Should you boycott restaurants?

thOver at Midlife Mom Musings, a blogger named Sharon wrote about an unpleasant surprise. The July food budget for her family of four was supposed to have been $700. Instead, they spent nearly $1,700 on groceries and meals away from home.

“I just don’t remember spending that much,” Sharon said.

(Few of us do.)

More than $400 of that was spent at places like Manhattan Bagel, McDonald’s, Tropical Smoothie, Chipotle, Texas Roadhouse and Ciros.

“Not even nice restaurants,” she lamented.

They ended the month with a $1,000 negative cash flow, which she freely admits could have been avoided if they’d just stayed within their food budget. To help make up for that loss, Sharon is boycotting all eateries in August.

A no-restaurants month is a common meme in the personal finance blogosphere. Just like “no-spend week” and “cash-only quarter,” it works if you work it – and if you do, you can learn a lot.

Like, say, how to cook with what’s on hand. How to pack a lunch. How to say “no,” whether that’s to kids who want to stop for a smoothie or to yourself when you really, really want a blueberry bagel.

Hey, I love a serving of McDonald’s fries as often as I can get away with it. But eating them every day would torpedo my budget and, maybe, my arteries.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 43.1 percent of all food spending was for food away from home. That’s based on the most recent figures, from 2012; if I had to guess, I’d say the number hasn’t gone down.

A more intentional you

Sharon attributes her July food expenses to “just not paying attention.” The thing about a no-(whatever) month – or even a week – is that it forces you to take a closer look at your habits.

Do you stop for a bagel even though there’s plenty of breakfast makings at home? Run to Chipotle for a bite after conveniently “forgetting,” yet again, to pack a lunch? Swing by Texas Roadhouse after work because you’re just so tired and none of the leftovers in the fridge sound interesting?

The thing about habits is that they’re, well, habitual. You become a slot car in the track of life, locked into a preordained route and doing your usual things on autopilot. It’s darned easy to not remember spending that much, until the bills/bank statements show up.

Declaring a restaurant boycott means you have to come up with alternatives. The result is not just a healthier budget and maybe a healthier you. It’s a more intentional you, fully aware of what you’re putting in your mouth because you have to make it yourself.

This doesn’t have to be onerous. It can actually be fun, especially if you simplify and/or get creative:

If you’re lucky, the necessity of rearranging your priorities will show you where you’ve been wasting time, or even just letting it slip past you. For example, a new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the average U.S. resident watches 2.8 hours of television per day. And how much time do we piddle away on Facebook or just cruising the Internetz?

Give it a try?

Will I declare a restaurant boycott of my own? Nope. Three or four times a month my friend Linda B. and I go to lunch and then hang out at her house to watch whatever she has in her DVR queue. We take turns buying and we don’t spend that much.

It’s in my personal budget under “discretionary spending.” Since DF and I go out to eat maybe five times a year (and two of those are likely to be at the Turnagain Arm Pit Barbecue), lunch out feels like a huge treat even if it’s only Subway. Besides, we use coupons at Subway and when it’s my turn to pay I use a discounted gift card.

But I have had to declare a mostly-no-spend life since making the decision to cut back on hours. Do I miss the ability to spend whenever I want? Sure. It’s fun to send someone a $50 gift card just because, or to make a trip on a whim. But generally it’s just fine because the gains far, far outweigh any perceived losses.

My kettle-corn boycott continues, however. It sure makes those discounted Cinemark gift cards last longer. My arteries are probably happier, too.

So how about it, readers: Have you done a no-(whatever) week or month? Would you consider doing so, just to see how it felt? Right now would be a good time to start, i.e., the holidays are nearly upon us.

Related reading:

468 ad


  1. Traditionally, I have “no-spend June” where I don’t go out to eat or buy anything other than the very bare necessities. It is always an eye opening experience for me and an annual reminder that I really need to be more mindful about how I spend money. It really makes me take the time to evaluate everything. I suppose that a purist would put themselves on a strict grocery budget during such a month, but I usually don’t bother. I’m just not that expensive of an eater.

    I have been severely restricting my eating out, however, for health reasons. I do not have a good “relationship” with food and tend to eat out because I’m bored, I want to delay getting to work for a bit, or because I need some non-confrontational human interaction.

    I have good weeks and bad weeks with this (the restricting of eating out), but am working on the problem.

    The nice thing is that the extra money I have left at the end of the month has been a nice addition to my savings. On average, it is around $200.

    • Donna Freedman

      Nice! That’s $200 that can work (or play) for you elsewhere.
      I’m impressed that you can cut spending in June, right when many of us are feeling that it’s time to go out and play. Well done!

  2. As you know, with Tim’s and my health issues, eating only at home is just not feasible. But now that I’m eating diet food, which I’m trying to get on sale/at Costco as much as possible, our food budget has decreased. Tim still eats about one meal a day out. It’s a start anyway.

    • Donna Freedman

      Your mileage may vary. But you’ve done other no-(whatever) challenges, sometimes against your will. So you know what it’s like.

  3. I try to have a no-spend summer for food. “Try”, because I don’t take a hard line on it. I have a big garden with both fruits and veggies, so I try to eat from that, mostly, and use up the leftover stored stuff from the freezer and pantry as much as possible. (I think of this as the difference between hoarding food and storing food). This makes room to store the year’s new produce and to make and freeze new meals and meal components. Then in late August or so, I make a note of all the stuff that had been left to finish up by summer and I go to Costco and do a big shopping, and I don’t buy any of that! I figure if it’s still left after a year, it’s because I don’t like it that much.

    • Donna Freedman

      Very organized! And you can’t beat the fresh-from-the-garden produce, especially if you live in a place where it’s too hot to eat anything heavy in the summer.

  4. Kandace

    I tried an experiment of eating out of the pantry a few years out. The first time I did it we went for two months. The second time we made it three months. The experiment assumes you have a full pantry to start with and I loaded up on fresh produce before we started our experiements. I did allow my husband and I to eat out once a week.

    We saved about $300 a month by doing this (that’s generally what we spend for groceries), got creative, and cleaned used a lot of items that were sitting on the back of pantry and freezer shelves. We did it in winter, but it would be much easier to do in the summer with a garden in the backyard.

    Mostly, we did it to see if we could do it, and we did!

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks for sharing a real-life example of how this can benefit us. We not only save money in the here and now, we get the benefit of all that food we spent good money on however long ago.
      Sometimes DF and I wonder how long we could live from our pantry. The diet would eventually end up as a lot of rice and beans once we finished the other canned and dried goods, but we could probably go on for as much as a year. Our goal now is to keep using that stored stuff and supplementing only with a few fresh items.

  5. Make Do Mom

    Last month I did a two week spending freeze. There was no buying frenzy before; I just decided one day to go cold turkey for as much of the two weeks as I could. I saved a significant amount of cash, learned a tremendous amount about my spending habits and completely forgot my debit card PIN. Yes…didn’t use it for 14 days then I stood in line at the grocery store on the 15th day and drew a complete blank when the machine asked for my number. Luckily I had the $8.39 in cash for the few items I’d selected. Which, by the way, is another endorsement for a well-stocked pantry – two weeks and I still got away with spending under ten bucks to “restock.”

  6. Ro in SD

    This frugal hack is not for me. After early childhood experiences eating USDA surplus food I enjoy eating well and scrimp else where in my budget.

    However, I do have some good cheater meals that I can throw together on the fly to eat in when I would normally get take out. I get some pre-fab Boboli or other brand pre-made pizza crusts,tomato sauce and cheese on hand for quick, customized single serve pizzas. They’re delish but not too costly. If I have the time and energy I’ll make my own crusts. It’s really hard to deal with dinner when it’s 90 plus degrees so I don’t beat myself up too hard about take out in the summer.

    At work I keep lots of shelf-stable foods on hand so I can eat at my desk or in the cafeteria. Tuna in pouch works well as do the small packs of peanut butter crackers I got on super sale last month. Better than spending $5 on the crappy food offered at my work cafeteria. If I buy lunch there I usually feel ripped off.

    I bought a really cute lunch bag with pretty flowers all over it. I think it will cheer me up when I bring my leftovers to work (like I will tomorrow.

    • Never underestimate the power of a pretty lunch bag. Mine makes me smile nearly every day! It has owls on it.

  7. I did a low/no spend in January of this year. Amazed myself at how much I was able to put towards debt. Since then, not so much, but am aiming for another one starting today – the last of a 3 paycheck month.
    As a single person my big problem is menu planning and cooking for one without getting bored. I have been switching over to the Paleo lifestyle as I truly feel better when I forgo processed foods including sugar, grains, legumes, and dairy and the weight loss has been a bonus too. Looking forward to container gardening on my balcony next spring.

  8. Such a great article.It is easy to overspend eating out I have some family members who need to read this.Thank you

  9. mrs. short

    We’ve done the pantry challenge too, just to see how long we could go. I think we made it a month. We eat out maybe once a week. August and October are exceptions – birthday months come with lots of free birthday goodies. We don’t cut back since we don’t do it that often, plus January is a really low-spend month for us, so we allocate our non-spending savings for the uptick when it’s not cold enough to lose your toes. Haha. We really, really need to do the pantry/freezer challenge again because we are really as stocked up! When we do it, we do allow shopping for things like bread (for lunches) and fruits/veggies.

  10. SherryH

    Hm. There’ve been more than a few times when low-spend/no-spend was not something our family undertook as a challenge, but was the order of the day. As a challenge, I’ve tended to see the “live from your pantry” thing as something that moved spending around, rather than saving money. I hadn’t thought of it as a creativity or realignment exercise, and I’ll have to think about that.

    Right now I’m on a kick to eat down the contents of the storage freezer, so I can defrost and reorganize it. It’s part of my ongoing plan to reorganize/label the kitchen so that I can take over meal planning (and hopefully most of the cooking) again.Money allowing, I don’t have a problem with eating out because we feel like eating together and not having to worry about the dishes, or to support a local business, or because a group we belong to has a meeting there. What’ I’m trying to cut back on is eating out because nothing’s planned or defrosted, or we’re running late to somewhere, or there’s no quick and easy fallback on hand. Slowly but surely, I think we’re getting there.

    • Donna Freedman

      Good point. When my friend and I have lunch out at a “real” restaurant, vs. economizing at Subway, we choose a locally owned establishment vs. a chain. As for having no quick and easy fallback on hand, DF is always thinking ahead — habit of growing up in the Bush, I suppose — so it rarely happens that there’s nothing available. If it does, we’re okay with having turkey burgers (which take only about 20 minutes or so) for dinner.
      Eating in doesn’t mean 100% savings, since you obviously have to buy the food in the first place. But our turkey burgers sure are cheaper than the ones at Red Robin.

    • We don’t eat out often, but when we do, I consider it an investment in our time together as a couple (or as a family, if the kids are able to join us). We ask for restaurant gift cards for Christmas! In addition, we try to limit take-out to once or twice a month. We’ve always lived like this, but I have to get busy on the clean-out-the-pantry challenge.

      On another topic, has anyone ever costed out the difference between homemade and store-bought spaghetti sauce? DH and I are the only ones who like it, I thought if I made our own I might save a couple of bucks.

      • Donna Freedman

        Re spaghetti sauce: If you can get tomatoes cheaply enough, i.e., on sale, it might be cheaper. The other advantage is that you know what’s in it, and what’s NOT in it (e.g., sugar, preservatives).
        And I’m not against meals away from home per se — I just want people to pay attention to how much they’re spending. When thinking about longer-range goals (house fund, replacement vehicle, retirement), all that money for meals we often don’t even remember/don’t enjoy all that much/could have done without because we did have leftovers we could have used is money that can’t go toward more lasting/satisfying goals.
        Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  11. When I stay at home, my spending is under control. But when we go off on a travel adventure I have difficulty keeping expenses at or even near budget. I compensate by limiting my travel adventures to just two or three a year. The in-be-tween time I use to regroup, re-save, replenish and prepare for the next trip.
    I still track all my expenses but I don’t get upset with myself as I used to. I don’t boycott anything because basically it’s my fault if I go off the wagon.

    • Donna Freedman

      This. I don’t spend much on restaurants (or on much of anything, really) for most of the year. But I’ll be attending (and speaking at) the Financial Blogger Conference again this year, and as usual will stay an extra few days to visit with my daughter, who’s also attending. Since the conference will be over, I can’t deduct any costs for business reasons. In addition, I’ll be visiting my dad on the East Coast in October and having an early Thanksgiving with my daughter in November.
      Even though a friend was kind enough to give me buddy passes (good for 90% off the published airfare) for the two latter trips, I’m still going to be spending. So the money I don’t spend all year long will help defray the cost — yet another example of my frugal mantra, “I save where I can so I can spend where I want.”

  12. My solution is to not eat out at “chain” restaurants, but save up for a really good, gourmet restaurant three or four times of year=admittedly I am a food snob and find that yes, the TV chef restaurant is worth it. I also have a cooler, the kind with glasses and napkins and such, and I’m not afraid to use the deli section of the grocery when needed. My dining out comes out of the entertainment budget.

    Oh, and when traveling everything goes out the window. I ate my way through Europe, now I get to do the same in the us.

    • Donna Freedman

      When Linda B. and I aren’t at Subway we’re eating at one of three local restaurants. We call that “supporting the local economy.” 😉

  13. Hi Donna, Nice reading your blogs. After reading this post can’t restrict myself from commenting as going to restaurants or shunting them are one of my fav topics. Yes, believe me. Let me here say three aspects: First, I generally don’t visit restaurants even on occasions, leave alone monthly hangouts. Second, I always cook at home which saves me loads of money but still get tasty food. Third, I’m always at the lookout for earning more by opening more income channels. Though my primary skill earns me enough to fend for, I resort to Forex trading and stock investment through Corner Trader which helps me grow the dough. Therefore, the crux of the matter is I live a frugal life and shun the restaurants almost entirely but still enjoy my life with friends and family members. Moreover, I open new fronts of income to support my retirement plan.

    • Donna Freedman

      To each her own. I do enjoy cooking and eating with DF, but I also enjoy lunch out with my friend. Today we met another pal at a bakery/Chinese restaurant in Anchorage and got to hear about the third friend’s new art project. I spent about $12 and enjoyed every moment (and brought half the meal home with me — it’ll be tomorrow’s lunch).
      The fact that most of my meals are eaten at home offsets the ones I eat elsewhere. And as noted: I’m supporting the local economy!
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *