Right now, my largest frivolous/entertainment expense– by a large margin– is restaurant food. I suspect a lot of other people are in a similar boat: see how often “eat out less” is given as advice for people looking to save money.

I think the problem is twofold. One, restaurants are a lot better at cooking than I am. When I order a panini at a restaurant, it is probably going to taste a lot better than a panini I make at home. This is a relatively solvable problem for me, because I like cooking, I’m just not very good at it yet. (Restaurants are also convenient, but I typically cook large amounts of food and reheat it when I’m hungry, so that’s less of a problem for me than for many people.)

The more serious problem is that restaurants are pretty much perfect at providing what I want out of social interaction. When I hang out with someone at my house, it’s really easy for us to end up sitting on our separate computers reading Tumblr. While that’s companionable and definitely not something I would give up, it doesn’t meet my need for focused conversation with other people. On the other hand, when I’m at a restaurant with someone, there’s not a lot to do but talk. It’s setting aside a particular time period just to talk with that person.

Restaurants also take a relatively fixed amount of time: you can predict that getting dinner with someone is probably going to take about an hour. You don’t end up with the awkwardness about whether you’ve spent too much time with so-and-so, or whether you’re leaving too early and they feel rejected, and you don’t have to worry that you’re committing to a whole evening hanging out.

It’s hard for me to think of another activity that meets those same desires. Hiking (or long walks more generally) might do quite well: you could go to a park and plan to walk a path that goes about an hour. Unfortunately, a lot of disabled or less physically fit people are incapable of going on hikes (although, of course, going to restaurants is inaccessible to people too broke to afford restaurant meals, it’s a lot easier to cover a friend’s dinner bill than to walk for them). Another option might be getting coffee instead of a meal, or deliberately choosing to go to less expensive restaurants; there’s no particular reason that you can’t get dinner at Subway instead of a nice restaurant.

Anyone else have any ideas?