My Most Embarrassing Budget: Food and Drinks

I have finally worked up the nerve to reveal my biggest budgeting woe — food and drinks. I am a sucker for a good dinner and drink session with friends and family, and my outlandish spending has gotten me in trouble in the past. Here’s how we are making changes.

I have alluded to some embarrassing spending patterns in previous posts before, but I never had the courage to reveal the true insanity of our food and drinking budget. However, after several weeks of interaction with the personal finance and blogging community, I have learned that this is a safe place to say “I screwed up,” as long as there is a plan to remedy it. The first step to fixing any problem is acknowledging it.

So, here it goes.

Over the past 12 months, we have spent a total of $23,220.89 on food and drinking. That comes out to an average of $1,935.07 per month.

food budget bar graph

Ouch.

This excessive spending on food and alcohol can be chalked up to a few things, but the number one reason is laziness, plain and simple. After a long day of work, it is so much more convenient to drive to your favorite restaurant, order an appetizer, maybe a couple of drinks, and an entree. You worked hard, so you deserve it! Your server jots down your order and disappears to the kitchen, only to arrive with a hot and ready meal. After eating, all the dishes are whisked away, leaving you free to enjoy the calmness of the post-dinner bliss. Heck, why not get a dessert while you are at it? The cheesecake is on special, after all.

Then, the check arrives. $60 for dinner and drinks for two with a nice tip for your accommodating server. This alone wouldn’t be so bad if it were a special occasion.

But it’s not. It’s Tuesday.

My wife and I lived this reality 2-3 times a week. It seemed like we could always find a reason to go out to dinner instead of cooking at home. Long day at work, nothing in the pantry, friends invited us — we never struggled to come up with a reason to spend frivolously. What we needed was inspiration to make a change.  Here are the things we did to begin to get this under control.

Find Help and Support

One of my biggest support systems has been with the personal finance blogging community. Every single question, doubt, and insecurity has been met with understanding, support, and advice. I have yet to be judged unfairly, and I think I know why. Generally speaking, the people reading and writing blogging material have made the same mistakes, and are sympathetic to others who do the same. We aren’t writing these blogs to get rich (although that would be nice). We write them as a form of self-help and as a beacon to others to help themselves.

If blogging isn’t enough, don’t hesitate to reach out to friends. It is very likely that your friends are in similar financial scenarios as you, and they may be happy to spend less money too. For example, instead of meeting friends out for some Wednesday night beer and pizza, compromise by buying a six pack and a take-and-bake at home pizza to share. Or better yet, get the ingredients and make the pizza yourself! That expensive dinner out just became a far more affordable night in with good friends.

Find Food Inspiration

One of the things we struggled with when cooking at home was finding easy, affordable recipes. There are millions of concoctions online through the requisite recipe websites, but quantity doesn’t necessarily translate to quality. We made too many dishes that fell flat, which in turn made us want to go out even more. Who wants to put the effort into dinner if it isn’t going to taste good?

Food and cooking is one of the biggest genres in the blogging world. There is an abundance of sites to check out, but my favorite right now is Budget Bytes. The author of the blog, Beth, does an amazing job at creating affordable recipes that don’t compromise on flavor. She even goes so far as specifying the cost of each ingredient, the total cost of the meal, and the cost per serving. We have already made several of her meals, and I must say I have been very impressed with the simplicity, cost, and flavor of each dish. Here are two recipes that we really loved:

Pastalaya
Pastalaya with andouille sausage.

Pastalaya recipe.

enchiladas
Enchiladas with ground turkey.

Enchiladas recipe. Note: We added ground turkey as well!

Set Reasonable, Incremental Goals

Let’s be honest, you aren’t going to quit your poor spending habits and become a budgeting mastermind overnight. I have experienced this first hand — just a few weeks after this blog began, we spent a whopping $483 on food and drinks during a 3-day trip to Washington DC. For some people, this would have fed them for the entire month, and we consumed it in 72 hours.

There is a phrase in people/process management: “Crawl, walk, run.” Essentially, it means that you have to be able to master the fundamentals (crawling) before you can move on to more advanced and challenging activities (walking, running). For us, achieving a successful crawl meant meeting our food/drink budget at least one time. We had set the budget at $1,500 per month (still very high), which was well below our average monthly spend I mentioned earlier. We have since met that goal, spending $1,256 in January 2017.

Our next goal, the walk phase, will be getting that food and drink budget down more and more. I believe that we can be below a grand every month with very little effort. This would free up $500 a month to be spent on other endeavors, like paying off our student loan debt. The run phase will probably consist of some very creative food and drink budgeting. I see some home brewing or gardening in our future.

Treat Yourself Sometimes

All of this being said, I believe there is still room for some luxury in life. Even the most ardent, focused person needs to have a night off every once in a while.

As an example, while my wife’s parents were paying off their student loan debt they went out to dinner for a date night once a month. They didn’t go wild and buy out the bar. Instead, they each got a meal and a couple of drinks — enough to relax but not often enough to blow the budget. I think this kind of moderation is good for the relationship, the wallet, and the soul. After all, all work and no play makes MB40 a dull boy. 😉

Which budget do you want to change? What are you doing to make a difference? Tell me in the comments below!

8 Replies to “My Most Embarrassing Budget: Food and Drinks”

  1. I understand the temptation to eat out completely! Eating in is a great way to save money for bigger and better things. Plus cooking is fun! I think I’ll have some girl friends over for a girls night instead of a happy hour out sometime soon! 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. I think cooking is fun too! It definitely takes some effort, but it pays off in spades when it comes to budgeting.

      Hope yours girls’ night is fun 💃

  2. MB40,
    Great article! I really appreciate you spending time on some very specific areas as you force me to think and re-examine some of my own ideas.

    As you stated, we can’t solve every problem at once. You are trying to reach your full potential and that road is never a straight upward line. It’s a series of peaks and valleys. The key to getting there is having the fortitude to push through the valley and focusing your attention on the few things we have control over in the current moment. For example, when I was still in debt, my investment knowledge wasn’t necessarily great. In restrospect, I could have been earning a greater return on the few investments I did have; but my focus at the time had to be on getting rid of the debt. Once that happened I began more reading, learning and researching the best investment philosophies and approaches and started to devote the time and energy needed to accelerate my development along investment lines to create that new habit…..getting back onto offense if you will (using your offense vs defense analogy from your prior blog). You are currently focusing on defense (controlling your spending) and mastering defense doesn’t happen all at once. It grows incrementally as it matures.

    According the Bureau of Labor Statistics the three largest areas of family spending are:

    1. Housing
    2. Transportation
    3. Food

    These three make up on-average 64% of a family budget. In my own journey and in light of these facts, I attacked housing costs first, then transportation, then food. Like you, I struggled with food/beverage cost due to a propensity towards eating in restaurants. While I’m much better at it now, I also took some pressure off of myself by working aggressively on the other enormous spending item that’s not listed by the Bureau, and is often overlooked….income taxes!!

    Although it’s dependent on income, the typical family spends significantly more on federal/state/local taxes than they do on food. Rather than nickle and diming myself on every meal, I decided to get my defense better at defeating taxes to allow me a little more wiggle room on food and the convenience & quality of my girlfriend and I eating in a restaurant once per week for a “cheat day” in the food/beverage budget category.

    You’ve started a small business now with this blog and with that come a slew of tax deductions. Not saying that you shouldn’t improve on the food budget, but I also don’t think you need to eat rice and beans until you’re out of debt. You can off-set a weakness in one area with an equal strength in another. Maybe you’re already doing all you can with taxes but there may also be other areas that are easier for you and Mrs. MB40 to address now until you can build the habits you want in the food/Bev category. Example….another area of defense I addressed was the cable bill. I bought the kindle fire tv stick so I could get rid of my cable bill once and for all. This freed up enough monthly budget to cover that great restaurant we like to eat in occasionally. As always, continued success on your journey.

    MB55

    1. Really great comment here. Touches on a lot of the history and future of the blog. There will certainly be changes to strategy and philosophy as our knowledge about finance increases, but those more advanced practices have to come after mastering the basics. There will always be room for improvement.

  3. Good on ya for getting it out there MB40, looks like you’re trending in the right direction so kudos to you on that man!

    I must say that mine is travel budget and sure while taking time out is fantastic to get to FIRE by 40 it’s not going to happen through spending the amount that I do on travel.. Having said that it’ll be important to still factor some travel in

    1. I have been using CCs to pay for the bulk of my travel. Haven’t paid cash for a flight in a while — tons of points to pay for them.

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