Making smart choices about what you do with your money will help set you up for a secure future. Unfortunately, most of us don't make the right financial choices all the the time -- and sometimes we end up regretting the decisions we make. 

In fact, one recent survey from Charles Schwab shows the majority of Americans regret doing some past spending, instead of putting that money into retirement savings. And, there's one particular kind of spending the majority of Americans regretted the most. 

A reserved sign at a restaurant table

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What's the biggest spending regret Americans have?

About 55% of survey respondents regretted spending money on meals out instead of putting that money into a 401(k), according to Charles Schwab. Dining out was by far the biggest regret cited, with spending on expensive clothes ranking second (31% of respondents lamenting using cash to expand their wardrobes).

New cars, vacations, and tech gadgets round out the list of five biggest spending regrets, with 28% of those surveyed saying they regretted their expenditures on cars or vacations, and 26% wishing they hadn't put so much money into keeping up with the latest technologies. 

It's not surprising so many Americans regret dining out. The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017 report on Consumer Expenditures found average spending of $3,365 annually on food away from home in 2017, up from $3,154 on dining out in 2016. And don't forget that when you dine out, you're paying for service in your tip, which gets bigger as you rack up your total bill.

If, instead of spending so much on eating out, you put $3,000 annually into a 401(k) from age 30 to age 65 and earned a 7% annual return, you'd end up with a nest egg of $414,710 -- justby redirecting your dining out budget. And, that's a conservative estimate for how much you could save over time, since eating out expenses have been shown to increase by a few hundred dollars every year

How can you save on eating out?

Giving up eating out entirely would obviously allow you to maximize your savings -- but you also want to be able to enjoy life. You don't have to entirely give up eating out in order to avoid spending regrets, but there are ways you can cut your costs so you can put more of your money into savings instead of into your stomach. Sometimes you can't avoid a meal out, like if a loved one is celebrating something you can't bear to miss. So use the below tips to minimize your dining out costs without suffering:

  • Skip convenience meals: Many people buy lunch at work or pick up takeout on the way home not because they enjoy the meals but because it's more convenient. Skip these expenditures and save your dining out dollars for meals you savor by making a plan in advance. You could make extra food when you cook and freeze it so you always have a meal available at home on days you don't feel like cooking, or can dedicate your Sunday to meal prep, so you can take your lunch and breakfast to work on busy mornings. Having an intentional plan in place means you won't reach for the closest or most convenient prepared food as soon as the hunger pangs stike.
  • Opt for late lunch instead of dinner: Many restaurants have a similar lunch menu to their dinner menu but at reduced prices. You can opt for a nice, relaxing late lunch instead of dining out late in the evening when prices rise. 
  • Use coupons and find special deals: Websites such as allow you to buy discounted gift certificates for restaurants. Many restaurants often run specials at the holidays where you can get free bonus cash by buying gift cards. If you have a favorite place, see if you can benefit from these deals and just buy yourself gift cards to use during the year while earning the bonus. 
  • Skip the drinks: You can significantly cut the costs of dining out by opting for water over alcohol with your meal. If you decide to indulge in a glass of wine with dinner, look for BYOB places in your area. Or find discounted happy hours to fill up on a spread of cheap appetizers with your cocktail.
  • Split food: When you dine out, split a few appetizers and one main course. Portion sizes have ballooned far beyond what most people should eat in one sitting, so sharing dishes means not overstuffing yourself while keeping more money in your wallet. 
  • Do take out instead of delivery or dining out: You can avoid being on the hook for tipping your server by picking up your dinner, rather than going for a sit down meal. Food delivery also gets expensive with fees and tips, so take a look at how much you're spending on Postmates, Uber Eats or Grubhub.

By following these tips, you can still enjoy the occasional dining out experience -- without being left with lingering spending regrets. 

Make changes today to avoid spending regrets tomorrow

Don't be one of the many Americans who regret dining out because they wish they'd put more money into their 401(k) instead. You can make changes today by adjusting your budget so you don't end up with these regrets yourself.

Budget a reasonable amount for dining out, then move some of the cash you save into your retirement accounts so you'll have more money for a brighter future. Pay yourself first to kill the temptation to eat up the money that should be saved.