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Simple Steps to Make Your Food Budget Work For You!

One of the biggest mistakes that I see with people is that they simply just lack a food budget. Honestly, that is absolutely mind-blowing to me because food is the third largest expense that people have behind their housing and transportation expenses, and quite frequently it can even be the second largest expense!

Personally, I aspire to be in a situation where my food budget is the most expensive category that i have every month…because that ideally means that my mortgage and vehicles have all been fully paid off!

Even if you are single and have a $300 car payment, I would anticipate that you likely spend more than that on food but I very well could be wrong.

The issue with people having no idea about what sort of money they are spending on their food is that it quite literally can become a bottomless pit where their money just disappears. I know that I have certainly felt that.

During COVID, the grocery bill for my wife, my 15-month old son and myself had drastically increased to over $1000/month at the grocery store only. Yes, $1000/month in groceries for like 2.25 people because my son eats so little.

Now, in fairness, that also includes things like paper towels, toilet paper (when you can find it!), cat litter (I married into two cats), and alcohol…which has also coincidentally picked up since COVID began. Not that the consumption increased, but the quality certainly did and so did the price tag.

So, all in all, we’re spending around $225/week on average for those types of things. On some weeks, it can be $150 if we’re just getting groceries. Other times we have spent nearly $300 if we’re stocking up on a bunch of things. It’s just a law of averages.

This was up about $200/month from COVID but our eating out budget dropped about $400/month, so overall, we were actually spending less. My wife and I LOVE to go out to eat and get a nice meal, an appetizer, a couple drinks, and wham – you just spent $100…easily.

It’s a quick hundo to just flush down the drain but it’s something we value a lot as high-quality time with just us. Well, COVID certainly took that away from us and we were literally forced to save because we couldn’t go anywhere.

Well, COVID cases are now dropping rapidly and as I am writing this on 6/8/21, the total cases in the U.S. are the lowest that they have been since March 29, 2020 – isn’t that amazing?

When you combine that the world is opening back up with the fact that I recently got a new job and my wife and I have been traveling a bit to look at housing, we have quickly racked up some of those $75-$100 meals that I have talked about.

In addition, a best friend of ours asked us to go to a steakhouse to celebrate his birthday in a couple weeks. I’m absolutely not complaining about being able to do this because we really were very cautious and on super-lockdown during COVID, so I want to see them, but it was a nice cop-out to be able to simply avoid situations like this where you might just drop $100/plate on a meal.

It’s absolutely a catch-22.

But this transition has really opened my eyes to something – breaking up your grocery spending and eating out expenses are silly – they need to be the same!

If they’re separate and you go an entire month without eating out, you’re likely going to overspend at the grocery store and then underspend at restaurants, right? But you only know that because you looked at both lines and then compared the two, so why even break them out in the first place?

Same thing goes for if you only ate out and never got groceries. It’s skewed!

I know this might seem obvious, but I always break them out and I think it puts me at odds in our budget. If I would instead group them I could truly see eating in as making a money-conscious decision rather than leaving the grocery store and going “ugh, we just spent another $200” when I might spend that on just one dinner in a couple weeks!

The reason that I am getting so in-the-weeds about this is because I want to show the importance of understanding the way that your mind works and making sure that your budget is set up for your success. Personally, this is why I use Doctor Budget because it’s extremely quick and simple to make the changes from my categories of “BED” and “GACH” to just change it to “Food”.

Don’t know what BED and GACH are? oh, just some of my Doctor Budget acronyms 🙂

But when it comes to reducing your total food budget, there are really those two different areas that you can focus on – groceries and eating out. The #1 way that you can reduce this entire food budget is simply to change the frequency that you’re eating out and start to make some home-cooked meals more often.

I have sometimes gotten the argument from people that dollar menus are actually cheaper than cooking and that is hard to argue. Additionally, if you only eat off the dollar menu then you don’t really even need to worry about saving for retirement because you’re likely going to die when you’re 40.

That’s my cynical side coming out but please, do not ever sacrifice health for wealth. A common cliche in sports is that “the best ability is availability” and the same exact concept applies for your life. Your money doesn’t matter if you’re not here to use it.

We eat extremely healthy in our family and we implement some of the following tips:

  • Shop the perimeters of the store

I guarantee that you have heard this before and it’s one that I really resonate with. This means that you’re sticking to dairy, meats, veggies and fruits, and I really think that’s mainly what you should be eating in your diet. Also when you do this you’re going to get cheaper items than if you were buying prepackaged items that just need thrown in the oven.

Heck, I literally will buy my own baby carrots and cut them into pieces for salads instead of buying the ones that are already sliced. I know this is ridiculous but I get 16oz for $1 vs. the pre-sliced kind is 10oz for $1.69. Might not seem like a ton of money, but over the year, it is:

By simply looking at the labels, I have been able to find a way to save over $90/year simply by slicing my own carrots. No brainer right?

  • Take a Lap

Before you even start shopping, take a quick lap around the store and see what’s on sale. Of course you can see what the weekly specials are on a grocery store’s online app or in their ad, but they also likely have certain items on special that might be about to expire. Don’t hesitate to clear out those items and use them that day or the next and freeze anything that is remaining.

I was literally texting with Andrew and Dave a couple weeks ago and we were talking about buying meat in bulk (we’re pretty cool, right?). I said that the store that I go to usually has buy one get one free deals on pork chops every 2-3 weeks and even if we’re not eating pork that week, i will buy 2-4 pounds and just freeze it so we have it at a price of 50% of the normal price.

But when I take a lap before my grocery shopping actually begins, I can get a feel for the things that are on sale and then create my meal plan for the week while I am still at the store.

  • Be Strictly Flexible

“Andy, that makes no sense.”

I know.

But what I am saying is that when you go into the store, have an exact idea in your mind of what you need and then holes that you need to fill in. What do I mean by that?

A “need” would be if you’re out of something that you have to get like coffee, milk, eggs, etc. Something that is typically always the same price and you don’t want to, or can’t, swap in and out.

But for the “holes”, that would consist of things like lunch and dinner. Maybe you plan with your significant other that if beef is on sale you do burgers and if turkey is on sale you do an oven-roasted turkey meal. You might know that chicken is always $1.88/lb (as it is at Meijer) so that can either be a dinner or lunch depending on what other options there are.

Maybe you decided to do a grilled chicken salad for lunch and then you’re flexible on the types of greens, vegetables and dressing depending on the sorts of deals that you find.

In other words, you’re meal planning but with a lot of asterisks and room for you to be creative. This is how you can still plan and also be prepared to make a move in the moment to save money.

And guess what – even if you go but that turkey that’s on sale and your significant other says, “nah, I want chicken instead”, then just either freeze it or now you do extra turkey instead of chicken. Be flexible. It makes life a little bit more fun anyways!

But groceries are just half of it – you have eating out to worry about!

  • Find the deals

When you’re eating out, always start with the deals. Look for the happy hours for both food and drinks and find ways to be creative with them. Maybe you hop between restaurants to capitalize on different times of deals that are going on. Maybe you eat an early dinner somewhere because it’s their happy hour and then go to a place late-night for their half-priced apps after 10PM.

The thing that I love about this is it’s forcing you to get out and try new places, do new things, and just be a bit spontaneous. You don’t have to plan it – just literally google “late night happy hour” and see what you can find.

When I lived in Chicago I would always find websites showing me the times and their happy hour specials and if one looked enticing I would call the place and confirm it was true.

In fact, I actually found one place that offered an “all you can drink” AND dinner buffet for $20 for 3 hours.

You literally cannot beat that like anywhere, especially if you plan to have a few drinks. Now, you’re probably saying, “Andy, that food was probably awful” and you are wrong!

It was worse than awful….but it was $20 so I deserve it.

Point being, again, deals are out there – just go find them.

  • Make the deals

Why not meet some friends out for drinks, then go home and have a dinner party or maybe even order something to-go? By doing that you’re going to save so much on the food and if you get it to-go then you’re likely going to miss a large majority of the tip, as well as not buying the drinks that you might otherwise have gotten. That $40 bottle of wine can be picked up at your local liquor store for literally $8.

I experienced that first hand when we ordered a $70 bottle of wine and I googled it to read reviews and saw it was being sold nearby for $11…

But again, as with all of these – be creative in the ways that you have fun with your friends and still stay within your budget.

Remember, you are the average of the 5 people you hangout with most, so if these people aren’t in your camp on some of these strategies that you’re trying to implement, then it may be time to expand your friend base.

They need to be supportive – you’re trying to better your life!

Summary

In summary, your food is your food and you should think of it that way – one cohesive expense. It’s going to be the quickest budget category to decrease as long as you track your spending and make an active effort to identify those “leaks” of where your money is going.

But your food leak is likely just one area where you’re losing money each month – I’d be willing to bet you’re forgetting about these categories as well!