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Why Eating Out May Be More Financially Responsible than Cooking at Home

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The ongoing pandemic and the economic upheaval it’s causing are tragic beyond words. Not being able to see and hug my kids or meet in-person with good friends is really hard.

But even if we somehow set all those aside for a moment, there’s an embarrassingly less important thing that still gets me.

I’ll confess – I love eating out. Having all restaurants shut down or at best offering carryout sucks (even though it’s unquestionably the responsible thing to do).

But at least it’s better financially, right?

Eating Out Is Bad for Your Financial Well-being! Or Is It?

Ben Le Fort makes the case that eating at restaurants is bad for your financial well-being.

He offers data that show that on average, cooking at home costs $4.31 per serving vs. $20.37 for eating that same food at a restaurant.

That’s over 370% more expensive! Yikes!

However, with all due respect, I have to point out that his analysis ignores a crucial factor.

Time.

More specifically, the value of your time.

Let’s say that to cook all your meals at home you’ll spend two extra hours a week shopping. That’s a conservative estimate given the following all take more time if you buy more items even if you don’t end up having to run out an extra couple of times to get something you forgot:

  • Time walking down the grocery store aisles to find more items
  • Time at the register to check out with more items
  • Time to put away more groceries when you get home

That’s an extra 17 minutes per day.

Next, for every home-cooked dinner, you’ll need to spend more time on:

  • Finding a recipe
  • Pulling out all the ingredients
  • Cooking
  • Cleaning up after cooking
  • Setting the table before the meal
  • Clearing the table after the meal
  • Washing the dishes (or at least putting them into the dishwasher)
  • Putting away the clean dishes

Let’s conservatively estimate all that as an extra hour per dinner (and I’m assuming you eat leftovers once for each time you cook, and that you stick with meals you can cook in 30 minutes). Adding that to extra 17 minutes per day of shopping, you’ve just spent an extra 77 minutes per home-cooked meal.

If there’s only two of you, Le Fort’s math would save you an average of $32.12 per meal, ignoring the value of your time. Over a year, that adds up to over $11,700!. But that’s only if you value your time at $0/hour.

What if your time is worth $100/hour?

In that case, the extra 77 minutes per meal you spend cooking at home are worth $128! That means that instead of $8.62 for two servings (2x $4.31), your home-cooked meal just cost you $136.62!

Double yikes!

Wait a minute!” you may be thinking. Not too many people’s time is worth $100/hour. What if your time is worth just $40/hour?

In that case, the math works out to $59.95 per home-cooked meal, still more than the $40.74 (2x $20.37) from Le Fort’s data for the average restaurant meal.

In fact, the break-even point is somewhere around $25/hour. If your time is worth more than that, eating out becomes financially preferable.

Some Important Caveats

The above is all true, as far as it goes.

However, it ignores the fact that restaurant meals tend to be far less healthy for you, especially if you overdo things. Keep eating out all the time, and the negative health outcomes may cut years off your life and potentially add huge medical bills to boot.

It also ignores the fact that cooking together with your partner can be a great way to strengthen your relationship (at least until one of you starts swinging a frying pan at the other).

Finally, if there are more than two of you, the math starts tilting more and more in favor of home cooking. If you’re making a meal for four at home, the cost of ingredients is $17.24 compared to $81.48. This means your time needs to be worth over $50/hour to reach break-even with eating out.

The Bottom Line

While there are good reasons to eat most of your meals at home, if your time is worth enough, eating out at least periodically can actually be better for your financial health, even if you don’t love it as much as I do.

Opher Ganel profile pic

Opher Ganel

About the author:

My career has had many unpredictable twists and turns. A MSc in theoretical physics, PhD in experimental high-energy physics, postdoc in particle detector R&D, research position in experimental cosmic-ray physics (including a couple of visits to Antarctica), a brief stint at a small engineering services company supporting NASA, followed by starting my own small consulting practice supporting NASA projects and programs. Along the way, I started other micro businesses and helped my wife start and grow her own Marriage and Family Therapy practice. Now, I use all these experiences to also offer financial strategy services to help independent professionals achieve their personal and business finance goals.

Connect with me on my own site: OpherGanel.com and/or follow my Medium publication: medium.com/financial-strategy/.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to encourage any lifestyle changes without careful consideration and consultation with a qualified professional. This article is for reference purposes only, is generic in nature, is not intended as individual advice and is not financial or legal advice.

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