In Favor Of Eating Out In The Big City

"Foodie" by Kong Savage ArthouseThe 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.

Related Post: How Do People Live On Less Than Six Figures In Expensive Cities?

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.

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. Little Miss Money says

    As a New Yorker, I can totally relate to your article – today is my 40th day of not eating out in NYC. In the beginning, I thought it just wouldn’t work, and I have to admit that my social life has been suffering a teeny tiny bit – but I have been really busy writing – and I keep promising my friends I’ll make up. And instead of meeting them in crowded and loud restaurants where my soft spoken voice barely breaks through the decibels, I’ve been meeting them for strolls in the park, window shopping on a Sunny afternoon or (free) events after work.
    The money I have NOT spend though… oh my gosh, the money I have not spend! I’ve been home cooking (and bulk cooking on Sundays) to save as much time as possible, and not only am I more organized because of it, I get more stuff done (think about it: meeting up with a friend, the waitress has to come back 3 times because you’ve been catching up instead of looking at the menu, you wait for food, keep talking, have a drink.. 2 hours go by easily. I cook, eat, do dishes in about an hour). And incredible plus: by eating less processed sugars; my body is in excellent shape. Not that i needed to loose weight, but I look pretty darn good – lol.
    Good luck with your quest! know that you’re not the only one facing the challenge, and browse this website for inspiration: http://www.noteatingoutinny.com :)

    • Ricky says

      Adding up your ingredients, do you really save that much by doing it at home? Also, why live in such an indulgent city when your own values and habits don’t align? Lastly, are you really saving that much time when instead of eating out you are researching recipes and cooking all of the time? You say it only takes you an hour to do everything but I don’t know, you could still get take out. I understand that there are multiple benefits for you not eating out since you are saving money and are cashing in on your blog, etc, but I don’t see many people living in NYC to be completely abstinent from NYC restaurants.

      I am not trying to pry for the sake of argument, I am genuinely curious.

      • Roger@lifelaidout says

        Lets use steak as an example for two. If you go out for that, it would cost $50+ per steak ($100), plus two sides ($20 or $10 each), plus at least 2 glasses of wine ($40) = $160 + tax & tip = $200+.

        When we cook steak at home, we spend about $35 for 2 great cuts, plus maybe $5-10 for sides. Also at home, I can drink as much wine as I want and better wine, finish off the meal with some nice scotch (or port), and it’s still much cheaper than going to the steakhouse. Oh yeah, and it takes a couple of minutes to make steak.

        So yeah, I think for some meals, it’s definitely cheaper than going out and especially when factoring in the markup on alcohol. Not to mention the health benefits. The sides at steakhouses are really unhealthy. At home, you can control the quality and nutritional value of your food.

        • Financial Samurai says

          Steak is the perfect example of saving eating in. However, buying the same 28-day dry aged meat and trying to prepare it exactly like the steakhouse does makes the stay at home price go up to around $25-$30/person. Still big savings, but there better be because of what’s likely a less tasty meal.

          I love listening to a live jazz ensemble in a smoky wood room while downing a bone in prime rib.

  2. MD says

    Interesting. Just so I am not coming off as all high and mighty, allow me to disclose that my wife and I had dinner last night at a steak house and spent $206. We probably do that 3 times per year and eat out at less expensive restaurants at least a dozen times a year with the kids.

    To me, life is about balance. You have to enjoy it a little or why bother? When I see headlines of people who somehow live on $800 a month total, my first thought is to feel sorry for them.

    So your options are to find a way to make more income so that this expense is no big deal. I don’t know enough about your background to make any real suggestions on that front. The other is to compromise with yourself. How about $250 a month until you are gainfully employed or have found a way to earn more money? You do have income in the form of alimony and from what little I know about that topic, it will probably continue until your son is an adult. From reading your post, I just do not see total abstinence as an option. Cutting it in half might not be that difficult though. Of course, if eating out even a little bit creates a true financial problem, then you will have to make a tough choice. I don’t sense this is an all or nothing proposition for you.

    Good luck!

    • Colleen says

      I am totally with you on the balance. Believe it or not $500/month is probably half of what I used to spend while married. I don’t think people realize how much they spend on meals and miscellaneous foods outside their own kitchen. Most people I know buy lunch when they work, and they have dinner and drinks out several times a week. Since divorcing I cook dinner at least twice a week and eat a lot of leftovers and pre-made microwaveable meals. My current partner prefers to eat out, so now it’s a matter of trying to cajole him into home cooked meals. It’s a whole lifestyle issue.

  3. writing2reality says

    Wow, this is a tricky topic as there are some in the PF world who are adamantly opposed to eating out as a it is a waste of money. Personally, I eat out once or twice a week, even though I don’t live in a major city like New York. There is great food out there, and it is nice to enjoy the product of someone else’s labor and craft. Plus no dishes!

    In your case, I’d recommend balance. There is no reason to eliminate it entirely, but in an effort to reduce the monthly cash outflow, just cut it back some. Success is never found by making drastic changes overnight. Ease into cooking more frequently (like making that pizza and bolognese at home) and it will all sort itself out. Or just keep busting your tail to increase your business income. Either works! :)

  4. Natalie says

    NYC is expensive because of the habits of people who live there — I feel like if you want to make friends you are always going to be expected to go try different restaurants. It sucks. In a delicious way. But it sucks.

  5. Dee @ Color Me Frugal says

    Kudos to you for challenging yourself! I just have to say I think it would be MUCH harder to stop eating out in NYC, where awesome food abounds. Heck, we have a hard enough time reining in our dining out budget and we do not live in a foodie haven like NYC. We’ve done things in the past like bring lunches to work or bring snacks from home, which helps. But I totally hear you that sometimes you’ve just had a hard day and need to treat yourself!

  6. Joe says

    In recent months, I’ve been getting antsy about that restaurant line in the budget. At first blush, I think, for me, and for many people it is indeed a waste. But, as always, that depends. If I am truly enjoying the experience (the food, the company, etc), then I think it is a valuable expenditure. If I am dropping money at a restaurant as a convenience and the food is just average, that’s a waste. We can do better at home than some run of the mill chain restaurant.

  7. Ricky says

    I eat out to get something I would never be able to make at home or something I don’t have the time for. So, a lot of times, eating out is just as cheap as making it yourself, and maybe cheaper depending on what you could have been doing with your time. I don’t think there is much reason to live in a big city if you aren’t going to take advantages of the amenities they offer. With that, you’d be much better off in a peaceful and beautiful mountain environment if you were as self sufficient as you want to bel

    A lot of frugal finance blogs want you to believe it’s never worthwhile or ideal to eat out, but as I’ve said, this isn’t exactly the case all of the time.

  8. Untemplater says

    We never know what we’re capable of unless we try! Great job sticking with your goal the entire week. I used to live in NYC so I know how many temptations there are around every corner of every cuisine possible. At the same time I love saving money, so when I do go out to eat I seek out the best value spots that taste amazing without breaking the bank, like in Chinatown. And when I’m eating out I try to pace myself and stop as soon as I start to feel full because I know I’ll enjoy eating the leftovers at home more later.

    I’m not much of a cook myself, but I try and eat at home several times a week whether it’s eating those leftovers from take out or eating a simple salad or pasta. That doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare and is cheaper to make than order out. Watching how much you spend and setting financial goals may seem like a drag or overwhelming in the beginning, but is really a lot of fun and so rewarding when you can set goals and then achieve them. Best of luck with your budgeting!

  9. Justin @ RootofGood says

    Hey, you decided $500/month was a smart way to free up a little time and enjoy some luxuries. But it sounds like you are also being stretched thinner than a NY style pizza crust! I would forgo the spendy dining out habit unless I had so much money that $500 didn’t matter.

    We spend around $500/month on groceries for our whole family of 5. And we don’t scrimp and save too much. We make all kinds of crazy asian dishes that have imported ingredients that aren’t exactly cheap, but we enjoy. And we can make a family meal of pad thai (for example) for $4-5 whereas it would be $30 for take out. I like cooking, so it isn’t a chore, and it really doesn’t take that much time to cook well.

    But if I had zero time due to making too many commitments, dining out or frequent take out might be a better option.

  10. Financial Samurai says

    It’s got to be brutally tough to not eat out in NYC when everything is so good an convenient. I eat out all the time in SF for the same reasons. It all depends on how serious you are about saving money. The longer the lead time before a crunch hits, the harder it is to change. This post has inspired me to write a new post about financial habits.

    One week is better than no week! Maybe next month you’ll try two weeks of no eating out!

  11. eemusings says

    I would LOVE to live in NYC for a couple years and just eat my way through that city every day.

    Alas, I live in Auckland (best for food in NZ but still pathetic on a world scale). Eating out is expensive and not always that great, and often in small portions, so home cooking it is.

  12. Roger@lifelaidout says

    My wife and I used to eat out or order in every day. Once we got married, we made a goal to start cooking more. Six months in, we’re actually cooking a lot and have not gone out to eat that much. To be honest, we like cooking much more and it’s been easier for us than we expected. We get much of our supplies from FreshDirect and we actually get more excited about our own meals now than eating out (thanks to my wife’s amazing cooking as well as some small, but nice ingredients – truffle salt, truffle oil, prosciutto, etc.

  13. Dave says

    Agree that the temptation to eat out is very high when you are in a place like NYC. As many others have already commented, eating out will almost always cost more and be less healthy than preparing it yourself. Additionally, I wonder how much of the “need to go out” / justification for going out to eat is a result of the social norms that are pressuring / pulling you to do it. Is there an element of “keeping up with the Jones”, especially in NYC, that is causing the behavior? I have found that if you are strong enough to resist the urge to “keep up with the Jones”, in any situation (eating out or otherwise), you become more at peace with yourself and don’t need to “justify” your actions. Over time, it becomes easier to resist – all things in moderation!

  14. Colleen says

    I might be the slowest cook in the world because while everyone else claims they spend an hour, it takes me 2 hours to prepare food and clean up when I make a meal. I need to revisit my repertoire of dishes and plug in simpler dishes that are faster to make. Time to peruse Mark Bittman’s minimalist cookbooks.

    Meanwhile I’ve been stocking up on $4 frozen meals from Trader Joes. Four minutes in the nuker and voila! God bless frozen dinners.

    Been keeping track of what I spend on food outside the home. Cookies, coffees, smoothies–sneaky little snacks are an expensive habit I’d like to curb.

    The biggest challenge is going to be convincing my closest friends that it’s ok to eat in.

  15. Connie @ Savvy With Saving says

    I live in NYC also and it’s really hard not to eat out. I’ve definitely cut back but not completely. I eat out about once a week now. There’s also a lot of amazing cheap eats in NYC so eating out doesn’t always have to be super expensive.

  16. Joe says

    Sorry to sound like a hater, but come on. If you don’t have any income, you really shouldn’t eat out so much. Why not spend the money on ramping up your business quicker instead. Hire some people to help you get going and when you start making some money, then you can indulge more.
    Good luck.

    • Financial Samurai says

      It’s easy to judge, but we should reserve judgement if we don’t know the entire story. What if her alimony was $10,000 a month for the next 60 months and she’s lived off 80% of that amount for the past 10 years? Can’t turn a ship like a speed boat.

  17. Little House says

    My family lives in NYC and when I visit, we eat out every meal. It is really hard to eat at home with restaurants lining every street. It’s also really convenient – in a city where you’re on your feet and hustling everywhere, who has time to run home and cook a meal?

  18. krantcents says

    I stopped eating out (for lunch) about 40 years ago! My wife and I still go out for dinner Friday and Saturday nights. Almost all of the places we frequent are reasonably priced and we maintain a budget of about $250 per month. This past Friday, we had a hearty soup from our neighborhood deli ($12) and 2 cookies ($3.70) from the bakery next door. Saturday, we went out with friends to the movies. We used group discount tickets ($6 each) and dinner was was just $18. We live in Los Angeles which is similar to New York. You can spend a little or a lot. You may want to consider my strategy and just cut down the number times you eat out.

  19. Weston says

    “1) Time. New York City moves so fast we squeeze two days into 24 hours.”

    I love it when New Yorkers think the space/time continuum doesn’t apply to those who enter their city.

    I lived in Manhattan for over a year. I never had to move any faster there, than I had to when I lived in N.J., Florida and upstate NY. It was entirely up to me. Living in NY does not somehow automatically mandate that you have to be overburdened, overscheduled and moving at some frenetic pace.

    No matter where I lived the best I could do was to squeeze 24 hours into 24 hours. :-)

    • Colleen says

      Haha! And ironically it’s taken me about a month to return to your comment. I really wish I could extend the day, but every time I stay up past 1am for more than two days in a row, I stop thinking clearly. You’re right, 24 is 24–but a person can try :).

  20. Mike Hunt says

    Interesting post. I live in Bangkok, which is quite the food capital, and where you can get excellent Italian, French, Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and of course Thai food. Most apartments here don’t have kitchens as residents eat out every meal of the day by using street vendors and local stalls.

    That being said, I hardly ever eat out. I have switched over to a vegan diet and the bulk of my foods comes from fresh varied (mostly tropical fruits) in the mornings along with different raw nuts (almonds or cashews, flax and chia seeds). Lunchtime is usually an organic granola supplemented with different super foods and taken with fruit juice.

    For a snack I usually eat a few apples.

    Dinner is then a wonderful organic salad: mixed greens, arugula, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, sweet peppers, raw pumpkin seeds, raw watermelon seeds, avocado plus some steamed pumpkin or sweet potato. Later I will take some brown rice with tofu and fresh cashew nuts or a similar dish. Afterwards I’ll take some soy milk or some roasted sesame paste (white or black) as a snack and this keeps me pretty satisfied.

    I can’t get this quality of food when I eat out. I have a ton of energy and feel great, there is no way I want to put any fried food or processed meat or dairy products into my body… I’ve tried it before and feel it the next day.

    I probably spend a bit more by buying the majority of my foods as organic but it’s a great quality of life.

    I used to have a sweet tooth and eat processed junk all the time and am glad I got this wake up call at age 40, before the typical degenerative disease sets in like heart disease, diabetes, etc. I’ve got more muscle now at 160 lbs on a 6’2″ frame then when I was 200 lbs 12 months ago and eating an unhealthy diet.

    That’s the biggest drawback of eating out, getting unhealthy food.

    From the diet you described I suspect you may look like the way I did one year ago.

    -Mike

    • Colleen says

      Hey, Mike,
      sorry so slow on the response. I admire the fortitude it mustve taken to make such a life change. I will never have the discipline to become a vegan, tho I know all the benefits of such a diet. I used to live by a vegan joint called Bonobos and I got turned on to this “oatmeal” of mashed bananas and ground almonds–loved it, fed it to my baby–alas the restaurant disappeared (curses). But I get too much pleasure from eating lots of different foods to give them up. I shudder at the thought of becoming a diabetic. I’d probably eat myself into a coma several times before training myself to refrain from sugar. And I know what you’re saying about all the rich indulgent foods in restaurants, but I got to say I’m in pretty fine shape from training for my black belt in taekwondo–and having the right set of genes help too :) Thanks for your comments, Mike!

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