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6 Ways to Change the Impact of Food on your Budget

A friend sent me an email that said, “I use Mint.com [1] and see that food is a big portion of my monthly spending. How do I fix it?”

He proceeded to list six ways that food affects his budget.

While food does have a rather large impact on almost any budget, it doesn’t have to be that way all the time.

Below, I list his six obstacles to reducing food spending and tell you what I would do to overcome them.

Food Impacts and Fixes

  1. I eat out too much because it’s easy after a busy day. Use a slow cooker [2] to prepare meals in advance, or keep food on hand that requires little to no preparation – a salad can be mixed in 5 minutes or less, and even microwave meals are cheaper than meals out. Alternatively, consider “batch cooking [3]” where you cook on Sunday for the entire week, or even cook for a full month [4] and freeze individual portions. It is so easy to come home and just pop something in the microwave or oven, and it can be even faster than waiting for takeout!
  2. I eat out too much with friends because it’s social and the easiest activity to suggest when I want to meet up with people. If you’re meeting up with just one or two people, consider inviting them over for dinner instead. Alternatively, you can meet up to volunteer at your favorite non-profit, go for a run or visit a museum or other free attraction in your city. If you’re meeting up with a group of people, suggest a potluck. Make it exciting with theme parties – I’m attending one next week where everyone is bringing a different dip. If you have to go out to meet people, lunch is cheaper than dinner. You can also try sticking to fast food instead of sit-down places, ordering water instead of a $3.00 soda, eating an appetizer as your meal, or splitting an entrée into two portions and eating one for lunch the next day. Lastly, watch deal sites like LivingSocial [5] or Groupon [6] and purchase deals when your favorite restaurants come up. Add up the amount you’ve spend on social eating in each of the last three months, and challenge yourself to cut that amount in half during the next three months.
  3. I waste so much produce that I buy at the grocery store because I’m cooking for one person. I don’t eat it quickly enough, and it goes bad. He also noted that he doesn’t want to go to the grocery store [7] every two days and that he has mastered freezing meat but isn’t sure what to do about produce. My suggestions: think about what can be purchased already frozen, such as corn or broccoli. Experiment with what you can freeze yourself (I’ve successfully frozen diced onion, bellpepper and carrots). Plan meals before grocery shopping and only buy what you know you can consume before your next trip. I grocery shop monthly, and use the most sensitive produce (avocados, bananas) before heartier produce (apples, potatoes), and save non-produce meals (pasta with meat sauce) for later in the month. You can also try stopping by a farmers’ market once a week to get very fresh produce, which will last you longer. Lastly, I sometimes use my lunch break to visit the Whole Foods around the corner from work, purchasing supplemental produce for two to three days at a time.
  4. Grocery delivery saves time, but there aren’t usually sales and I don’t think it’s economical.  If you truly can’t make time to go to the grocery store, spending a little more [8] on delivered groceries is better than not buying groceries at all – view the added expense as a substitute for eating out rather than a substitute for shopping yourself. Even if delivered groceries cost you $20 more per month, you can probably make that up by eating just one to two meals at home instead of out. You can curb the need for delivery by shopping once per month [7] (with maybe small supplemental trips for eggs, milk and produce). Alternatively, fit small shopping trips into your regular routine – stop on the way home from work/school, or go during your lunch hour if you have access to a fridge at work (my mom and I have both been known to do this). If you go the delivery route, keep in mind that services like Peapod [9] take coupons when the delivery arrives and often offer promotions for free or reduced delivery when you spend a certain amount.
  5. I struggle with a desire to purchase gourmet items. I want to buy cheese that costs $8.99/lb, even though I know it’s stupid. It’s not stupid if you plan and budget for it, use it sparingly, and, once again, view it as a substitute for eating out rather than cooking the most economical meal possible. Clearly rice and beans are the cheapest things you can buy – but you’d get pretty sick of eating them for every meal. If gourmet items are what helps you look forward to eating in, give yourself permission to buy one or two each shopping trip. Set an “allowance [10]” specifically for these items. One of my big food splurges is fresh Gouda. It’s used in my favorite mashed potatoes, a Cheesecake Factory copycat recipe that I eat at least twice a month. But by spending $4 on that cheese, I save the cost of my favorite plate at Cheesecake Factory – $16. Within reason, gourmet food items are not something you need to beat yourself up over.
  6. I have a personal rule to take my lunch to work at least four days a week – for both health and money reasons. But some weeks that only ends up being two or three days a week. I bring my lunch to work every single day, without any added work or stress. I simply cook 1-2 extra servings of my dinner (which is more economical anyway, what with the lack of small jars/cans/boxes) and pack the leftovers in individual containers when I clean up. In the morning, I just grab the container and go. If your dinners aren’t conducive to leftovers, or you want even cheaper/healthier lunches, keep sandwich fixings and other snack food on hand. At night, pack the “inside” of your sandwich in one small plastic container and the bread in another (or in a re-sealable bag). In the morning, grab the two containers and fix your sandwich at lunch time. Consider keeping things like chips, baby carrots, condiments, and other “extras” at work, either at your desk or in a marked container in the fridge. 

What other things do you to keep your food budget under control?