Indulging in food delivery without the debt

They're convenient, but left unchecked, food delivery services can spoil your budget

Tamara E. Holmes
Personal Finance Writer
Writes regularly about personal finance and health

Indulging in food delivery without the debt

Many Americans have begun to count on food delivery services to take the pain out of mundane meal-planning. But much like going grocery shopping when you’re hungry, you may end up spending more when you are ordering food to be delivered than you if you had filled your cart yourself.

For those who hate to cook or go to the grocery store, the booming food delivery market may seem like a godsend. After all, it brings all your dining needs to your front door. However, food delivery services may spoil your budget or cause your credit card balance to boil over if you aren’t careful.

Food delivery is revolutionizing both the restaurant and grocery industries. According to 2017 research from Morgan Stanley, the restaurant food delivery market could grow from the $30 billion it is today to $220 billion by 2020, which explains why an increasing number of startups such as Uber Eats and GrubHub are racing to deliver food to your door.

Meal delivery services are also transforming the grocery shopping experience, as services such as FreshDirect, Blue Apron and AmazonFresh will deliver ingredients and recipes so you can make your healthy dishes at home.

There is no question that having food delivered to your door can change the way you eat (hopefully for the better!), but if left unchecked, the opportunity is ripe for overspending. Here’s how to indulge in food delivery without going over budget, or worse, going into debt.

Risk: Maxing out your food budget.
If you’re on a tight budget, food delivery is probably not a good idea.

According to Lux Research, consumers are willing to pay 11 percent more on average for the convenience of online grocery delivery and restaurant takeout. Some services require you to spend either a fixed or a minimum amount in addition to any delivery fees, plus the food prices tend to be higher than what you’d pay at your local grocery store. For example, FreshDirect has a $40 minimum order and a $6.99 delivery fee, not including any delivery tips.

“Don’t forget that ordering takeout from a food delivery service is in the same spending category as dining out at a restaurant in person – it’s a luxury, not a necessity.”

Katie Ross, manager of education and development and housing for American Consumer Credit Counseling, based in Auburndale, Massachusetts, experienced this firsthand when she tried out meal delivery services. “I think the concept is pretty neat, but I spent more than what I would have at the grocery store,” she says.

Remedy: Calculate the difference in cost.
Compare your weekly grocery bill to the amount you would spend when using meal delivery services or having restaurant food delivered.

A study of meal delivery services by comparison-shopping site Consumer Affairs found that the average cost was $8 to $10 per person per meal. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that a moderate weekly grocery budget for a person aged 19-50 would run between $59-$69 – roughly $2 to $3 per meal.

You may decide the extra cost of meal delivery is worth it, but make sure you’re not stretching yourself too thin.  Also, “don’t fall for upselling,” Ross advises. “Many of these meal service sites upsell consumers with wine and kitchen gadgets.”

Risk: You underestimate your discretionary spending.
Every budget consists of “needs” and “wants.” However, some people mistakenly lump restaurant delivery services into the “needs” category because they are a source of food, says Avery Breyer, author of “Your Road to Wealth Starts Here: A Simple Plan for Everyone to Get Out of Debt and Stay Debt-Free Forever.”

Remedy: Keep restaurant delivery in perspective.
“Don’t forget that ordering takeout from a food delivery service is in the same spending category as dining out at a restaurant in person – it's a luxury, not a necessity,” Breyer says. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t indulge; it simply means you should budget for it out of the money you have set aside for extras.

“A budget isn’t sexy, but it’ll free you to completely enjoy yourself when you do indulge in using a food delivery service, since you’ll know for a fact that you can afford it,” Breyer says. You might also designate certain days that you utilize the service, such as your busiest day at work, so you are buying yourself the gift of time.

Risk: Food deliveries bloat your card balances.  
Some meal delivery services require a weekly or monthly commitment to a subscription plan that is automatically renewed.

If you put your plan on a credit card and don’t pay off the balance at the end of the month, you could be paying interest on your meals long after you’ve consumed them.

Remedy: Switch to debit if food delivery costs are adding up.
Paying for food delivery services with a credit card can give you a way to rack up rewards or points, but if you tend to carry a balance, use a debit card instead, says Ross.

Risk: You may be stuck paying for meals you don’t eat.
A meal delivery subscription can be convenient, but if you have to go out of town or end up working late all week, you may not be able to make a last-minute change to your delivery schedule. Many of the services require advance notice of scheduling changes. Some even charge restocking fees.

For example, Fresh Direct charges consumers 100 percent of the cost of perishable goods and 25 percent of the cost of packaged goods for orders canceled after a specified deadline that is emailed to clients detailing their orders.

Remedy: Read the fine print, and plan ahead. 
If a lot of travel is in your near future or your schedule is likely to fluctuate, it might be prudent to cancel a meal delivery service subscription. 

“Call or email the company, and they will take you off your plan. This keeps you from paying for a service you don’t want,” says David Chandler, a research expert from Consumer Affairs. However, make sure you understand the cancellation policy, and know how much notice you must give before changing or canceling your order. 

Food delivery services can enhance the lifestyle of those too busy to cook or who don’t like spending time in the grocery store. But use them with the discretion that you would apply to any luxury, experts say. 

“Figure out how much money you can afford to spend on treating yourself each month,” Breyer says.

See related: 7 tips to use budget apps safely, Which cards maximize rewards at grocery stores?


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Updated: 12-11-2017