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Grocery Store or Restaurant? A Simple Rule of Thumb for Buying Your Next Meal

My biggest money weakness is impulse buying prepared food and drinks. Here’s a neat idea for cutting down on these unplanned expenses without cutting out the fun.
Photos by Stocksy

Sometimes the best advice is old advice. I was reminded of this the other day when I was digging through the archives of Mr. Money Mustache, the site of a Canadian-born former software engineer and lifestyle guru who was able to retire in Colorado at age 30 in part because of his frugal but far from austere lifestyle.

I had been trying to figure out a quick way to decide whether to eat out or bring my own food when I’m about town or on a day trip somewhere new. And there it was buried in a 2013 blog post called Wealth Advice That Should Be Obvious:


“Don’t think of restaurants as a source of food … Sustenance comes from your backpack. Restaurants are for carefully planned experiences with good friends.”

The simplicity of this rule really struck me. It’s so easy to buy an overpriced drink or sandwich at a street fair or on your way back from the beach, but if you pack your own bag with food and drinks from home you can easily save $15 or more—with the added bonus of bringing exactly what you want instead of just settling for what’s available.

Of course you’ll look like a Scrooge if you bring your own food when all your friends are ordering from the taco cart, so you have a couple options here: bring enough food (and drinks) to share or decide that if it’s a planned social outing you’re going to buy food along with everyone else to make things more fun.

You can still save money when you’re out with friends of course. Consider setting a dollar limit for yourself before you order to avoid blowing your budget, substituting water or seltzer for an expensive cocktail, and skipping fancy appetizers that just leave you craving more.

Five easy ways to DIY your snacks on the go

And if you’re going the backpack route? Here are a few of my favorite tricks to keep my DIY food game delicious on hikes, bike rides, and day trips:

  • Pack a small, soft-sided cooler in my backpack to keep drinks, yogurt, and sometimes even ice cream cold
  • Bring individual servings of nuts or make my own trail mix with pecans, chocolate chips, dried cranberries, and coconut chips in a small container
  • Hard boil eggs in advance, remove the shells, add a dash of salt and pepper, and pop them in a plastic container
  • Save protein bars for emergencies when I’ve run out of the good stuff
  • Always bring water so I'm never tempted to spend $5 for a cold drink just because my throat is dry.

These are just a few ideas for saving money on food when you’re out on the town. Got any you’d like to share?

Follow Anita Hamilton on Twitter.