Wallets & Waistlines

How Whole30 sort of fixed my budget.

Photo: Pixabay

It is high season for diets, cleanses, and “gut makeovers.” A time to reject the excesses of the holidays and greet the new year with austerity. January demands that we KonMari our closets, enter into binding contracts with pilates studios, and convince ourselves that we can subsist on liquid alone for a week.

I contracted the fever for self-betterment early, in October. when my trusty budgeting software had recently added reports to show spending trends. Enticed by the colorful graph, I started clicking around to see what the biggest piece of the pie was. Paying rent and student loans took top dollar, but trailing close behind were my food expenses: over the previous six months, I’d spent an average of $706.24 per month dining out, plus an average $398.63 on groceries. I don’t know how much other humans in the Bay Area spend on food, but I had a sinking feeling that this is not a healthy number.

Analyzing my financial health quickly morphed into worries about my physical well being. What was the toll that these artisanal goat cheese-filled pretzel rolls, Mission burritos, and seasonal cocktails were taking on my body? The correlation between calories consumed and cash burned seemed obvious, but the equation of eating less to spend less works as a sound bite. It’s much more difficult to live up to IRL. I needed rules, not a mantra. Enter the Whole30.

For the uninitiated, the Whole30 is a diet (I shudder at the word) that cuts sugar, grains, dairy, alcohol, and preservatives out of one’s meals for 30 days. I’d undertaken the program a couple years ago, so knew that I had the fortitude to deprive myself of the bread and booze that I was so eager to shell out money for. I also knew that the program’s strictness basically required me to cook the majority of meals (monetary advantage #1), and that it made me avoid restaurant dining veiled as social events like the plague (monetary advantage #2). Even better, my sister was about to begin her umpteenth Whole30, so I would have a partner in crime and someone to go to Trader Joe’s who would understand my excitement about a three pound bag of shredded Brussels sprouts.

With my checking account balance in mind as much as the scale in the bathroom, I embarked on my financial diet. I didn’t go in with a specific goal regarding how much I would spend on food, but just wanted to do a comparison at the end of the month to see if I was eating and budgeting healthier.

The financial outcome:

Six months of food expenses, plus one month of financial dieting in October.

At the end of the thirty days, I had spent $441.55 on groceries and $388.21 on dining out, totaling $829.76. Compared with my overall average spending from the past six months of 2016, I saved $234.88. This is no small sum, but less dramatic than I hoped for. I hypothesize that this might be due to the fact that I did not commit to bargain-hunting at the grocery store any more than I would normally do. My driving force was to make meals that would taste good enough to get me to stick to the program, sacrificing some savings for flavor.

The physical outcome:

While I did not achieve all the benefits that are listed in the Whole30 guide (yes, there are that many), I did end the month feeling more well-rested, energetic, and digestively in-tune than I started. It was also really gratifying to take a break from my usual tippling, although I made sure to celebrate the end of the program with a couple fancy margaritas. And to cap it all off, I had my yearly physical exam on my 30th day, where I got a professional tallying of the 11 pounds I had lost over the month and got to act real smug about it with my physician.

Lessons learned:

The program requires a lot of time and energy. I regularly cook for myself and do not mind logging two hours in the kitchen for a weeknight meal, but halfway through the program even I was beginning to dread the sight of a chef’s knife or a frying pan. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who are not inclined towards cooking or have to feed picky partners or small humans. And the actual cooking is only half of it — meal planning and shopping are equally labor intensive.

“Going out” can just be going out. I found that many of my daytime food cravings, or the “Where should we go for lunch?” mental loops were really about just needing to take a break from work and get outside. I was able to combat these by packing my lunch and acknowledging that taking a walk with no destination is just as acceptable as going out to lunch or running out for a coffee.

Less impulsive socializing. Since many of my social activities regularly revolve around dining out or getting drinks with people, I had to rethink what it meant to just hang out with folks. This ended up that I was more predisposed to have people over my apartment for a meal I cooked, or to find an activity for us to do. And the people I want to do those things with are a more selective group than the casual “Let’s get drinks!” crowd. This led me to focus my energies on people I really wanted to be around and who don’t assume that we have to spend money to have a good time.

Emotional savings can outweigh the monetary ones (or physical ones). Despite the $234.88 savings margin, I felt like I spent much less than usual when reviewing my budget at the end of the month. Unlike previous months, my spending history was not cluttered with $7, $14, $22 meals that I could not remember or justify. Avoiding the mindless spending of sad desk lunches and after-work drinks gave me a greater sense of control over my finances, even if the money ended up flowing into other budget categories.

Back to the meal planning board

While October didn’t bring any earth-shattering successes, it did show the benefit of incremental improvement, which I think is all I can ask for in 2017. In the spirit of such baby steps, I’m taking on the Whole30 again for January, this time with my boyfriend in tow. Now that I am confident about sticking to the program’s rules, I’m setting specific budget targets for myself this time around: $400 on groceries, and $250 for dining out. I’m hoping to come in under the $400 for groceries since my boyfriend and I will be splitting all of the grocery shopping, although he seems to be more concerned about whether he’s allowed to have hot sauce than he is about weighing coffers. I’ll let you know how it goes and how Tapatio adds up in the nutritional math of this dietary experiment.

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