Joel Crews
Joel Crews, Editor-in-chief, MEAT+POULTRY Magazine  

As a 50-something parent with one high school student about to transition to college and a younger sibling just a few years behind, I have a newfound appreciation for how personal financial perception evolves based on what is looming around the corner of each life phase. All the while, the mirage of retirement serves as a fuzzy backdrop that seemingly gets more difficult to discern with each passing day, week and month.

Committing to living by a written budget for the past year has caused me to look at food purchases and dining out in a whole new light. For the bacon-earners in my home, the attention paid to saving versus spending has peaked, and how the coveted leftover money will be spent after expenses and savings have been accounted for each month has become more important than ever.

What used to be incidental indulgences like enjoying a good meal at a restaurant are no longer taken for granted and have become more of a rare reward for our successfully living by the almighty budget. And with the hope that the crunch of the recession is in the rear-view mirror, it appears my household is more typical than I would have thought. As more consumers are willing to live more fiscally focused lives, it is a positive sign for food businesses that more of them are rewarding themselves with a dinner out or even by cooking out steaks versus more affordable alternatives. Consumers like me are choosing experiential over the material when it comes to discretionary spending.

Apparently still shell shocked from the 2008 economic downturn and subsequent recession, frugality balanced with indulgence seems to be a new reality for many US consumers.

According to some recent research findings, fiscal responsibility in the aftermath of the recession is paying off among consumers, many of whom are regaining traction. A Bankrate survey of 1,000 Americans in May concluded that the Bankrate Financial Security Index reached the second-highest point since 2010. Bankrate Senior Vice President, Greg McBride recently told, “There is a definite trend of improvement,” referring to consumers’ growing financial confidence in the years since the Great Recession. Even better, 30 percent of respondents reported their net worth is higher in 2016 compared to one year ago.

As the financial dust settles for many consumers and discretionary spending slowly emerges from the recession rubble, the battle for share of wallet ensues, and eating out continues to be an indulgence at the top of many consumers’ wish lists.

According to Mintel’s recently released “American Lifestyles” report, consumers are striving “to strike a balance between prudent spending and still enjoying their hard-earned dollars.” Similar to Bankrate, Mintel reports that financial optimism is behind an uptick in discretionary spending, with 44 percent of Americans describing their 2016 financial situations as “healthy,” up from 2015 (37 percent) and 2013 (33 percent). Mintel reports more consumers are opting to spend less on clothing, footwear and accessories, instead “spending on experiences over material goods.” Signs of splurging on vacations and tourism as well as in the leisure/entertainment category are coming back to life.

“Consumers are meeting their financial obligations by saving…and paying down debt…while allowing themselves modest luxuries,” according to Mintel.

Apparently the mentality of getting the bills and savings out of the way to make room for the most subtle of indulgences isn’t as foreign of a concept as I had once thought. Mintel summarizes that when it comes to “spending on experiential categories, consumers choose dining out, entertainment and gifts for the family as the most popular ways to spend their extra cash after all the bills are paid.”