Sunday, October 23, 2011

Inflation at the Restaurant?

Eating in Restaurants is expensive, but lately, it seems to be getting more so.

Eating out can be fun.  But for many people, the local restaurant is an extension of their kitchen.  Or, IS in fact, their kitchen.  Restaurant meals can bankrupt you, literally, over time, if you eat out every day of the week, and put it all on a credit card.  And what it does to your health, well, ugh.

And yet many folks justify this lifestyle based on the mantra that they are "so busy" working that it "makes no sense" to make food at home.

This argument is akin to the one about mowing your own lawn.  Young lawyers tell me that they can "afford" a lawn service.  After all, they are billing out at $200 an hour or more, so why not pay someone $50 to $100 to mow the lawn?  They can just work another hour!

The problem with this fantasy is that it assumes that you are being paid by the hour, and not on salary - as most people are these days.  So you make $100,000 a year, regardless of how many hours you bill, in most cases.  

The other problem is, of course, that you are not taking home that much money - indeed often far less than that, so you are not "making" $200 an hour, even if you are billing it.  And moreover, after taxes and all your other expenses, well, your disposable income might be $10,000 a year on a $100,000 salary.  Paying $1000 to $2000 a year for lawn care is a big chunk of your disposable income!

And the same is true with restaurant meals.  Even if you spend only $10 a day on lunch, you are looking at over $3000 a year on restaurant meals - enough money to buy food for a family for three months - or more!

And rationalizing your bad decision by "taking home" half the meal to eat for lunch the next day just doesn't cut it.  You are still spending 10 times more than you should on food.

And yet, many folks do this, and wonder why they are broke and have credit card debt.

It sneaks up on you, too.  And it seems that restaurant meals are getting more and more expensive.  On a recent business trip to Atlanta, we visited a number of restaurants, from a small outdoor cafe ($38) to an upscale Italian restaurant ($200) and everything in-between.  Dinner for two, with a bottle of wine, can get pricey, and real fast.  Throw in a tip, and you are looking at three figures easily, even for a neighborhood eatery.

And it seems that lately that prices are climbing every so slowly upward.  It is hard to get a good meal these days, without breaking the bank.

Now, granted, sometimes you go out to eat at a restaurant for a fine meal, and the cost is secondary.  Our trip to the Italian restaurant (supposedly the finest in Atlanta) was fantastic.  A bottle of wine with dinner, appetizers, entrees, after-dinner port, a cheese tray, and espresso.  It was a once-a-year meal for us, and a planned splurge.

But other places, well, they are less dining experiences than refueling stations.  And yet the cost of these was nearly that of some better restaurants.  We could have saved a lot of dough, and yet we didn't.  And we left after over-eating and felt bloated, not happy.

What did we do wrong?  Several things.  And here are some ideas on how to save money:

1.  If you are going to have cocktails, have them at home before you leave.  A simple drink, mixed at home costs a dollar or less.  The same drink, at a restaurant, can cost $5 to $10.  And let's face it - many of the drinks you get at bars and restaurants suck - they are indifferently and hurriedly made, and often weak.  You ask for a Martini, and they give you straight Vodka - warm.  Or they try to sell you some fruity drink instead.  You can lop $10 to $20 off your bill by having a relaxing cocktail at home, first (but be sure not to drive impaired!).  Of course, not drinking at all is even a better idea.  But this is a blog on how to live better on less, not how to live like a Monk.

2.  Wine is fun and a great pairing with dinner.  And for some reason, many restaurants see nothing wrong with taking an $8 bottle of wine and charging $35 for it.  Seek out restaurants with simple wine lists without a lot of mark-up.  And don't overlook the house wines, which are often very good - and good bargains.  Wine by the glass is very expensive - $5 to $10 in many places, or about half the cost of a bottle, in some instances.  Getting one bottle for a group makes a lot more sense than each person ordering a different wine, or different cocktails.  Frankly, to me, cocktails with dinner is like smoking with dinner.  I prefer a cocktail before dinner, wine with dinner.

3.  SPLIT AN ENTREE:  You need about 2000 calories every day to get by, and if you have a sedentary lifestyle, even less.  Yet, many restaurants offer entrees that top 1000 or 1500 calories - sometimes even more!  Eating this crap makes you feel bloated and sick at the end of the night - not satiated and happy.  Split one of these monsters with a friend.  Your total calorie intake for one meal should not be more than half your requirement for the day.

4.  Have an Appetizer instead:  Ordering an appetizer AND and entree sounds like fun, but with the calorie count for most entrees and appetizers, you could exceed your caloric need for the day - in one meal.   It is like going to the gas station and putting 20 gallons of gas in your car, when it only needs five.   You'd end up spilling 25 gallons of gas all over the ground - and wasting $50 of fuel.  No one would do that to their car, but we do it to our bodies all the time.

5.  Skip dessert - or share.  Desserts are high-markup items for restaurants, so waiters are trained to sell, sell, sell them.  I am not anti-dessert, but if you have an appetizer, entree, and then dessert, chances are, you are going to be overeating.  Sometimes it is nice, particularly if a restaurant is famous for its desserts, to have an appetizer or split an entree - to save room for a shared dessert.

6.  Check prices - it sounds stupid, but entree prices can be all over the board.  And recently, they have been creeping up.   It is reported that in New York City, a $40 entree is not that unusual.  Restaurant bills escalate fast in scenarios like that.  But make it a habit to scan the menu and look at their pricing scheme - and there is one, too.   Usually the highest priced entree is not there to be ordered, but to instead make the second-highest price entree seem reasonable.

7.  Check Quality.  Paying a lot of money for bad service and poor food is stupid.  And yet many folks do it, somehow convinced that they are lucky to be fed at all.  And many folks will fork over a lot of money to chain restaurants on the premise that "the portions are huge!  I can take some home!".  But a giant plate of pasta costs pennies to make, and paying a lot for too much food is idiotic.  If the service sucks and the food is bad - don't go back.  Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants, particularly in resort areas, can stay in business with bad service and bad food - because their target market is tourists, and they never come back anyway.  Learn to identify such spots and avoid them.

8.  Don't over-tip.  I am a generous tipper, having worked in restaurants to make a living.  But the idea that you should tip 20% "because of inflation" is as idiotic as Real Estate Agents pushing for 7% commissions because of inflation.  As prices go up, percentages increase accordingly.  Leave an appropriate tip, and don't be afraid to under-tip, or not tip at all, for poor service.  At one restaurant recently, the waitress made us wait nearly a half-hour for the bill.  She went to other tables asking people if they were ready to order, when they had just sat down (and as a result, they said, "I'll have an, uh, wait, maybe, uh....").  Fed up, we finally went to the front desk, only to wait another 20 minutes for the bill.  We should have walked out, frankly.  Tipping an inattentive or sloppy wait staff is never a good idea.  And don't over-do it, either.  15% is a good tip.  You are not making brownie points by leaving more, unless the service really was above and beyond.

9.  Eat Out Less:  And of course, the easiest way to cut back on your restaurant bill is to eat out less often.  Using the rubrick of "Hey, I'm tired, let's just go out to dinner" is a recipe for credit card debt.  It takes little or no talent to keep a can of soup in the cupboard, if you really are too tired to cook.  Using restaurants as your kitchen is short-sighted.  And yet many people do it, because they crave the salty, buttery restaurant food - as well as the chance to be waited on and lord over someone else for a change.  Both are shallow reasons to eat out.  Eating out should be special, not a trip to a refueling station.

10.  Find places that serve good food, but are cheap.  Our favorite restaurant on St. Simon's Island isn't some fancy fru-fru place, but a local pub that serves Oysters for 49 cents each during happy hour.   They also serve local Georgia shrimp fairly cheaply.  And yet many folks will go to the "Raw Bar" and literally pay 2-5 times as much for similar fare.   A local restaurant serves entrees in two portions - regular and petit, and has no entree over $10.  And with any entree their wine is $10 a bottle.  It is a good neighborhood restaurant with good food, and you can go there with four people and leave paying about $50 overall.  Other, more "upscale" restaurants nearby have higher prices but shoddy service and poor quality food.  Price and Quality do not always go hand in hand!

* * * 

Our recent trip was fun, but we ran up several hundred dollars in restaurant tabs, and in more than one case, we over-ordered and over-ate.    We squandered money when we shouldn't have had to.  My resolve is to think more carefully in the future, when eating out.