Americans are eating out more than ever, and it doesn't just show in their waistlines. It shows in their pocketbooks. While everyone's complaining about the price of gas, the increased cost of staples like milk and eggs, and the rising interest rate on that credit card balance they've been carrying... they still seem to be dining out in record numbers.

Have you ever sat down and calculated the cost of eating out versus eating at home? I think we all realize there's a big difference, but I wonder how many people appreciate exactly how much.

As I was making myself a pot of chili today, I was reflecting on the cost and was inspired by how much money I was saving by cooking at home. If I went to my favorite chili place for lunch, I'd spend about $8 on chili and toppings (not including a drink) for that one meal.
Then there's my pot of Tracy's Screamin' Hot Chili. I bought my ingredients earlier this week at the grocery store, and they included two pounds of lean ground beef, noodles, tomato juice, tomato paste, secret seasoning blend, an onion, sour cream, and shredded cheddar cheese. Total cost: $14.70. And I didn't even get any of the ingredients on sale! (Sorry, mom.)

I'll easily get five good meals out of that pot of chili, so my cost per meal is a miserly $2.94. I've saved over $5 per meal, or over $25 in total. And the meal at the chili place is relatively low-priced compared to some other dining options available.

Don't have time to cook at home, you say? Well I don't have a ton of time to spend in the kitchen either, but if you're really committed to saving money, you can make it work. Plus, it doesn't really take that much time! I spent about 15 minutes (at the most) at the grocery store, and the time to make the chili from beginning to end was 30 minutes. That's it. And I'll put 2 or 3 portions of the chili in the freezer to be eaten on days when I'm on the run and need something fast. Honestly, eating out takes far more time per meal than that 30 minutes spent in the kitchen.

So do your wallet a favor and look into better meal-planning. Eating at home is usually healthier and cheaper.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.

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