When the co-worker recovered from seeing how much they were spending per month on food, he denied they could save almost all of that money just by not eating out. He said, "We still have to buy food!" I pointed out that they were already buying groceries, the cost of which was largely not included in our calculations, and that part of their budget was about average for a family of two.
He then objected, "But we have tried to stop eating out and were miserable. We soon got back into our old habit." I told him that they had set themselves up for failure by trying to go 'cold turkey' on the eating out. I suggested that they instead take small steps to change their habits.
First of all, they could save some money by getting food 'to-go' more frequently. Even if they ate dinner in a park before going home, they'd be saving on the full tip (a small tip for the hostess who assembles the to go order is fine). Additionally, the food would already be in a boxed container so it would be easier to save a portion for a later lunch. Plus even when they did eat out, they could not order an appetizer or drink. They could share a drink or get just water. And, since all that restaurant food was high calorie and large serving size, they could save money further by ordering off the appetizer menu or by splitting an entree.
The second step would be gear down on the places where they went. Instead of sit down restaurants, look for less expensive options. This didn't leave them eating every day at fast food joints, though. They could opt for healthier ethnic restaurants instead or places where you order at the counter. As above, ordering at the counter and bussing your own table saves on the tip. It is also easier to order more simply (just a bowl of soup, for instance) when a waiter isn't hovering over you. And once again, you can skip on the drink if you've bought individually packaged drinks at the grocery store and have them sitting in the car.
The next step would be to explore the options in the grocery store more fully. Where we live, some grocery stores practically ARE restaurants in themselves. Their deli sections offer lots more than sliced meats and fried chicken. Some grocery stores have pretty good sushi, fresh salads and properly portioned HOT entrees. Stopping at the grocery store and/or doing other errands while waiting for the traffic to die down was just as effective as stopping at a restaurant for killing time. As a matter of fact, it probably got them home sooner.
But that's the point, they usually got home so late, they barely had time to relax before going to bed. This kept them up later, making it hard to get up early enough to leisurely prepare for work in the morning. Instead, the morning was a rush and they ended up squarely in the worst of the commute hours. By slowly contracting the amount of time they took getting dinner (waiting to get seated at the restaurant, waiting to order, waiting for their food to arrive, waiting for the check, etc), they ended up being at home where they wanted to be and their lives became more relaxed.
After the grocery store deli section, it was time to explore more of the store. I suggested they start with buying a few frozen foods to keep on hand at home to fill out their meals. They could still buy a hot entree to-go from a restaurant or at a walk-up counter, then take it home and prepare the side dishes from the groceries they already bought. This helped transition them into preparing food in the kitchen AND getting used to doing dishes.
Next they would start experimenting with their own recipes, perhaps trying to duplicate their favorite restaurant foods or trying a few recommendations from friends. At this point, I suggested they get into the habit of inviting friends to dine with them in their home instead of eating out. This makes the evening more relaxing, less rushed, and more conducive to a lifestyle that included a baby later on. It also upped their culinary skills. For some reason, when we start to cook at home, a steady diet of restaurant food doesn't seem that appealling.
But should they stop there? Not necessarily. They really needed to scale back on their grocery budget. Highly processed foods are still expensive. So once they got used to grocery shopping more often, they could become more practiced at shopping smarter. That might start with using coupons and comparing prices. They could compare frozen foods to canned or fresh of the same item. They could do more cooking with basic ingredients instead of relying on foods that were already combined for them. They could get out of the ritzy, high-end grocery stores and buy the same basics at lower priced, less esthetically designed grocery stores. They could do a little bulk buying, if it saved them money. At the same time this transitioned them into acquiring the proper tools to cook at home and organize their storage space for all the groceries.
And they could go even lower. They could limit their shopping at 'first tier' grocery stores and start shopping at other markets: farmers markets, roadside stands, grocery outlet type stores, farm shares (CSA: Community Supports Agriculture), Angel Food Ministries, and direct from wholesalers. This would take more effort but it also ties them more solidly into their local community and got them eating healthier.
Lower still, I encouraged them to start growing their own food then considering preserving the harvest. Again, they'd have to start slowly and increase their garden as they increased in experience. They might even become interested, somehow, in managing to raise meat animals. Since they lived on a small suburban lot, this would be a long-shot but it could be done with some imagination.
But that's the beauty of Step Down to Savings. Go as low as you want to, get comfortable there, and if you don't want to step down any further, stop. Or, as what happens to me, I tend to step down a little bit too far then say, "Nope, this isn't for me" and instead of giving up completely, all I do is revert back to one step up which is where I was comfortable.
And the concept can be applied to almost anything in our lives. Do you want to break the la-tee-da coffee habit? Step down. Do you want to curb a clothes shopping addiction? Step down. Do you want to simply eat healthier? Step down. Take the change in tiny steps and you won't end up feeling deprived.
Oh, and the co-worker. Yes, his wife became a SAHM and last I heard they have three gorgeous children.
- A little about the author ... I'm known as Cookie. I'm a long time frugal fanatic so when I shop, I prefer to save money. There is no reason to spend more than we have to! However, I also appreciate convenience and fine living. I strive to strike a balance between a nice lifestyle, simplicity and frugal living. I work hard for my money so I like to make my money work hard for me.