Last night my husband and I went out to dinner. I had a gift card for Olive Garden that we'd been saving since Christmas, and given that I was home for just the weekend before heading out on another work trip, we thought a fun date night was in order.
We had a very nice time with good conversation and good food, but I couldn't help looking around and wondering why everyone else was there and if it was really worth their hard earned cash.
At one table there were 6 kids, clearly high school students. They seemed to have a nice time chatting away and when it was time to pay the bill about half of them did so with a credit card, which I'm guessing means this night out was funded by their parents. While they seemed happy enough, I wondered if they could have had an equally good, if not better time, going over to one of their houses to have a homemade pizza party where everyone gets to put the toppings on their own pie (one of my favorite gatherings that my husband and I throw). It just seemed unnecessary for them to be in a stuffy restaurant when they could be at some one's home squealing and giggling, and not paying $30 with their parent's credit card.
The table next to them had a couple in their 30's sitting rather quietly together. They seemed a bit bored, and I was wondering if they went out to eat often, tarnishing the uniqueness of it. They struggled for conversation and didn't seem to be very affectionate with one another. I actually wouldn't be surprised if you told me they were in a fight. So I was wondering why they were out in some cold restaurant when they could be at home, cooking a romantic, love filled dinner together with candles and fine wine. The $30 per person they were paying didn't seem to ensure that they were having a lovely time.
Behind us was a large family. Along with the parents there were a couple of elementary aged children and a baby. We noticed this family right as we walked in since they baby was screaming and the mom was frantically trying to calm it down. She seemed incredibly stressed and hadn't even touched her food. The dad was busy trying to help the other children who were also having a hard time sitting still, and each had barely touched their entrees. For about 20 minutes our server helped their family pack everything into to-go boxes, and I wondered why they even bothered coming out at all.
They created a very intense situation for themselves where they felt stressed to make their kids sit still, which of course they are not meant to do. And in the end they didn't even get to enjoy their food which they will now re-heat in the microwave and eat over the next couple of days. I'm sure they paid at least $120 for their night out and it pains me to think that they got very little enjoyment from handing over their hard earned cash.
Then there was us. The food was ok, though we can make better food at home. The atmosphere was less than ideal (we had wheels on the bottom of our chairs and the baby behind us would start screaming periodically) but we were feeling like teenagers on a first date. We don't go out to eat all that often, so it has become quite the occasion when we do. I dressed up, put on makeup and earrings, and we spent the entire night holding hands. But if we didn't have a gift card we would have never gone to Olive Garden.
You see, watching our money so carefully has made me into a bit of a snob. When I got myself into credit card debt it wasn't from going to fine restaurants or from buying diamond jewelry. It was from going to Starbucks and Panera all the time, and from getting a few shirts and some cheap jewelry from Target bi-weekly. I spent my money without thinking, and while I felt that at some level I couldn't afford fancy things, I had no qualms about buying cheaper meals and cheaper items, not realizing that the seeming affordability was a farce which compounded into a massive amount of debt.
So now, we're far more picky. If we're going to go out to dinner and spend our hard earned cash we want to have a fabulous time. We don't go to chains, instead we head over to the local dives where we know the food is absolutely delicious, the atmosphere is fun, and we will have an amazing time. For our annual trip to Las Vegas we eat most of our meals in the hotel room, putting together sandwiches from bread, cheese, and meat that we get from the grocery store, but we go out to to a few amazing dinners. These are quite expensive, but in total cost less than us going out to eat to just okay places for every meal.
It may seem counter intuitive to encourage you to spend more money on higher quality experiences, but in reality I'm telling you to stop wasting your time on anything that will be less than amazing. If your high school aged kids want to go out to dinner, offer to host a homemade pizza party instead where each kid can pick their toppings and they get the fun of making something from scratch.
If you're a young couple who's hit a slump in your relationship and wants to go out to dinner Saturday night by default because you're out of ideas, stay home instead, turn on some music, get a bottle of wine, and spend the night preparing food together and having intimate conversation.
And if you're a family with young kids, do yourself a favor and either get a sitter so you can leave the kids at home, or just stay home completely. I know how tiring it must be to try to cook for your whole family, but eating out is just as stressful, and costs a lot more money. Instead, try to get creative and get the entire family involved in an easy meal like tacos. Then, let the kids talk and giggle as loud as they want.
And if you do want to have a special night out, make it momentous. Stop going out due to boredom or out of convenience, and those rate nights out will become all the more special.