10. When You Really Want a Buffet
Granted, going to a place like Ryan's or Golden Corral, you're not going to get the best version of anything you see on the buffet. That said, if you tried to make pizza, tacos, steak, spaghetti, fettuccine alfredo, lasagna, steak, onion rings, and seasoned fries for one giant meal at home, that wouldn't be the smartest thing you ever did. When you want that crazy-eyed, mouth-shoveling smorgasbord, you're better off eating out.
9. When You'll Make More Money Working
If you're a lawyer making $150/hour, it makes sense to pay $20 to have Chinese food delivered while you burn the midnight oil than it does to gear down from $150/hour to $0/hour to cook. One thing people forget about cooking expenses is that it comes with an opportunity cost. If your schedule is flexible enough and you're paid enough for it to make a difference, you might be better off just grabbing a bite.
8. When You're Never Home
Then there's the opposite end of the spectrum. If you're hopping from a minimum-wage job as a receptionist straight to a tip-wage job at Starbucks and don't have time to make dinner, being late isn't going to do you any favors. Making a sack lunch ahead of time helps, but with over a million Americans working multiple jobs to add up to a full-time job, that may mean making a sack lunch and a sack dinner - and that's a stretch.
7. When You Live in a Food Desert
A food desert is an area where residents don't have access to healthy foods - no supermarket, no source of fresh produce or meat. Especially in cities where people rely on public transportation to get from neighborhood to neighborhood, accessibility is a huge issue. When it comes down to an hours-long round trip on a city bus to cart home huge sacks of food in the summer heat, fast food starts looking a lot more pragmatic.
6. When You Buy Small Packages
A lot of people don't think ahead when it comes to cooking. Buying in bulk is your friend. Not in ridiculous amounts, obviously. And you also want to check your unit prices. But assuming you have a fridge and/or freezer, you'd do well to remember that fact and use it. You can plan your next meals in part around what you already have.
5. When You Cook for One (Over and Over Again)
This is related to the "smaller packages," but it is different. When you buy stuff to make a salad, it might be more expensive than salad at a steakhouse, but you have a lot of salads. Same thing with getting pasta, or sandwiches, or anything. Don't think of meals as discrete units, you're going to spend way too much. Make one big chicken-and-rice bowl and have lunch for a week. It might cost more than eating out twice, but it won't cost more than eating out five times.
4. When You Order From the Dollar Menu
Fast food has prices that are hard to beat, largely because mass production and chemical engineering are forces to be reckoned with. Pink slime is pretty cheap, and since you can't just go to the store and buy it, you can't beat buying a burger for a buck twenty. But as soon as you move off that menu, watch out. Two people eating combo meals twice a week doesn't stack up so great against a pound of meat, some cheese you can keep using, and a potato to fry up.
3. When You Stiff the Waiter
Restaurants have to pay for rent, labor, payroll tax, sales tax, and more, all while turning a profit. To try and save money, they pass the expense of paying the waiter down to you. The federal minimum wage to tip-earners is only $2.13 an hour. If you got some coupon special at the local Chili's or whatever, got a glass of water instead of a soda, and didn't tip, then maybe you'd come out ahead. But you'd also go to sleep tonight in the knowledge that you stiffed someone out of putting food on their own table.
2. When It's Made in Bulk
Every college town has that crazy-cheap cash-only place that everyone loves and assumes isn't paying taxes. The one thing they all have in common is that the signature dish is something it's easy to cook a giant batch of and dole out for an hour or two. Fried rice, or enormous piles of fluffy egg in a giant breakfast taco. It's like the dollar-menu issue. Cooking gets cheaper as you scale up, and you just can't beat the local fried rice joint.
1. When You Need Expensive Ingredients
Maybe the recipe absolutely insists that you need pure Tahitian vanilla extract, or some obscure exotic squash. Maybe you're making beef burgundy, and you have a bottle of wine that you only need a cup of. In these cases, you're usually better off going out than you are cooking for a couple of people. Though bear in mind that after you've made your beef burgundy, you still have most of a bottle of wine left, and that's not something that happens when you order it out.