How We’re Saving Money This Year By Eating In

I had to re-learn how to shop for groceries.

Photo credit: Jules, CC BY 2.0.

2016 was the year our coffers were emptied. We paid for housing projects, bought two vehicles, and stayed at hotels during home renovations. I bought a new phone after my three-year-old LG G3 went into a coma. I haven’t owned my own laptop in years, so Lukas bought me one for $300. He started painting again, and he has hundreds of pictures on his camera just waiting to be painted into canvas. But first he needed to upload the images into a computer, so off to Target we went. He found a $100 tablet and paid for it in cash.

Luckily, we still ended the year solvent — though not from any savings on our part. Lukas and I received $400 in cash, and $100 gift cards from his generous family members. We also received $200 gift cards from work.
There’s a lot of things I can’t control, but I’ve been working on trying to control our spending outflow this year. Lukas and I are homebodies and teetotalers, so it’s not like we can just cut back on barhopping to save a little bit of money. Our food budget, however, could use some work. I love food in all forms; the first year Lukas and I were together, we ate out almost every day. We worked our way through all the Asian joints in our neighborhood, and, in between, ate buckets of ice cream, hummus, chips, and crackers.
We established a fun budget of $400 a month, but with eating out so much, we blew through our budget before the month was over and started using debit and then credit cards. Our pricey food budget was eating through our monthly nut. I know we shouldn’t eat out so much, especially with my egg, soy, and dairy allergies, but sometimes our trip to Panera was the one good thing that happened that day. If I made the same salad at home it would have cost me maybe $5 and I’d have had enough for a few more meals.

So I decided to start cooking more at home, but spending less on restaurants meant our grocery bill started inching up. I thought eating at home was supposed to be cheaper? We were regularly spending $120 on weekly groceries for two adults.

Like Angely, I hadn’t really spent much time thinking about meal planning. Then I went grocery shopping with a friend and was amazed to see that she had a list — her menu for the week — and that she only spent $100 for her three-person household. I decided to take meal planning seriously. I was tired of blowing money on food, and I needed to put the skills I learned from restaurants to good use.

First, I started writing a grocery list. I learned from my mom the “grab and drop” method of grocery-shopping, where you grab what you want and call it a day. Not surprisingly, this approach is a huge money drain. I end up with ingredients that are not cohesive, so I have to go back to the store and start all over again. Also, I check the pantry and the fridge and see if there’s anything that needs to be used up. Not only does this help with conscious spending at the store, we’ve also minimized our food waste.

It seems counterintuitive that shopping more often saves money, but to me, it does. I used to grocery shop once a month, but I got bored with my food within a week and started eating at restaurants. Shopping once a week keeps things fresh; not just in terms of ingredients, but also the kind of recipes I can make.

We also resolved to eat healthier. I know meat is expensive, but I didn’t realize how much it was costing me until we started eating more vegetables at home. We shop heavily on the produce department; for snacks, we eat fruits, nuts, and yogurt. We stopped eating unhealthy snacks like ice cream, Luna bars, chips, and crackers. I never noticed how expensive those things can be, and it’s easy to binge because of their nutritional-deficiency. $1 for a Luna bar, when a bag of carrots that can be used for different meals is $1.25? Never again!

I chose chicken, turkey, and fish as our protein sources, along with lots of beans. Right away, I noticed the difference in our receipts. With less meat, by forgoing beef and pork altogether, our grocery bill started inching lower; we’re now at a good $60–$80 per shopping trip. I also learned the secret of smaller shopping carts. I liked using a big cart, but my mind subconsciously wanted me to fill it up. With a small cart or a basket, you’re limited to what you really need — or what you can carry.

I know we can save more money by shopping at discount markets, but I don’t want to save money in exchange for worker rights and living wages. We like supporting stores that treat and pay their employees well. The company I work for charges a premium for groceries, but we’re some of the highest-paid workers in the industry. Also, as long as I can afford it, I will buy organic produce and natural meats. I’ve had many health problems that stemmed from eating cheap meat loaded with hormones. Last summer, my doctor diagnosed me as having too much estrogen in my body. My doctor informed me that xenoestrogens are omnipresent in commodity meat, oils, processed foods, plastics, non-organic produce, chemicals, etc. The list is extensive, I urge you to do some research on xenoestrogens. My habit of eating cheap and processed meats inundated my body with xenoestrogens and it caused serious hormonal imbalance. So, I was essentially PMS-ing for three weeks out of a month. My symptoms consist of bloating, excruciating cramps, fatigue, mood swings, red and painful chin zits and others that are NSFW. I used to be so proud of myself for sourcing the lowest prices on meat, but the money I saved on food, went straight to my medical bills.

In February, tired from the holidays at work, I told myself we were celebrating the New Year by getting Chinese food at this place that makes hand-pulled noodles, and the best broccoli with shrimp. As I was about to order, it got harder to justify spending the $40 — maybe more, because as a former waitress, I always over-tip. I went to the kitchen, looked at the fridge and found that I have everything at my disposal to make my favorite take-out foods: broccoli with shrimp, fried rice, and salt and pepper chicken wings. I didn’t have broccoli, but I had brussels sprouts, chicken wings, and black rice. It was delicious and cheap, and we didn’t suffer through the gut bomb we usually get when we order Chinese take-out. A bag of brussels sprouts at Fred Meyer is $2.99 on sale. I only used half the bag, and saved the rest to roast the next day.

Lukas always calls our house “the best restaurant in town.” As a foodie, I find it hard to believe that my cooking is better than restaurant meals. But the more I cook, the more I realize there’s value in my cooking, and it’s even better than the ones we pay for. Just in the last few months that I’ve started my experiment, I’ve only taken out $200 for restaurant money, and kept the other $200. Saving money should be fun, find ways to make it enjoyable — set up a nice table for lunch or dinner, and pretend you’re in a restaurant. You already have everything you need.

Ruzielle Ganuelas is a writer, baker and PF nerd in Washington State.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.