Updated: Jun 18
Conventional wisdom has us believe that cooking at home is always less expensive than eating out. Is it? If you are a single person or half of a couple, maybe not. Let’s look at the numbers.
Costs to Cook and Eat at Home (in Addition to the Actual Food)
You know how you have to pack a certain amount for a trip whether it’s for one day or four? Sure, you’ll bring more clothing for four days, but regardless of how long you go, you have to lug the requisite basics for daily care, comfort, and hygiene.
It’s the same with cooking. Whether you are family of six or it’s just you, you still need to invest in the same basics to be able to cook for yourself: pans, dishes, cutting board, utensils, condiments, oils, spices, clean up gear, etc. And, although it takes somewhat more time to cook for six rather than one, it is definitely not six times more time. Making scrambled eggs (whether it’s two or twelve) requires about 15 steps and quite a few ingredients and implements (certainly many of which you just buy one time, like the pan, but which you have to buy sometime and then need to store, wash, care for, and eventually replace):
1. Drive or walk to store
2. Find mask on floor of car and then walk into store
3. Locate eggs and milk in the store (and salt, pepper, butter, Pam, frying pan, flipper, whisk, fork, bowl, plate, napkin or paper towel, dish soap, sponge, drying rack if you don’t have them; if it’s just you and you don’t drink much milk you need to find little milks or end up wasting the milk)
4. Get in line
5. Check out at store
6. Drive or walk home
7. Put eggs in fridge till needed
8. Get eggs out of fridge
9. Break into bowl with a little milk, salt, and pepper; whisk
10. Heat up pan; add fat; cook eggs
11. Serve eggs on plate with fork and napkin or towel
12. Eat eggs
13. Put dishes in sink
14. Wash dishes and put in drainer
15. Put away dishes
16. Recycle or discard egg carton and napkin
Conversely, if you go to McDonalds or other eatery, it’s like 6 steps
1. Drive or walk to restaurant
2. Order scrambled eggs
3. Eggs are handed to you
4. Drive or walk home from restaurant
5. Eat eggs with utensils, condiments, and napkin provided
6. Recycle or discard takeout container
Actual groceries for a 2-egg breakfast would probably cost about $4, and the costs for items you reuse would be spread over time. You wouldn’t need to buy food prep and clean up supplies every time you scrambled two eggs, but you’d need to outfit your kitchen with the basics in order to be able to cook. The one-time outlay for pan, cutlery, and dishes, coupled with the regular replacement of condiments, spices, cooking fats, dish soap, sponges, etc., needs to be taken into account.
The cost for 2 scrambled eggs from takeout would most likely be pretty far below $4. Even if they cost $4, you will have saved the time of shopping for, preparing, and cleaning them up.
Time Required to Cook at Home
From a time standpoint, buying the ready-made eggs at a restaurant (assuming you don’t have to drive or walk too far) will be substantially shorter than cooking at home. Let’s assume a ten-minute driving time for cooking at home and for going to the restaurant. The time to cook at home with the grocery shopping trip would be about 40 minutes; the takeout would probably be about 20 minutes total. If time is money to you, you will “spend” a lot in planning, buying groceries for, preparing, and cleaning up this home-made 2-egg meal.
If you multiply this kind of time-based thinking over 2 meals a day, 7 days a week (let’s assume 2 meals a day because few of us actually cook breakfast or actually eat 21 meals in a week), in a week, you might save as much as half the time you’d use to cook at home. If that’s a savings of 10 hours a week, wow! And you as a single person and maybe even a couple may find that you not only save time by doing takeout but that you save actual dollars as well if you are able to eat out economically and healthfully.
One potential problem with eating out instead of cooking in is that you might not eat as healthfully. However, if you are able to find and eat healthy take out foods, your health won’t suffer and may even benefit in that the time saved could be used to exercise and walk more, yielding a substantial net benefit. Plus, just because a person cooks at home doesn’t necessarily mean they are cooking lower calorie, healthier foods (yes, just last week I did make Chicago Deep Dish Pizza, two rounds of Iced Fudgey Brownies, Pepperoni Bread, and several other naughty things!) Lots of healthy takeout and restaurant options are available in 2020 including places like Chopt or Digg Inn that focus on health foods places like Panera Bread or even fast food joints that offer healthier food choices.
Even If You “Cook at Home,” You Still Eat Out A Lot
Even the most devoted at-home eaters buy some restaurant food. This study of average American monthly food budgets gives the numbers in terms of groceries as a function of total monthly food spend. It varies among states, but for the most part, only about half of the food budget goes to actual groceries to cook food at home and the rest is for food outside the home. I suspect that Covid-19 has increased food-at-home cooking, but once we are clear of that, eating out will surge.
In the Family Way
Unfortunately for parents who don’t like to cook, this theory probably won’t work for a family of 3 or more. At that point, economies of scale take over. A Chicken Tinga Bowl at Chopt is about $10, which is ok for one person. Even $10 lunches every day 7 days a week will probably be comparable to that person buying food to make a similar lunch at home. But 4 people in an average American family can’t realistically spend $10 per person on lunch every day; that would be a monthly lunch budget of $700, which is substantially more than most families spend on all their groceries in a month. Once you’ve got a family, cooking at home is probably going to be a necessity. But for right now, as a single person or two-person family, you might be able to get away with it.
My takeaway is that if you don’t like to cook, you may not have to. Your own budget and lifestyle will determine whether it is economically smarter for you to eat out or cook in more. Of course, if you love to grocery shop and cook the way I do, you wouldn’t want to give up a daily pleasure – but I haven’t met too many people who really like cooking day in and day out for decades. Take a month to do the calculations on dollars and time used, and you may find yourself freed up from a chore you’ve hated for years.
Kathryn Hauer, a Certified Financial Planner ™, adjunct professor, and financial literacy educator has written numerous articles and several books including the “11-Step, DIY, Comprehensive Financial Plan Workbook” and “Financial Advice for Blue Collar America.” She works to help clients and readers understand and act on complex financial information to keep them and their money safe. She functions as a strong advocate and guiding light for her clients as they move through murky and unfamiliar financial and career worlds. Read more at her website.