3 Ways We Failed At Slashing Our Food Budget

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.

We’re talking under $200 per month living in an urban or suburban area and maybe an extra $100/month for restaurant dining (such asSaving Sherpa, FI180, & ChooseFI).

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.

A typical dinner dish of tofu with flavorings like sesame oil and green onions

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.

I drove to each grocery store, parked, shopped, and checked out. Then, I loaded our car with grocery from 3 different locations and went home to do meal prep and batch cooking.

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.

Could we save a lot of money if we ate more bread, rice, pasta, and other carbohydrates?

  • 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!
5-Minute Garlic Herb Dip recipe on toasted bagel, delicious & frugal

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?!

Compound Interest Calculator from investor.gov

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.

Koi Palace, in Millbrae, California, one of my favorite restaurants in the Bay Area, got cut from the budget. We haven’t been back since 2017.

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.

We overcame some of this challenge with meal planning and simplification. But do you think the meager few dollars saved are worthwhile?

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.

We said “bye bye” to bulk bags of pasta from Trader Joe’s and Costco. We still eat pasta, but we have to make it ourselves from scratch.

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.

Shrimp dumplings (har gow) and dim sum at Koi Palace in Millbrae, California is one of the few places worth eating out.

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.

Our little indulgences are hardly wallet-breaking splurges. A pound of dark chocolate for less than $10 is a good idea when you know you would pay more than $10 to buy the block of chocolate.

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? 

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

4 thoughts on “3 Ways We Failed At Slashing Our Food Budget”

  1. My mouth is watering, just looking at those har gau photos! Totally agree that health is very important and eating better on its own is a worthwhile goal. Everything in moderation, I say! Definitely can’t cut out yum cha / dim sum completely 🙂

    Reply
  2. Hi, I saw your post on the FB FI group. Nice to see. We are foodies as well and feel our health is more important than eating rice and beans to save money. Something we started about a year ago that has been a huge blessing is 5:2 fasting . Improves health AND helps the budget while still eating the best food! ?

    Reply
    • Hi Lisa, Thanks for reading. Agree with your comment about health > FI savings rate. How does 5:2 fasting work?

      Reply

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