In January, I decided to engage in the most cliche thing ever: I created a New Year’s resolution. December had been jam-packed with semester finals, travel, and holidays. Throughout that busy time, I wanted to track my food expenditures. It was an expensive month, as food expenses climbed well over $400.
Admittedly, it wasn’t the first $400-$500 month for food. I was a notorious spender in this category. It was a weak point. With the rationale that “everyone needs to eat and spend money to do so,” I let myself off the hook. I wondered, “If I spend $7+ on a Subway sandwich, how much could I really save by making my own lunch?” I didn’t think I could save that much.
Something clicked over the new year: I suddenly knew I could do better. Moreover, that savings could be redirected towards investments and savings. With December’s balance calculated, I set an extreme goal for January: $200. That number would include food and drinks — anywhere, everywhere, and for any reason (e.g., even birthday parties and celebrations).
I reported my results and efforts for six months. Each month was less than December, and I got exceptionally close to $200 in February. I cut back on meats, dairy products, and consumed more rice than ever. After that restrictive month, I realized that $200 might be more ambitious than I originally thought. It was challenging to publicly share that “failure” to reach a stated goal. I’m not one to leave a goal unaccomplished. But in trying so hard to reach this number, I briefly lost the original purpose.
A more frugal food budget was never supposed to be painful. I never intended to eat only basic staples mixed with a few veggies for multiple meals a day. Regrettably, that’s what happened. While I was getting closer to the $200 number, I was definitely feeling the hurt of this lifestyle change.
Cutting back on my food spending was to live simpler, save more, and reflect on the change. Both at the start and now, as I write today, I can realize these goals. But I needed to get some perspective before I could actually analyze what I learned.
Before I committed to reducing my budget, I had little appreciation for how much each swipe cost my budget. A $7 sandwich, $8 burrito, and $15 dinner with tip all seemed strangely equal. It was sustenance. Why care about one purchase?
Meticulously tracking my spending and putting the receipts into spreadsheets changed this thinking. I could (with terror) see the cost. While individual purchases had been necessary, the total spent was alarming. Creating a formal food budget and tracking balances allowed me to feel, see, and read that disconnect. It was a game changer.
See, when I started this journey, I had no appreciation for the “feel” of a food budget. How many sandwiches can I get and still maintain my budget? How much fruit can I buy? Can I afford the sparkling juice? After I had calculated these totals, I realized what, for instance, a $250 food budget actually looked like.
Today, I can self-monitor and reasonably predict my monthly total. I know what I can and can’t buy — what will regularly put me over the edge. It took three stages to get here:
1. Track a balance for a month
2. Create and live with a new budget for 6 months
3. Pause and reflect on the new balance
Those three stages can be applied to any budget desired, but were 100% necessary for food. It took time to actually get the feel. I thought it would be easier, but old habits die hard. I’d recommend that if you want to revolutionize a budget that you carefully track yours for about 6 months, as well.
For your entertainment, I’ve conducted an interview with myself to reflect on the process:
Interviewer: Hi Sam, thanks for joining me today to talk about your frugal food budget!
Sam: Happy to be here.
Interviewer: So, did you ever reach $200?
Sam: Sadly, no. I got really close in February. Otherwise, I was able to keep it under $300 quite regularly.
Interviewer: What was the hardest thing about cutting back?
Sam: Eating out feels convenient. Heck, oftentimes it is convenient. And I love trying new restaurants! There is a powerful trade off though, and that comes in sacrificed dollars, and ultimately, more time spent working to afford a larger food budget. That’s the vicious cycle I want to avoid. I’d rather not have the convenience of eating out with additional work. It’s important to build relaxation into my schedule, and if I eat out too much I actually hamper that effort.
Interviewer: Could you do better next month?
Sam: You know, that’s a good question. Just because I’ve decided to end the regular reporting of my food budget doesn’t mean I’ve ended my own efforts to save. Frankly, I’m interested in living well, under $300 per month, and being able to have the freedom to go on the occasional date and get a drink with friends, while still saving about $200 more per month than I used to.
Interviewer: Yeah, but if you’re spending nearly $300 on food some months, are you really frugal?
Sam: Ugh, I hate that question. I’m a work-in-progress. I’m hardly perfect. Frugality is a philosophical journey, and in my mind, has no destination. There is no final frugal line or defining organization that sets standards. You are your own standard. I believe I’m far more frugal now, but could always do more to save. Frugality comes in the lack of contentedness. I don’t want to accept that I’m financially set; rather, I’m eternally under construction.
Interviewer: Phew! Thanks for spending the time today, Sam.
Sam: My pleasure.