No More Excuses: How to Finally Start Saving on Food Expenses

cherries

Food budgeting has always been a challenge for me. It’s not so much that I can’t make a food budget… it’s that I have a hard time sticking to it. The problem is, I really like to sample new flavors. I’m always on the lookout to try new things and I’d probably drop every earned penny on tasting all that the culinary field has to offer. Bacon and blueberry pizza? Why not. Sriracha gelato? You only live once. But not only is tasting every 5 dollar donut varietal that comes my way a pricey hobby, the extra spending does all sorts of craziness to my real food budget. Buying a treat every now and then isn’t so bad but giving into every hungry impulse quickly drains money set aside for, you know, groceries.

On top of that, I’m often thrown off by weekly sales. I’ll go out of my way to create a weekly menu only to discover that a boat-load of other ingredients NOT on my list happen to be the deals of the week. Should I stick to the list? Follow the sale? These are the questions that have me paralyzed in front of the dairy aisle (and that gets cold). But one thing that has allowed me to get in tune with some of my less than financially sound foodie habits has been to simply acknowledge that I’m not a perfect budgeter. I also make a lot of excuses when I’m tempted to deviate from my food budget. Only when I owned up to my habits was able to see just how often I gave myself a “free pass” on my food budget. Consequently, facing the reality gave me the perspective to get honest about my food budget.

So to help get that food budget on track, I’m sharing some of the most common excuses overheard ‘round the refrigerator at mealtime (and how to squash ‘em):

“I’ll just buy lunch today…”

The very first week I started working at ReadyForZero, I forgot my lunch in my refrigerator at home. I commute in on a train each morning so there was no going back. First logical thought was to grab a sandwich on my way to work but I stopped in my financial tracks when I saw the price for a single turkey sandwich in the financial district: sticker shock of $12 per sando. Excuse me, San Francisco? While it was an honest mistake, it still taught me a valuable lesson… bringing a lunch to work is totally worth it. In fact, it’s one of the easiest ways to cut back on your food spending.

Budget backup:
If you’re a regular lunch packer, there’s nothing wrong with taking yourself out every once in a while. But if you’re perpetually waiting in lines to get your daily sandwich then you can cut back substantially on your food costs by planning out a few easy meals each week. I’m not so fussy when it comes to lunches so my favorites are usually some combination of foods (hummus and pita, apples and peanut butter, roasted veggies with olive oil, cheese and crackers, yogurt and nuts… then mix and match to your heart’s content) OR I take my leftovers. It’s OK to start small… pack 2-3 days and work up to see if you can get to the whole 5 day stretch. If you have a refrigerator where you can store ingredients, you can store the ingredients at work so you don’t have to worry about forgetting your lunch.

The true cost:

Typical cost of lunch purchased out: $5-10
X 20 weekdays
_____________________
$100.00 – $200.00 potential dollars to save per month

“I’m. So. Tired.”

I love to cook. But only when I want to. If I’m feeling particularly tired on the way home from work or after a day out running errands, the last thing I want to do is get messy in the kitchen. Instead, I have visions of takeout sushi dancing in my head. And when you have dancing sushi… you are obviously going to want more of it. Hence, the perpetual takeout conundrum.

So convenient. So easy. So expensive.

Budget backup:
Awesome meals don’t have to be fancy. If you’re feeling tired or lazy, combat the excuse by building up a collection of easy “go to” recipes that you can cook up quickly and without hassle. A favorite of mine is to make breakfast for dinner. A quick veggie scramble with whole wheat toast is just about as easy as it gets. French toast happens, too. If you’re at a loss for ideas, start basic: protein, vegetable, grain, fat. For example: tofu, broccoli, brown rice, and avocado. I practically lived on brown rice bowls in college and survived just fine.

The true cost:

Pizza from Pizzeria: $20.00 – $35.00
Homemade Pizza: $5.00 – $6.00
Difference: $15.00 – $30.00

“But it’s half off!”

Happy Hours, as I originally understood, were generally synonymous with drinks. But when I began partaking in the festivities, I soon realized that food was also involved. Tiny hamburgers. Chili cheese fries. Pizza. Onion Rings. Anything you can fry and dip in ranch dressing. Even at a discount, the cost of “a quick drink after work” had the potential to include an entire happy hour sample platter.

Budget backup:
Just because you’re getting something at a lower price doesn’t mean you’re not paying for it. Yes – getting something half off is better than not, BUT make sure you’re accounting for the other half that you do have to pay.

Paying $4 instead of $8 for an artisan deviled egg feels like a bargain but really… it’s probably not. If you’re going to eat out, choose something that actually fill you up or at the very least doesn’t leave you hungrier than when you arrived. Sometimes you just gotta order the darn burger, even if it’s a few extra dollars above the lowest priced (but also lowest actual food volume) items.

Another way to save is to share your french fries with your friends. Just don’t forget to keep track of your tab – you don’t want to keep an eye on your spending only to find out later that the bill was split between you and your friend who has an affinity for happy hour fillet mignon (fried, of course).

The true cost:

In the city of San Francisco

Happy Hour Drinks: $3 – $7 dollars per drink
Happy Hour Snacks: $5 – $10 dollars per order
X 4 Fridays
___________
$32.00 – $68.00 potential dollars to save per month

“Donuts are so easy to grab before work – they even have holes!”

Breakfast is hands down my favorite meal of the day. The food, the kick-off to another day of eating (I don’t lie when I tell you… I love food) – it’s all good in my book. Waffles? Swoon. That being said, it’s easy to dig a little hole in your budget when buying breakfast on the run. A few bucks here or there doesn’t feel like much (and a pastry is definitely cheaper than other meals out) but it adds up quickly!

Budget backup:
The great thing about breakfast is that it’s generally compiled from ingredients that are relatively low cost. Eggs, toast, yogurt, oatmeal: these are quick and satisfying ingredients that won’t break the bank. If grabbing breakfast at your local cafe is a matter of convenience, sleuth some recipes for make ahead breakfasts that you can easily grab in the morning. Whole grain muffins, hard boiled eggs, pre-made breakfast sandwiches, and yogurt parfaits are some of my favorites.

The true cost:

In the city of San Francisco:

Coffee: $1.50 – $6
Pastry: $1 – $4
X 20 workdays
_______________________
$50.00 – $200.00 potential dollars to save per month

“My schedule’s full – I’ll just pencil food planning in for next month”

I didn’t understand this excuse before I held my first full-time job. A light schedule gave me plenty of time to leisurely prepare my meals. Not only that, I had plenty of time to go to the grocery store to buy the ingredients to make said meals. I was all about the variety, all about making a menu on a whim, and altogether oblivious of the time crunch and pressure that working 8+ hour days puts on your free time. Now – I’ve been totally humbled by just how busy life can get… particularly when you have other responsibilities to balance.

Budget backup:
The best way to get past this excuse is to simply buckle down and set out a meal planning schedule that works for you… “you” being the key element in that equation. Meal planning will differ from person to person so there’s no one generic template. It usually takes a little bit of trial and error to find what kind of meal planning you can sustain for the long term. Prepare yourself for a little bit of failure and frustration but keep tweaking and above all continue to plan. Additionally, prioritize planning at the beginning of the week or the month. If you push it off, life inevitably gets in the way. And when life gets in the way, it’s all the easier to default to Chipotle for dinner.

The true cost of choosing meals out over meal planning:

In the city of San Francisco:
Takeout Dinner for One: $5 – $15
X 20
_______________________
$100.00 – $300.00

I’ve used every single one of these excuses at one point or another. Even with the best intentions, there’s always that tiny little voice in my head that tries to lead me astray. Not only that – I have to actively fight against using them on a fairly regular basis. As I said, food budgets are an ongoing battle!

But with a bit of planning and a bit of good old fashioned convincing and I can reinforce my weak spots and stick within the spending parameters. It’s about seeing past the instant gratification of the excuse and keeping your eyes on the end goal (hello, growing savings account). Saving just $30 a month will result in a yearly savings of $360. That’s $3,600 over a decade! Pop that extra savings into a retirement fund and the return is far beyond that. And if financial security means rewarding myself with a killer meal out (that’s been budgeted for) every month rather than buying a “meh” sandwich everyday for lunch, then I’m a-OK with it. As always, it comes down to finding the balance that fits in your lifestyle!

Image Credit: Nick Harris

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  • Cole

    I can relate to all of this. Sticking to a food budget is my biggest weakness when trying to tackle debt. Great article, thanks for sharing all of your experiences and tips. Good luck!

    • Claire Murdough

      Thanks so much for the comment, Cole!! I already know it’ll help inspire me to stick to my budget next time I’m wandering the aisles :)