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Eating out at restaurants.

monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jordan Berends, 24, eats out at restaurants twice a week and he doesn't feel remotely guilty about the cost.

He's not a "foodie" and his family didn't eat out much when he was growing up, so it's not a hobby or learned habit. For Mr. Berends, eating out is an entertainment expense and an investment in his personal life.

"It's a social experience. One of the best ways to meet up with a friend you haven't seen in a while is to go for food, or a good way to spend quality time with a partner is to talk over food," says the Vancouver resident.

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"My partner and I usually eat out once a week with each other, and probably once a week with our own friends and we certainly don't think that's a waste of money."

A lot of Canadians agree. Eating out is the most popular indulgence for Canadians according to a recent survey of "financial guilty pleasures" from Capital One Canada and Credit Canada.

It shows 72 per cent of us dine out and and 71 per cent order takeout more than a few times a month, spending a total of nearly $200. About 50 per cent of respondents also said they buy coffee on a daily basis, which ranked right behind restaurant spending and takeout orders.

Restaurants sales have also risen dramatically over the past two decades. Canada's commercial restaurant industry, including restaurants, bars and caterers, generated $68.1-billion in sales in 2017, a nearly 120-per-cent increase from $31-billion in 1998, according to Restaurants Canada. That far outpaced growth in Canada's population, which has risen by about 20 per cent to about 36.7 million people today from 30.2 million in 1998, according to Statistics Canada.

It's a major shift from previous generations, where eating out was less common and considered a frivolous expense. Today, more people and families are eating out for convenience, to socialize, to celebrate or to reward themselves for hard work or other activities.

For some, it's money that might otherwise be spent on other forms of entertainment, vacations, clothing or even buying a home – which is increasingly out of reach for people in expensive cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.

Brandon Hill, a certified financial planner with Toronto-based Ironshield Financial Planning, believes spending money on eating out is fine if it enriches your life – and your budget allows it.

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"I think it's important to have an abundance mentality. You shouldn't be trying to scrimp and save on items that truly bring value to your life," says Mr. Hill, citing a book called Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, which looks at how certain spending habits can increase happiness. That includes buying experiences, not things.

For example, Mr. Hill says trying a new restaurant can be a memorable experience. "Those are things you're going to remember versus buying the latest and greatest iPhone," he says.

Of course, the dining-out money should only be spent if you can afford it, after covering essentials such as rent or mortgage payments, insurance and utilities, and after you sock away some savings for financial goals such as buying a house (or maybe a bigger house) or for retirement.

"After that, it's completely up to you," how you spend the extra money, Mr. Hill says. "As long as it's bringing value to your life, then I think it's worth it."

Laurie Campbell, CEO of Credit Canada, says eating out is fine, except when it becomes a habit that erodes savings over time.

"The occasional indulgence may seem harmless, but they can quickly add up and actually stand between you and your financial goals," Ms. Campbell says.

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She points to the survey showing that 25 per cent of consumers attribute their lack of financial goals to their spending habits. That number grows to 39 per cent for millennials. The margin of error for the survey of 1,510 Canadians is plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

"We are living in a carpe diem society," Ms. Campbell says. "We've conditioned ourselves to believe that if we see it and we want it, we deserve it, we work hard, therefore we should have it."

Her organization counsels people to not completely deprive themselves of guilty pleasures, such as eating out, but to cut back as needed. That might mean eating out once a week instead of twice or three times, or having a latte on Fridays only, instead of daily.

Marketing professional Melynda Szabototh, 31, says she and her fiancé make dinner at home most nights. Where they struggle is making breakfast and lunch and taking it to the office during the work week.

"Some weeks we do better than others," she says.

Most weeks they end up buying lunch about three days a week or grabbing a breakfast sandwich on the way into work. Ms. Szabototh says she feels badly, even though she can afford it.

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"I feel guilty about it because I know that money could be going somewhere else, but it's not that we're not meeting our financial goals," she says.

In fact, Ms. Szabototh isn't convinced eating out is really a problem for her, especially when the food she's buying is healthy.

"Maybe I'm just framing it as a problem," she says. "Maybe society just tells me it's a problem."

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