One of the biggest budget struggles that unites us all is food. We all need it, and most of us (
including especially me) overspend on it. According to the USDA’s food expenditure data, millennials spend 44% of their food dollars or $2,921 on eating out in 2014 (a 10% increase from 2010). By the way, the boomers didn’t do much better at 40% of their food dollars spent on eating out.
Before we go any further, I have to mention that I am not the poster child for frugality and never will be. If you’re looking for the Ultimate Guide to Frugal Food Spending by The Money Champion, please look for the exit to your right! It was nice seeing you. If you’re a flawed consumer spendypants like me and just want to try to be slightly less awful with your money, keep reading!
I’m ashamed to say that in 2016 my spending on meals out was 45% of my total food dollars or $3,481. (Side note: I’m Canadian so spending amounts are in Canadian dollars!) Even factoring in the currency conversion, I spent a disgusting amount on food. Tracking my spending (yes, every cent) so I could really see how much money I was burning on my taste buds was a huge lightbulb moment for me.
The charts in this post are from YNAB (You Need A Budget), which I use to track spending, budget, and keep an eye on my net worth.*
If you’re wondering about the strange category names, they’re quotes from a Canadian television show called Trailer Park Boys. I try to make tracking and budgeting fun in every way possible, so I’m motivated to continue doing it!
Ugh. Don’t get me started on 2016 me. I have no idea what she was thinking.
If I really want to torture myself, I can search for specific fast food restaurants and discover that I spent $99.89 just at McDonald’s last year. (I don’t usually recommend this level of self-shame, but it can be fun to look back on your progress!)
Now that we’ve got a baseline from my ridiculous consumer past, let’s see how 2017 me is doing!
For the first six months of 2017, my meals out spending was less than 15% of my food budget, and I’m also on track to cutting my annual food spending by 50%!
Interested in reducing your food spending too? Here are a few strategies I used:
1. Make one small change at a time.
We all know that crash diets (and crash lifestyle changes) are unsustainable. They might work for a tiny minority, but most of us need some serious help from psychology to trick our brains into changing our habits for good!
I’m a huge believer in incremental, sustainable progress. Choose one decision of your day and work on changing that until the pain of the transition is over and the new habit is established. Then move on to the next small change. Then the next. Eventually, all of these micro changes will amount to a completely different you! If you try to change too much at once, decision fatigue will set in and you’ll be right back to square one.
Here are some examples of small changes I made:
- Drink water. If you absolutely must have other drinks, find a way to reduce the expense by purchasing them elsewhere, making them yourself if possible, or drinking less.
- Prepare breakfast in advance. Instead of picking up a breakfast sandwich on the way to work, make your own (or whatever delicious breakfast you prefer) the night before.
- Bring a lunch to work. Bring foods that are easily prepared and tasty! The idea is to make going out for lunch the more inconvenient option.
- Try a dinner meal plan. If you eliminate the “what do I eat for dinner?” question by already having a meal planned, you reduce the risk of spending more money eating out!
- Keep emergency freezer meals on hand. If you didn’t meal plan, curb the temptation to eat out by having some fast options in the freezer. You can prepare your own freezer meals or buy some inexpensive ones. Again, if you know there is food waiting the choice to eat at home will be easier.
Do you have one small change in mind to apply to your own life? Seriously. One small change. I see you over there with your list! Rip up that piece of paper. Yes, you. Get out a blank one. Start a new list. Write one thing on it. That’s it. That’s your list. Focus on that one thing until it feels comfortable.
- Bring a lunch to work.
That’s your complete list. You hate it, don’t you? It looks like the worst list ever, doesn’t it? Tough. This is your list. Come back when you’ve mastered this one thing, and then you can cross it out and add a new thing. Just ONE new thing. See where I’m going with this?
2. Track your progress.
If you can’t see the benefit of your changes, will you stick with them? Probably not! I love using habit tracking apps but choose whatever works for you. Maybe you’d prefer to color in some squares? Make a chart in Excel? Add marbles to a jar? I don’t know! Experiment until you find something that you’ll consistently use.
Start next week. Start with just one day. How about Tuesday? Bring your lunch to work on Tuesday. If you succeed, make sure you record it so you can remember how well you did!
The week after that, bring your lunch on Tuesday and Thursday. Remember to record that too! Did you get 100%? If you did, you did twice as well as last week! Keep it up!
Could you work up to three or four days? Monday to Friday? Five days. You can do this. You are doing this. You can look back and see that you’re doing it.
Note how well this works with small changes!
3. Calculate the savings.
Money is a huge motivator for me at this stage in my life, so I like to know that the changes I’m making are having a financial effect. A few dollars doesn’t seem like much, but they add up!
If you brought your lunch to work ($2) instead of eating out for lunch ($8), for example, you could save $6/day/ – $30/week – $120/month – $1,440/year!
I don’t know about you, but I could definitely spend that $1,440 in a better way than on a constant string of unmemorable work lunches.
Reducing your spending by $1,440/year also means that you can save $36,000 less for retirement if you’re following the 4% rule! (To calculate how much you’d have to save for an annual expense to keep that expense in retirement, just multiply it by 25.)
So, what one small change can you make to spend less on food?
* I’m a huge YNAB fan and I happily pay for the subscription, but there are so many options for tracking your spending – Excel, Mint, Every Dollar. Choose the method you love and will stick with! Full disclosure: if you subscribe to YNAB using my referral link, you get a free month and so do I. They also have a free 34 day trial to test it out before you subscribe!