If you’ve ever decided to get serious about saving money, restaurant meals were probably first on your budget chopping block. And for good reason: One 2017 survey found that across every generation, gender and income level, eating out topped people’s list of money wasters. Depending on how often you order, tossing your takeout menus could easily save you hundreds every month.
And yet, there’s something kind of disappointing about that, right? Sometimes you really just need a taco (or pizza or Chinese food) made by somebody else.
To prove that, done right, takeout really can work on a tight budget, Grow challenged me and seven Acorns employees to see how far we could stretch a $25 order from a favorite takeout spot. Here’s how we fared—and what we all agree you should know before trying this yourself—starting with my brief experience as a sandwich artist.
Number of meals: 10
I wanted something healthier than $20 of dollar-menu items—which you can do, FYI—so I opted for Subway. Sadly, the $5 footlong deal is no more (!), so instead of the five sandwiches I’d planned on, I got three grilled chicken footlongs.
Feeling creative, I deconstructed the sandwiches to get six wheat rolls, six 4 oz. chicken breasts, shredded lettuce, cucumber, bell pepper, onion and six slices of American cheese. From there, I created one salad using the veggies, three chicken fajita meals (using wraps and seasoning I already had) and six grilled cheese sandwiches that had nowhere near enough cheese on them (supplemented with side salads).
If I did this again...I wouldn’t! Pulling apart sandwiches was unfortunately not the genius plan I’d imagined. Rather, I’d half the footlongs and get six smaller sandwiches—still, not a bad deal, considering that between bread, meat and veggies, I’d easily spend more than $2.45 making those sandwiches myself.
Sam Li, senior graphic designer
Number of meals: 12
Chinese takeout’s pretty cheap already, but I wanted to get even more for my money for this challenge. So I went all in on dumplings. They’re one of the cheapest items on the menu, and I love them. For $25, I ordered 80 dumplings, and the restaurant threw in another 10 for free—how’s that for buying in bulk?—bringing my total order to 90 pork and chive dumplings.
I ate seven or eight dumplings at a time over the course of three or four days, which comes out to 12 whole meals for $2 apiece—which is way less than I’d spend otherwise. (And dumplings can be deceptively filling.) My one regret is not varying my order and adding some sesame or scallion pancakes to the mix. I think I’m done with dumplings for awhile.
Neka Allen, analytics director
Number of meals: 7
I picked a rotisserie chicken spot because chicken keeps well, and it’s easy to pair with inexpensive ingredients I’ve already got at home. For $24.20, I bought one whole rotisserie chicken, four tortillas and two large sides of baked black beans and salad.
By portioning out the chicken ahead of time, I guaranteed protein for seven meals over three days: a salad with chicken, chicken and bean burrito, two chicken breakfast burritos (that I added eggs to), a chicken quesadilla (plus cheddar cheese), a chicken sandwich (supplemented with bread and an apple) and a plate of chicken and beans with quinoa, which I had in my cabinet.
Chicken got a little tired after that many consecutive meals, so if I do this again, I’ll try something with different protein options. I’d also order something other than a side salad, since I always have greens at home. The challenge did offer significant savings, though: Had I otherwise bought seven meals out, I could have easily spent $75.
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Jackson Yomogida, product marketing associate
Number of meals: 7
I’ve stretched Vietnamese takeout over several days before, so this was an easy choice. Plus, it’s delicious. For my $28 and change (oops, taxes snuck up on me), I got a large yellow vegetable curry, a large vegetable tofu fried rice and a large pho—plus sides of vegetables, pho noodles and rice. Adding extra noodles and rice is an easy way to get more food without dramatically increasing your bill; some restaurants even throw them in for free.
It was easy to mix and match my meals throughout the week without repeating. For example, one time I ate pho and fried rice; another time I had the yellow curry and rice. That said, I wish I’d gotten two smaller dishes instead of a large curry to mix it up more, and I’d trade another protein source for the rice.
I typically meal-prep at the beginning of the each week, so this challenge was a nice change of pace—and, at just $4 per meal, it offered big savings over a typical meal out.
Zak Kipp, social media manager
Number of meals: 6
Del Taco is my go-to for cheap food because I can get a lot for a little, and rarely get tired of it. For $21, I got six “bold” burritos (a secret menu item with fries and special sauce) and 12 soft chicken tacos, which I split into six meals—one burrito and two tacos each—over three days.
Overall, I’d consider this challenge a success and would definitely do it again, just perhaps with a few quesadillas swapped in for tacos for variety’s sake. In fact, I regularly push myself to stretch my food budget and buy in bulk, so this was right up my alley from the start.
Jake Forbes, customer support supervisor
Number of meals: 5
I decided to go with Mexican because it’s close to home (win!) and I can easily stretch my money. In total, I bought 24 oz. of rice, 24 oz. of beans, 8 oz. of chicken and 8 oz. of salsa for $26.94—I forgot to factor in taxes when ordering, too—and the restaurant threw in free chips. I made myself five burritos, which I ate over three days, though the last one was just rice and beans because I didn’t properly ration the chicken.
No complaints if I had to do this again! I could eat Mexican for the rest of my days and still not get tired of it—though I might try supplementing with other foods from home to stretch it even longer. The best part is that $5.38 is way less than I usually spend on one meal.
Alison Zamora, product marketing manager
Number of meals: 4
I chose Greek food simply because I love falafel, kabobs, pita and rice—so that’s exactly what I got. My secret weapon when ordering takeout is to get kids’ meals since they’re cheaper and you still end up with a lot of food, including drinks and sometimes dessert.
I wound up with four kids’ plates (two chicken, two falafel), each of which came with rice, pita and a drink—all for $5.99 each! I’d typically pay $10 or more for one takeout meal. Taxes snuck up on me, but other than keeping a closer eye on my tally, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m someone who can eat the same thing every day if I really like it, so four similar meals didn’t bother me. It actually helped take the pressure off figuring out what I was going to eat.
Kathy Trang, customer support representative
Number of meals: 4
I picked Middle Eastern because it’s hearty, relatively healthy and tastes equally as good when reheated after a few days—important for a challenge like this. I ordered a chicken kabob plate (which consisted of marinated chicken, rice, tomatoes, onions, hummus, pickled turnips and pita), a chicken skewer with pita bread and a small side of rice. I split this into four meals, eaten over three days.
I had to supplement my last meal with some steamed broccoli because I didn’t have quite enough food. Next time, I’d add a variety of protein supplemented with more veggies; I was pretty sick of chicken after the third meal. I did save a lot, though! If I were to buy these meals out separately, I’d easily have spent $10 or $15 each instead of just over $6.