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.
I spend a good $250 a month on food. It bothers me. I want to spend less. I eat very little processed foods, and I never eat out. With food allergies, though, even basics like flour are really expensive. I’ve been trying to get it down for a year now, with no luck. I keep thinking I need to just accept it, but I keep trying. At the end of the day, though, I know I am eating healthy, whole foods, so I feel good about that.
Congrats on getting your spending down, and for being so open to share with others.
Sam Lustgarten says
Thanks Miranda! That means so much to hear. The health of your diet is vital, right? Hard to imagine sacrificing that for a few dollars each month. Frankly, that strategy could come back to bite you, as your health is a long-term investment and need.
Ari Herzog says
I’m similar to you, Miranda. I don’t have food allergies — but I started the paleo lifestyle last year and I also don’t buy processed foods (or minimally when I do, such as organic salad dressing). I rarely eat out. But, the cost is still high — from chicken thighs to almond milk to watermelon. I’ve taught myself that the type of foods I eat can satiate me longer, e.g. soups, veggies, apples.
P.S. Hi Sam. First time reader after Joshua Becker recommended you as a great addition to my feed of people who try to improve society.
Sam Lustgarten says
Wow! Thanks for clicking over and deciding to stick around. Really appreciate the comment. It made my day. 🙂
Wonderful post! But what about that great photo?! Was that a congratulatory meal? A carefully saved-for indulgence?
Sam Lustgarten says
Bette, that was both a congratulatory meal and saved-for indulgence. Thanks for asking! I rarely get to see my grandfather these days, as he lives on the West Coast and school keeps me planted. Because of this combination of things, we took the occasion to celebrate. 🙂
Vicki Stringfellow Cook says
Thanks for sharing Sam! I have a long way to go before I can reach $300 per month (my goal), but we are all a work-in-process.
Kate @ Cashville Skyline says
Nice post, Sam! I’m really impressed you’ve managed to come close to $200 per month! The only time I’ve done that successfully involved eating lots of processed junk food (ramen, cans of soup, etc.) And let’s face it — many of our relationships strengthen from enjoying a good meal or cocktail together. Unfortunately, that means going out sometimes.
our next life says
Love how you broke this down — tracking, living with, pausing and reflecting. That seems like a good model for changing any behavior. It’s great that you’ve come to accept that the original goal was too ambitious, and found through trial and error where you’re comfortable. As you said, there’s no frugal finish line or cut-off, and surely you’re living your overall life frugally.
We’ve accepted that our grocery spending will be higher than we’d like (wrote about this last week), and now we don’t stress about that as long as it doesn’t spike. We all have to find out own happy medium.
I have really enjoyed following your food budget journey. I really feel like the more people you add the less money you can spend per person. It is hard when if is just one person. When you have 6 in the home like I do, it is easy to buy a huge watermelon and it will be gone in 2 days and not go to waste but if you are one it is not as easy as that. Hang in there and put your extra $200.-$250. a month to better use and call it a victory!! You have learned so much by keeping track. The things that you have learned are “making” you a salary of $2,200.00 – $2,800.00 a year! That is a great pay back for the time spent I would say!! Great job and many blessings to you in the future!!!
You’re right, there is a cost to really low spending on food – nutrition.
We have a very tight budget for food and while the temptation is there to push it even lower, it would mean relying on filler foods (bread, pasta, rice) which are great for calories, not so great for nutrients. So, spending a little more means we have a nutrient dense diet; quality protein and lots of fruit and vegetables and hopefully are more likely to remain fit and healthy. And that’s worth the investment.
That’s a great photo of you and your grandfather.
I started tracking all of my expenses and my food expenditures made me gasp. Eating healthy in this country is not cheap and I don’t know how families do it. I am trying to work in more lentils and other lower cost (but still high quality) foods. Healthy soups and stews is a great idea. First time on your site via Joshua Becker recommendation and I will definitely be back. I love the picture of you and your grandfather – you are fortunate to have him with you.
Shannon Johnson says
Ugh, getting down my spending on food is one of the hardest parts of budgeting since I love food! I did do it by tracking my spending like you for six months and following a bunch of the tips on the blogs out there. I eat out about once a week now at locally owned places (I am a psy grad student living in super teeny town that is awesome for local, sustainable good) so I know my money is going to a good place. But it still does suck sometimes when my fellow grad students are going out to eat and I’ve already used up my grocery money for the week, but I still see them for cheap-o fun stuff like hiking and stuff (and I do wonder how they live so fabulously on the same stipend as me….)
Ronnica, Striving Stewardess says
I’m impressed that you were vunerable enough to share your successes and failures so transparently. I’m embarrassed by how much I have spent on fast food previously. While I’ve almost entirely broken the habit, I wish I hadn’t allowed it to go on so long.
But we can’t look backwards, but have to look forward. I can’t change my past.
Under $300 a month has always been my goal, and most months I’m hovering right there, But then there are other months that entail the Birthday celebrations (why is everyone born in July/August?) and drinks out with friends I haven’t seen in forever. Food is one thing that I try not to beat myself up about because I know that I am eating (mostly) healthy and am able to reign it in before it gets out of control.
I also know that I can exist off of ~$20 a month for food if I ABSOLUTELY have to (which I did for a good 6 months in my early 20’s, a bad break up and minimum wage made me realize what I really am made of!), but hopefully I won’t ever have to get THAT extreme again!
Oh, and I’ve also gone the other way and spent my currently monthly food budget on ONE meal. Thankfully I realize how dumb I was to be spending like that and have no intentions to do anything silly like that again!
It’s so nice to find you – I’m also a single person striving to keep total food costs (including groceries, restaurants, coffee and alcohol) below $300 per month. I eat on a plant-based, whole food plan, and I don’t think the time and stress of trying to do that on $200 is going to serve my purposes. I do want to eliminate the coffee and (whimper!) the wine, and I know that my budget will be much better served by spending that money on highly nutritious food. But I do know that I’m already saving hundreds of dollars over the mindless shopping (I saw, I craved, I bought — Veni,Gimmee, Eaty) that I was doing a few months ago.
Best wishes to you and to all of us!