Saturday, February 4, 2017

Making Peace with My Food Budget

When I first put myself on a budget about 2.5 years ago, I had to cut out a lot of things to make it balance.  Things like clothing and online shopping got essentially eliminated.  Travel changed from fancy overseas vacations to trips within Canada that I purchased with AirMiles.  Visits to my favourite independent bookstore were replaced by the public library.

But one area that didn't get cut much was eating out.  Throughout training, eating out was my main form of entertainment and relaxation.  It was also an essential way of staying connected with friends and family at a time when my apartment was too messy and my fridge too empty to ever entertain at home.  So despite being ruthless with my spending in many areas, I averaged about $300 a month on eating out throughout my training.

And then I became an attending.

At first, I stuck to essentially the same budget, as I was somewhat obsessed with reaching a net worth of zero.  Once I had worked for about nine months, and I had achieved the long-dreamed-of positive net worth, I started to relax a bit more.  We started eating out a bit more often than before.  And ordering a few cocktails or a bottle of wine with our meals.  And dropping $100+ on dinner at a fancy restaurant, instead of $20 at one of the tasty dives that had previously been our favourites.

When I reviewed my spending for 2016, I was absolutely appalled to discover that I had averaged $600 per month on eating out.  SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS!  Which is utterly ridiculous.  And to make it even more crazy, that only accounts for my contribution to eating out.  My girlfriend was also paying for restaurant meals, and although she tends to pay for the less expensive meals given that she works for a non-profit agency and doesn't earn a physician's salary, she was probably still contributing a few hundred dollars a month to our eating out budget.  And, the $600 was an average for the year.  At the beginning of the year, it was closer to $300 a month, meaning that it was well over $600 a month by the end.  RIDICULOUS!

So in early January, I said enough is enough and put myself on a slightly strict eating out budget of $300 per month.  I figured that I had lived with that level of spending as a fellow, so it wouldn't be all that hard to go back to it.  I motivated myself with calculations of how much $300 a month would be worth at retirement (about $138,000 if I retire in 20 years).  I promised myself that it wouldn't be the end of eating out, but just an opportunity to recalibrate my spending.  I was ready.

I lasted approximately two weeks.

It took me two weeks to realize just how many of my favourite moments happen in restaurants and how much I would miss out on if I based my spending on an arbitrary budget instead of conscious choice.  In those two weeks, I spent a Friday night eating takeout with a friend and her young baby while talking about the crazy rollercoaster ride that is being a new attending.  I spent a Monday night at a ramen bar with another friend hearing about her struggles with infertility.  And I spent another Friday night with my partner eating in a cheezy 80s style Greek restaurant because we were both too worn out from the week to even think about cooking.

After the two weeks, in which I didn't quite manage to stick to my eating out budget, I realized that food is my sacred cow.  I'm quite happy to live in a modest home and drive a car that my physician friends make fun of and never own a Coach purse.  But I'm not happy saying no to friends or my partner when they want to get together over food.

So bring on the ridiculous food budget.  I'm ready for some tapas.


  1. I've gotten a lot better about not eating out over the past few years, but I honestly think so much of it is about location. I lived in Toronto for several years, and I swear I spent at least 25% of my income (as a surprisingly well-paid graduate student and coach) in any given month on eating a restaurants and drinking on patios with my friends. I slowed down quite a bit when I moved to Kingston and the restaurant scene just wasn't all that appealing. Now that I'm living in Hamilton, I'm grateful that eating out just isn't the habit it once was, because the restaurants here are pretty amazing.

    With that all said, I'm 100% with you when it comes to picking your vice. I may not be eating out al that often, but I spend a tonne on my various gym memberships. I have a membership at a limited-membership boutique gym, which I love because I can let myself in at any hour of the day and be relatively assured of a quiet workout. Plus, one of my friends goes there as well and sometimes we use an easy gym session as a catch-up instead of going out to eat. I have passes to a crossfit gym that I only use occasionally (generally when I want to catch up with a resident friend who goes there nearly daily). I spend a ridiculous amount on an indoor climbing gym membership, which I love because I can go alone or with someone from the huge group of people I know who climb and boulder. I have a yoga studio membership so that I can go to hot yoga with a few of my friends who frequent the studio. This is more than enough memberships for anyone, and it eats up a huge piece of my budget! Still, I've decided that this is going to be the thing I 'overspend' on because it's the thing I just don't want to go without. These gyms are where I have the most fun, either alone or spending time with friends. They are my sacred cow, and I'll keep living in a studio apartment and driving a tiny compact car as long as I can still hit my favourite gyms whenever I feel like it.

    1. My city definitely has a big food culture, and my friends are all "foodies", so it's really easy to spend too much money eating out. But so much fun! I wish that my friends would socialize over exercise, but that really isn't a thing for my friends (or me, who hates to exercise).

      Picking one's vices is absolutely key. A medical salary, even at the resident level, leaves room for doing one or two expensive's when you have the house AND the car AND the vacations AND the eating out AND the designer clothes AND the kids in private school that you start complaining that it's so hard to live off of your measly six-figure physician's salary.

  2. Important to know yourself and do what makes you happy. It's not worth scrimping if you are miserable. While retirement is important, we never know what will happen, and it's good to find ways to enjoy life all along. That's the balance my husband and I are working on. I don't want to wait until retirement to do awesome traveling and have a good time.

    I also see the point of the commenter above. I went out way more often when I was in grad school in Ann Arbor than in my current small town. There were just so many delicious options of things I couldn't cook (lots of great ethnic food). I also went out more when we were willing to drive an hour each way to get to our big metro area, but that's gone out the window with kids. So we spend a lot less on eating out now, but we spend a lot more on kid expenses. That's just our stage in life.

    In short: you do you, and it is okay to spend money that you have earned.

    1. Absolutely. I'm reminded every day that life is fleeting, so I try to enjoy it along the way.

  3. Totally agree! I spend more on food than I want to, though for me it's usually to buy healthy food to prepare myself instead of eating out much these days (I try to limit that to twice a month - with drinks it really adds up). I'm trying to start doing more preparing food for people, so trying to get my dog to lighten up on the belligerence so I can have people over.

    While I still have no idea how I spend so much on food, I'm not going to kill myself over it. It really helps my health.

    1. Drinks are crazy expensive! I'm trying to cut out alcohol in restaurants to make my eating out budget a little less ridiculous while still letting me enjoy time with friends.

  4. I love eating out with friends too, but I do wish there were other activities that were as easy that didn't involve consuming (seemingly always) too much food and spending too much money. Sometimes we go for walks but then there is the problem when the weather is bad. Ah well, I'm glad you've made peace with yourself over this. If it makes you happy and you have the cash, why not be kind to yourself!