Don't eat out just because you didn't plan dinner.

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If being in debt is eating at you, return the favor and eat at your debt – literally.  

A recent survey from Charles Schwab found that 55 percent of respondents say they wish they’d spent less on dining out in the past year and put more toward their financial goals – in this case, saving for retirement. But freeing up cash from your spending is also one of the best ways to pay down your debt. 

After the category of “unexpected expenses,” such as home repairs, the survey found that “quality of life” spending was a major obstacle to saving, including eating out, vacations and other discretionary expenses. Cooking at home and packing your own lunch can save you significant money. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get out to the restaurant until your debt is fully paid. 

Everything in moderation

When it comes to fixing your finances, trying to become obsessively frugal is about as effective as going on a crash diet to lose weight. You can keep it up for a little while, but eventually, you’ll get sick and tired of a steady diet of denial and go on a binge, whether that’s ingesting a chocolate pound cake or going on an Amazon spending spree. Instead, work to build responsible habits mixed with occasional indulgences. 

Overall, Americans spend about 13 percent of their income on food and have for years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But recent trends show that people are spending nearly as much on meals out – 44 percent of their food budget – as they do on groceries. Overall, middle-income Americans dine out an average of 4.2 times per week.

“Dining out” suggests an evening of three courses at a white-tablecloth restaurant, but for many people, it means hitting a fast-food or fast casual dining outlet several times a week. According to, the average eater at a fast-food joint spent $5.13 per meal in 2013 (latest data). For a casual dining spot, the individual check was $13.75. If you’re getting lunch five times a week plus picking up dinner twice a week, that adds up to somewhere between $39.44 and $105.70 per person per week (adjusted for inflation) and averages out to $72.57 a week or more than $300 a month. But you’re not really going out and having a good time – you’re just eating because you need to eat. 

Just plan ahead and you’ll save

With a little planning and effort, you can start replacing many of those meals at home, from something as simple as picking up a rotisserie chicken and a bagged salad to cooking up a batch of chili to cover one dinner and a couple of lunches. The cost will be less, the quality will be better, and the savings will add up. 

But cooking every night gets old, and eating a brown-bag lunch in the cafeteria or at your desk gets boring. So find a happy middle-ground, where you eat at home as much as you can without feeling like you’re chained to the stove and then dine out at quality places you enjoy. If you were spending an average of $300 a month on dining out, aim to save half of that to put toward your debt or other financial goals, and spend the rest on going out when you can plan and enjoy it instead of just grabbing something because you didn’t plan dinner. 

How much will you save?

Over the course of a year, $150 a month saved from dining out works out to $1,800. If you applied that money to a credit card with a $5,000 balance charging 18 percent, you’d pay that card off completely in just a bit less than four years. And that would still leave you $150 each month for eating out. 

The key to tightening discretionary expenses is finding the right balance between mindless spending and penny-pinching scrimping. Without a few indulgences in your budget, you’ll never stick to your financial plan and end up worse off than when you started trying to fix your finances. Instead, get realistically frugal, and you can have your cake – at home – and eat it out, too. 

Brian J. O’Connor is the author of the award-winning budgeting book, “The $1,000 Challenge:  How One Family Slashed Its Budget  Without Moving Under a Bridge  or Living on Government Cheese.”

Setting up a budget can help you better manage your finances so you don’t have to go into debt just to eat out. Check out budgeting tools through’s Money Management Solutions.

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About the Author

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O’Connor is an award-winning columnist. He wrote for the Detroit News, was the founding managing editor of and now writes for and Entrepreneur among other outlets. In addition to winning three humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper columnists, he is a two-time Best in Business winner for his column, as well as an awarded finalist in the Scripps Howard National Journalism Awards and winner of the Christopher J. Welles Memorial Prize from Columbia University.

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