Curbing Food Spending

I have a friend who loves video games.  Plays them daily.  Has a list of “games to buy” and prioritizes it.  I’ve never owned a gaming console or bought a video game, but a quick glance online tells me that a lot of video games are around $50.  If I mentally add up all the money he spends on games, I’m aghast.  I can’t believe how much money he’s given to Nintendo over the years.

But then I thought about it, and started to understand that he is an extremely intelligent person who has made this one of his priorities in life.  He has a passion for games and really enjoys playing them with his wife.  And how is he any different than the person that chooses to spend their disposable income on plane tickets?  Or house decor?  Or sporting equipment?  There is no difference.

I’ve been reading through Chris Guillebeau’s book (a gift from the gals at All Of Us Revolution) and one thing he says about how he approaches his discretionary spending is:

I happily exchange money for things I truly value.

So even though it seems ludicrous from my point of view as a non-gamer to spend money in that area, I need to remember that we are all made different and have different priorities.

Looking at my bank account, what do I “truly value”?

That answer is simple: food.  I love food.  Especially full-flavor and variety.  Even though I enjoy cooking I hate eating the same food day after day which, when you live alone, you end up doing because you have a bunch of leftovers.  Which means that instead of brown-bagging my lunch and cooking dinner at home I spend a lot of money on restaurants or fast food.

While I know that I probably can survive on PB&J sandwiches, yogurt, apples, and cereal; I choose to indulge my variety-craving palate.  I truly value food and happily exchange money for it.

But in this process of self-review / life-review, I’d like to spend less and save more.  Which, by the way, should probably be on everyone’s resolution list each January given the runaway nature of our credit card debt.  I’m not going to even bother linking to depressing articles that say what balance the average person carries on their card because you’ve all heard it before.

What if I reigned in my biggest spending indulgence?

I picked a month at random (October 2010) and went through my bank statements to see how I spent my money, specifically on food.

Restaurants / fast food: $228.01

Grocery store: $115.92

That’s about 10% of my gross income.  Depending on who you ask, maybe that’s an appropriate amount.  A cursory Google search yielded a study that says the average family food expenditure is 12-14% of their income.  Another report says 9.5%.

So I’m actually doing pretty okay, right?  No need to change my habits, right?  Well, maybe.  I said I’m going to try living differently and try I will.  I may find out that doesn’t work for me and go back to my old habits, but only after careful consideration of the options.

Plus, if you haven’t noticed yet, I’m competitive.  “Let’s see if I can live with 40 items of clothing!”  Challenging myself is a theme.

And regardless, we all know that restaurant food and fast food isn’t healthy, right?  Neither is most pre-packaged food, so trying to steer clear of the TV dinners.

The plan

Brown bag my meals.  I decided that I will attempt to spend $0 on food Monday through Thursday.  Since my co-workers and I have a traditional Friday “breakfast club” at the cafeteria, that’ll be my cheat day.

Then, try to minimize fast food spending on the weekend, too.  In general, the weekends are easier for me, anyway, because I’ll often spend the whole day at home or maybe I’ll be out in a place away from restaurants – like hiking.

Purchase basic ingredients and (gasp!) actually cook from scratch whenever possible.  I’ve resisted this in the past because by the time I get home from work I’m pretty tired.  Too bad, Alissa.  This is the challenge.

How’s it going so far?

Not bad.  I made a big pot of corn chowder (recipe here) and stuck individual portions in the freezer.  Even though it was DELICIOUS, I did get bored of it after a couple days.  I’ve still got some servings in the freezer.  They may sit there for a bit while my palate resets.

I made a stir fry with some leftover veggies and chicken over rice.  It was.. not good.  But I ate it anyway.  I really need to learn the art of stir frying.

Today I dumped a bunch of cans in the crock pot, and a batch of chili is now percolating away.  My first attempt.  I would be worried about the results, but it’s chili so I figure it’s hard to screw up.  Like spaghetti.

I did crack last week and went to Subway for a veggie sub.  I was craving the crisp crunch of fresh vegetables.  It was heavenly.

Seeing results

For some time I’ve been envious of our building proctor at work.  Need a wall painted?  He paints it.  Need to set up tables and chairs for an event?  He does so.  Need to fix a leaking sink?  He fixes it.  And at the end of the day there are tangible results to much of his work – no matter how small.

I, by contrast, work in an office.  I spend my days answering e-mails, scheduling meetings, and programming formulas into Excel.  But at the end of the day it’s hard to visualize what I’ve accomplished.

Cooking has a definitive end product, and I can feel like I’ve actually done something.  I like this.

Tips

I heard somewhere to put leftover veggies in a big bag in the freezer, and keep adding to it when you have more leftovers.  Then open the bag and throw them in soup or whatever you’re cooking.  Well, this didn’t work so well with the stir fry, but maybe I’ll find other uses.

I’m a King Soopers (Kroger) fan and found on their web site that you can upload coupons to your account so you’ll get a discount at the register.  My family shares an account so I also add things I think they might use.  (Mom, you’ll save twenty-five cents next time you buy Puffs.)

If you have any other suggestions for cheap and healthy at-home cooking (and freezing / re-eating), I’m all ears!

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2 Responses to Curbing Food Spending

  1. Aimee says:

    I pretty much only brown bag, and cook from scratch because I’m too poor to do it any other way (resturants are super expensive here). But, I can’t stand left overs because I get bored and I’m a foodie, so I cheat by cooking things “plain” and then adding flavours on a daily basis. For example – I buy a large roasting chicken, and roast it “plain” with a bit of salt, pepper, onion (maybe lemons). I then divide it into 1 breast for a chicken salad lunch by chopping the meat, adding a spoonful of creme frache, french herbs, mustard, grapes, mixed lettuce leaves (lunch 1). Breast 2 can be eaten for dinner as a roast-dinner with spuds, vege, gravy, etc. Legs and general dark meat can make tacos (using lettuce from chicken salad, mexi spices, etc.) and chicken lasagne (invest in a 1-person baking dish). So, I got 4 meals from the chicken, and did it 4 very different ways. You can do the same thing with basic tomato sauce – use it for veggie marinara, add ground beef, or make lasagne, or pizza topping. (granted, all italian)

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