You need to reveal a hidden expense that can easily be stopped. That expense is eating out. All over America, at every income level, people who shouldn’t eat out are. Cooking at home every day, three times per day, is a lost art. Bring bagged lunches to work and school. No more swinging by restaurants to pick up carry-out on the way home.
I passed my driver’s test in December of 1993. Sixteen, excited, and ready for the freedom that came with a little piece of plastic adorned with a grainy photo of a freckled face, I drove to my best friend’s house, picked him up, and we went to our favorite fast-food restaurant. We had food at home, we had time. But when moved by the spirit of freedom and choice, we chose to commemorate a monumental moment by spending $18 on double-bacon cheeseburgers, cheese fries and chocolate shakes.
This is the complexity of choosing to dine out over cooking at home.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you, Dan. Choosing to spend money on something you don’t need is fundamentally a poor decision. But for better or worse, the fast-paced nature of life today makes home-prepped meals more unrealistic than you’d like. And for some, dining behavior can be influenced by the availability of fresh food in the area in which they live.
People dine out for several reasons, but I find all of them fall into two main categories: entertainment and convenience.
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I am tickled when a chef can make simple ingredients taste like magic. How can a piece of fish taste fine when I make it, but transform into an ethereal experience when prepared by a master? Whatever the answer, I’m willing to pay for that moment. I’m also willing to pay to watch a group of relative strangers place a sombrero on my kid’s head, and sing Feliz Cumpleaños off key. In fact, I place moments like these in my entertainment budget, and you should too.
But convenience is an entirely different story, one that tempts us all with the slipperiest of slopes.
Convenience is when a person chooses to exchange money for time. On the way home from your kid’s soccer, gymnastics or falconry lessons, you decided you weren’t willing to spend time preparing a meal when you got home. And you certainly didn’t spend time preparing one before you left. Instead, you paid money to save time.
But food convenience has gone too far. From purchasing pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crust cut off to pre-peeled garlic, you have to wonder how much time we’re really saving. I mean, spend 90 seconds peeling the stinking garlic yourself, and save yourself a couple of bucks.
I chose to answer this particular question this week as a catharsis. I fancy myself a learned financial mind. So why do I consistently have food delivered to my house, at a fee, when I could drive the two miles and five minutes to secure it myself? In this area of my life, I’m lazy. I’m not proud of it, but I’m willing to admit to it.
If, upon inspection, a person feels as though they’re not accomplishing their financial goals because of the amount of money they spend on food, then obviously further scrutiny is needed. However, it’s been my experience that most folks simply don’t have hard and fast financial goals, therefore overspending on food can’t be blamed for a lack of success, because success is undefined. If I were to tie my desire to keep my kids from having student loans to the pizza I pick up on the way home from soccer, we’d likely just have a can of soup when we got home.
But I … I just can’t. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know. Although I can say with certainty that my well-established financial goals aren’t impacted by my dining habits, that doesn’t mean I should feel justified in objectively lazy acts.
My assertion is most people who spend too much on dining out do so because of their relationship with convenience. Spending money to save time, isn’t always a good idea. I’m personally reflecting on this idea as I write it. Thousands of articles have been written about meal prep, meal planning and cheap eating. And it would behoove Americans to adopt healthier practices in these areas. But none of it matters if definitive financial goals aren’t in place to counterbalance our urge to live a convenient life.
Dan, your suggestion is correct, to the point and indisputable. But when you wrote “easily … stopped”, well, easy is in the eye of the beholder. That’s the frustrating part about human behavior: We often act in ways that don’t make a lot of sense.
Peter Dunn is an author, speaker and radio host, and he has a free podcast: Million Dollar Plan. Have a question about money for Pete the Planner? Email him at AskPete@petetheplanner.com
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