Guest Post! Is cooking worth it?! Part One.

Let me get one thing off my chest right off the bat. I love cooking. I think it’s fun, frugal, and so satisfying in multiple ways. I think everyone should learn to cook, not only because it’s a basic life skill, but also because I think anyone can learn to love it. Additionally, there are many benefits to learning how to cook well. If you feed the right people, it can help you get a job. Or attract a mate. Or impress your friends. Or treat yourself!

But one day, my friend Ryan challenged this view. Perhaps, he told me, not everybody loves cooking as much as you. Some would even consider cooking a chore, similar to work. If cooking belongs in the same category as work, how should we think about it financially?

In a highly anticipated and critically-acclaimed two part series, Ryan and I will share our views on this issue. Today, Ryan provides a framework for how to think about cooking, and really any other chore that we don’t consider a hobby. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and I hope you do too!

For most of history, hunting, gathering, growing, preparing food, eating, and cleaning up has been the largest use of most people’s time.  As societies and individuals get wealthier, the amount of time spent on these activities gradually goes down.  We now mostly buy food from the grocery store rather than grow it ourselves (not true everywhere in the world), but we still spend a significant amount of time cooking food and cleaning the kitchen.  The amount of time varies by country, but in the United States, the average person over the age of 15 spends 50 minutes per day cooking (5.9 hours per week)1  That’s more than 300 hours per year and doesn’t even include going to the grocery store!

There are many activities that make more sense to outsource than to do yourself.  Few people today learn how to repair & maintain their own cars, sew their own clothes, or build their own houses, activities that were common for people to do on their own just a few generations ago.  Cooking is now becoming one of those activities — something we might do on occasion or as a hobby, like gardening or knitting, but not as a means to optimizing our finances.

We have reached a unique point in history, where the cost and ease of getting a nutritious and affordable meal has never been better relative to incomes, while at the same time, the gig economy has created new opportunities to earn income on the side, which allows us to put a realistic opportunity cost on our time.  Whether you are a teacher, creative worker, business person, or admin, there are endless opportunities to earn side income online, and it is often better for your finances to take on extra professional work rather than extra chores around the house.

Asian food hall; quick meals starting at $5
The actual numbers will be different for everyone, but in simplistic terms, if you can earn at least $20-$25 per hour from a side job, then you are probably better off spending an extra hour working and eating out rather than preparing your own meal.  Let’s assume you could save 30 minutes by eating out vs. preparing a meal for yourself.  At $25/hr, you would make $12.50 from working for 30 minutes, which is about $10 after tax.  You would then spend about $10 on a meal at an affordable restaurant, so your net cost after tax would be $0.  If you cook yourself, you are likely spending at least $4 or $5 on the ingredients, so eating out has a lower net cost.  The savings add up even more as your hourly rate goes up and/or you find yourself saving even more than 30 minutes by not cooking.
Fast casual farm to table restaurant with organic, vegan, and sustainable meals from $8-$14

What about if you make less than $25 per hour from your freelance work or side hustle?  In the short-term you will probably save money by cooking at home.  However, if you think about maximizing savings over the long-term, then you will probably still be better off spending your extra time working instead of cooking because you will be more likely to build new skills and credibility that will allow you to increase your hourly rate.

What about batch cooking?  Can’t you make multiple meals in 30 minutes?  There are ways to reduce your average cooking time below the 50 minutes per day that the average American spends or even below the 30 minutes we assumed above.  The main way is batch cooking multiple meals at once.  This is a huge time saver and if you can do it regularly and not get tired of eating the same meal multiple times per week, then this may change your personal calculation of whether you are better off eating out or cooking at home.  However, there will always be an hourly rate ($30/hr? $40/hr?) at which you will be saving money in the short-term by eating out, and there will always be an even lower hourly rate at which eating out will still save you money in the long-term (because you can invest your time in increasing your hourly rate).

Rice vermicelli with pork from a local Vietnamese restaurant; $13.50 including tax and tip

What if you enjoy cooking?  Is it fair to compare 30 minutes of doing something you enjoy with 30 minutes of work?  Many people, myself included, enjoy cooking.  There’s nothing better than cooking an interesting recipe and sitting down to enjoy it with friends and family.  Personally, I enjoy cooking on special occasions, but I don’t enjoy doing it every night, especially when my week is hectic and I know there are better uses for my time.  However, it’s important to take time for leisure activities, and if you like cooking and choose to do it as a relaxing hobby, then I think that’s great.  But again, you should acknowledge that you are doing it because you enjoy it and not force yourself to do it because you think it is the best choice for your finances.

The only way to know for sure whether cooking is worth it or not for your circumstance is to track how much time and money you are spending on grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up and compare it to how much you could be making by putting your specific skill set to good use in the gig economy.  You might be surprised by the results.

2 response to "Guest Post! Is cooking worth it?! Part One."

  1. By: Haskell Posted: June 23, 2019

    Interesting post. I mostly agree, with a few caveats. First, in many industries, professionals are prohibited from doing related work outside of their companies. In those cases, it may be difficult to find a side gig, outside of your industry, that pays $25+/hour. Second, there are many parts of the country with few or no nutritious quick service options. Third, I think this post assumes the reader is single with no children. For me, I can cook for my family of five for almost the same amount it costs to cook for myself, but it cost almost 5x for us to go out to eat. That said, having restaurant staff clean up after my messy young children is sometimes worth the added cost.

    • By: Ryan Posted: June 24, 2019

      All great points! I’m optimistic that there will be more quick, healthy options in most Us cities in the near future.

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