When I was in my early twenties, I was pretttty frugal. To set the scene, I was living in a freakishly expensive city and equipped with a fairly narrow budget. Truth be told, it was the first time I was faced with full financial responsibility.
Rent, insurance, student loan debt… all under my name.
I was also 22 which meant I could still stay up past midnight and eat popcorn for breakfast without getting a headache. That part of my experience didn't give me any trouble – it was the social spending that came along with the life of a young 20-something that was worrying to me.
I worried about what brand of yogurt to buy (the cheaper one I didn't like vs. the more expensive one that I actually did). I worried that my little netbook would explode and I'd be faced with the expense of a new computer (or have to do without one). I worried about whether a commitment to a night out would end up costing me my very meager savings (it almost always did). I worried over every single invite because of hidden costs that might lie within the experience. In particular, I became particularly anxious over the classic "dinner and drinks" offers that usually kicked off the weekend. They represented a guaranteed $30 from a pocket that didn't have $30 bucks to spare.
Clearly, I was a boat-ton of fun.
In addition to worrying, I also spent a lot of time and energy trying to control every single financial deviance. In the case of meals out, I looked up menus ahead of time to work out what I could feasibly afford. The cheapest thing on the menu became my go-to default. Cheapest dish, cheapest drink, cheapest… cheapest whatever. Even still, the proactivity to save didn't do much to calm my worries and the anxiety would carry throughout the meal. In very non-scientific terms I felt pinched and spazzy the whole time.
On top of being a financially distracted dinner date, more often than not there was a grand emotional finale at the arrival of the bill. I almost always brought cash to put down for my meal but there were inevitably those moments when we'd all look at one another and someone would utter the dreaded phrase: "Let's just split the check." When every ounce of your energy is spent trying to stay within the lowest possible price range, having a bill divided between others who may have ordered two or three drinks or more expensive entrees was surprisingly emotional. In those instances, all my worry resulted in… paying more for less. My house salad of iceberg lettuce and a cherry tomato suddenly doubled in price.
This kind of saving strategy went on for a long time. Choose the cheapest menu item to save the most money. But after one too many busted budgets (and one too many entree priced appetizer), I finally decided to restructure the way I approached dining out. It was a long hard journey but I came to the conclusion that being smart about how you spend your money sometimes means that you actually spend more money.
Let me explain.
We're taught from a fairly young age that to save money we should be buying things that cost less. On a basic level, this is absolutely true. Lower costs mean less money taken out of pocket. But that principal leaves out a couple very important factors: value and quality. Personal finance becomes a bit more complicated when you factor in the investment value of a purchase. I'm not talking about your 401K or your stock market profile. Small purchases have investment potential too. For example, a meal out.
My initial financial investment (in the form of the cheapest menu item) more often than not had a very poor return. The cheapest food isn't always particularly filling nor is it necessarily made of sustaining ingredients. Sticking to the cheapest items also carried a higher risk when I considered that there was always the possibility that I'd end up splitting a bill and taking on some of the cost of other, more expensive meals.
Truth: the middle ground isn't always so balanced
Eating out is an expense, no matter how you look at it. Whether you drop 50 dollars or 500 – the cost is directly related to the number in your bank account. That being said, it's a obviously a little easier on your bank account to choose the lower of the two options. However that doesn't mean the lower cost is going to feel less painful. As in the the case of cheaper menu items, you may already be struggling with the decision to spend money. Thus, even something that costs $5 might feel out of your budget even if it's less than what you couldbe spending.
Trying to reach a middle ground by always going the less expensive route could very well mean that you're spending money you don't want to on things you don't really care for. Money doesn't buy happiness, but spending money on things that don't add or fulfill represents both cost lost and experience lost. In my case: I was more upset by spending money on stuff I didn't want than I was by spending a little extra to get something that I actually wanted.
Consider value and quality in your financial decisions
I've always had a hard time choosing quality over quantity. When I'm up for dessert, I want the option that gives me the biggest slice of store-bought cake over the sliver of richer, quality chocolate. It's an ongoing struggle but I've become increasingly aware that it's not just about the initial experience of hoarding and eating 3 cups of stale peanut M&M's… it's also about how you feel at the end of the experience. When you choose something that's satisfying (maybe that means rich and flavorful, maybe that means something particularly special or unique, etc.) you enhance your experience.
The result is a degree of satisfaction that can't be replaced by spending money on something that is ‘meh' or lacks ingredients that have depth or complexity. I'm not saying that you should go for the lobster every time, but ordering $9 onion rings over a $14 entree that fills you up (and also offers the possibility for leftovers) may actually be the better investment.
Now when I go out to eat I find it much easier to scan the menu and decide based on value rather than simply focusing on the lower number.
If all else fails, choose an alternate activity
All the above being said, if you're struggling to find value in eating out or are stressed to the point that it detracts from the experience, consider alternate activities! Eating out has become synonymous with a social life but it's only one activity. Put your money towards something else that feels more valuable in your circumstances. For example, a concert or a sporting event. There's plenty to explore and pursue outside a restaurant. Be open and upfront about your financial situation with your friends and you might be surprised at how many others share your sentiments.
Claire Murdough is a personal finance writer for ReadyForZero, a company focused on helping people pay off debt. She is a Bay Area native with an affinity for travel and food who enjoys writing about how to get out of debt and many other topics. You can keep up with her on Twitter @ReadyForZero.