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Guilt: feelings of culpability, especially for imagined offenses.

I looked up the word to make sure it does indeed apply to me. Yep, I'm feeling culpable all right. And I'm not sure I've committed a real offense.

You see, I've been eating out a lot lately. Really busy. Too tired - lazy? - to slice and season food and turn on the George Foreman. Yet craving something better than microwave dinners.

I've had stints of survival by takeout, without regret, until my taste buds screamed for a home-cooked meal.

But things have changed, drastically. We are now living in "these economic times."

Homes are in foreclosure. Businesses and banks have been wiped from the face of the Earth. Joe the Plumbers are struggling just to feed their families.

And I'm walking out of a Thai restaurant toting the $8 panang curry meal?

It just isn't right ...

Is it?

The people in Washington have told us not to panic, to spend, spend, spend. Yet I'm not the only one wrestling with the logic. I checked the blogosphere for opinions and found others asking the same question.

The title of an article this year on the so-called Feminist Finance blog: "Do you feel guilty spending money when the economy sucks?" The blogger had found the china cabinet of her dreams but questioned whether she should buy it, even though she could afford to do so.

"I could bow to my fears about the national economy and put that money in my emergency savings instead ... but it seems so ... tin foil hat."

On a recent Home Shopping Network discussion forum about buying jewelry, "Barlan" wrote:

"When I think about all the people who are in danger of losing their homes and those who can't afford food, medicine, heating oil, it just makes me sick. I have decided that I don't need anything now and I feel better not even thinking about making frivolous purchases."

But "Nelliebly" responded: "If I want something, I buy it and don't feel guilty. Actually, I feel like I'm doing my part to improve the economy. Jewelry makers have mouths to feed, too."

Some restaurants have tried to lure people with strained pocketbooks through coupon campaigns and discounted specials. Not sure if these owners were thinking of the psychological impact as well, but the specials also help ease the guilt for people like me. (How can you not go to Bonefish when you get a $10 coupon in the mail?)

As this week's City Times cover story says, the two remaining Shells restaurants in Tampa will focus on traditional dishes and leave "extravagant" dishes such as $18 steak, shrimp and crab cake combos off the menu.

Michael Vanderburg, who owns the 14-year-old Cafe European with his wife, Suzanne, estimated that they've lost 20 percent of their business, especially on weekday evenings.

"People are actually feeling guilty about spending money on food," he mused.

So the couple created what they call "recession menus."

"It's kind of tongue in cheek because we've done it in red card, as in red ink," Michael said.

During dinner hours Tuesday through Thursday, customers can order from the regular menu or a short list of discount entrees for the frugal. Some selections: flat iron steak with fries and a salad for $11.95, veal in a mushroom and wine sauce for $9.95, and a pork chop with potatoes and veggies for $8.95.

But just like anything these days, you pay less, you get less.

The recession steak is 5 ounces instead of the 8- to 10-ounce regular menu size. And you get two pieces of pork chop or veal with meals on the regular menu, while recessionaires get only one.

Still, it's catching on, Michael told me this week. Some people are ordering off the recession menu, often because they like the smaller portions.

Hmm. People are actually opting to eat less, not necessarily to save money, but to save calories?

Now that's something we don't have to feel guilty about.