You donut-eating budget-buster!
It was Friday, March 27, and I was riding home from an interview. I felt bummed and left the offices feeling oh-so-average. I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. Traveling by bike, it was hard to miss the “DD” sign ahead; our earthly savior and lord of sugar, Dunkin Donuts. I pulled over, and ran in to buy a donut. I couldn’t resist, and bought two.
The cash register read, “$2.10.” My head rang with confusion and disagreement. My body craved a treat for a tough month and day. Despite the qualms and questions, I stood at the counter, handed over my card, and promptly smashed those two donuts down my gullet. Gosh they were good!
As I pedaled away, I knew what those donuts would mean. They would be an exclamation point on another month above $200. They would be a sugary-sweet failure and reminder that I’m not quite there yet. They would be the stench of another month over budget.
The food budget challenge rules
Over the last couple months, I’ve been working to reduce my food and drink expenditures. Friends and readers have asked tons of great questions about the rules to this challenge. They regularly ask, “What do you count, Sam?”
The answer is simple: everything. Anything with a nutritional value is thrown into the bucket. That’s meant that birthday parties, get-togethers, and random snacks count, too. Nothing gets removed from this budget – for any reason.
The $200 food budget challenge was meant to be fun, but also restrictive. I didn’t want to create other budgets for “entertainment” or “eating out.” That seemed to defeat the purpose for me; especially, because much entertainment includes eating and drinking.
Reviewing my efforts thus far
I would love to be writing today with beaming pride. I would love to say, “I did it!” I would love to say I’m the perfect food budgeter and frugal guy. Sadly, I have a lot of work to do.
I started the food budget challenge at the turn of the year. Being frugal led me to sell my car, buy a bike, and save money, but there was still this ridiculous part: food. I was shocked at my inability to save in this category.
When I lumped in food and drink, my monthly budgets were around $400-600. That level of spending was preventing me from being able to save anything. It was an embarrassing realization. I was eating out too much, buying too many prepackaged foods, and opting for organic – when natural would do. I needed to revamp everything.
In the first month, January, I spent $362.69. While down heavily from earlier months, I realized quickly that I had to find other ways to reduce my spending. Then, much to the dismay of my friends, I decided to start up the budget challenge for February. It would mean another month of restrictive splurging and lots of meals at home. I tried to opt for other items that were gluten free, but not at a premium, which helped in February. It was a relative success, and I only spent $211.94. But I still hadn’t reached $200.
$200 food budget challenge: March Madness edition
Here’s a breakdown of my spending from March:
Day 1: $106.03 (Groceries)
Day 2: $0
Day 3: $2.77 (Groceries)
Day 4: $0
Day 5: $0
Day 6: $13.75 (Groceries)
Day 7: $0
Day 8: $6 (Brewery)
Day 9: $0
Day 10: $9.27 (Groceries)
Day 11: $0
Day 12: $4.87 (Sandwich); $5.56 (Birthday party candies); $30.29 (Birthday dinner)
Day 13: $0
Day 14: $10.38 (Groceries)
Day 15: $11.01 (Mexican food)
Day 16: $0
Day 17: $1.25 (Redvines – must have sugar!!!)
Day 18: $7.47 (Groceries)
Day 19: $17.59 (Groceries)
Day 20: $0
Day 21: $0
Day 22: $9.66 (Groceries)
Day 23: $1.52 (Groceries)
Day 24: $0
Day 25: $0
Day 26: $0
Day 27: $2.10 (D’oh! Donuts!)
Day 28: $20.75 (Groceries)
Day 29: $0
Day 30: $0
Day 31: $0
Even from day 1, you can see I was doomed to fail. I spent over $100 in a single day, as my foodstuffs had grown dangerously low in February. I needed to stock up – big time. Unfortunately, that meant spending half the budget.
After the 31 days of March, I spent $260.27.
When I first started the $200 food budget challenge, I expected a linear decline in spending. Wrongly, I assumed that I would be able to gradually drop the costs month-over-month – that it would always drop. While $260 is less than January and well below previous spending, it spiked up from February. And needless to say, moved me further away from the goal.
Lessons learned this month
1. Psychological needs will creep into budgetary needs
A danger zone this month was sugary food. Because I biked to work, school, and the grocery stores, I was constantly burning calories. Despite my experience preparing for odd hunger times, the rush for sugar still hit me. I attribute this problem to a couple unmet psychological needs this month. I wasn’t sleeping enough, which led to tired days, where I was more susceptible to crappy food.
One of the best fixes to this problem is making sure you’re balancing out some of life’s demands. The best solution would be sleep. As a graduate student that can be hard to come by, but in April I want to work on this aspect.
2. Challenges become fun, but also competitive
I call this a “challenge” intentionally. Budgets can be boring and monotonous, and the reward isn’t short-term. Budgets help people accomplish long-term goals. Challenges, on the other hand, encourage people to work towards something in the shorter-term. For me, I needed this push to reduce my food budget.
Now, three months down, I’ve realized that the competition isn’t just internal. When I bring up the idea with others, I constantly hear comparisons. Some people assume it’ll be easy to accomplish, while others doubt themselves. Let me assure you, if you aren’t regularly around $200, it’s difficult.
Then there are the negative comments from others, unfortunately. Challenges sometimes bring out the one-uppers. These are the people that aren’t providing constructive criticism and suggestions, they’re just making it clear that they can do better than you. Generally, I find this feedback to be debasing and detract from the main goal: a fun challenge that we can strive for, together.
3. Food budgets should be averaged month-over-month
When I present my results, you only see one month of activity. In reality, food budgets are averaged over your lifetime. As such, people can buy huge foodstuffs from Costco and other warehouse-style retailers for deep discounts. This bulk buying can save money over the long-term, while ostensibly increasing a single month’s budget.
Because of the power of bulk buying and saving, next month I intend to account for my food budget in servings, when possible. For example, I purchased a 10-pound bag of rice, and I’ll account by 1-cup scoops next month. Although, with more perishable foods, I’ll account for those by receipts, as I’ve done.
As I enter my fourth month of the frugal food budget challenge, I’d love it if you’d join me! Even if you fail, as I have, it’s a great test to see how much you’re spending. To those who are struggling to wean down their budgets, try it out! To those who’ve succeeded, what have you done? Cheers to April and good luck!