For a lot of people, when they first start to focus on getting out of debt or developing a budget, they look at their spending in two categories: food and dining out. My husband and I were not alone in this.

When we got serious about paying off our debt, we had to take an in-depth look at how much money we were spending on food. We had never had a concrete budget for this; we would go to the supermarket, convenience store, restaurant, swipe the debit card and that was that.  I would just input the purchase into the checkbook and move on. We didn’t realize how much we were spending until one day, I added it up. The number was staggering. Almost $800 per month. For two people.


It’s not like we ate at fancy places, either. Pizza, diners, Chinese food, Wawa…these were the establishments where our money was being spent. So the fact that we were spending almost $800 per month between these places and the supermarket made us both a little sick. We knew we had to do two things: 1) eat out decidedly less often and 2) have a budget when we did so. But there was one question plaguing us.

How much is enough?

As if budgeting isn’t hard enough, now we needed to have a sub-budget. We had to determine how much we needed and how much we could allocate to each meal. We also had to stop with the $3 and $5 purchases because they were destroying the budget in a big way (you know the saying good things come in little packages? Not so when those little things add up to over $100 per month).  This was a challenge we were not sure we could handle (if you live near a Wawa or one of its cousins, you know what I’m talking about).  But we also knew that if we were going to get our finances under control, this was part of it.

We agreed that it was impossible for us to completely eliminate restaurants from our budget. We just had to figure out how to make it fit. So, one night, we sat down with a pen, some paper, a calculator, our checkbook and we went to work:

  1. First, we looked at where we were going the most frequently. These were the places that we would continue to frequent until we had more money (or our parents were visiting. Because when they visit, they pay for dinner. Sneaky and immature, but true).
  2. Next, we decided how much money we would have to spend over two weeks based on the rest of our expenses and where we like to go. We split that sum in half, with each half to be used once per week.
  3. Then, we decided we would go out to dinner one time per week. If we wanted to go more often, like during the week with friends or coworkers, that would have to come out of our allowances. There is always food in the house to pack for lunch (even if it’s not the most desirable. Just ask me how many times I’ve eaten egg salad because I don’t want to use my own money for lunch).
  4. Finally, we made it a committed, line item expense. By making sure that we accounted for this money every payday, we knew we would still be able to enjoy going out to eat while keeping the cost under control.

The budget we established has worked extremely well for us over the last few years. It’s had its fluctuations, like the months we had to completely eliminate it or the months we’ve gone a bit over but, for the most part, it’s been a good amount. As our income has increased and our debt decreased, it’s now time to revisit the restaurant budget.

But at least this time we know what we’re doing and we won’t be subjected to an $800 sticker shock.

How did you establish your dining out budget?

Jana Lynch

Jana Lynch