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Aug. 31, 2017, 8:55 a.m. EDT

This is why Americans are overweight and broke

Dining out is busting Americans’ budgets and belts

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By Catey Hill, MarketWatch

On days when people dine out, they consume 200 more calories than when they eat at home.

Down to your last belt notch and your last penny? These seemingly unrelated phenomena may have more in common than you think, a new survey shows.

Dining out is the No. 1 thing that Americans blow their budgets on, according to the Principal Financial Group’s annual Financial Well Being Index, which was released in December 2016 . The company surveyed more than 1,100 employed American adults.

Those restaurant meals are also adding to our growing waistlines: On days when people dine out, they tend to consume 200 more calories than when they eat at home, according to a study of more than 12,500 people published by Public Health Nutrition last year, and government research shows that “when eating out, people either eat more or eat higher calorie foods — or both — and that this tendency appears to be increasing.” Other studies show that eating out more frequently is associated with obesity and higher body fat .

And the problem is getting worse. While 22% of Americans blew their budgets on dining out in 2014, this year, 25% did so.

Table: 10 things Americans spend too much on

2016 2014
Dining out 25% 22%
Food/groceries 20% 18%
Entertainment 18% 15%
Other consumer goods 18% 9%
Travel 20% 12%
Housing/housing improvements 19% 10%
Clothing/apparel/shoes 17% 10%
Gas 12% 13%
Coffee 9% 3%
Other 8% 11%
None of the above 28% 34%

The reason lies, in part, in our hectic lifestyles: “It’s easy for our spending habits to get out of whack when we’re pressed for time,” says Luke Vandermillen, vice president, Principal Financial Group. Because of that, we sometimes opt to dine out instead of cook at home because it’s more convenient and a small pleasure/treat that we can give ourselves, explains Kevin Morris, vice president at Principal Financial Group.

One of the best ways to keep our dining out budget in check is to plan better, says Morris — which has the added benefit of helping you cut calories too. Prep healthy meals for the week on the weekend (freeze what you need to) so you have something quick and ready to go for each night.

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Of course, this isn’t always possible, so here are a few ways to dine out in a financially responsible manner when you can’t eat at home. Savings expert Andrea Woroch recommends buying discounted gift cards for restaurants (Costco /zigman2/quotes/201191698/composite COST +0.17%  often sells bundle packs of these) and looking for coupons and savings on Restaurant.com and coupon sites like CouponSherpa.com .

Woroch adds that you can find savings on Yelp as well: “Not only is Yelp a good place to find honest restaurant reviews and menu recommendations, but you can also search for “dining deals” as well as “cheap dinner” and sometimes stumble upon special discounts through these listings,” she says.

Teri Gault, CEO of savings website The Grocery Game , recommends that to save money you change the days and times when you eat out. “You can save up to 50% just by changing your schedule on dining out,” she says. “If you have kids, patronize restaurants where kids eat free on Tuesday night; for adults only, hit happy hour for half price food and drink.” Furthermore, she says you should “look for coupons for BOGO (Buy One Get One) dinners, and you’ll find that the fine print often has specified days of the week, and usually not weekends.”

This story was updated on Nov. 30, 2016.

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Catey Hill covers personal finance and travel for MarketWatch in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CateyHill.

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