Food is the second biggest expense (first being the rent) for most people starting out on their own. If you have just finished school, are on your first full-time job, or have moved to a bigger and a much more expensive city, it is safe to assume you’re scrimping here and there.
It is a good idea to save as much as you can. But you need to do it the right way and not harm your health in the process.
Unfortunately, most young people have one of the two widely prevalent attitudes toward food. They scrimp on it a lot – they save money by resorting to super-cheap meals, buy the lowest grade of food, and invest in plethora of instant noodles. While this may quickly cut down your expenses, it will also take a tremendous toll on your health. And most likely also lead to unhealthy weight gain. Or, they spend a lot on food – ordering takeout meals several days a week because they are too lazy to cook. Bingeing on alcohol over the weekend. Sometimes food is used as a drug to escape loneliness or deal with depression.
The one thing that both of these approaches have in common is that neither of them has anything to do with healthy food. In this post, we are concerned with the latter approach, and we’ll look at how to rein in food expenses without sacrificing your health.
Too many choices = bad news
It’s great that we have a lot of choices. We walk down the street and see exotic food restaurants on all sides. (It’s so bad if you live in the Big Apple!) Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, Greek, Italian, and that oh-so-irresistible Mexican. Not to mention there’s your Achilles’ heel right next to your office building – the Cheesecake Factory!
It is very easy to slip up in such a scenario. In fact, it would take tremendous self-discipline not to.
Hence the starting point for you would be to eliminate all the unhealthy and expensive choices.
Here’s how you do that:
- Adopt this two-fold criteria when shopping for food – whatever you buy should be neither expensive (set an upper limit for various food items), nor unhealthy. This effectively means not to even look at places like KFC and Macdonald’s.
- Stick to only one type of food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the week. For example; decide to have only Subway sandwiches for lunch this entire week. Change the filling but not the type of lunch you are going to have because you have decided in advance that your choice meets the criteria mentioned above.
Plan for the week in earnest
Nothing good comes about on its own. And nothing reduces stress, wrong choices, and wasted money more than thoughtful planning.
Every Sunday, decide what you will have for meals for the entire upcoming week. Know your breakfast, lunch, and dinner in advance to save you grief when mealtime comes calling and you start losing your ability to think, much less make wise decisions in the face of an endless number of choices.
If you eliminate all the impulse buys, you can easily save around $100 a week (and we haven’t even reached the weekend yet).
Cooking is better than buying meals. Yes, but who has the time for it?
If you can’t cook all your meals, at least cook the breakfast and dinner. Nothing fancy, keep things simple and healthy.
A sample menu (which is neither time-consuming nor expensive):
Breakfast – Wholemeal toast (2 or 3) with a little bit of butter + eggs + coffee/tea/juice.
This is good enough for seven days a week, and all of it put together won’t cost you more than $10/week.
Lunch – Pasta and chicken OR buy a Subway sandwich.
Dinner – Chicken breasts or fish with potatoes/carrots/rice or couscous.
For snacks, stick to flavored yogurt or milk-based coffees (they are filling and healthy).
None of the above suggestions is expensive or difficult to find. It also satisfies the healthy criterion mentioned earlier.
Plan your meals for the entire week on Saturdays and stock up accordingly. If you are going to cook, know exactly what you are going to cook, when you are going to cook it, and in what quantity. If you are going to buy a meal, know exactly where you’d find it, how much it would cost, whether it would be filling and healthy, etc. Cap the weekly spend on lunches at $15.
What about the weekends?
You can breeze through the week on the force of your workload and the general busyness of commute-work-commute.
But the best of plans tend to come undone during weekends.
How much do you realistically think you can afford to spend on nights out on drinks and meals and coffees? Arrive at a realistic total and deduct around $30 from it. That’s your figure to spend for the first two months from now.
The week after that further cut your expenses over the weekend by 20%. Your aim is to reach a level that is commensurate with your food expenditure during the week.
What? No way! That would just ruin my weekend!
No, it won’t.
Stuffing your body with unhealthy and fattening ‘food’ and also emptying your pockets in the process is not celebrating. It is madness. Your body couldn’t care less what day of the week it is; it just needs its daily fill of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, and carbs.
So be a smart person and pay heed to what’s good for your body and the pocket.
What about organic stuff? Isn’t that expensive?
Yes, it is. But there’s really no need to go organic in the popular sense of the word. Just don’t pick up the cheapest and most low-grade material in the supermarket.
Shop for vegetables and meat at your local farmer’s market if you can. Keep your milk whole and eggs rich in anti-oxidants. Get your bread brown and freshly baked. Rather than scrimping on the quality of material here, cut down on the wasteful drinks over the weekend. You’ll notice a difference for the better, both health and money wise, in no time.
Tracy Vides is associated with The Hartford, an insurance and financial services company, which specializes in marine insurance. You can catch her on Twitter @TracyVides.