I Spent What? On What? Chinese Food Edition

Panda Bear Eating Bamboo

I’ve been using Mint on and off for nearly five years, which has generated a huge amount of transaction level data to analyze.  Dating back to October 2012, I’ve got information on more than 8,500 deposits, transfers and expenses that have hit my bank accounts and credit cards.  With a little bit of Excel wizardry, I can draw insights on my spending, where I’ve stuck to a budget (and, more importantly, where I haven’t).  At the end of the day, I want to be able to use what I learn to improve my financial picture…

Chinese Food

If you know me in real life, you probably know that I love Chinese food.  It started when I was a kid and would go with my dad to the Chinese buffet in my small hometown.  In college, there was a Chinese restaurant within walking distance of my dorm that stayed open until midnight (2am on weekends).  I doubt a month of my adult life has gone past without having some.

As I sit here after eating Panda Express for dinner (not joking), I got to thinking about how much I’ve spent over the years on this delicious food.  Off the top of my head, I’m going to guess $1,500.  That’s a $10 meal two times a month for five years, plus a few hundred extra for the nice sit-down meals I know we’ve had.

Drumroll please…..$2,395.29 of Chinese Food!

Since October of 2012, I have spent a grand total of $2,395.29 in 120 separate transactions!  Are you kidding me?  That’s more than one and half months worth of 401k contributions if you’re maxing it out.  I have been eating Chinese food better than two times per month on average for the past five years!  At least I was right on how frequently we get it, but underestimated the cost by nearly $1,000.

How could I possibly spend an average of $500 a year?  Well Mint doesn’t lie, so here’s how it all breaks down.

bar chart, spending by year, Chinese food
Bar chart showing total spending by for each of the past five years

2012 was a partial year since my data starts in October, but it looks like I really fell off the wagon in 2014-2016.  If there’s a silver lining, I feel pretty good actually about my 2017 YTD spending, at least compared to prior years.  Let’s see who the biggest offenders were:

pie graph, spending, Chinese food
Pie graph showing spending by type over the past 5 years

Ahhh, good old Panda Express with the most dollars spent followed by a couple of local spots I know and love.  Barely 10% of our total spending was what I would consider nice sit-down, chef-prepared meals.  The balance were random take-out spots, buffets and other places.  This doesn’t even include the times we’ve actually cooked Chinese at home, and I’m sure there are a couple random instances where I paid cash too.

What General Tso Costs

The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.  And boy, do I have one.  Apart from not being super healthy, I’ve spent a ton of money.  Apart from the two nice restaurants which actually were good experiences, I could probably do without the others.

So how much does this habit cost me.  If you exclude the nice restaurants, I spent $2,217.03.  Divide by the 4.8 years since my Mint data starts and you get an average annual spending rate of $444.40.

If I do nothing and keep spending at that rate for the rest of my life, that represents a pretty meaningful amount of money.  Assuming I live another 50 years, that’s $22,220, excluding any inflation.  The present value of that stream of cash flows (assuming my 4% hurdle rate) is $9,546.68.

Financial Implications

What does that $9,546.68 represent?  Theoretically, if I had the willpower to never eat beef and broccoli again, my all-in net worth would go up by that amount.  Why?  Because I’m removing a series of future cash outflows, which has value to me today.

Another way to think about it is impact on time to a given financial independence milestone.  Here’s a simple, back of the envelope calculation to illustrate:

Years of Savings, Target Savings, Chinese Food
Years of savings required with and without Chinese food spending

Disclaimer: This is an illustrative example.

Let’s assume I’m still enjoying crab rangoon, have $1 million saved for retirement, spend $60,000 a year in living expenses, and save $40,000 per year.  I’m trying to save 30x of my annual expenses, which equates to $1.8 million.  At my current savings rate, it’ll take me 20 years to save the $800,000 difference.

These inputs really don’t matter individually; what matters is how they change.  If I cut out $444 of expenses, two things happen:

  • My savings go up by $444
  • I need to save $13,332 less in order to reach my 30x savings goal

Those two factors combine to reduce the years of savings required from 20 to 19.5.  In other words, my love of sweet and sour pork is going to theoretically cost me six months of retirement if I keep it up.  Is that too high a cost?  It’s at least enough to give me some serious pause the next time I want to order Chinese take-out.


This was an eye opening experience for me, and I’m excited to do it again.  I’m going to keep scouring my mint data for other interesting spending that is worth analyzing in greater detail to understand it’s true financial impact.  We all probably have a few of the same usual suspects that cause problems: coffee, Amazon, unused memberships, etc.  What are some of your spending problem areas?  How do you plan to tackle them?

John started Present Value Finance in 2017 to share his experiences and insights on personal finance to help people make better decisions and take control of their financial lives.  

He achieved financial independence in 2016 by walking away from the high stress world of corporate finance to focus on his family. He’s a husband, father, family CFO, and all around finance geek.


  1. John,

    This is interesting. I could NOT click on this post when I saw the title. I may have to follow your blog, because you seem to know your PV stuff, and though I’m a Finance minor, I could use some more education in this area. Thanks for sharing!

    1. You’re welcome, HP. I’m working on a few more posts about present value and how to apply it to real world situations. Any areas in particular that you’d like to learn more about?

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