My husband and I like good, quality food. We love to support local businesses and buy sustainably as much as possible. We sort of figured that choice meant that our grocery bill would always be higher than the average because we didn’t want to settle on the quality of our food. Because of that, we never really looked closely at our spending when it came to food – it was more or less a free pass.
However, about a year ago, I started to realize just how much that free spending was really costing us, and I decided it was time to tighten the purse strings – at least a little bit.
Make coffee and pack work lunches
Enter in my very first monthly tracking challenge (December 2016). In order to get a handle on just my lunch and coffee expenses, I decided to ease into the whole thing and give myself a budget of $150 for the month. Looking back, I can’t believe I thought of that as “cutting back,” as now I haven’t bought lunch out even once in the last 3+ months.
Regardless, I knew I was spending more than that $150 by some degree, so it was definitely a reduction. I probably averaged about $12-$15/day during the week, so about $250-$300/month, though I can’t be sure since I wasn’t actually tracking our spending at that time (and that was just ME – my husband was spending a bit on lunches as well, but I was definitely the one who was spending the majority of it).
That first month, I spent $87 through careful tracking and starting to get back into the habit of packing lunches again. By July when I first started this blog, I’d guessed that number to be down to maybe $20 or $30 a month. And now, as I said above, that number is more or less at zero.
That was only one small part of our monthly food bill though, and not anywhere near the large part. I had yet to tackle the elephant in the room – our grocery shopping bill.
Grocery shopping daily is more expensive
A prerequisite of mine when we were house hunting seven years ago was that we be within walking distance of a grocery store so we didn’t have to drive to get our groceries. In theory, this should have been the frugal answer to grocery shopping – no waste of gas, and we could only take home what we could carry, so no wasted food.
Unfortunately, that’s not at all how it worked. Living within a short walk of the grocery store meant that we went shopping five or six days a week. Whenever we couldn’t think of what to have to dinner, we’d head over to the grocery store to get all of the ingredients for a meal (if we weren’t just ordering take out instead). This meant no bulk shopping, and oftentimes, buying partially prepped meals (like preseasoned meats and premade bread products like naan or pizza crust).
While these meals were cheaper than ordering delivery or going out for eat, it was easy to spend $30 on a home cooked meal, without enough for leftovers. And on days we did have leftovers, we didn’t often get to them before they went bad.
Food waste is a serious problem in this county, and we were contributing our fair share. Not only did this mean we were wasting money on food we didn’t eat, but worse, we tossing out perfectly good ingredients that had used a lot of water and energy to get to our home in the first place. Not very green at all.
No Spend November reset challenge
I keep talking again and again about how powerful the “no” spend November challenge has been for our finances, but again, this was the game changer when it came to our grocery budget. At the point I made the decision to track every penny, I actually didn’t know how much we spent on groceries. If I did, I’m not sure I would have set our limit at $1500 for anything outside of the mortgage and daycare payments.
Since the month’s challenge was simply to spend as little money as possible (and to have as many zero spend days as we could), I ended doing somewhat of a modified pantry challenge. While I didn’t actually restrict our grocery shopping trips, I simply went to the store as infrequently as possible. Almost daily trips turned into once a week or even less, and I got creative using the food we already had in the pantry and freezer.
Cooking and baking from scratch saves a ton of money
This was the point where I also started trying my hand at baking. If we didn’t have a baked good on hand, I just made it from scratch instead of going to the store. And now, I’m totally hooked. Not only is it way cheaper, but, unsurprisingly, from scratch baked goods are way better than anything you can buy at the grocery store.
Not only was I starting to bake from scratch, I was cooking from scratch in general. The preseasoned pork loin for $8.99 was no longer enticing because I could marinate my own for a quarter of the price.
Another awesome side effect of my newfound focus on from scratch cooking with real foods is the decrease in trash that we produce each week. We have the second smallest size garbage can, and it is no longer full on garbage day. Soon we may even downsize to the smallest trash option. It’s a small savings, but the bigger bonus to me is knowing how much less waste we are accumulating through our day to day lives.
Our monthly grocery bill
So, what did our numbers look like prior to this shift in thinking? For reference, the USDA guide for a family of 3 (couple plus one child 2-3YO) ranges from $596.60 – $959.60. I used to look at those numbers and wonder how people possibly landed at the thrifty, or even low cost range of these numbers. I had all kind of excuses as to why they weren’t reasonable for us (high cost of living area, organic and local produce, etc).
Remember, these numbers below are after I had kicked my daily lunch and coffee habit, or they would look even worse.
- Groceries: $1,258.19
- Restaurants: $693.36
- Fast Food: $75.58
- Total: $2,027.13
- Groceries: $462.37
- Restaurants: $406.95
- Fast Food: $19.48
- Total: $888.80
*You can take a look at our full spending breakdown here.
Honestly, the difference in these numbers is staggering to me. It’s hard to believe that we spent an average of over TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS on food and drink every month. We ate well, but it’s not like we were eating steak and lobster and $50 bottles for wine with every meal. There was really no reason for us to be spending that much, especially because I would argue that we eat better now than we did then, because so much of what we eat is now made from scratch.
What’s not even reflected in these two month snapshots is our large garden that is most productive around July, which would argue that our bill would have been even higher had I compared to January 2016. But there’s only so much beating up I can do to myself, and I think this is bad enough 😉 I’m looking forward to what our grocery bill looks like in the summer months this year with the garden in full swing.
We still buy beer and wine (though less, and some of it is boxed), and we don’t deprive ourselves of any food we really want because of price. We’re just mindful of what we buy, make sure to eat all of the leftovers, and cook the meals from scratch instead of paying for short cuts. Our son also loves cooking and baking with us, and I’m hoping that love will stick with him and treat him well as he gets older and one day moves out on his own.
You’ll also notice that restaurants are still solidly in our monthly spending, and while we spend less now, that number hasn’t dropped so dramatically. What’s changed is how that spending happens.
Instead of picking up dinner any random weeknight we don’t feel like cooking, our restaurant meals are almost exclusively when we are traveling or spending time with friends. We get value out of those meals, so we will continue to spend our money there. The goal is not to spend as little as humanly possible, as it’s obvious that we could cut that number in half or even to zero, but instead to make sure our money goes where it matters, not just what’s easiest that night.
Looking back to our food purchases just seven months ago, I’m not sure how I considered ourselves “frugal ” then, because I had no real basis for tracking. The only reason we still felt frugal was that in comparison to others around us, we spent less money on “things,” though I’d argue our food bills were likely as high or higher than many. We did save a percentage of our incomes every month that was considerably higher than the national average and had no consumer debt, so we had tricked ourselves into complacency and just let money run out of our bank accounts every month without nearly enough to show for it.
Life is better than it was six months ago, because we have such control over our spending now. The big chunk of savings we now see every month feels so much better than a few premade meals ever did.