How to keep yourself from overspending at restaurants once the economy opens back up

"Start with an appetizer and see how you feel."


Restaurants have been taboo since the beginning of the pandemic, especially when it comes to indoor dining. And even if you were comfortable dining outside, the lower temperatures this winter might have cut into how much you could.

Now, fully vaccinated people can visit indoors without a mask or physical distancing, according to new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control. This means fully vaccinated people can eat at restaurants indoors, says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. You can even meet vaccinated friends there.

"Could you go to a restaurant and engage with a person who is vaccinated?" he says. "I want to say yes. But the waiter and staff, they all should continue wearing masks around you."

As of now, these new guidelines apply to about 11.5% of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Their ranks are expected to grow swiftly this spring.

If you're fully vaccinated or hope to be soon, you might want to start budgeting for resuming those group dinners and dates. Here are some steps you can take both before and after you get to the table that can help you curb your spending.

Before you get to the table

Review your spending

While a dinner out doesn't seem like a huge expense, a fancy meal or repeat excursions can eat into your budget. In 2019, the average American household spent more than $3,500 on food outside the house, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tracking your past expenses is key to budgeting, says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. "Look over the last three months of your credit card and bank statements to tally up an average spend per month" in regard to food, she says.

Past bank statements can help you be realistic about how much you're spending on food outside the house. If you've been keeping a low profile during the pandemic, it's worth looking further back, for example, at your credit card annual statement from 2019 to see how much you shelled out at restaurants. This will likely be a better gauge of what spending might feel "normal" as you resume social activities.

Then, going forward, you can budget on a more micro level. "I track spending on takeout and dining out on a weekly basis, looking back at how much we spent this past week to figure out if we need to cut back for the upcoming week," she says. "If you aren't tracking it, it's easy to go overboard."

Look over the last three months of your credit card and bank statements to tally up an average spend per month.
Andrea Woroch
Consumer savings expert

Adjust your budget

To anticipate extra spending, you need to build more wiggle room into your budget, Brad Klontz, a certified financial planner and financial psychology professor at Creighton University, told Grow. "Commit to a certain percentage of income you're going to be saving or investing," he said. That helps you figure out how much free money you have left for additional expenses you might not have been budgeting for since the pandemic started.

For example, he said, if you're currently saving 10% of your income but anticipate more happy hours and group dinners, you might want to lower that target savings rate to 8%. This will build a concrete amount of breathing room into your budget, and you'll still be making regular contributions to your savings.

After you get to the table

A restaurant atmosphere, along with peer pressure, can cause you to overspend regardless of whether you have a budget in place. That's why it's important to have some at-table tricks that can curb spending. Three easy ones to consider:

Start with water

Stay hydrated, Woroch says: "You may mistake hunger with thirst. Ask for a glass of water before perusing the menu so you settle that potential hunger which can cause you to over-order."

Order to fit your appetite

Don't order an appetizer, entrée, and dessert all at once, Woroch says. "Start with an appetizer and see how you feel."

Splitting food can also cut down on costs. Half an appetizer and half an entrée can fill you up, she says. "Remember, if you're still hungry after sharing, you can always order more," Woroch says.

Ditch the cocktails

"Alcohol is marked up by 60% or more at restaurants," Woroch says. Enjoy the nightcap at home, instead.

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