These tips were learned when we were married college students scraping by. I’m not going to tell you our budget, because then we start comparing each other and everything is weird.
This post has a crabby tone, and the tips I share aren’t all fun and games. They are a significant amount of work. There is a continuum between “quick and easy” and “cheap.” I’m suggesting that it is possible to live closer to “cheap” than you do right now. Our great-great-great grandmothers would be shocked to see how their descendants live. The clothes are dirty? Put them in a machine, and they come out clean. Dishes are dirty? Different machine, same outcome. Baby soils a diaper? Throw it away. Turn a knob to create fire. Put your food in a magical box where it doesn’t spoil so quickly. Put ingredients in a pot, plug it in, come back at the end of the day and dinner is done.
What do we do with all of that time? I guess some moms use the time they would be scrubbing diapers or kneading bread to write reports or analyze trends. I just hope we don’t spend all this miracle free time staring at boxes that light up and trick our brains into not moving for hours.
So there is a sweet spot for you on our cheap-quick continuum. I would suggest that you get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get. If you don’t want to pay for something, don’t get it. If you don’t want to pay as much for something, don’t get as much.
One final disclaimer: of course my tips are ridiculous. By visiting my blog, you asked.
Don’t hire a personal chef. Whenever you buy something in a different form than it came out of the earth in, you are paying someone to help you cook. It’s okay to not have the money to do this. And it’s okay to not choose to spend the money to do this.
Do the work yourself: make dough from scratch. Chop your own vegetables. Cook your own beans.
Also, don’t go out to eat. There. I said it.
You are paying A LOT more for someone else to decorate your dining room, learn good recipes, cook your food, and clean up after you. “But I love to eat out!” Great! Do it less often. That makes it more special. “But I’m too tired to cook right now!” Sorry. Go to bed earlier tomorrow. “But I don’t have time to cook a full meal from scratch every night!” Maybe not. Figure out freezer meals and the crockpot. “But I enjoy it when someone does it for me!” Do you also need someone to dress you? Bathe you? Clean your house? Drive you around? Maybe. But if you can’t afford a personal chef, don’t hire one.
Are you a bad cook? Take a month and devote all your free time to learning about cooking on the internet and practicing. Practice a (cheap) recipe two or three times, and keep notes on the recipe you print out. Chefs at a restaurant don’t do anything you can’t do. They take food and they follow a recipe and make something good. Google “copycat recipes.” When I worked at BYU catering, I served delicious looking gourmet food. I was shocked to go to their food storage area one time and find… cans of food. Store brand. Nothing fancy. With all of the Internet at your fingertips, “I don’t know how to make restaurant quality food” is not a valid excuse.
There is joy to be found in life that does not involve “going out to eat.” There are things you can do on dates that don’t involve restaurants.
If your friends go out to eat a lot, and you would miss important social experiences if you stay home, pick and choose the times you go with them. Or eat at home first, and order just a little bit. Or share it with someone. Or brown bag it. Or take it out of your allowance. Eating out with friends is more like paying for a movie than buying food.
Eat the cheapest healthy foods. Focus on healthy food that is also cheap, and eat lots of that. Eat more beans, brown rice, oats, potatoes, eggs, tuna, bananas, and cabbage, and less blueberries, breakfast cereal, ice cream, chocolate and cheese. (The cheapest sweet food, per ounce, are jolly ranchers. And they are great because they take a long time to eat and you never go back for seconds, but they do provide that little bit of sweetness you are looking for at the end of the meal.)
Pair cheap ingredients with expensive ingredients, but in the proper amount
I am loving the book Budget Bytes. The bulk of the meals are cheap like beans, rice, chickpeas, and lentils, but it is made delicious using a small bit of expensive ingredients. I made a rice and lentil dish seasoned with allspice and cranberries. It was delicious. Mostly. And the kids ate a little bit. They ate the scoop I gave them, and then I served them some other leftovers. Honestly, the little bit of something else for kids doesn’t cost very much, but an adult portion of something else does. So if the adults eat the rice and lentil dish, and the kids eat some for the principle of the thing, the cost is lowered.
Prepare simple recipes with cheap ingredients. If a recipe has an ingredient with a high cost per ounce, Google substitutes for ____. Or, find a different recipe. Yes, your recipe won’t turn out exactly like theirs, but you won’t pay as much for it as they did. You might be limited on how many recipes you can make, but most people have like ten different recipes that they cycle through and are completely happy.
If cooking fancy food with expensive ingredients is your thing, either channel that energy to making cheap ingredients taste delicious or just have those meals less often.
Food budget is strictly for nutrition. It’s not for entertainment. Your entertainment is another category. And there are so many ways to enjoy your life that doesn’t involve putting something sweet on your tongue. (Try creating something.) Froot Loops, ice cream, and goldfish are not nutrition. You don’t need to buy them.
The lifestyle door only swings one way. As people progress in their careers, they have more money to spend on food, and their options get more and more delicious for less and less personal effort. It’s extremely difficult to reduce your standard of living. It’s way easier to just never buy goldfish than to buy it for a while, get your toddler hooked on them, then try to stop. Try to avoid the thinking that you “deserve” nice food. Think very carefully about buying something more expensive than you usually buy. Are you willing to “need” to buy that thing for the rest of your life?
Plan your meals. This follows the same principles at Just In Time manufacturing, where businesses don’t store warehouses of inventory. They plan really carefully so they get products “just in time” to use it in their own processes. Instead of walking down the aisles of the grocery store, picking yummy things off the shelf; make a meal plan and a list of needed items for those meals. Then go to the grocery store and buy those items only and then leave. If you see something you want, show a little discipline. Instead of buying it, go home and put it on your shopping list for next week.
What about food storage? Buy (cheap) food staples in bulk. Lots of snack food is not food storage, it’s shelf life is extremely short. (Try to keep a box of Lucky Charms on your pantry shelf.)
Don’t go to the store hungry, or you will buy more things with a low-effort, high-calorie ratio, which are far away from “cheap.”
Going with other people distracts me from price calculations and making good decisions. Sometimes I do have to take my three little ones. And when they are all on the edge, I just grab stuff to get out quick. But I have trained them to not ask for stuff: just don’t buy it. Ever. If they ask for ice cream, tell them, “Oh, man! That’s not on the list. Remind me you want ice cream while I make a shopping list next time.” If you buy the candy at the checkout one time, they will ask for it for the rest of their life. If you’re not going to go home and put it on the shopping list for next week, so if you’re going to give in, at least go back to the candy aisle and get a better deal. If you don’t have time for that, tell the child that that candy is too expensive at the checkout stand and you don’t have time to go get a better deal. The child will scream. And the child will be less likely to ask next time.
I read a study once about changing habits. It may have been about animals. This would have a lot more credibility if I had the details of the study here. Maybe someday. Anyway: The researchers got the… subjects… used to a certain type of reward for a simple action. Then they stopped giving that reward. If there was absolutely no rewards for about five or six actions, the subjects stopped performing the action. If there was sometimes a reward and sometimes not, the subjects performed the action something like 100 more times. If you want zero tantrums, give in zero times.
Count your grams of protein. Americans eat A LOT of meat, especially beef. Way more protein than a human needs. And it happens that protein is more expensive per ounce than other food. Why are we eating too much of the most expensive food? American culture baffles me sometimes.
I have experimented with vegetarianism a few times, and going without meat for a long time saps me of energy. Especially when I am pregnant, I need beef every so often to make me feel less depressed (I usually buy ground turkey, which tastes the same). So I would say, eat beans and eggs and quinoa and tofu more often, but experiment with less and less meat to find your sweet spot.
Don’t buy snack food. When you want a snack, you feel lazy and don’t want to eat frugally. You eat the most delicious, easiest food possible (which is also the most expensive. See above about the personal chef thing.) But if you don’t buy snack foods, you don’t have them in your house to eat (which is healthier). Buy whole fruit, cut up veggies ahead of time, make toast (from 100% whole wheat bread), eat frozen apple chips. I’m crabby about my kids and snacks. If I give them snacks between meals, then they don’t eat dinner (which is healthy and cheap and I spent a lot of time on.) And they are picky at dinner. Because they are not that hungry. They can afford to be picky because they know all they have to do is wait an hour and then cry, and they will get some delicious snacks.
If you are going to give them snacks because they physically need nourishment between meals, make healthy, cheap snacks ahead of time. If they are actually hungry, they will eat it. If they are just bored, they probably won’t. Which will cause them to be hungry enough to eat dinner properly.
Don’t pay for nothing. The most expensive food is the food you throw away. And the time to worry about wasting food is not when you clean out moldy things from the fridge, because there is nothing you can do then. The decision is made for you. The time to worry is when you are looking in your fridge for something to eat. Was that meal not too terribly delicious last night? I bet there are some seasonings you can add, or another way to cook it, or something better to pair it with. (This did not come naturally to me. I learned it from my husband, who eats the nasty leftovers. It makes me feel bad, but it makes me more likely to use them in the future.)
When you open your fridge to find something to make for dinner, start with the leftovers. Place high priority on using those up before you open something newer.
Don’t coupon. There are never coupons for dry beans, milk, cheese, or fresh fruits and vegetables. Even if you get a dollar off something packaged, you’re still paying for something you would not have normally bought. The store brand is probably cheaper than the brand the coupon is for, and the cheapest healthy food is even cheaper than the store brand processed food. Food companies always win. They don’t issue coupons because they love you. Or because you deserve it. They issue coupons because it makes them money. Coupons make you give your money to them.
I do admit that if you pair a manufacturer coupon with a store sale, you might be able to purchase food more cheaply than the cheapest healthy food. But you have to immerse yourself in their constant advertisement, which makes eating simply and cheaply so much less enjoyable. And it seems like so much work to learn how to coupon and then stay on top of all coupon sources and all stores’ sales. That’s not enough reason to not do something, and one of the principles on this post is is “do more work.” Perhaps someday I will get into it. But every attempt I have made thus far still leads me to believe that shopping with coupons is cheaper for the normal American grocery trip, but that buying whole food is cheaper.
Don’t buy anything food companies want you to buy. Don’t buy the foods in commercials that are brightly packaged with well designed logos and familiar characters. Food companies want you to buy those foods because they can get more of your money that way. They don’t make much profit off dry beans and potatoes. But they put so much sodium and high fructose corn syrup in processed food that you are addicted to it and you will continue to buy it even though it’s killing your budget.
Food companies don’t like you and they don’t want your children to be healthy.
I feel a little embarrassed at that strong language, but if you go in a store with that mindset, you’ll come out with more of your money in your pocket.
Stick to your budget. The only way to stick to your budget… is to stick to your budget. To the cent. If you’re willing to go a dollar over budget, then make that the budget and stick to it to the cent. Tell the cashier when he or she starts scanning your items to stop scanning at a certain amount. Arrange your items on the conveyor belt in order of how much you want them. That prevents you from digging through bags to decide what you don’t want as much. When an item goes partially over the amount, they will look at you and you tell them to take it off. Stand up for budgets! Show people that it’s possible to keep to your word!
To make it a little easier on yourself, estimate your list as you make it. Write how much you think it will cost next to the list item. When you go to the store, you might be wrong, but you’ll learn, over time, how much things cost. While you shop, either pull out the calculator, or continue to estimate. I found that estimating to the half-dollar was extremely accurate. If I was not willing to put things back, I’d probably do the calculator thing. (I would also do this calculation:
weekly food budget/((sales tax percentage+100)*100)=cost of the food you should put in your cart.) If your budget was $400, and you live in Virginia so your sales tax is 2.5%, you can only put $390.24 worth of food in your cart.
Okay, that’s all. Do you feel sad in your heart? I feel crabby in my heart. This is tough stuff. Actually saving money is not easy. Just remember that joy in life comes from relationships with friends and family, from nature, from accomplishments, from the Spirit, from righteousness, from music, from art, from reading, from learning, from creativity. It doesn’t have to come from the two seconds a bite of food is passing through your mouth.