When I was 17 I decided to become a vegetarian. The decision was made on a whim without consideration of the fact that I did not eat vegetables unless they were really a red fruit pureed into a sauce with spices, spread over dough and topped with mozzarella. Why did I hate vegetables so much? Because my mother cannot cook. Her idea of making peas and carrots palatable was boiling the canned variety with a dash of salt.
Even though home cooked meals were less than appetizing my family did not dine out often. Going to restaurants was reserved for special occasions and most requests to go through the McDonald’s drive thru were met with the response, “There’s hamburger meat and bread at home!”
It was apparent to me at a very early age that if I wanted my dinner to taste good I would need to learn to prepare it myself. At 11 years old I was seasoning meats and by the time I reached my teens I could make a mean lasagna. In high school I worked my way through most of the non vegetable recipes in the Black Family Reunion Cookbook. In my early 20s I discovered that vegetables can actually taste delicious and added them to my cooking repertoire. Through years of practice I’ve actually become quite the beast with these pots and pans. I bake, fry, broil, sauté, caramelize, and more in a fully stocked kitchen complete with Vitamix and Vidalia Chop Wizard.
Alas, as my culinary skills have grown so has my ability to dine away from home. With income comes options, which I exercised regularly. However, even though the servers at the local breakfast joint had my order memorized I still grocery shopped weekly and prepared the majority of my meals at home, thus keeping my food spending to around $100-$125/week through the majority of my post collegiate life. Then business school happened.
When I was accepted into MBA programs nearly six years ago, each school sent me gorgeously packaged hefty welcome packets complete with swag. Included amongst the glossy pages were detailed breakdowns of how much two years of
vacation business education would cost. In 2012 the total cost of attendance (for nine months) at the school I chose was around $86,000, $5,400 of which was earmarked for food. I remember wondering, who the hell spends that much money on food?
Even with all of the free meals bestowed upon MBA students (that no one can confirm or deny were spirited away in Tupperware containers), between dinners, brunches, lunches, snacks, and late night drive thru runs I managed to spend more on food without an income than I ever had with a full-time job. And I still grocery shopped and cooked on top of that.
Although I returned to gainful employment after graduation, my food spending habits did not revert back to their pre business school form. To my bank account’s dismay they devolved further. From September 2016 thru August 2017 I spent approximately $7,728.98 on food for just myself. This averages out to $644.08 per month, $44.08 more than the “cost of attendance” budget provided and at least $144.08 more than I was spending prior to graduate school. Did I just start eating more?
But not that much. The increase in my food spending wasn’t due to food going here , but rather here
Why? Well, taking a closer look at my food spending breakdown it is obvious that the bulk of the money went to meals away from home; $6012.58 to be exact. Even with spending more than $500/month on food outside the home I still purchased over $1700 worth of groceries or a little under $150 per month.
You can stock a fridge quite well with that money. However, even though I can eat a whole lot I cannot get through multiple takeout and restaurant meals plus all of those groceries too. Something has to give and the mold always wins. I have trashed entire shopping trips due to food spoilage.
I do not intend to be wasteful. Can I confide something personal? I struggle with my weight and have done so ever since college. Through years of moving up and down the scale I have learned that I get closer to fitting into my skinny jeans when I don’t eat crap. In order to avoid eating crap I tend to not allow it to sit in my house. That means no cookies, chips, baked goods, etc. in my cupboards. My grocery cart is The Biggest Loser’s wet dream, filled with fresh produce, lean meats, and whole grains. I go to the supermarket with the best of intentions to prepare sautéed cabbage with curried chicken or a spinach salad with goat cheese and vinaigrette. However, so many nights I open my fridge and I just cannot. The thought of expending the energy to cook has me like When I do find the motivation to make something it is nearly impossible to cook for just one meal and I wind up with several days’ worth of leftovers. By day three I can’t even look at the wrapped up chicken parm without feeling like So I pick up my phone and GrubHub makes it all better (and gets me 3X cash back on my Chase Sapphire Reserve). Sure, I tell myself that I’ll consume what’s in the house tomorrow. However, tomorrow brings invites out to eat and before I know it weeks have gone by and spores decide to finish my food for me.
Although I knew eating out cost me a grip, I never realized exactly how much until recently. A couple of months ago I was hanging in the financial management threads of my favorite online forum and came across this infographic.
The fact that dining out costs more than eating in is hardly earth shattering. However, what shocked me was how accurate the numbers are. When I did the math it did in fact cost me 350% more for all of those takeout, fast food, and restaurant meals than it did for all of the groceries I’d bought (that subsequently wound up in the garbage).
Now I am not one of those “save money by never eating out again” militants. I love food and the experience of having someone else do the dishes way too much to give up restaurants. Also, I know me and there will forever be days when my ability to can is depleted. However, I have learned that it is impossible to serve two masters. I cannot be someone who rarely cooks but also do whole ass grocery trips. Since I am incapable of sticking to the low calorie side of any menu then I need to return to my pre MBA dining habits if I want to stay full and get in sniffing distance of fitting my skinny jeans.
It is still early, but the pendulum has started to swing over the last month and some change. In September my food spending was $373, down from $939 in August. I am also on track to stay within my October budget. If I can keep this up through the end of November that will make three months, and I’ve heard that three months is the timeframe for new habits to take hold. Here is how I’ve done it.
- I looked at my numbers. All of my bank accounts and credit cards are connected to Mint.com so I used the features in the handy dandy Trends tab to assess the carnage. If you don’t know where your money goes I can bet dollars to doughnuts food is one of your black holes.
- Mystery shopping is my friend. If you read Give Us Free Fridays then you know I love using mystery shopping to get free food. The fine dining shops are few and far between but I can usually find plenty of quick service restaurant assignments. Making the effort to sign up for these allows me to be lazy without creating a steady leak in my pockets for meals that serve no other purpose than a quick fix.
- I have go to meals that I tend to prepare over and over again until I am sick of eating them. In order to reignite my desire to cook I had to find new dishes to get me excited again. That’s where Budget Bytes came in. I do not know this woman named Beth, but she is my new best friend. Her site has countless recipes for whatever your palette may crave. Whether it be breakfast, salads, chicken, rice, beans, or even kale she has a way to make it delicious. To make it even better each recipe costs pennies per serving.
- I started shopping like a Parisian again. So I managed to avoid the worst Chicago winter in over 50 years by studying abroad in Paris during the winter of 2014. While living in the City of Light I shared a gorgeous apartment that featured a large kitchen with a tiny fridge. Due to space constraints I was never able to store more than two to three days worth of food so my groceries almost never went bad before I could eat them. Here in the States everything is bigger and more space creates the need to fill it. When it comes to food this doesn’t coincide with my life since I live alone and am the only one eating everything I buy. Purchasing food for a few days at a time saves me money because I spend less and waste little to none.
- I kept my receipts. Part of figuring out how much is reasonable to buy at one time was understanding what I could reasonably eat. Last month I started keeping my receipts and crossing off the perishables as I finished them. If I had to throw away food due to spoilage I estimated how much I actually did eat and then noted the amount I trashed. Doing this over the course of several weeks showed me two things. First, I was able to see how long certain foods would keep. Second, I figured out what quantity to purchase for the next time. If a quart of mushrooms was too much then going forward I’d only buy a pint.
None of these changes were drastic or required major changes in my behavior. All I had to do was be more mindful of my actions and resourceful. My issue was never that I couldn’t afford to spend a lot to feed myself. It’s that I prefer to spend that money in other ways. Now that I’ve figured out where those dollars were going I can put them to better use for me.