The following is a guest post by Colleen Kong-Savage who is in the middle of changing her financial habits after a recent divorce. I’m a big proponent of tackling specific financial habits one at a time vs. all at once to increase our chances of change. Let’s see how Colleen did with her no eat out challenge in Manhattan. If you’d like to write a guest post, please feel free to e-mail me.
I have been challenged by my brother to NOT eat out for a whole month. My budget needs a bit of a makeover: I’m freshly divorced, unable to shake this nasty case of unemployment after staying home nine years to raise my son.
Lucky for me, I’m OK for the next few years with an alimony check deposited monthly into my bank account, but sooner or later it’ll stop. If I never ate out, I could save $500 a month.
This challenge might be a preview of my future. However, I live in NYC, and how do you NOT eat out in the food capital of America. Last week I snarfed dim sum at Jing Fong including fried mochi balls of sweet lotus paste, at Landmarc I swabbed the roasted marrow out of bones with crusty bread, I had the lamb shank at Frida and fat greasy Pad See Yu noodles from Spice. Global dining is my right as a New York citizen.
Well, let me try a week. See how I do.
Day 1, Wednesday. An hour after the challenge, I am craving a hit of Wicked hot chocolate from Jacques Torres‚ $3.50 worth of thick, spicy, muck of liquid chocolate. But I walk past, remembering the can of chocolate mix in my cupboard. I know I can make something similar at home. I know it won’t be as tasty‚ and I know I won’t make it because I have other things to take care. I pick up my nine-year-old from school, and we work on a project for his birthday party on Saturday. We are creating a big gingerbread-Tardis because my Doctor-Who-fanatic of a son and I both agree a gingerbread-Tardis is much cooler than a birthday cake, especially since he doesn’t like cake.
Three hours later, we haven’t gotten very far as the blue icing oozes beyond boundaries. After I drop my boy off at his dad’s apartment, I rush down to my art-licensing class, which doesn’t get out until 9pm. By then I’m starving as I pass a number of food joints on my way to the train, but I focus on the leftovers in my fridge. Waiting for the train, my friend texts, inviting me to eat out with her. I want to join and moan to her about the engineering degree I need to complete the Tardis, but instead I tell her my fridge needs cleaning.
Day 3, Friday. I haven’t missed eating out yet because my fridge has been full of last week’s restaurant leftovers. (On Day 2 I was too busy operating on the Tardis to think of dining out.) I haven’t told anyone about the challenge because I don’t want to commit to it. Also I don’t want to look like a cheapskate. My best friend eats out everyday and marvels that I cook. We take turns picking up the bill when we chow together. I don’t know how I will explain why I cannot meet her at a restaurant, or why I am doing this little challenge, when we both know that A) I can currently afford to eat out and B) I will always choose to rely on food from outside my own kitchen for several meals a week. Plus I have a sweet tooth, so I frequently buy cookies and smoothies, and I’ll be damned if my son is the only one who gets an ice cream when we pass by the truck.
The thing about Day 3 is that it’s my son’s birthday. My ex and I always take him to Planet Sushi on his special day. I know my ex will pick up the tab soooo‚ let’s say that eating out isn’t eating out if I don’t pick up the bill. I go to Planet Sushi. My ex and I grit our teeth through the awkward meal, but we love our boy to bits and so carry on the tradition.
Day 4, Saturday. The gingerbread-Tardis was a hit at the birthday party. Better yet, it was edible. Now it is dinner-time. Although my son is supposed to come home with me, he wants to stay at his dad’s to play with the neighbors. Exhausted from overseeing 13 nine-year-olds bouncing off the walls of a Manhattan apartment, I am happy to let my son stay at his dad’s. My best friend wants to go out because it’s a kid-free Saturday night. I finally tell her about my experiment and why I can’t eat at a restaurant. We discuss the impracticality of my restricted diet. “Fine,” she says. “I’ll eat and you can watch me eat.” In the end she takes me to Patsy’s Pizza for a pepperoni pie. We rationalize again that it doesn’t count if I don’t pay. But why AM I doing this experiment? My brother is challenging me to see if I CAN do without. I am doing it to see WHY I don’t do without.
Day 5, Sunday. I am thinking this experiment is rather silly. And I would’ve given up on it except my boyfriend and I couldn’t decide where we wanted to go for lunch so I make spaghetti with bolognese sauce. To my pleasure, I don’t think we could have ordered anything more satisfying than that pasta.
Day 6, Monday. My son wants me to take him and a friend to Amsterdam Alehouse for bacon pizza. I’m ready to put the no-eat-out test to rest because I’d rather acquiesce than make pizza myself. “We can’t eat out for a few days because your uncle challenged me not to eat at restaurants for a week.” I wait for my son to protest and am disappointed when he simply says, “Ok.” In the end the bacon pizza becomes a kid activity. They grate the cheese without shaving off their fingers and roll out the pre-made dough into a misshapen butterfly. “This is the best day ever!” says my son’s friend.
Day 7, Tuesday, is unremarkable. It’s the last day of my eating experiment. My son and his pal spend the entire afternoon roaming through Central Park because there is no school. We are all tired on the way home. My son declares his legs have stopped working right around Shake Shack, but we just pause at a bench and continue past the burger joint without comment.
The Need To Eat Out In NYC
On a regular basis, thirty percent of the meals in my belly are prepared outside my home. This extra $500 a month is not a frivolous indulgence. It is a necessary indulgence. Here are the reasons why I pay others to make my food:
1) Time. New York City moves so fast we squeeze two days into 24 hours. The biggest value of eating out is time. I am desperately trying to get a freelance business going so that by the time the alimony disappears I will have some other form of income. I have carved out 25 hours out of my weekly schedule‚ which also involves son, boyfriend, teaching, and life mundanities‚ to work on that business. Ironically it takes me much discipline to NOT spend time on domesticities. Cooking means time spent shopping for groceries, chopping ingredients, and reclaiming the kitchen from the mess I make‚ not just cooking.
2) Variety. There is so much good food out there! And I don’t know how to make half of it. Roti canai? Pad thai? If I make sushi will the fish I buy be fresh enough? Eating out doesn’t have to be expensive either. Chinatown’s the best for inexpensive dining. Granted there are some foods I make that I will never find outside of my home–say‚ a gingerbread-Tardis or butterfly pizza. The outside world combined with my own kitchen makes a kick-ass repertoire of dining experiences.
3) Socializing. My friends and family love food. Some folks love to cook, but most don’t have the time or energy after working long hours. Eating out is one of the easiest and least stressful ways to spend time with people we love‚Äîand people we don’t. Business lunches take place in restaurants. When you ask someone new on a date, you ask them if they want to go for dinner or drinks outside the home, so you can check them out on neutral ground.
4) Pleasure! Restaurants are fun. We celebrate birthdays and promotions by treating the guest of honor to a fine meal. We visit establishments not only for their food, but for their ambiance. Having someone wait on you is a treat. My son and I sometimes sit at a cafe enjoying a warm chocolate chunk cookie as his reward for surviving school that day.
I have yet to master hot chocolate. When I make it, it is always chunky or scalded, but Jacques Torres always heats it just to that point where the chocolate melds with milk into wickedly smooth perfection. The day after my semi-successful no-eat-out trial, I reward myself with that Wicked hot chocolate I craved on Day 1. Being fed is a really good thing.
Readers, what’s your experience with saving money on food by not eating out? For those of you who live in diverse, big cities like NYC, how have you found ways to stop indulging on food given great food is everywhere?
Image © 2013 by Kong Savage Arthouse. Please visit her site if you are looking for a freelance artist. Image is not to be republished without the author’s permission.