Thanks again for your helpful comments on last week’s introduction to the “Thinking Outside the Wallet” series. This kind of exchange is encouraging to me because it reminds me that there are so many of us who are in the same situation—trying to have the best possible life on a frugal budget. I’m going to try and incorporate as many of your suggestions as I can into posts in the upcoming weeks.
One commenter, Kelly, mentioned food. Since this is my “bête noire” budget category as well, and tomorrow is a national holiday dedicated to eating, what better place to start? I realize that I tend to spend too much money on food, but I have a hard time sacrificing quality for quantity, and I’m picky about wanting good, healthy, fresh ingredients for my family’s meals (although that probably is smarter budget-wise in the long run, right?). I like to eat local and organic as much as possible, but those foods can also be significantly more expensive.
First of all, I think it’s important to think about where you choose to shop. We’re lucky to have a weekly open-air market in the village where we live, and the fruits and veggies are much cheaper than at the grocery store. Taking part in a produce co-op can also be a time saver, as baskets can often be delivered right to your door on a weekly basis.
Here are some of the guidelines that I try to follow in managing our family’s food budget:
1. Stay home.
The single biggest change in our food budget moving from the U.S. to France was that we virtually eliminated dining out. Eating at a restaurant in France is much less common than in the U.S., particularly as a family. We eat out maybe 3-4 times a year now, compared to once or twice a week when we lived in the States. It’s a cultural difference, but also a frugal one—a three-course meal with wine doesn’t come cheap!
If it seems like a deprivation to stay home, keep in mind that most of what you cook for yourself will taste better than a takeaway pizza, anyway. At home you can make it just the way you like it, and if you’re short on time, using a store-bought crust can have a pie on your table quicker than you could run out and pick it up. If you have kids, making homemade pizza is a great way to involve them in food preparation as well.
2. Grow/make your own.
Since the financial crisis, I’ve heard more and more stories of people planting “victory gardens” in their backyards. Granted, big gardens can be a lot of work, but the rewards are great—fresh produce at your fingertips, for a fraction of what you would pay in the store. Because we live in an apartment and have no land for gardening, I plant in hanging boxes in our front windows, which get lots of sunlight. I’ve been particularly successful with herbs in this spot, and we enjoyed picking our own fresh thyme and rosemary this past summer.
We also make our own yogurt (overnight, for little effort and big savings), and I’ve been reading lots of easy cheese-making recipes lately that I’m hoping to try soon.
3. Get organized.
Even if you’re buying them at the store, the fact is that fresh foods are very cost-efficient compared to pre-made, packaged foods. Where I’ve had problems in the past is in actually using the fresh foods before they go bad in my veggie keeper. If we all had the time to go shopping every day this wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m lucky to find once a week when I can get to the grocery store, and our freezer isn’t big enough to use the “make big batches and freeze them” method.
As with most aspects of the frugal life, with food it really helps to be organized. I make sure that I have a particular use in mind for everything I buy, and I try to jot down a meal schedule for the week using the ingredients I have on hand. I stack items in the fridge based on the ‘use by’ date, and we eat accordingly.
4. Waste not, want not.
Another big change for me in terms of my food budget was learning not to waste food. This was a shift in my thinking that happened over time, and it hasn’t always been easy. I tend to eat by my cravings, which means that if I’m hungry for Indian food and there are leftovers from the night before in the fridge, I’m going to be very, very tempted to ignore the leftovers and reach for the curry powder.
In addition to cooking the freshest things in the fridge first, I DON’T make extra portions of a meal. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it keeps me from having leftovers of something in the fridge for a week when I don’t really want to eat them. It also makes sense for us because we have limited freezer space. We still have at least one night a week as “leftover night,” and I heat up leftovers for lunch at work, which is a big money saver over the sandwich shop across the street.
In keeping our food budget under control, these are the methods that work for me, and I don’t have to sacrifice the freshness or quality of our food. There are easier ways to shop and eat, but good health is just as important, and to me it’s worth a little investment of my time to eat well.
What about you? How do you think outside the wallet when it comes to food?