Eating out typically costs more than cooking at home. But for many younger consumers, the convenience of picking up lunch or dinner on the go is worth the higher price.
According to a recent study from Technomic, a research and consulting firm for the food industry, nearly a third of millennials (defined in the study as consumers age 18 to 33) say they do not have time to cook at home as often as they'd like. A little more than a quarter of 34- to 44-year olds feel the same way.
Dining budget cuts
Learning to juggle work and commute times with grocery shopping and food prep can take practice. And dining out is often a primary way for 20- and 30-somethings to socialize with friends.
Still, restaurant bills can add up quickly — and could be on the rise next year.
The severe drought in the midsection of the country this summer has driven up the cost of corn and soybeans, which are used for feed and ingredients in certain food categories. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that overall food prices (at home and away from home) will climb 3 to 4 percent in 2013, compared with an estimated jump of 2.5 to 3.5 percent this year.
Even if prices hold steady, food is not always a fixed cost in a budget.
"It's a tricky category," said Philip Taylor, founder of PT Money, a personal finance blog. "While you know what you'll spend on your mortgage and insurance every month, the cost of dining out can change. It can easily get out of control."
What's more, the Technomic study found that when young diners eat out, they are more likely than older generations to splurge. In fact, 42 percent of millennials say they go to an upscale casual-dining restaurant at least once a month, more than any other age group.
Taylor's advice for young foodies is to get the most out of the money you spend while dining out.
Lower the bill by eliminating nonessentials, such as soda, wine and dessert. Split an entree with a fellow diner. And if you want to go to a really good (and really expensive) restaurant, make that meal the one time you eat out in a month or week, depending on your budget.
"You'll get more value from it if you make it something that's special," Taylor said.
Find restaurant deals
Coupons have long helped shoppers save at the grocery store. But now it's possible to find discounts that lower the tab at restaurants.
At restaurant.com, for example, you can find reduced-price gift certificates to restaurants. Deals start at $2 for a gift certificate worth $5, and go up to $40 for a voucher worth $100. Be sure to read the fine print: restrictions can apply and you have to spend a minimum amount to redeem the coupon (if your plans change, you can swap the certificate for another restaurant).
Today, more than 18,000 restaurants nationwide participate, up from about 14,000 restaurants a few years ago, says Chris Krohn, the site's president and chief marketing officer.
Many restaurants now also participate on flash-sale sites, such as Groupon and Google Offers.
BiteHunter, a mobile app, lists promotions at nearby restaurants. And if you make a reservation through savored.com, you'll save up to 40 percent off the bill at local bistros, pubs and fine-dining establishments.
"If you're going to eat out, you might as well search for a coupon," Taylor said.
The alternative to doing that: Learn how to cook.