Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Day 89 - Food For Thought

January 11, 2011

Image: Boaz Yiftach / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
 I LOVE eating out.  I think my next life will involve traveling around the world as a food critic.  Mike and I used to eat out on average four to six times per week, depending on our busy schedules and degree of laziness.  It's not just about the food for me - it's the whole experience including ambiance, service and good company.  I grew up in a family notorious for spending a considerable amount of time gathered around the dinner table even after the food was long gone and the waiter refused to bring any more iced tea refills.  I thought this behavior was typical of most families until I went off to college on the West Coast and met people who actually shoveled food down as fast as they could and left the table before the thought of a good conversation could even begin - insert *horrified* look here.

It wasn't until Mike and I went cold turkey on eating out that I finally realized how much money we actually spent at restaurants on a monthly basis.  Prior to our dining hiatus, spending anywhere from $30-$80 on a decent meal seemed reasonable.  For some reason the light finally switched on in my head this week.  We easily hand over five hundred dollars a month for meals out.  Yikes!!  Imagine how much less debt I would have if I had actually thought about paying $500 extra dollars a month.

The AHA! Moment (Took Long Enough......)
Since I received a restaurant gift card for Christmas from the partners in my office, Mike and I decided it was finally time to use it.  We ended up having a great evening eating at one of our favorite restaurants.  We each had a beer and split a salad to start.  Mike ordered the Sloppy Joe and I ordered the Fish Sandwich.  The bill came to $60 including tip and the gift card was for $50 so we spent ten bucks for the tip.  Typical nice meal out.

A trip to the grocery store the next day is when the high price of eating out actual hit me.  We typically plan our meals for the week prior to hitting the store to prevent frivolous spending.  Total bill for five days worth of food (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for two people: $75.84.  I'm still not sure why the fact that our Saturday dinner out costing almost as much as a week's worth of groceries is such a revelation to me all of the sudden. 

Why is this obvious comparison so important to me?  It helps me realize that I am starting to pay more and more attention to my spending habits rather than just blindly purchasing at will.
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We have worked hard to stop eating out and get our grocery bill to a reasonable level while at the same time maintaining healthy eating habits.  A few changes we made:

Don't just settle for the nearest grocery store.  We used to shop at Von's - a typical gigantic supermarket with everything you could possibly imagine at your fingertips.  It was very easy to walk out of there with a bill between $150-$200.  My parents stumbled upon a store called Henry's Market.  It's a small chain of natural food stores that carries locally grown produce (organic and conventional) as well as grass-fed beef and hormone free dairy.  Think mini Whole Foods including a mini price.  High quality produce is surprisingly inexpensive.  We even opt for organic for certain fruits and veggies that tend to be more susceptible to pesticides (see the Dirty Dozen).  Although not everything here is cheaper than a megastore, I believe the smaller size and limited selection also aides in reducing our spending.

Plan your meals for the week.  Figure out what meals you are going to eat during the week.  Make sure that some of your meals are quick and easy for those days you come home from work exhausted.  And either make enough to take for lunch the next day or be proud to wave that PB&J sandwich around in a bind.  By figuring out exactly what ingredients you need for the week, you limit extraneous spending on items you don't necessarily need.  I believe it also provides less spoilage when each item you buy has a purpose.

Use coupons.  I have to admit this is something I have never done on a regular basis.  I tend to find coupons lead me to purchase something just because I have a coupon and not because I really need it.  But some people swear by coupon clipping and end up purchasing items for mere pennies.  Something I would definitely like to learn more about if anyone has any experience.  Guest writers, anyone?  Send me an email.

Check out the sales.  Knowing that we want to incorporate fresh veggies into every meal, I tend to pick based on what is on sale that week.  Learning when produce is in season will also help you predict the best items to buy.  One good example is grapes:  some weeks they can be $0.88 a pound versus $2.99.  Huge price difference.  Might want to reach for the pears this week.

Become a flexitarian.  Flexitarian just means semi-vegetarian.  I don't think I will ever be able to give up cheeseburgers and juicy steaks, but I have considerably cut back on my beef (and other meats) intake.  Explore other protein-rich options such as beans, quinoa, peanut butter, veggie burgers, hummus, Kashi cereals and greek yogurt.  These are healthy options that will also trim your grocery bill when substituted for animal protein.

Be thoughtful about the food you buy.  Don't let anyone convince you that you can't eat healthy and cheaply at the same time.  Bigger does not always mean better.  Pay attention.  Keep that debt free goal in mind.

Stay tuned,
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