Food, glorious food ! If you are just tuning in, Part 1 of my Debt Free Diet can be found here. That’s where I explain my horrendous and expensive journey to getting real with my food costs. Luckily, I saw the light and have vastly changed my expensive grocery shopping ways.
Alright y’all, let me be honest though. The truth of the matter is, I’m a newbie in the life of a frugal food consumer, circa November 2017ish or so. And listen, I use the term frugal super lightly. Let’s just say, it’s frugal my way. The things that work for me, I’m definitely NOT preaching for others to follow. Nor, am I suggesting this is the cheapest or ‘best’ route. What I would “preach”, is that if you are in debt or otherwise hoping to reach other financial goals…food expenses are worth looking into! So, without further ado, these are the strategies our 2 person + Cashew the Cat household have used to considerably reduce our food costs:
- Make a list. Uh, duh ? Yea, so I was already doing this for a LONGG time. But, as I mentioned in Part I, a lot of my former lists were haphazard, or often just based on some Pinterest recipes I thought looked cool to make.
Here’s how it works these days. I make the list. My fiancé plugs in the food item Excel, and follows-up by asking me the estimated price for each item. He then sums up the total. What does it equal ? Less than or equal to $70 we’re in business! Over the limit… we ask , what can we cut out? Print out said list. Check off list while in store. Check out at the store. Finally, leave happy because there are no price surprises. Every time we have done this we are within + / – $5 of what we estimated. It’s a great feeling. No more pangs of guilt!
And here’s the “real deal”. Have we done this every SINGLE grocery shopping trip since late Fall 2017. NOPE! For example, one weekend I was on my own, so I made do without the Excel print out. The consequence being that I spent probably $10-15 more than I would have had we used our teamwork list approach. Last weekend, we didn’t make a list at all. But, I’m happy to report that the total was only $55! Thus, the careful planning and intricate understanding of food costs is seemingly paying off !
Grocery list making is a habit I will never abandon completely. Yet, we are human and I like to make the point that even though this strategy works for us, most habits (for us normal people ;), kidding… ) are never 100% perfect.
- Theme days. Meal prep is ALL the rage. It seems I can’t scroll through social media without seeing something about it and its virtuousness. For me, meal prep is not where it’s at. First, I have the luxury of working from home. Further, these work from home lunches tend to be simple and easy prep–think Salad, Peanut butter toast, yogurt, CHIPS 😉 , etc.).
The next part is, I’m a picky eater. I was a horribly picky eater when I was little, I’m pretty sure I subsisted solely on carbohydrates at some points in childhood… realllll healthy, I know . Fortunately, I’ve expanded my food horizons. I eat an approximately 90% plant-based diet, with a decent-ish mix of the food groups. One quality that hasn’t changed from my picky eating days, is my general distaste for leftovers. I don’t say this as a food ‘snob’ or to offend the miracles of leftovers. I know they are truly wonderful! And, I do eat them on occasion…mainly soups/stews, pizza(!), etc. Yet, I’m well aware that a full week’s meal prep, just won’t do it for me. For those that make it work, I send my admiration. Further, as a woman who loves to plan, I send both my admiration and my envy !
However, the “cousin” to meal planning is Theme days ! What are theme days you ask ?! Well, Theme days essentially take the guess work out of the long-lived question, “What’s for dinner?”.
Theme days started in my house because I LOVE soups/stews. I love their warmth, their fullness, and the fact that I actually do enjoy the leftovers! However, making multiples of these per week, say about 2 on average, was spiking up our grocery bill. As a solitary meal, they are quite the $ steal. But, making a few soups/stews per week, particularly those which involve different ingredients/produce, and I would easily be up the creek without a paddle! Is that how that phrase goes?
My solution was to cook soup/stew one time per week. Generally, this occurs on Sunday when I have a bit more time to prepare. However, it may also be on a Monday or Tuesday. I don’t tie myself down to a day (unless produce is about to turn bad) and try to give myself as much free reign as it comes to what I’m in the mood to prepare/eat that evening.
What about the other days ? Happy to share! Next up is Pizza !! Pizza has been a weekend dinner staple for years. However, with the introduction of theme days, it’s been given it’s official title of Friday dinner. Here, I don’t mess around. I’d say 50 out of 52 Fridays per year, Pizza is what’s for dinner! Sometimes Saturday ends up being Pizza round 2. Can you tell I’m not a fan of cooking on the weekends? Other Saturdays, it’s something simple like pasta + vegetable. And less often (these days that is), it’s a night out/take out.
Ok, so three days down … 4 days left! What remains is a smorgasbord of fun. Half-kidding here… The remaining work week days (Monday – Thursday), I aim to keep as stress free/healthy/cheap as possible. What I’ve learned on this debt free journey, is that sometimes less is more when it comes to food! Here’s the formula for the other days: Almost Always a grain, Almost Always a vegetable, and Most often a Protein. Dishes tend to look something like this, but often change depending on what’s on sale that week:
-Quinoa, roasted chickpeas, and roasted zucchini
-Pasta + Eggplant w/ marinara sauce
-Veggie Burger + crudité [fancy, huh?.. aka carrots and celery]
-Baked tofu, brown rice, + roasted broccoli
To keep things simple, I’ll do things like purchase jar tomato sauce, which pangs my Italian-American heart. To keep things cheap, I’ll make my own marinade for my tofu in lieu of buying the pre-marinated kind. To keep things interesting, I’ll scan the Publix weekly flyer for ‘Bogos’ and other sales to shift around food choices. It’s not the most exciting that my meals have ever been, but I’d say the theme days is what has been the true key to my success. Yes, Mine. Not yours, or Debt diva in the corner. Let’s be real, coupon clipping and Ramen noodles do work wonders for some. However, I’ll own it—Theme days is my ‘thing’!
- Stay true to you. This leads quite seamlessly from #2 above. Now, I don’t mean “stay true to you” in the philosophical sense, I quite literally mean that I stay true to my personal food “must haves”. I define “must haves” as foods that bring health, comfort, and/or happiness on a weekly basis. They may be economical, or slightly/definitely a splurge. Yet, wherever they fall on the cost spectrum they are ‘worth it’ because the individual (AKA ME!) purchasing is staying true to themselves.!
Here are some of my personal examples to demonstrate the above blabbering:
- ) Ezekiel bread. My fiancé and I are huge fans of this sprouted bread. Actually, I was the one that introduced it to him way back when we started dating in 2013. He’s obsessed and although we have attempted at times to try different options, we always find our way back. I’d say we are Ezekiel bread hooked. Total damage per week, $5-6. So yes, not our most frugal option, but it brings us our happy place and lots of whole grains too !
- ) Cage free/Vegetarian Eggs: I’d love to say I buy the most farm fresh organic eggs at the store, but I’m afraid I’m not quite there yet. I at the very least buy “vegetarian” or cage free eggs. When on sale, I’ll splurge for the organic. Total damage per week, $3-6.
- )Organic Half & Half: This is a relatively new addition to my shopping list. My animal product consumption is pretty low as is and so I figured why not stay organic? Total damage bi/tri weekly, $3.
- )Coffee: Back when we lived in Miami, we would buy some pretty pricey coffee beans. Our ‘Champagne’ taste has slowed down, but I’m still not buying the absolute cheapest coffee beans in the house. I LOVE coffee and I NEED coffee. Also, when it tastes better I enjoy it more, and oddly seem to need less of it (quality vs. quantity ? ). First, I look for whatever is on sale. Usually, within the specials I can find a brand I’ll settle for—Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Gevalia, etc. If not, I’ll take the lesser of all evils! Total damage weekly/biweekly, $6-9.
For others, “must haves” could be ice cream or pre-chopped veggies. Here’s the place where “you do you” becomes in my book MOST important
- Splurge sparingly. The counter to #3 is that I splurge sparingly. Do you think I’m contradicting myself? Well, I daresay no. Food “must haves” are personal, but splurges sparingly is universal. Individually, we choose what’s most important to us. Yet, it’s human nature to want more, More, MORE! Once I established my food “must haves” I was able to chip away at my remaining splurges. These splurges, I liken to bad habits. And as I write about my personal ones below, it’s hard to believe I considered them a “necessity” to begin with. These are some of the splurges I’ve cut down or eliminated –
1.) Kombucha !: I LOVE Kombucha. And look, if I want to keep drinking it regularly I should just freaking make it myself ! My current winter replacement has been tea. During a cold front, I tend to drink it in the afternoon. I’ll have to generate a replacement come summertime…
2) Beer/Wine: This has been more of a schedule shift/job change than anything else. My fiancé is currently working a bunch of weekend evenings, consequently leading to fewer alcohol purchases. Also, training for a half marathon has also cut my weekend drinking down a bit, but not completely—I’m just trying to finish, not win ;). Nevertheless, it has had a positive uptick on the weekly food budget.
3) Snacks, Snacks, Snacks! Back in my college days, I quickly learned that snacks blew my food budget. They are so damn expensive and generally just empty calories…. Now, I love me a good snack, do NOT get me wrong. My solution… you guessed it , sparingly! Some weeks I won’t buy “snacks” (e.g. chips, crackers, trail mix). But, if I do I’ll keep it to what’s on sale/Bogo OR just purchase 1-2 tops. For others, I realize snacks may be placed in the “must haves” (see #3) and I totally respect that! But for me, it’s just something I am able to do less frequently without issue—save PMS, that is.
- “Quick,Quick Meals”. Let’s be real frank here…sometimes things just don’t go to plan. Imagine for a moment, the all of the above strategies are a total fail. What is a Wisedebther to do? For our house we keep a few staples at bay. The first is pasta. The benefit is that pasta is quick and moderately filling. The cost is a gazillion carbs, with pending hunger if not combined with proper veggies/protein. The second, is frozen veggie burgers and for my fiancé frozen Amy’s burritos. Are these the absolute best, nutritionally rich foods? Rhetorical utterance, “No!”. Do they get us through the evening and provide us with a blessed full stomach, “Yes”.
Just like the former strategies, “quick quick meals” are personal. I could see other potential “quick quick meals” being canned soup, ramen noodles, other frozen meal options…honestly, I see this category as a whatever “floats your boat” ‘kinda thing.
For me, “quick quick meals” are usually a 1-2 day per week occurrence. It’s not always time, sometimes it’s just mood. Nope, I don’t feel like cooking tonight. Or, I’m ravenously hungry post-workout feed me now. Finally, fill in the blank with any other reason that comes up on a week night! In previous years, I used to feel badly about not cooking “full”, somewhat elaborate meals. Now, I try to look at it from the perspective of my overall physical and mental health. Some days are very well balanced, others have a “quick quick meal” for dinner. It’s OK… In the end, it all comes out in the wash, or so I like to think.
One special caveat is “quick quick meals” are not always the cheapest, as they are often pre-prepped. For example, a pack of 4 Dr. Praeger’s veggie burgers puts me back $5.49. Yet, when I consider what this would cost me if I ate out, I’m still in the positive.
In summary, these are the strategies that have been most impactful in reducing our food expenses:
- Make a list including the estimated food prices !
- Use Theme days as an alternative to Meal prep
- Stay true to personal food “must haves”
- Splurge with the remaining food $$$ sparingly
- Keep a decent stash of “quick quick meals” on hand
I would be a debt free diet fraud to suggest I have it all figured out! It’s possible my strategies will evolve or change, particularly as I reach my debt free goal this year. Yet, I hope that my experience from food spender to saver can inspire other Wisedebthers out there.
Phew, this was a long post-I’m ready for a snack!