Considering that food expenses are usually the category people spend the most on every month (aside from their mortgage or rent), it's very important to have an accurate picture of how much you are spending on eating out/ordering in if you're trying to keep a lid on your spending for whatever reason.
Does this mean that you're not allowed to eat out? Of course not! But I think you owe it to yourself to know exactly where your money went and why you spent it. Then, spend a few minutes analyzing your spending and deciding if you ought to or want to change your spending patterns the following months. Hey, everyone needs a day off once in a while and a splurge is fine if 1) you can pay for it without going into debt and 2) you don't use the "everyone needs a break once in a while" excuse to constantly spend money that could be better used somewhere else.
Last year (I'm speaking 2014), I felt that I had done OK with our food expenses. That is, until I took a good look at how much we spent, during the whole year, on FOOD. I had started blogging and trying to hold myself more accountable by documenting my food waste, I was tracking expenses in various Excel spreadsheets, but I wasn't including our eating out/ordering in expenses in the big "Food Expenses" picture. My budget back then, for "groceries" was $120 a week and my goal (which was a nebulous thing that I actually wasn't really trying to reach very assiduously) was to try to go under the big monthly number in groceries and see that our eating out expenses combined with our grocery expenses didn't go past that number. Because I was very casual about the eating out component, we pretty much failed to not exceed our stated food expenses budget for the year.
I decided to do things differently this year. First off, I only account for FOOD expenses in my weekly grocery report. I took out the cat litter, any personal care items, cleaning products, and other items that are not strictly food and drink. I don't spend all that much in the other categories so getting that spending under control isn't a priority for me. The only exception is that I also no longer account for our alcohol purchases under the grocery budget either. I don't drink but Greg enjoys a whiskey after dinner. I buy our whiskey at Winn Dixie, typically, every so many months, because I get a 10% discount if I buy at least 4 bottles at a time. I have a sneaky suspicion that the cashier and Discover Card think that I am a boozer, LOL. I decided not to account for it under our food expenses because it's sometimes hard to predict when I will buy some and I wanted to try to keep my budget as consistent from week to week (or month to month) as I could.
The other change that I made is that I also started tracking the money spent on school lunches separately from eating out expenses in general. My kids pack their lunches but we do allow our son (in middle school) and daughter (in high school) to buy lunch once a week. Last year I was fully funding school lunches for my daughter and my middle son (a senior in high school through May 2014) for 2 weeks out of the month and I included that in the overall "eating out" expenses. This year my middle son no longer lives with us and my daughter has started packing her lunch 4 days a week at least. I preload my kids' lunch accounts when the total in each account is close to $3 because $3 will let them buy lunch once and the lunch account program can take up to 48 hours to process the payment. I only fund the accounts $10 at a time because, honestly, I don't want too much cash tied-in to a school lunch account! The program emails me when the accounts dip under a certain amount and I have reminders set for every Friday in my Google calendar to go check the balances in the kids' lunch account.
School lunch expenses have their own way to creeping up: a forgotten lunch on the kitchen counter here and there, a "I was too tired to pack lunch", a "We ran out of lunch meat so just buy lunch tomorrow" (when a homemade PBJ would have been a perfectly acceptable alternative!), those are all the ways we have spent more money on school lunches than I would have liked. So I want to keep a closer look on how much money I funnel to the schools that way.
I also started color coding our eating out/ordering in expenses by creating categories for reasons why we ate out/ordered in. Basically, all the colors but red are justifiable expenses for my family:
Since I'm very visual, this creates a great at-a-glance analysis of where our money went (and for me it's more effective than looking at numbers, because that red really spurs me into frugality mode!).
So here was the total "food" expenses picture looked like for 2014: note that it did include other things such as whiskey, cat litter, etc. so I can't really compare 2014 to 2015 apples to apples. I didn't want to spend hours reworking my entire spreadsheet for the year but it did give me a pretty good idea of where we spent our money.
If you look at January 2014 (that was before I started blogging about my grocery shopping trips, Food Waste Friday, etc. and my middle son still lived with us part time), we spent $922.57 in grocery expenses (again, that included other things than strictly food and drink) and $113.19 in eating out so we had spent $435.76 OVER what my food budget was for the month (@ $120/wk and there were 5 weeks in the month so $600 was my budget that month). Yikes! As a matter of fact, if you look in the far right column, you see that we went over budget every month but in April. So some frugalista I was, right? Ugh. Our eating out expenses were huge. What's the point of running to 6 stores for the best deals and clipping coupons for hours if I'm going to say "Screw it, I don't feel like cooking, let's order Domino's?" so many times that our food expenses budget get blown out of the water?!
I didn't start color coding our eating out expenses until September, so let's look at September 2014:
O.M.Z! Look at all the RED!!! These are expenses that were incurred because I didn't feel like cooking/packing a snack that day. We spent $345.41 in eating out/ordering in/school lunches that month. That is more than I am spending on grocery shopping each month of 2015!
So obviously we needed to get that spending under control. I'm happy to report that in 2015, the whole picture is very different.
This is the breakdown of our food expenses for 2015 so far. My totals are a little off compared to YNAB (by no more than $10 per month, though) because when I categorize our expenses on YNAB and I have a Target shopping trip where I bought food AND cleaning supplies, for instance, I don't allocate the Redcard discount, tax or reusable bag discounts very strictly whereas I do account for those in my Excel spreadsheet. Hence the slight discrepancy. (Note: this also doesn't take into account the expenses for having a vegetable garden. The reality is that gardening, for me, is a hobby so I account for those expenses in another area of my budget, not with the food expenses. I don't really have a goal to be self-sufficient in the food production area because I'm not delusional. I'm a mediocre gardener who lives in a state where climate and bugs make it hard to get a good harvest at a minimal cost. So while I like to brag that I got collard greens "for free" from my garden, the reality is that I had to buy seeds (although I buy most of my seeds from the Dollar Tree at $0.25/a packet nowadays), soil, perlite and peat moss (we live in Florida so our sand without much topsoil just doesn't cut it), and bins to make self-watering bins just to name a few things.)
I hope that you are able to scroll to the right to see the whole screenshot (if I use the X-large size in Blogger, the picture will actually be quite small).
This year our food budget is $100/wk. After looking at January (and realizing that, despite my best intentions, we spent more than that after factoring in school lunches and eating out/ordering in expenses), I decided that I wanted to try to not go over that budget at all, meaning that school lunches and eating out/ordering in would need to all fit within the $100/wk budget.
So basically, that meant:
- Spending as little as possible in groceries by eating out of our pantry/fridge/freezer/garden as much as possible,
- Trying not to eat out as much as possible. As I said, everyone needs a break once in a while, but in my case, I think the break should be a happy occasion like a treat or a date, NOT because I'm feeling lazy and I don't want to spend 20-30 minutes cooking a meal that I have already planned and already shopped for!
Looking at the overall picture, we spent more than our $100/wk on food in January and in March, even though we were under budget in grocery expenses every month. So that's a red flag.
Let's look at the breakdown of eating out expenses every month so far. Here is the category key again:
A caveat: even though I ask Greg to give me all his receipts as soon as possible, he always manages to lose some and I don't find out about certain expenses until I look at the credit card statements the following month (I could monitor those daily, but... come on!). Also, he likes using cash. And when he does, he rarely keeps or turns in his receipts, which means that I cannot track what he spends it on. So realistically, our "eating out" expenses are probably higher than that because I do know that he buys the occasional soft drink or smoothie from his cafeteria or the vending machines at the gym, but I have no way of tracking it without actual receipts. Grrr. But then at the same time, it's not like he's withdrawing cash every week or in huge amounts so it's all good. (she says, her eye twitching!)
January 2015: (Overall picture: we spent $349.42 in groceries, $20 in school lunches, $42.75 in eating out/ordering in and we were over our food budget by $12.07)
February 2015: (Overall picture: we spent $145.83 in groceries, $10 in school lunches, $86.18 in eating out/ordering in and we were under our food budget by $157.99). Woohoo!
March 2015: Uh oh, the red is creeping up! (Overall picture: we spent $199.26 in groceries, $20 in school lunches, $289.38 in eating out/ordering in and we were over our food budget by $108.64)
April 2015: (Overall picture: we spent $243.96 in groceries, $20 in school lunches, $37.67 in eating out/ordering in and we were under our food budget by $98.37). The grocery expenses are going up as my daughter now lives with us full time and I've had to replenish pantry staples that I had used up but hey, eating out/ordering in was WAY down, even though we did order in once because I didn't feel like cooking. Well, everyone but me ordered in because I made myself a sandwich at home, so I failed, but not really too :)
Analysis of why we went over budget in January and March:
January: Plainly stated, I spent too much on groceries! This was before I decided to eat out of the pantry as much as we could. So even though we technically were under budget for groceries, the two socializations that we enjoyed (one of them being to celebrate our son's birthday so we splurged on snacks and drinks at the movies, something that we do only once a year on average), put us slightly over budget. Not a huge deal. We didn't eat out or order in out of laziness at all so I'm proud of myself for that.
March: There were definite attenuating circumstances to our going over budget and having such high eating out/ordering in expenses. Greg's dad is battling cancer and Greg traveled twice in the month to help out his mom. While he was there, it's natural that he would take her (and his sister who was visiting too) out to dinner and help pay for groceries since he was staying there for several days each time. However, the dreaded red reappeared as I declared a couple of nights that I wasn't going to cook dinner. It's a slippery slope (judging by how many times I did that last year!) and Greg is usually very good as steering me back on track by not being too enthused about ordering in (truth be told, our options for eating out/ordering in without having to drive 20 minutes each way are very limited!). If I hadn't been lazy, we would have still been over budget but we would have saved $44.94... which is almost a whole week's worth of groceries for us. Wow.
So the goal of this exercise, for me, isn't to beat myself up for deciding, a couple of times a year, that I'm not going to cook, but to encourage me (and Greg) to be more conscious of where our money goes. After all, he works very hard to make that money and I don't relish the idea of having to go to work. If we ever want to be able for him to retire and live off the little that we will have succeeded in saving, we need to change our mindset and wasteful habits NOW. Yes, an occasional meal out is something to enjoy (we really enjoyed our dinner at Ruby Tuesday's last night!) but when eating out/ordering in becomes the default because I don't want to cook, I feel that I'm disrespecting the hard work that both he and I do (he by actually having a job and me by working hard to be frugal in all areas) and endangering our retirement years. YMMV.
So, wow, this was a way longer post than I intended to write, but I felt it was important for me to put my thoughts about this in writing so I could refer back to them later on in the year and see if I still felt the same way and if this recap helped me reduce our eating out/ordering in expenses in 2015.
Important things to keep in mind for the rest of the year:
- The kids and I will be traveling in Europe for a month. Even though we will be staying with family every day but one, we will be eating out quite a bit, I expect, so as to reduce the financial burden on my parents and my siblings. Food is significantly more expensive in France than in the USA, so there is no way we'll remain on budget.
- Meanwhile, Greg will be on his own for his meals. He is NOT a couponer or seeker of great deals when it comes to food. Our June/July budgets will be blown to pieces. Oh well. Hopefully it will all even out when we close out the year.
- My middle son might end up living with us a few days a week starting in the Fall. It that happens, I expect our groceries expenses to go up a bit although he will probably be eating out in his own quite a bit.
Do you account for eating out/ordering in at all? How do you manage to keep those expenses under control or do you not worry about them at all? Please share in the comments!