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$9 (Nine Dollar) Dinners - Panda Express
Let's create some rules that are fair across the board:
- I will be able to use $9 pre-tax so that the total does not exceed $10
- I will not include a drink unless it's part of the meal. Drink water. It's free.
- I will start with restaurants or other eating establishments. Frankly it's too easy to create a $9 dinner at home.
- I will take advantage of regular promos or coupons, but not something rare or limited time. For example, if I can normally get a Tuesday deal at Popeyes for $4.99 then that's okay. But I cannot include a limited time BOGO deal from Domino's in the $9 dinner challenge.
- I will only eat things that I consider delicious. It's my money and I'm not going to throw it away so I have something negative to write.
- The ultimate gauge of this will include how many meals will I get for my $9, and will it have any nutritional value?
What is $9 Dinners?
On the face of it, a $9 dinner is quite a luxury! After all, every now and again you hear about CEOs and famous people taking the SNAP challenge for a week or two. To remind you, the SNAP challenge is when you live on $4.50/day equivalent to what a lower-income SNAP participant has to work with. $4.50/day!! It's incredibly challenging and any time you read what the CEO of Panera or a state senator experience, it's clear that the stress of having not enough money to buy what you want or need to eat is huge and overwhelming.
So back to the question, what is a $9 dinner? My hope as someone who thinks about personal finance a lot is to explore answers that 90% of people can use to get more satisfaction out of life, or to maximize life. For me, when I worked in an office environment, the question of what to eat for lunch came up a lot. While I would brown bag it more often than not, I had a couple of colleagues that would literally debate for 15 or 20 minutes what to eat for lunch that day. And when they came back from lunch, they'd say how disappointing it was, and that they should be able to get more for $10. $10! A whole Alexander Hamilton! I could find a lunch or dinner that's satisfying, tasty, and plentiful for only $9, or so I thought.
So let's craft some rules!
A Famous $9 Dinner
$9 at Panda Express
$9 at Panda Express
I'm starting with one of my personal favorites when I'm paying for lunch - Panda Express. Obviously, if you don't care for Americanized Chinese food then you probably will not agree with me on this, but you can wait until my next $9 dinner column. Panda Express is delicious. It's got variety, fresh vegetables, good prices, large portions, and it's a chain so the quality is relatively fixed. There are so many things to enjoy:
- Chow mein
- Fried rice
- Steamed vegetables
- Orange chicken - their signature dish
- Orange chicken with bacon
- Shitake kale chicken breast
- Sweetfire chicken breast
- String bean chicken breast
- Kung pao chicken
- Mushroom chicken
- Black pepper chicken
- Grilled teriyaki chicken
- Broccoli beef
- Shanghai angus steak
- Beijing beef
- Honey walnut shrimp
- Chicken egg roll
- Veggie spring roll
- Hot and sour soup
- Chicken potsticker
- Crispy shrimp
- Cream cheese rangoon
So obviously, a ton of variety here (some with surcharges like orange chicken with bacon). And it's no problem getting under $9 because items range from $1.49 for the spring roll to $8 for a three entree plate. What's your best bet?
Two entree plate plus one
Your Best Bet
Where's the greatest intersection of value and price?
*Two entree plate $6.59
If you've been to Panda Express, you may already know why there's an asterisk. Take a look at your last receipt, and you'll see that if you take a quick survey that you'll get a free entree when you buy a two entree plate. So you end up getting
**Three entree plate $6.59
Taste/Flavor - First off, you get a side item (chow mein, rice, veggies). I always get half and half. And when it comes to the entrees, I pick what's freshest looking. From my experience, the taste is above average, and because it's relatively fresh, it's better than what you'll get at a fast food place. Variety means that you won't get sick of what you're eating, which is important.
Health - Now, this is where things get interesting. It's up to you how healthy your plate is going to be. If you're feeling decadent, go with fried rice and all fried items with gloppy sauces. I tend to keep things on the lighter end, and with lots of vegetables so there is some nutritional value.
Filling - Whether you live to eat, or eat to live, you want to get full. No problem here. In fact, I'll go as far as saying that you can comfortably get 2 meals out of this (3 for light eaters). Again, you have some control over this since you're picking your items and you can go heavy on proteins or fiber-rich veggies when available.
Panda Express Variety
Value for $9
Okay, let's do some math. My goal was to find delicious meals that are less than $9. Ideally I can get more than 1 meal for $9 because then I'm getting more bang for the buck. So, based on that, how does Panda Express rate out?
$6.59 for a two entree plate + 1 entree with survey
2 meals worth for $6.59
That means I'm getting 2.73 meals for my $9 and more than 1 meal per day based on the $4.50/day for SNAP. Add in the fact that I can mix and match as I please, and that I can get real nutritional value and fresh vegetables, and this is pretty great!
I believe that being frugal and making smart money choices is like any other exercise. As we continue to practice good habits in saving money where possible, finding deals for what we want, and having a good time at it, then we become better at dealing for a living.
I'm committed to sharing my experiences with getting the most out of using credit cards, saving and spending tips, and I might even add a slice of perspective without trying to be a psychoanalyst like some other personal finance folks out there.
Please let me know what you think and if you'd like to hear my take on a specific topic.