I was a junior in college the semester I met the man who would one day become my husband. For our first date, I expected him to take me out to dinner; instead, he took me bowling.

That kind of thing, it turned out, was second nature for my husband. In his family, which included his parents and three siblings, they rarely went out to eat. Even a simple trip to McDonald’s could cost their family of six upwards of $25 – and that was back in the 1980s. I, on the other hand, just about grew up in restaurants.

I’m joking, of course… well, a little, at least.

Some families like to use their disposable income to buy electronics, like a former neighbor who always had the coolest gadgets the moment they hit the market. Other families choose to use their extra cash to travel the world, visiting exotic places and must-see destinations. My family, on the other hand, spent our money on one thing: food.

Saying that, you’d suspect that we’re all overweight, but that’s not true. Save my mom’s hypothyroidism, which can send her weight spiraling upwards if her doctors play with her medication dosage, all three of us (I’m an only child) are in a healthy BMI range. My mom simply didn’t enjoy cooking – and, quite frankly, she wasn’t good at it – so my father indulged us three to four times a week with dinners out. My parents and I became fixtures at certain restaurants. A family-owned joint in my small Ohio hometown was our regular Wednesday night destination; the waitresses grew so accustom to our weekly presence that they’d save our favorite table for us and bring out our drink orders the moment we crossed the threshold. Saturday mornings took us to a diner the next town over, where, once again, the waitresses could predict what we’d order before we even glanced at the menus.

A few years ago, my mom and I tried to figure exactly how much money she and my dad had spent eating out over the years. For roughly two decades, the three of us – and, later when I went to college, the two of them – ate an average of five meals a week outside our home. My parents did their best to limit the cost of those meals, taking advantage of coupons, loyalty discounts, and night-specific specials, but estimate they spent an average of $20/meal, for a weekly average of $100.

If you’re not a math guy – like my dad – I’ll help you with the numbers:

  • $100 a week
  • 52 weeks a year = $5,200 a year
  • 20 years = $104,000 over two decades… just to eat out

Consider what you could do with $104,000. You could buy four brand new Toyota Camrys. You could put down a 38% down payment on the average American home. You could go to Disney World – and stay at one of the deluxe-level resorts – one week every year for 22 years (if you stayed at a value-level resort, you could stretch that out to 50 years’ worth of Disney vacations). If my parents had invested in an IRA, contributing $5,200 a year for that 20-year period, the money would have more than doubled; it would now be worth more than a quarter-million dollars.

We often talk on here about how important it is to have a dining out budget – hard and fast parameters to guide our spending when we eat out. But the thing is, my parents did adhere to a budget at restaurants. Was it a little high? Probably. Could they have done better things with the money? I guess that depends entirely on your personal preferences. My mother would argue no; I’m much more frugal than her, so I’d say yes.

Here, our dining out challenge is $25 a week for a family of four. Is that realistic for your family? Is it in line with your family’s financial priorities?

Reader, where does dining out fall in your family’s priorities? Are you like my parents? Or are you more conservative – or just have other ways you’d rather spend your disposable income?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke