You spend how much on food every month?!
Last month I ventured into the unknown and created a food and drink budget. Yes, this frugal guy had created a budget in prior months, but time after time, I was over $400 per month. It was ridiculous and hurting my chances to stay out of debt.
Working 60 to 80-hour weeks made me tired, cranky, hungry, and constantly on-the-go. I was stressed, and had all the symptoms of having four positions: counselor, student, instructor, and writer.
I’d frequently feel hungry and be without food, which was a recipe for disaster. Preparing lunches was a mental hurdle, as I would constantly procrastinate to avoid it. I spent way too much money on fast food (i.e., salad bars, Subway, etc.).
Even when I packed snacks and lunches, I blew through it and bought more. I was hungry and I let that natural desire overpower my frugal side.
Individual and social pressure to make a change
Frankly, in the frugal community, $400 per month for a single guy’s food and drink budget is embarrassing. Cue the chortles and disdain. But perhaps I can circumvent and prevent a potential audience-led diatribe by saying, I want to own it.
I was failing to properly save in this domain. Something had to be done.
Then, I saw an article by a fellow personal finance blogger, Laurie, of The Frugal Farmer. She explained how her family of four spent about $215 on food for one month. My cheeks reddened. Here was an entire family doing a better job than this one guy.
After that article, and in the face of a new year, I decided to set my own goal for January: $200 for all food and drinks. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
This isn’t going to be easy, is it?
So, in January, the month of resolutions, I decided to embark on this new budgetary goal. Like a Messiah warrior preparing to do battle, I wanted to defeat this budget buster.
Pulverize! Demolish! Obliterate!
I thought, “This should be easy enough. I’m a single guy, and don’t have fancy meals. Yes, I have some allergies, but that shouldn’t affect my shopping much.”
Four days passed before I went to the grocery store. The trip came in just over $74. I remember my buddy asking me whether I could make it the rest of the month.
“You only have $125 left, then,” he said.
My reply was cool and nonchalant, “Well, I actually spent a bit of money on food while traveling back to Iowa from Colorado, and went on a date the other day. In total, I’ve spent $125.”
He smiled and shook his head. And I stubbornly stayed optimistic. Little did I understand, it wouldn’t take me long to cross that $200 line.
Timeline of my busted food budget
For the purposes of this month experiment, I took day-by-day notes of what I had purchased and why. The following is a timeline of purchases and inside look at how I totally failed.
Day 1: $8.05 (McDonald’s breakfast, drink later in day)
Day 2: $12.19 (Dinner while traveling)
Day 3: $0
Day 4: $103.35 (Breakfast date and groceries)
Day 5: $0
Day 6: $2.28 (Coffee)
Day 7: $5.04 (Coffee date)
Day 8: $0
Day 9: $0
Day 10: $0
Day 11: $52.53 (Bar date and groceries)
Day 12: $0
Day 13: $6.34 (Groceries)
Day 14: $4.92 (Snacks)
Day 15: $0
Day 16: $10.40 (Groceries)
Day 17: $54.38 (Groceries)
Day 18: $0
Day 19: $28.42 (Groceries)
Day 20: $0
Day 21: $0
Day 22: $0
Day 23: $0
Day 24: $45.82 (Groceries)
Day 25: $0
Day 26: $28.97 (Groceries)
Day 27: $0
Day 28: $0
Day 29: $0
Day 30: $0
Day 31: $0
What the heck did I buy?
Generally, I have a simple diet. The one caveat is that I’m on a modified gluten-free diet (low FODMAP) for IBS. Let me tell you that if I break away from these dietary restrictions, my intestines quickly fall apart and I’m lethargic, gassy, dyspeptic, and cranky. When I can follow the highly restrictive, plain diet I feel better. The consequence is that I have to buy some more expensive gluten-free items to feel healthy.
- Cereal (rice or corn-based)
- Turkey bacon
- Gluten-free bread
- Turkey meat
- Sliced cheese
- Peanut butter
- Cherry tomatoes
- Bell peppers
- Balsamic vinegar
- Frozen salmon
- Frozen vegetables
- Gluten-free pasta
- Tomato sauce
- Potato chips
- Gluten-free pretzels
What went wrong with the budget and plan?
After I read Laurie’s article, I was amazed by their depression-inspired goals and budgetary constraints. Even though they weren’t able to keep it under $200, either, they were remarkably close (~$215).
I wasn’t anywhere close to my goal. There were various potholes and hiccups that I never expected when I first started this experiment. Here’s where I got tripped up:
Single, but dating
While I’m a single guy, on occasion I’ve been known to go out with women. I know, mind-boggling! Despite major movements and momentum in the dating world, men are still expected to treat for first dates oftentimes.
I went on a few dates this month, and that cost me $48.81. Ouch! That’s nearly a quarter of the total budget I started with.
There are various solutions to this problem: choose more affordable locations (i.e., coffee shops), stop dating, and/or pay for my own meals/drinks.
After completing this experiment, I looked back at Laurie’s article to see how much vegetables cost her family. All I found was pasta sauce and potatoes. Clearly this had benefited her family’s budget, and reduced their total spending.
Despite vegetables accounting for much of the spend this past month, I refuse to budge on this aspect. Vegetables are low in sugar, high in vitamins, and incredibly fibrous. They’re too healthy to cut down or out.
One solution I could begin to adopt is buying more loose-leaf lettuces to make my own salad mixes. Also, I could likely buy more canned vegetables.
The last problem I noticed was that my special diet restrictions caused my budget to balloon. Whereas a frugal-friendly loaf of bread (w/ gluten) sells for about $1, the gluten-free/FODMAP-friendly Udi’s white bread costs about $5. Additionally, the loaves are about half the size. In total, Udi’s gluten-free bread costs about 750-1000% more.
Similarly, pretzels can be purchased for about $1-2 a bag. But the gluten-free versions cost about $3.50. Over and over again, the dietary restrictions affected my ability to stay under that coveted $200 mark.
The solutions are more difficult to find on this front, too. Ideally, my body wouldn’t react like gluten-laden products were an intruder. Ideally, I could eat tons of legumes (beans) and bread products. I would have far more flexibility in saving and scrounging. The best I can come up with is to plan for meals and try to use rice more often than gluten-free pastas or breads. Rice is always cheap, and just so happens to be the most common food worldwide.
Reframing failure as lessons learned
Have friends and family behind you
When I first told my friends, they all expressed curiosity about how I’d do it. The budget was large in its smallness — it spoke louder than any sentence I could write. Pricelessly, my budget announcement and sharing brought people in and many wondered how they, too, could participate.
Self-compassion for “failures”
During this month, I overspent my budget by $162.69. That’s shocking, embarrassing, and a bit disheartening. I’m disappointed in my own perseverance, resolve, and planning.
Fortunately, I use “failure” casually. Research suggests that when people respond to these “failures” with self-compassion they can better correct future actions. I don’t actually see this month as a failure; rather, inspiration to keep working at my food budget and continue to find ways to reduce the spending.
I want to get to $200.
Sometimes frugality — to the extreme — isn’t healthy
Frugality in food tends to overemphasize the reduction of fresh vegetables and fruits and supplementation of carbs like bread and pasta. While these food choices feel filling, keep budgets happy short-term, and provide the base of many frugal meals, they can have negative health effects. Starches and carbs tend to lead to excess weight, as they are processed comparably to sugar in the digestion process.
Instead of sacrificing my long-term health for short-term financial gains, I look forward to making a truly healthy budget. Don’t get rid of the vegetables!
Food budget challenge — take 2!
January just ended, but I’m already signing up for another month of this experiment. This time I want you to join me!
If you’re already at $200, I’d love to hear how you do it. If you can’t imagine reducing your food and drink budget to $200, let’s try together. If you’re not sure you want to reduce your food budget, why not?
Who’s with me?