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Do we have to be rich to be chowhounds? How do you manage your budget?

Ok. This might be a weird question, but I was thinking about the "How many times a week do you eat out" thread...and I was wondering how most of chowhound budget themselves to be able to eat out as much as they do. I just started my career so I don't make a huge salary, but since I love restaurants and food in general, that's where most of my monthly "spending money" goes. But how do people in my situation manage? How do you eat out that much and still manage to buy nice clothes to wear when you eat out? ;-)

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  1. The same way French women don't get fat. Eat often, but eat little.

    You don't HAVE to eat a 10 course tasting menu every night of the week. You can go and have drinks only, hit a place at Happy Hour, or go and have dessert or coffee only. You still get to sample the ambiance, but at a significant saving.

    Increasingly, many places have HH specials or free buffets which helps a lot! Then there're deals to be had, like the one at this bar where they serve complimentary warm-roasted rosemary nuts, cheese straws, and marinated olives. All you do is order a drink (about $10) and that's a meal!

    And if you simply MUST eat, pick a few of the cheapest things on the menu and make a meal out of those!

    Finally, look out for "restaurant week" or other event deals where, once again, you get to sample a place at a reduced cost. Remember, every little helps!


    1. I think a lot of it depends on where one thinks they will find "chow." I spend about 50% of my income eating out (er... eating in general, actually).

      I have found some of the best chow in little Mexican dives in old strip malls in Phoenix, as well at some of the finer restaurants in the metro area.

      If I am a little tight on money due to other financial obligations, then I focus on those little Mom & Pop places that serve great ethnic food for very little pocket money.

      Having eaten at quite a few restaurants in Phoenix and Southern California, I can attest to the fact that there are some small, cheap places that serve much better chow than many fine dining establishments.

      1. Most of my spending money goes to food and clothes. The more I spend on one, the more I have to spend on the other. Oh yeah, and running clothes/shoes and race entry fees, which is also directly related to food consumption!
        My eating habits do not match my income. My food choices way out-spend my salary....

        2 Replies
        1. re: thenurse

          Exactly like me!!! But I find myself to be broke all the time! How do you manage?

          1. re: Frenchie

            I have no expense account. I guess I'm just used to being broke - and happy!!! It helps that I'm a good cook and some friends aren't. I make them a good meal, then they take me out (but this is not a formal agreement).
            I pick and choose when, and where I want to spend my money on eating out/$$$ food. I don't waste it on junk food, esp. if my fridge is full.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Well that's what I was GONNA say, but it doesn't help the OP much.


          2. I stopped buying new clothes or expensive toys years ago so that I could spend my money on the things that make me happy. Food and travel. I also do not drink that much when eating out unless there is a special wine that will complement the food. I find it absurd that a cocktail can cost as much as an entree.

            2 Replies
            1. re: lazysue

              I think you hit the target on this little tidbit. Drinks can easily blow your budget. It is so tempting to try new exotic mixtures, but my SO & I restrain ourselves so we can afford to eat out MUCH more cheaply. To 'reward' ourselves for such restraint, we buy really good alcohol to have at home so we can mix our own (we've become quite adept at finding amazing recipes online of our favourites)...and then there's no need for one of us to be 'designated driver'.

              Drinks can double your bill in a jiffy. If I want to *splurge* on an appetizer or dessert, it's usually the same or cheaper than the cost of a single frozen mixed drink...so it's all in how you look at things. Knock out the booze and you'll find a lot more $$ in your budget to invest in your chowhound addiction.

              1. re: debrolex

                Mme ZoeZ and I rarely drink when we are out - Mme.might have a glass of wine but I only want to order a shot of Stoly and THAT might be $12.00. Don't want it - not only that the 'shot' may be the size of a bucket and I don't want to drink all that and still be able to stand. That said, we often go to good/more $ restaurants and don't spend a fortune. We were recently at L'Atelier in Las Vegas (great decor, food and service) and our bill for two was just over $100 including tax and we had plenty to eat. Sharing is the key and haunting a few low cost ChowDives the rest of the time. If you love food, there's a way.

            2. I've learned to make what I like, and splurge only on the ingredients that are really, really important to the meal (like fresh, fresh seafood, good meat, etc.) and how to cut a lot of shortcuts, because I live well below the poverty line. I only go out once a week, and I never drink out anymore.

              1. I think a lot depends on what you like and where you go. I did the fancy pants restaurants and drinking out in my 30s when I was flush and single. Now they don't appeal to me any more. What appeals to me now is going out for good food with the whole family and making sure that my pups learn to eat well, appreciate the good stuff and avoid that dratted fast food stuff. As I get older [and spend too much time in the office like this week!] I find I am also even more partial to doing stuff at home. This has benefits as a drink sure is a lot cheaper at home than in a bar.

                We live in LA. Two adults, two pups, one income, renting not owning. We have one car and I take public transportation to work. We have one cell phone. We eat out a fair amount but rarely any place too pricy. We also cook alot and we hardly ever buy anything that is pre-packaged [okay, I buy bread but you know what I mean]. Cutting out the pre-packaged stuff does wonders for the wallet. I also don't buy coffee out although I have french press in my office and make lots of coffee there.

                This past weekend is a good example of lots of tasty eating but nothing high end.

                On Friday night, everyone was exhausted so we hit Pollo de braza [sp]--the peruvian chicken place on Western and 8th. Bill for 2 adults and 2 pups, $24. We had a whole chicken [with rice and beans], four skewers of bbque beef heart and a side of fries. We left stuffed and even took home some major hunks of chicken which went into the congee pot for Saturday breakfast and dinner.

                On Sunday morning we went to the Hollywood farmers market for weekly rations and breakfast. We hit a stand called Juanitas. 2 soft tacos [birria and carnitas] with lots of nopales and salsa for the big pup, a carnitas burrito for small pup and I and a birria burrito for father pup. About $18. Then off to take advantage of the free museum day in Pasadena. After way too many post-museum hours in Vromans book store, we went to Zankou chicken for dinner. We got one chicken, 2 falafal, an order of the eggplant stuff, a mango drink and a lassi drink. The drinks were shared. Total around $20. No leftovers this time--we were HUNGRY!

                Monday was "high end"--dim sum. Total before tip: $60. Yes, we can manage to spend $60 at dim sum for 4 people. We eat a lot but we tend to take bunches home too. I think elder pup counted and said we had 23 different things....[the cart ladies were in AWE!!!! or was it horror? of our munching abilities.]. In addition to a wonderful meal, we took home enough left overs for both kids & I to pack for lunch the next day.

                So total of four meals out for four people but actually about 7 meals for about $125.

                Our family weaknesses seem to be travel, food and books. The pups both get that buying every single toy means less money for eatting out or traveling and are really amazingly good at restraining themselves and asking if they REALLY want something. And we have no real clothes hounds in the house--I was actually thinking I need to break down and buy stuff for work one of these days.

                Not sure if that is helpful or not.

                1. Golly, I hope you don't have to be rich! Although there have been occasions when I was glad (from a culinary standpoint) that the guy buying the meal WAS.

                  It helps a lot to live someplace where there's a broad range of restaurants, including some good cheap ones, and of grocery stores as well. We are blessed in the LA area to have both some truly great blow-a-week's-salary places AND a wide variety of restaurants whose food you couldn't duplicate at home for less than they charge you. These last are mostly Chinese, in my experience, and it's common for us to eat handsomely and perhaps too well for under $10 apiece...WITH tip! Of course, I'm essentially repeating what Jenn has to say in the post above...

                  Anyway, a Chowhound isn't necessarily someone who dines on foie gras and the like every night, but simply someone who loves food, who knows what he likes and who'll go to some effort to seek it out. Though I must say if someone set a bit of foie gras in front of me I think I'd know what to do with it!

                  1. There's expensive Chowhound-worthy restaurants (the trandy upscale places) and cheap Chowhoundish restaurants (the little ethnic places where your car might or might not be there when you come out).

                    I'm fonder of the latter.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: wayne keyser

                      That sums it right up. I'm with you.

                      1. re: wayne keyser

                        As am I. I'm willing to spend money on some high quality ingredients or on going out somewhere expensive (and GOOD) for special occasions, but I feel most chowhoundish when I'm out discovering the tiny holes in the wall that have FABULOUS and cheapish food.

                        1. re: CeeBee

                          Totally agree! It's actually quite a bit more satisfying to find a great meal for an inexpensive price, because you aren't necessarily EXPECTING it to be good. This way, you feel accomplished; like you've discovered something special. However, if I'm dropping $100 for my meal in a fancy shmancy place, the food had better knock my socks off!

                          1. re: Melanie

                            Though so few things knock my socks off these days. If I see one more lentil veloute . . .!


                      2. Don't know what you do, but a lot of fabulous eating can be had at client meals, whether you're the client or you're taking the client, on company expense, of course. Maybe you can manuever yourself into a position where you participate in these somebody-else-pays-to-impress lunches and dinners.

                        1. You absolutely do not have to be rich. In my book, it's all about how well you can eat given your limitations of disposable income, time, mobility. It's how well you eat based on your resources.

                          I eat out a lot and do care where I eat every meal. Most of my breakfasts out are just a $1.39 bowl of oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar and half and half from a campus restaurant. Many of my lunches out are not much more than $5. In the past weeks, I've had really great pork mole and a Thai Veal Masaman curry lunches both for under $8@. On the weekends, I do tend to splurge a little, but I'm really not interested in spending a lot of money on expensive meals. I'd rather spend that money elsewhere, like on a new roof, and I have other (legal) vices.

                          As long as you have a reasonably well-paying job, you should be able to eat well.

                          1. Frenchie, hubby and I enjoy early bird specials, BOGO's, use discount books and clubs for fine dining, and we joined a dine around club; a prefixed menu for a large group dining together.

                            Lunch is cheaper than dinner
                            A few appy's can make a great meal
                            Dine at BYO's
                            Look for printed specials in the newspaper
                            Ask the manager/owner if they have a discount night during the week
                            My favorite: when people ask you what you want for your birthday, christmas, special celebration--ask for a gift certificate to your fav establishment!

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: HillJ

                              I must say, while appetisers can make a meal, when I was dining in "those" sorts of establishments, I found appys to often be overpriced mouthfuls. Most times when I was on a budget and went out, I wouldn't order the appys because they inflated the bill so much.

                              But those free appy happy hours, now theres a way to eat on the cheap! : )

                              1. re: jenn

                                jenn-depends where you go and sometimes what time of day; menus change from lunch to dinner. But, I can't argue that overpriced mouthfuls can be found just as easily.

                                PRICE is also a matter of taste.

                            2. Oh my, you need not be rich to be a Chowhound! As a matter of fact, I tend to think chowhoundishness is the antithesis of conspicuous consumption. Sure, we eat well, but there's such a difference.

                              Admittedly, Mister P and I rarely eat out, although we are heading to Florence in a month and plan to eat out a lot while we're there. But day in and day out we cook at home and our meals are a delight.

                              No, you don't have to be rich to be a true Chowhound. You just have to be willing try try different things and seek out interesting stuff. Sometimes the journey is more interesting than the destination, but one way or another it is rarely a boring trip.

                              1. Just starting out on a career w/ a thin wallet... sounds like me. When I have the time to enjoy chow, I'll go with a group of ppl so we can all share family style so we each get to taste several things for the price of one meal. It also helps to live close to my large extended chowish family; eating @ a relative's or eating w/ family always has its perks =)... we actually kind of do the trade-off thing often: I nose around for the next interesting chow tip, do the research/legwork, plan / make the reservation, and cost of the meal is covered by others. This is usually why I happen to be the one ppl count on to initiate/organize b-days, celebrations, events, etc.

                                1. All the posts here are wise; I guess we're chowhounds. Finding the good stuff is what it's all about; Farmer's markets for truly fresh ingredients when I cook, ethnic groceries for the little known gems, ethnic diners for comfort food, and the occasional high end splurge. It's all good.
                                  I think staying away from unhoundly places that feature quantity over quality, and foodie places that place style over substance allow me to maximize my food dollar utility. A simple homemade breakfast and lunch balances the occasional (ok, frequent) repast.
                                  Houndly comfort food places can help make life in LA tolerable, and when you become a regular at the houndly comfort food places, and they start treating you like family... Just so they don't ask me to wait tables...

                                  1. I have no idea where to find it in the new Chowhound system, but in the old interface you had to get through a sort of "mission statement" by Jim before you could get to the boards. On that screen, he explained something that many if not most Chowhounds forget or never learned: being a Chowhound is NOT the same as being a "foodie".

                                    There's nothing particularly Chowhoundie about fancy, expensive, or even good restaurants. French Laundry is as profoundly un-Chowhoundie as McDonalds, in a way. Being a Chowhound isn't about spending a lot of money; it's about teasing out the tastiest secrets you can find.

                                    The ultimate Chowhound find isn't the most famous restaurant in town; it's the perfect taco truck, the best knish, the best place to get bread or olives or clam chowder or taffy or whatever it is that floats your gastronomic boat. The ultimate Chowhound isn't someone who eats a different $40 entree every night; it's someone who will drive all the way across town for a particular club sandwich.

                                    So yes, it is extremely easy to be a Chowhound on a small budget, because being a Chowhound is about finding and eating good food, whatever the price point. The fact that the Chowhound boards so often devolve into competitive rankings between different star restaurant contenders, while a normal and understandable development, doesn't change that.

                                    Put it another way: a perfect, iconic Chowhound experience is as likely, or more so, to cost $1.00 as it is $100.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: fnarf

                                      fnarf-I totally agree! thanks for saying it better then I could

                                    2. Eating at home or in your 'hood: you should NOT be rich, you are probably more likely to find good food if your funds are limited, IMHO.
                                      Getting the opportunity to Eat (and travel) abroad: it helps to have money.

                                      1. The BEST meals that I have had this year have been very inexpensive.

                                        I was at the Red Iguana in Salt Lake City last weekend and had pork loin stuffed with various fruits and ancho chiles topped with a pumpkin mole. Dinner for two was a whopping $28 with tip.

                                        Miller's Grocery in Christiana, TN - nice fried catfish with three sides. Dinner for two was maybe $30 with tip.

                                        I took my 14 yo nephew to Albuquerque and had a great dinner of pork abodaba burritos, posole, and tacos for $18 for two at the Frontier Restaurant, a UNM campus haunt.

                                        There are a lot of great restaurants that do not break the bank.

                                        1. I certainly wouldn't equate being a chowhound with being a food snob. The former is an adventurous and enthusiastic eater; the latter lets others dictate what he or she should eat, and probably doesn't find the process nearly as enjoyable. You can eat quite well on the cheap, and there's no reason to feel ashamed for enjoying something that hasn't been blessed by Zagat.

                                          A few tips from another penny-pinching chowhound:

                                          1) Appetizers and salads are some of the more interesting items on menus, and they're frequently decently sized and reasonably priced. Order a few to share with friends and then skip to dessert.

                                          2) Find a cooking buddy and learn to make some of the things you usually like to order. It's enjoyable, and there's both skill and a social aspect.

                                          3) The world of takeout extends far beyond Chinese and Thai. Many places will let you pick up (occasionally you might need to do some fancy footwork...), and you can have a great dinner party or pinic with something from a restaurant as your main, and drinks, salad and dessert from home. You can make the ambience your own, the portion sizes will be more reasonable, and there won't be any tip to worry about.

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: lemonfaire


                                            Did you know most restaurants have people that are there JUST to do take out orders? They are making a measley 6 or 7 $ an hour and not much else thanks to people who think it ok not to tip on to go orders.

                                            Let me guess, if the bill was $23.95 you would round it up to $25.00?

                                            1. re: andlulu

                                              I always tip on to go orders. I tip direct in hand; the tip jar craze has gone waaay overboard. At a decent establishment to go service includes "can I get you a beverage while you wait" or at the very least placing the order, bagging and so forth. Tip!

                                              1. re: HillJ

                                                I have a simple rule, if someone is doing a service for me, I tip them.

                                              2. re: andlulu

                                                Good to know. I'd actually consider myself a pretty good tipper at most establishments, and do regularly throw in extra on take out, especially when the restaurant is primarily a sit-down joint. The tip's typically not 20%, though, and without the addition of, say, beverages to the bill, it's certainly much less than what I'd normally end up tipping for a meal out. For that reason I stand by my post that take-out is one way to save a little money on restaurant food.

                                                A question, though: at some places it's a little confusing as to whom to tip when carrying out. HillJ (below) mentions tipping direct in hand, but I've had some awkward "keep the change" conversations with cashiers when using cash. Credit cards make things easier, and even though I agree that the tip jars have gotten out of control, they're are also a bit more discreet.

                                                1. re: lemonfaire

                                                  I actually apologize for being so curt, I guess it comes w/ the territory of having been a server. In most places, they will distribute exactly who the tip should go to, I use to work in a place where I ran to go out to valet and they tipped the valet for me and I took my money from valet at the end of night. Glad to hear you DO tip on to go...

                                            2. No, you don't have to be rich to be a chowhound. As others have said, great food isn't always the most expensive food. But that's not to say that chowhounding isn't an expensive habit, whether you eat out or cook at home (gathering ingredients for new recipes can be quite costly...as can being unable to resist little tins and jars of exotic food items wherever I go).

                                              But I think we tend to prioritize. Some people buy shoes obsessively. Some buy CDs or cars or stereo equipment. I buy food, but I'm a lot less extravagant in other areas, so it balances out.

                                              1. I'd say most foodies on a budget learn how to cook.
                                                I'm rarely satisfied at restaurants because I know I can do as well or better.

                                                1. hah, this thread made me laugh because I am always so broke, yet I eat out all the time. I am lucky enough to have a wonderful boyfriend who takes care of me when I am running low on dough (this happens alot). We eat out on the weekends only and cook alot during the weekdays. However I cook only for myself usually making japanese or korean food.

                                                  I rarely go out for fine dining and if I do, I have plenty of nice things to wear. My sister works at the Bennetton and is always giving me free clothes so I have plenty of things to wear (business, casual, jeans, shoes, dresses, etc).

                                                  So in conclusion, you definitely do NOT need to be wealthy to be a chowhound. YOu just need to know where to get bargains and where the best places to eat are. Some of the best meals I have ever had cost under $10.