If you spend enough time reading Financial Independence blogs, you’ll discover there’s an impressive number of folks on the FI path with ridiculously low food budgets.
Our food budget hovers around $800 per month for 2 adults, sometimes a bit more if we are traveling or eating out more than usual.
But we’re not dining on steak and lobster every night. We eat oatmeal for breakfast 5 days a week, and our dinners are simple affairs.
How do FI people spend so little on food?
Do we have to sneak into the Trader Joe’s parking lot for dumpster diving?
Maybe we’re not willing to sacrifice enough to lower our food budget. We don’t eat rice and beans for lunch every day as the Frugalwoods family did.
Is $400 per month a lot to feed an adult?
After all, one of us is a growing boy and therefore a big eater (though, he does claim to be growing horizontally). We also live on the Peninsula, in the Bay Area, and all meals are on us (i.e. no “free” food at work).
Before you accuse me of complaining without taking action, we tried different strategies to slash our food costs. Some of the strategies worked. But there were 3 ways that a lot of FI bloggers advocate that did not work for us.
Can’t say we didn’t try
1. I’m a sucker for loss leaders
Loss leaders are an effective marketing strategy that grocery stores use to get you in the door. The rock-bottom discounts on chicken breast one week or avocados another week lure you into the store.
Once inside, the hope is that you’ll spend more on sparkling wine or carrot cake or other profitable items that make the loss leader promotion worthwhile.
I used to shop at 3 different grocery stores each week to capitalize on sales and coupons.
It usually took half a day just to shop for groceries. But I saved a few dollars here and there. Totally worth it, right?
2. Great news: Carbs are delicious and frugal.
- 2 10-pound bags of white flour at Costco is $14.99 (OMG! Less than $1 per pound).
- 99¢ for a 1-pound bag of pasta at Trader Joe’s.
- A 15-pound bag of gold potatoes at Costco is $8.49. We’re talking gold potatoes, not the Russet potato. Gold potato is the premium upgrade!
If carbs were the foundation of our daily intake (as it was recommended in the now-defunct Food Pyramid), we could slash our food budget by at least $100 per month.
Saving $100 per month for 10 years compounds to $14,407. After the initial $12,000 contribution, that’s an additional $4,000. That’s like getting paid to eat bread and pasta. When else in life would you get paid to consume carbs?!
3. Breaking up with restaurants and cafes
Have you ever ordered a disappointing restaurant dish and thought endlessly about how you could have made it better?
I used to feel this way a lot.
Before Alex and I jumped on the path to FI, I ate out frequently with my friends because it was more convenient and we could pick a location halfway. We met up at cafes and restaurants that served OK food. Not great food. Not terrible food. Just meh food that cost $10-15 per dish.
Looking back, what a waste of calories and money!
We switched to inviting friends over and cooking for them. Or we went to our friends’ apartment and raided their fridge instead. Eating other people’s food (OPF) is a viable wealth strategy just like using OPM (Other People’s Money).
But we also began to cut all restaurant dining. At our peak, my favorite eateries, including dim sum and yum cha, got cut.
How it all went terribly wrong
We started reaping savings immediately. Cutting out restaurant food also made me feel healthier and morally superior to other people who rely on takeout to feed themselves.
However, the cracks began to show.
The problem with grocery store sales
Due to all the time spent driving to the grocery stores for every discount, we had little time for the rest of life.
We would finish batch cooking at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights with hardly any rest after a hectic work week. Our weekends were packed with chores and food shopping.
Ultimately, here was the wrinkle in our plans: my pancreas.
Years ago, my year-long stint as a vegetarian led to folate deficiency with my fasting glucose panels creeping towards pre-diabetic. It was too easy to reach for simple carbs because they’re cheap, vegetarian, and convenient.
As someone with a family history of diabetes, bread and noodles promise heaven to my taste buds but deliver hell to my pancreas.
I knew relying on carbs as a meal staple would be a pitfall I had to watch with vigilance.
My fasting glucose numbers began to climb relatively slowly. I wasn’t alarmed but I was cautious.
What prompted us to stop and rethink was Alex’s fasting glucose numbers that showed he was above the normal range.
Around the same time, Alex learned that his friend, Chris, was seeing an elevated fasting blood sugar level after he switched to a vegan diet.
With a couple of these correlated anecdotes, we decided to focus on lowering grain-based carbs and reinforcing our habit of eating vegetables, protein, and fats instead. Food budget became a lower priority compared to the prospect of developing a chronic illness like diabetes.
The little indulgences create happiness
Plus, I missed restaurants for the food and ambiance.
Especially when it’s a celebration or special date night. We love ordering dishes that are near-impossible to make at home or eateries with very quirky personalities.
These days our budget is firmly stuck at $800 per month.
While we ditched these 3 money-saving strategies to cut our food spending, a lot of other techniques like eating less meat and growing our fresh herbs worked to get our spending down from $1000 per month to about $800 per month.
Besides, eating oatmeal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner rarely moved the needle down to the mythical levels of spending at $300-400 per month. Focusing on housing and transportation made a bigger difference in our savings rates.
Instead of counting the pennies, we decided YOLO.
We now have no food budget. We eat what we want and don’t worry about the cost.
You could say we failed at slashing our food budget. But I like to think we tested our limits and discovered how to live a little.
These days we opt for the pasture-raised eggs because it’s nicer for the chickens, and we like omelets that are deeper orange in color.
And we buy organic bananas. We are aware that bananas have thick skins, so organic doesn’t make a difference for the fruit. But organic bananas mean the farm workers don’t get sprayed with nasty pesticides.
While we are certainly no Alice Waters where every ingredient is artisanal and handcrafted, we choose the upgraded versions when considering the environmental impact and taste. And we’re willing to buy little indulgences like premium dark chocolate and authentic pho noodle soup.
Because if life isn’t about the little indulgences, where else will you find your happiness?
If you love cooking and succeed in a minuscule food budget: how have you dealt with balancing your dollars and still indulging your foodie tendencies?