Our personal challenge for the month of May was to not eat out, and we were successful at doing just that! It wasn’t always easy, but it was very rewarding both fiscally and personally. We decided to allocate ZERO dollars for eating out and $300 for groceries. Both were dramatic shifts to how we had been spending. We decided to make this switch because frankly we had strayed way too much and needed to clean-up this area of the budget.
May was also my first month as a stay at home Mom so reducing our monthly expenses was vital. I went onto mint.com and was shocked at how much we had spent the past few months on food. In March we spent $737, and in April we spent $811! Talk about spending creep! Too much Dutch Bros and Chipotle for us! Our busy lifestyle had contributed, but we knew a change was necessary to make a single income work for our family. Food is our most challenging category, but also provides some of the greatest opportunity for reduction since it’s a variable expense.
So how did we do? We not only made our $300 goal, we ended up just under budget at $290! We reduced our spending by more than half (a factor of 2.8 less to be exact). We did the math and that equated to $1.25 a meal. Contrast this from $3.60 a meal in April! We have a toddler so we considered our family size to be 2.5 in our calculation ( $290 / 31 days in May / 3 meals a day / 2.5 individuals = $1.25 per meal per person). No matter how you slice down the math – we felt rather proud. Check out that beautiful screenshot from Mint.com!
How We Kept Our Food Budget Under $300
Considering we had such a big shift, you might be wondering how exactly did we make this happen and what did we actually eat? Getting to $300 wasn’t as difficult as we thought. As the primary shopper, I became much more aware and disciplined in the manner in which I approached shopping. I’m so glad we chose to make our food budget the main focus because it really gave me a new perspective. While being at home allowed me more time to focus on meal planning it is absolutely not a requirement.
We had previously achieved this goal when Kevin and I were both working full-time paying off $107K of debt in 33 months. Anyone can do this. Reflecting back to prior months, I had previously been approaching food spending way too mindlessly and this brought it back to the forefront of my attention. This is why goals really do matter, including your budgeting goals. Here are the top 6 things that helped us achieve our $300 food budget.
1. Skip Convenience Foods
We live busier lifestyles nowadays so it’s no surprise that food manufacturers cater to this. It’s very tempting to buy pre-made foods, but the cost savings of purchasing foods that require a little extra prep work are significant. Lettuce is a great example. I had previously been in the habit of purchasing the bagged salad kits. Lesson learned, washing and chopping up lettuce really isn’t that bad.
When it came to fruit, it’s tempting to buy the pre-chopped fruits. Oddly enough, I used to be too intimidated to purchase a whole pineapple. I thought it took special skills to properly chop it up. I learned it really isn’t that big of a deal. For the first time ever, I also opted to purchase the frozen concentrate orange juice instead of the bottled juice. Yes, you have to use your own pitcher and stir in the water, but it really doesn’t require that much extra effort.
When you’re more aware of your budget, you look for more opportunities to save money. Little changes like this really do add up, and the small additional time commitment is minimal. Also, if you enjoy cooking and baking (although not a requirement to save money) you can also discover there’s greater joy in making things yourself. For a fun Friday night, I would make homemade pizza and we’d watch a movie. Being 5 months pregnant, I also had a huge craving for cinnamon rolls at a certain point. Instead of purchasing premade or frozen ones, I opted to make my own from scratch. Not only were the cheaper, they were also more delicious!
2. Know the Prices of Food You Purchase Often
Spending as little as possible was my top priority when I went grocery shopping. As a benefit, I became much more acutely aware of the prices of items we purchased consistently. In the past, I would purchase Kevin’s frozen meals for lunch and didn’t take a close look at the price. After more careful awareness, I discovered his meals would range anywhere from about $1.70 to $2.60. When it was more expensive I held off, and when there was a deal I would jump on it. I personally, don’t like the idea of mass storing so I would just buy a little more than I usually would otherwise.
I’d also keep an eye out for coupons as well, but I also didn’t want to take that to the extreme for similar reasons. I think bulk buying and couponing causes people to sometimes purchase things they don’t actually need, and potentially overspend. At the end of the day, keep it simple and know the prices of items you buy on a regular basis. Perhaps for you that’s chicken, or cereal, or lettuce, etc. Awareness is a big part of the battle.
3. Know Your Budget Numbers
Along the lines of knowing food prices, there are two other specific numbers that are critical — your cost per meal and your total budget for the month. Throughout the month I kept my eye on our $300 number, and consistently worked to keep each meal below $2.00. If it was too high above this number I knew it was taking us away from our larger goal. The $2.00 was a rule of thumb. In fact, if we averaged $2.00 a meal we would have been over-budget, but it was still a helpful gauge to let us know how economical a particular meal was.
At the end of the day, averages were our friend! Early on in the month, I realized we were projected to go $300 over budget if we continued at the same rate. I responded to this and readjusted to keep us within budget. Having measurable goals really is key for any goal.
One helpful way to track your food expenses is with this budget printable which allows you to track your verall food budget and all your individual expenses.
4. Eat the Food You Already Have
At the beginning of the month, I did a thorough clearing of our pantry and refrigerator. It was a healthy purging exercise and also helped bring more awareness to our situation. I threw away anything that had expired, and organized everything else. I’d recommend doing this exercise because it helps you see what you already have and motivates you to not be wasteful.
I made several meals from items we had already purchased. Even now that this challenge is over, we still have plenty of food for future months. If in doubt, take a look at what you already have and use it.
5. Portion Your Meals and Cook Extra for Leftovers
This strategy not only saves money, but it also saves time as well. When you’re making a more substantial meal, plan to make at least two meals. This strategy will likely require you to cook a little extra, but also manage your portions as well.
For example, I did this with spaghetti. I cooked the meat sauce and allocated it for two dinners. We had plenty to eat, but we were much more careful and didn’t default to having seconds. After eating the first meal, I used the second half two days later. For this meal, I also got creative and repurposed the meat sauce to make a spaghetti casserole. I enjoy cooking so I opted to repurpose instead of repeat the same meal.
Either way, the point is that it saved money. Slowcooker meals and casseroles are easy ways to make leftovers. Save yourself time and money and think about cooking two meals instead of just one. Your future self and wallet will thank you!
6. Have a Few Extra Cheap Meals on Occasion
During the month I would balance more substantial meals with a handful of extra cheap meals. Pregnancy cravings are real, and I actually did have a craving for ramen this past month. You really can’t beat a 25 cent meal! We’d also have an occasional macaroni and cheese or tuna fish sandwich dinner. That’s one of the ways we were able to average $1.25 a meal.
You don’t have to do this every day (nor would I recommend it) but the point of these cheap meals is that they help bring down your average overall. You don’t have to eat ramen, but there are plenty of meals that you can make very cheaply.
And, that’s how we did it! This has been my favorite personal challenge yet, and it will really help us be in a better place for our food budget moving forward. We’re now going to aim to keep our overall food budget to $400. The extra $100 will allow us to occasionally eat out, but will definitely require restraint.
If you figured the average fast casual meal is about $25, that limits us to 4 times a month or about once a week. Now that we’ve experienced a whole month without eating out, once a week will be a treat. It’s all about perspective.
How much do you spend on food a month? How often do you go out? Anyone else do anything similar to keep your food budget down?