Monthly Budget Busters: Saving Money by Cooking at Home

Sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest difference. See how saving money by cooking at home can have more than one positive effect.

Have you hit the wall? You update your budget every single month and at the end, you realize how much money you are wasting by eating out. Other than out-of-control shopping, I’m not sure I know of an easier way to break the budget than with constant visits to a restaurant.

The crazy thing is, 10 years ago when I was really pushing the ticket on eating out, you could legitimately get a hot meal for $10 or less at a sit-down establishment. Nowadays, you can barely eat fast food and get a soft drink for less than $10.

Most of my friends by now know that I’m a huge nerd and that trying to save money is my big thing. The question I get asked the most is what the easiest way is to save money in a month that I won’t even notice. My answer is always to start saving money by cooking at home.

Every family is different, but I currently have a family of four. Two young ones (who hardly eat anything I make them) and a spouse. We typically budget $1,000 a month for groceries, and $250 a month for eating out.

We had a month during COVID where we spent $1,100 on groceries and less than $50 on eating out. Number one, everything was closed, and two, we realized how much money we were putting in our savings by eating at home.

However, it wasn’t that long ago when that budget was completely flipped. I’m almost embarrassed to say that when we first got married and we didn’t have children, we would spend well over $1,000 a month simply eating out.

The good news, though, is that kids usually will deter you from wanting to eat out as much, so their added expense quickly levels out by saving on eating out. I say this as a bit of a joke, but there really is some truth to it as well.

Getting Started:

As with anything, you can’t just dive into this and expect to be successful. When you are ready to start saving money by cooking at home, it’s best to adjust slowly. The first thing I would do is track how much you are eating out. Say you currently eat four dinners and four lunches a week out; a great start is cutting that by one of each meal per week.

Think about it this way: lunch costs $10 per person (being generous), and dinner is closer to $20 per person, especially if you have an alcoholic beverage of some sort. That means each person in your family would be saving $60/week by following this strategy. That is almost $250 a month!

I get it, your kids don’t cost as much when they eat out, you may order water to save money, and maybe you are even playing the special game at local restaurants to save money. The bottom line is that the average meal at home is going to be less than $5 per person, and you are never going to touch that in a restaurant.

Truthfully, if you begin shopping properly and planning out meals that include the philosophy of saving money, you can find meals that cost $5 or less and will feed a family of four. Saving money by cooking at home can add up fast, but if you try to just cut it out cold turkey, it won’t work.

I remember five years ago it become unenjoyable going to a restaurant. I never wanted to pick where to go, and it became an everyday thing that was almost expected. Now that we really only eat two or three total meals a week out, I look forward to those days and it becomes a treat. It’s also a lot easier to get your wife to pick where she wants to eat.

Ways to Help Saving Money by Cooking at Home:

My biggest tip to start saving money by cooking at home is to figure out how to be a better grocery shopper. That sounds silly, but there are two things my family has done that have made it seamless in eating at home for almost every meal no matter how hectic a day is.

Don’t get me wrong, we are a mortal family. There are still days when I’m driving home at 6 PM from work and I make the call home and ask what’s for dinner and the answer is, “you’re picking up a pizza.” There are also times when my toddler will beg and beg me for a happy meal, so if she does a few good things, I’ll splurge and give her the treat. Remember, saving money by cooking at home shouldn’t be a punishment.

Tip one – plan out your meals. It sounds silly but having a schedule for what you are having for each meal is huge. At our house, we plan out seven dinners, and two lunches over the weekend. But you can get as detailed as you want with lunches during the week or even a breakfast menu. My family rolls with cereal or toast in the morning, and we eat leftovers or salads for lunch during the week.

By having a plan, it just makes it all easier. There isn’t an excuse as to why you wouldn’t just cook at home, and at times I’m legitimately looking forward to a day based on the meal plan. For our plan, we notch in our eating out on our schedule as well. We typically order takeout or go to a restaurant on Friday or Saturday night. We usually keep that flexible and have one dinner planned and adjust on the fly.

Tip two – order your groceries. I know, the guy who is trying to save you money is actually saying to spend money for a service. Trust me, when I don’t have a chance to walk around the store and look at all the junk food I don’t need to eat, I save money.

On top of that, grocery pickup is also becoming a free service at most major chains where I live. It certainly may not be that way everywhere, but we currently pay no extra to schedule our grocery pickup.

If you do things right, you will make your meal schedule on Saturday morning, build your grocery list on Saturday night, and pick your groceries up for the week sometime on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, you will certainly forget something and have to make another trip to the store, but this strategy has saved us a fortune.

If I had a dollar for every snack item I brought home when I physically went to the store, I would likely be able to retire at a very young age.

Do the Math on the Monthly Cost of Eating Out:

Do you know how I was first motivated to start saving money by cooking at home? I did the simple math. I calculated how many times we were eating out, how many times we were eating at home and the average cost of each meal.

If you are keeping a monthly budget, a simple division calculation will give you a rough estimate per meal. Because we were having a drink or two at dinner, we were spending nearly $20 per person, per meal when eating out.

I can go to the store and buy a case of Bud Light that will last me a month and a few burgers, and my cost will instantly decrease. If you really want to dive into the weeds, you can also try to calculate your costs for each meal (at home) to really show the savings.

My family went from an average of $2,000 per month between groceries and eating out to about $1,400 per month. Not only did we save $600 per month, but we have also added two mouths to feed and sometimes buy diapers at the grocery store that just naturally go into that category.

The biggest thing that gets in my way now is going back to the office and wanting to go out for lunch. For about 18 months, I was 100 percent working from home. That meant it was not only more convenient to eat at home, but it was also substantially cheaper.

I went from $0 a week for lunch to $30 to $40 per week which adds up quickly. I used the exact same approach I listed above. I started by packing one day a week, and then after a few weeks, I went to packing two days a week and eating out once (I still am at home two days per week).

Don’t think it’s easy for me, I loved getting out of the office and eating with the team from my office, but the cost was getting out of control. I will also admit that my waistline is much happier; fast food three days a week is not the healthiest option.

Save Money and Eat Healthier:

Carrying on from the last subject, perhaps the biggest perk of saving money by cooking at home is the health benefits. Trust me, you can still eat bad at home, but when you really plan things out, it is much easier to eat good-tasting food and things that are substantially healthier for you.

When I was eating out constantly, I was still working out four to five times a week, now that number is more like two or three max, yet I’m still maintaining my weight. The only thing that has changed is the food I’m eating.

We still eat the good stuff like pizza, pasta, bread, and french fries, but just cooking things in the oven vs. a deep fryer or extremely high-calorie cheeses makes everything so much better all the way around. Saving money by cooking at home was what first appealed to me to change my strategy. Now the savings and healthy eating are both what keep my strategy that way.

Every family is different, but my wife and I have actually turned cooking into a hobby that we enjoy doing together. That is the one time during the day that we give the kids some screen time, so they allow us to get something done, and we cook dinner together.

The new big thing that has come out is the meals that get shipped to your home. It’s basically a box with all the ingredients you need, and you just put it together. If time is a huge obstacle for you, these are great. But if you are really trying to save money, these services can get expensive after the initial discounts go away.

We used these as a bridge for us. We started by getting two meals a week delivered, worked down to one, and now we don’t get any. If there is a good coupon available from time to time, we will order a one-off, but we saved the recipes from the ones we got, and now just order from the grocery and make them at home.

When you look at your budget, it’s easy to say you are going to cut your phone bill, cut going to a concert one month, or even not take that family vacation you go on every single summer. While sometimes those are necessary cuts, start with the easy stuff first.

Not only is saving money by cooking at home one of the easiest ways to save a good amount of money fast each month, but it can also create some habits that will lead to a healthier and happier lifestyle. I tried for months to say I would play less golf or dive less to save money, it just doesn’t happen that easily (at least for me).

One item you will always hear me preach is don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you have some seriously bad habits of eating out, it’s going to take time to dial it back. But if you try to go completely cold turkey you will have a much higher chance of failure. There is no worse feeling than setting a goal and not meeting it.

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