On Eating Out and Being Frugal

With no income, it comes as no surprise that we’re now trying (yes, trying) to live our lives with a degree of frugality. One of the best ways to save money is to eat in. Not only does eating in have the benefit of being far cheaper than eating out, it is also a healthier option. Vegetables are the cheapest, and a couple of U.S. dollars worth of vegetables can last for days. We find ourselves buying a lot of Chinese melon and squash type vegetables (such as winter melon and Chinese marrow), as well as lots and lots of tomatoes. Along with a tiny amount of meat for flavor, these items make some great soups and stews and can be quite appetizing. That said, a look at my HK Food Prices page will reveal that we still eat our fair share of meat and junk food. It’s something that we enjoy and are willing to reduce, but not completely eliminate from our diets.

Eating Out – Quantity vs. Quality

As with meat and junk food, we know we can’t completely eliminate eating out from our lives. Still, my attitude on eating out has definitely changed. Whereas previously I was less discriminating about where I ate, I now only spend my money at establishments that I know will meet my expectations. There have been times when I’ve ignored my gut feelings about a place and fallen for clever advertising or social media hype or had unrealistic expectations (i.e. expecting Vietnamese restaurants in Hong Kong to be as good as those in the Bay Area) and regretted it. My slogan for these types of places now is “never again!“.

Never Again
Never again

Of course, when eating out becomes more of an occasion than a routine, value becomes even more important. I don’t mind paying more for a meal if the experience ends up being more pleasurable and satisfactory. At the same time, I know that paying more doesn’t necessarily increase pleasure and satisfaction. One of the benchmarks I’ve started using to determine how much value I can derive from a place is “love”. You can always tell if the staff of a place puts love into their product. There is a sense of pride that you can feel as well as observe. The cost of the meal has nothing to do with it. Is the wait staff well-trained, attentive, and engaged, or are they aloof and act like they don’t want to be there? Is the food presented with care or haphazardly? Do the ingredients come together harmoniously or are they just thrown together because that’s the latest trend?*

*Because some vendors know that trend-followers tend to be sheep who will do (and pay) anything just to be “cool”

Chow Jew Ho Fun
This is what love looks like

An example of a place that puts love into its product is Vien Huong in Oakland Chinatown. Even though the place looks kind of rundown and dirty from the outside, once you’re inside it’s a different story. You can see it: customers preparing their sauces in anticipation before the meal, happily slurping away their noodles during, and empty bowls, expressions of satisfaction, and guys holding their bellies at the end. Though some may say that the staff seems unfriendly, having been a customer for a few years, I sense that they do care quite a bit about your overall experience. There is a palpable standard level of quality and service there.

In Hong Kong, a couple of examples include Pizza Hut (yes, believe it or not!) and Pokka Grill Specialist (Sha Tin branch). Despite these being chain establishments, I have experienced a consistent level of service and food quality at these places. The staff actually seem like they want to be there, and the food is put together well. At these “loving restaurants” (for lack of a better term), I can be reassured that there’s a good chance I won’t waste one of the few occasions that I’ve decided to eat out.

Pizza Hut Spaghetti
A spaghetti from a recent meal at Pizza Hut

At this point in our culinary lives, most things that can be had out can be had in. Why would I waste my time and money with a mediocre joint when I can do it better myself and be in the comfort of my own home watching Iron Chef? No, we eat only at places that are truly worth it.

My Mentality on Frugality

There was once a time for me when eating out was more of an occasion than a routine, when being frugal was a regular thing. It was up until about 5 years ago, before I leased my first car. Even after paying for the drive-off, my mentality was that I now had to save even more money, since I had just incurred such a large outlay. But then, a couple of weeks later on a morning which I remember vividly, it occurred to me when I was brushing my teeth (what is it with me and brushing my teeth?!) that I could buy every single item on my Amazon.com wishlist, and do so comfortably. I finished up, went to my computer, logged on, and browsed to my wishlist. I went through each item and clicked “Add to Cart”. Click-click-click-click-click. Scroll. Click-click-click-click-click. Checkout. Disbelief. Excitement. Wow, what a feeling.

Shopping Spree
Some of the things I bought from Amazon.com

Prior to the spree, I hadn’t used Amazon.com for 4 months. I ended up spending a few grand on a bunch of stuff for myself and my family. Afterwards, it was as if the floodgates had opened. In 2009, I averaged an Amazon order every 3 days, and since then, I’ve been pretty comfortable opening my wallet for things without thinking too much about it. So, what happened?

As part of my upbringing, I considered frugality a virtue. As I’ve mentioned before, my father was incredibly frugal. Even now, I have well-off relatives who deny themselves the majority of life’s luxuries. As with many things that we are told to do growing up, we’re often not told why we should do those things. We’re not taught why so that we can think for ourselves whether to do them, we’re just told to do them. A lot of times, fear is used as motivation. I couldn’t tell you then why I had to be frugal, but I was afraid that something terrible might happen if I wasn’t.

The problem with using fear as a primary motivator is that once the fear is overcome, so is the motivation. I bought a bunch of stuff, and the world didn’t end. Like the teenager with strict parents discovering the party scene in college for the first time, I saw what I had been denied (though admittedly in my case I was the one doing the denying) and went wild. Luckily, after the initial uptick in spending activity, I calmed down and my spending stabilized. I was still able to save a good percentage of my income each month, with my only debt being the Acura, but I no longer limited myself just for the sake of limiting myself.

And now, out of necessity, I am back to limiting myself, but these days I have a real reason and a much more balanced approach to personal finance. The question I ask myself is, to what end am I being frugal? Right now, the answer to that question is to maximize the time between now and when we absolutely must work while still having a good time. So, I can still drink Scotch and eat steak, but I can only have one bottle at a time, wait a minimum of 2 months before I can buy another bottle, and I can only buy thin-cut Australian sirloin (except special occasions, of course 😉 ). I can still make large purchases if they are worthwhile. For example, I recently bought my mother not one, but two smartphones (she lost the first one). At first glance, it may seem like a lot of money, but if my past experience is any indication, in a few years time it will be a forgotten blip. And, that’s not even considering the huge amount of benefit gleaned from my mother being able to connect with everyone.

I have found that money isn’t that important to me. To me, value and happiness is more important than money. The smartphone thing is a really good example: yes, it was tough swallowing the loss of the first phone, but my original goal was to give my mom a smartphone so that we could have a real-time platform on which to stay connected with each other now that we are thousands of miles apart. It would have been worse to swallow the loss and move on pretending like nothing ever happened. The amount of value and happiness derived from it is incredibly high and can’t simply be measured in monetary terms (how do you measure a mother’s desire to be near her children?). It’s the same with my time. My time is incredibly valuable and right now I’d much rather have full control of my time than to spend it earning money.

I think sometimes people get carried away with retirement and worrying about the future. These are the best years of our lives, the years when we are young, when we are fully active and in command of our faculties. There is no guarantee that we will make it to retirement (of course, there is a very good chance), but even if there was, there are things that our 35-year-old selves can (and would want to) do that no amount of money can help our 65-year-old selves do. There are certainly perks with every age, but as I have seen in people all around me (including myself), we all inevitably deteriorate as we get older, some faster than others. It’s not up to us. Most old people I’ve met tend to look more behind than ahead. I want full control of my time for at least some portion of my youth while it is still up to me so that when it is my turn to look behind, I’ll like what I see.