (and in our case alarming!) When we first started our Total Money Makeover in 2012 we realized just how much money we had been accustomed to spending on food every month – and the totals were staggering. An average month we were spending around $400 on eating out (and at the time that was only the two of us). Eating out was something we valued (and something we still REALLY enjoy to this day), but the problem was – we couldn’t afford it!

Are you like we used to be, are you spending too much on eating out? If you answered yes to either of these questions then I have great news for you – this is one of the EASIEST ways to cut your families food budget each month. How? Simple.

Getting On An “Eating Out” Budget

Set a budget, pull the cash out of the bank & go to the restaurant knowing that all you have to spend is the cash in your wallet. You’ll order your meals completely differently. Instead of the $2 soda, why not a FREE water for example. (Added bonus… it’s healthier and sets a great role model for your kids!)

Pardon Me… Soap Box Speech Coming Through

No matter what you decide to spend your restaurant budget on, there is one thing you need to remember – just because you’re on a budget and have less to spend doesn’t mean you short the wait staff. I spent many years as a waitress before getting my full time teaching job, and one of my personal pet peeves are bad tippers. If you make the decision to eat out, then you are making the decision to tip. In our family we tip 20% or higher EVERY TIME we eat out. And by the way, that’s not 20% of the discounted price or after promotional offers, that’s 20% of the actual pre-discount total. How much is your time at the restaurant worth? I don’t know about you, but the time I saved not having to cook, clean up & serve dinner is worth much more than a measly $5 tip!

So how does that work out in real life? Our family has a budget of $50 per month for eating out and we tip 20% or higher regardless. That means that if we decide to visit a local eatery in our area, I know that $10 of my $50 budget is for the tip. That means the total of our food, drinks, etc. has to be $40 or less before coupons or discounts. (Ok, forgive me, I’ll step off my soap box now).

Tips For Making This Transition Successful

  1. Start Small – If your family is accustomed to spending hundreds of  dollars on eating out each month, instantly dropping down to a minuscule food budget is going to be a disaster and you’ll all be left thinking that budgets don’t work for your family. Instead take baby steps – maybe try decreasing your budget by $100 per month for the next few months until you’ve reached your eating out budget goal for example.
  2. Meal Plan to Avoid the “Need” to Eat Out – Eating out is often a way to feed your family quickly with little effort. How many times have you had your kids say “I’m hungry” and you look at the clock and realize dinner time is here and you never got anything out? “Hello, pizza delivery, how fast can you be here with a large cheese pizza?” Have you had one of those nights? Instead – plan ahead by meal planning. (Check out the link for our FREE meal planning printable! You can check out some of my previous posts about meal planning now, but stay tuned because eating at home (including meal plans) is the topic in part 2 of this food budget series.)
  3. Price Compare Before You Pick A Restaurant – Many eateries offer promotions for different occasions. This could be a night of the week where kids eat for free, or a buy one get one free offer, or just a printable coupon from their website. Start learning to take advantage of these offers as a means of helping meet your budget. This may mean that your family has less choices on the night you eat out – but less choices doesn’t have to a bad thing. For example, a few months ago my husband and I joined our family for a meal at Applebees. They were offering a 2 for $25 menu, so my husband and I didn’t even bother looking at the rest of the menu. We knew the 2 for $25 was the best option for our budget and we didn’t want to be tempted by the pricier options. (Don’t set yourself up to fail by tempting fate.)
  4. Avoid Eating Full Meals Out – This could mean eating lunch out instead of dinner, or going out just for dessert after an early dinner at home – either way you’re limiting the amount of food you need to purchase but still enjoying the experience of eating out. That translates into saved dollars!

What Are YOUR Action Steps?

This post, part one of our how to stick to a food budget mini-series, is all about cutting down on eating out expenses. What are your action steps going to be? What specific tasks can you complete to start decreasing your monthly eating out budget?

Be specific and hold your family accountable. A great way to make that happen is to post your budget in a public place – such as a family organization board – in your house. Make sure everyone knows the goal and understands WHY this change is important to your family. Single? Find an accountability partner – someone who can help talk you out of eating out (this should not be the friend you regularly meet for coffee or dessert – that would be a bad accountability partner choice!)

While we’re at it – why not make one another our accountability partners! Share your action steps in the comments below and stay tuned for part 2 of our food budget mini-series as we start talking about cutting back on our home food budget. 🙂

Jump to Part 2
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