Misses Cat and I have been on our journey towards financial independence going on approximately a year now and we have made a lot of progress, but one thing we struggle with and are still working to improve on is our grocery and food spending. Full disclosure for transparency purposes, this is a post about how we’ve tried, failed and learned along the way and how we refuse to give up on this journey. Let’s talk a bit about our relationship to food and how we have tried to get our food spending from $1600 per month down to $600.
There is little else that comes close to bringing people together, especially families, more than food. Most memories that Misses Cat and Mr. Bear cherish together and from their earlier lives revolve around experiences eating, drinking and being together with family and friends, so it’s simply something that is a priority when we really boil down our basic needs and desires beyond sustenance and nutrition. Misses Cat enjoys delicate, complex, layered flavors and the actual process of cooking while Mr. Bear likes to eat a lot with rich flavors. As we are both in our 30’s now and have a young child, we prioritize healthy foods over comfort foods most of the time and do our best to not cut corners when it comes to preparing food and eating it together as a family as much as possible.
This connection to food stirs and interesting conflict at our core when we plan our food budget and shopping. We have a lot of trouble coming up with a reasonable food budget and sticking to it and frankly we still have not mastered the process of getting the food we like to eat at a price that enables us to save money and also be healthy. Progress over perfection, as they say. Hopefully our story, challenges and learnings will help others relate and grow on their own path and hopefully some of you will share some of your tips and tricks for food budget success with us so we can get there too!
Eating Without A Budget
Left to our own devices with a pocket full of earned income and credit cards with high limits, the sky is really a limit to how much Misses Cat and I could eat. We always joke that if we became filthy rich we’d probably just tour the world eating all the good foods like oysters, steak, etc to our hearts content and not even consider buying luxury cars, jewelry or a mansion (though we probably would try to buy those too if we didn’t have discipline, let’s be honest). At the peak of our spendy lifestyle living in New York City, our weekly food shopping could easily top $400, not including my favorite wines and eating out with friends or together. We were shocked at how we were not able to save any money despite us both having good jobs that paid well. How obvious it must have seemed from the outside looking in. But then again, most of our friends were exactly like us - nobody really talked about saving money, never-mind retiring early or being financially independent.
Obviously the downsides of living this way are too numerous to even begin listing in a blog post, but needless to say, we knew we had to make a change if we wanted to have a reasonably For the record, Mr. Bear was definitely a lot more footloose and fancy free with his food and extracurricular spending that Misses Cat and we would not have made any progress if it hadn’t been for her consistent and accurate observations about the lifestyle we found ourselves in.
Creating Better Habits
We didn’t know how much we should spend on food month to month because we had no point of reference to what a good food budget was. We were sure that we spent way too much. In our earliest days looking into financial independence and personal finance, Misses Cat found that $600 was a reasonable monthly food budget to hit based on preliminary research. I felt like that was way too low, but realized that if we didn’t try to hit that number our inflated food budget could possibly get worse before it got better.
Mr. Bear loves meal prepping because it does not require things to look good or be precise - just generally good enough quality and large enough portions to work across several days throughout the week. What’s not to like? Up front investment of time saves hours throughout the week and probably a lot of money in waste as well. However, Misses Cat simply gets sick of leftovers after 1-2 meals, at least with the recipes we’ve tried. So in terms of meal prep, the concept is totally sound and reasonable for time and money savings, but for our tastes as a family, we have not figured out a way to cook food that we all like with this method.
Bulk and Wholesale Food Buying
Bulk food buying really does work to save money and reduce waste if you are intentional of how you use and store the food. We do our bulk shopping at BJ’s, which is sort of like a Costco or Sam’s Club the next town over. It’s often times a pretty time intensive trip between getting there, battling the masses in the store and packing things up yourself, but often we’ll buy bulk items there and not need to purchase them again for weeks or even months. Items that we like to buy bulk include baking goods, frozen veg and fruit, peanut butter, meats on sale and snacks for our son’s lunches. However, BJ’s also sells fresh food in their grocery aisle and we get tempted to buy massive bags of broccoli, beans, apples, etc. As I mentioned before, because we don’t consistently meal prep in huge amounts, we’ve wasted a lot of this fresh produce throughout the week because it just doesn’t keep that well. Also, because bulk food costs more in aggregate, if we don’t manage exactly what we need and don’t need from there, we can easily walk out with a much higher bill than normal (for example, when Mr. Bear wants to try something from the snack or beverage isle or grab an extra this or that). It adds up a lot faster during these wholesale shopping trips.
Coupon clipping and sale hunting can definitely add up in savings, but Misses Cat and I are simply not consistent when doing this and because of that, we often will get to the checkout line at a store and realize we forgot our coupons in the car or didn’t even bring them out of the house. We are both guilty of this as we don’t plan ahead far enough with our schedules to actually make couponing effective and regular in our habits.
Shopping Exclusively Online
The internet is great - you can find great deals much easier than you can at your local grocery stores - no doubt. But the hidden costs can be huge when shopping online from a fee and bad-habit standpoint. For example, ordering groceries on something like Instacart at your favorite local grocery store can save you hours or more of time in shopping, but it’s also easy to overspend because you either bought too much clicking more purchase than you actually need or defeat the purpose by forgetting items and needing to go to the store anyways. Also don’t forget about the delivery charge plus tip. We believe in tipping low wage employees who delivery our groceries, but Instacart is notoriously shady for not allocating tip money in an ethical way. So for us, the only online delivery option that makes a lot of sense for us is Whole Foods paired with Amazon Prime - which means free delivery if you choose a delivery time within a certain time frame. Since Whole Foods got bought out by Amazon, the prices (and sometimes quality) have come down, so we can get most of what we need at about the same price as what what we would pay at any other area grocery store and without the baggage of dealing with Instacart.
Shopping Exclusively In-Store
Figuring that we can maybe be a bit more particular with our shopping if we find the grocery store with the most high quality food for the best prices, we could make a trip of it weekly and just get it out of the way. Our idea for this came from friends who have found incredible cost savings at stores like Aldi and Price Rite. We were surprised at the amount of money we saved week to week practicing this but were frustrated at the time cost of going further across town and even needing to make a second stop. This could easily eat an entire morning or afternoon on a weekend and considering how time flies we’d often cut corners to have more free time for social, family and fitness time.
Shopping Exclusively With Farmers
Farmers markets are charming social gatherings, but definitely not places where you go to save money. Indeed, you can get some truly superior fresh products right from the farm - even if you develop a relationship with the farmers and vendors you can ask for custom orders the following weeks, but we find that between the markup for the markets and there almost being too much temptation with variety week to week, it’s only possible to get some of the necessities you need and way too easy to buy too much of everything else.
We also tried being part of a CSA, which also gave us access to fresh, seasonal foods in good amounts that we would not have normally had. CSA’s tend to be a good deal for the money, but often times you get too much, food gets wasted if you don’t have plans for everything and you wind up scrambling to preserve or use it all.
The best farm option for us is definitely going directly to the farmers. We joined some regional Facebook groups focused on farming and permaculture and were able to connect with farmers who were willing to sell directly to us in bulk if we agreed to pay a minimum. The meat and eggs have been great so far in terms of quality. Although, we have not really broken down what we pay per pound so it’s hard to tell if it’s viable long-term.
Being Comfortable With Compromise
Misses Cat and I both have different food cooking and enjoyment styles which boil down mainly to how we were raised. Misses Cat’s likes a lot of fresh veggies, fruits, complex and subtle flavors and everything in moderation. Mr. Bear just wants a filling and delicious meal as quickly as possible. Both of these preferences have trade offs on cost, time spent purchasing, storage preparing, eating and the general wellness enjoyed during and after consumption.
Another not-often thought about issue when considering what and how we’ll eat is who will cook. In our family, we both love to cook and both good our respective styles pretty well. It’s important that we share the tasks around the house like cooking because while one of us cooks, the other can spend more time with our son, which we always want to do more of.
We both still have our specialities - Misses Cat might make the best pot of homemade chicken pho in the world and Mr Bear can slow cook a tough and cheap piece of meat into a succulent masterpiece, but we’ve also concluded that pizza nights and taco nights are both ways for us to make things that we both like, that doesn’t take a ton of energy or time and still is healthy enough and saves money.
Right now we have concluded that the way we are most likely to spend money is to shop for basics (veggies, fruit, perishables) once a week with the free Whole Foods delivery option. To really tune up the savings on money and time we will go to BJ’s once a month to stock up on items that we use a lot of that we can store and keep fresh (flour, snacks, meat for the freezer). While we do have a fairly large vegetable and fruit garden on our property, New England growing seasons are notoriously short, so we do our best to eat what we grow in season and preserve or freeze as much as possible too. We will attempt to set a stricter budget this coming month and see how much closer to $600 we can get and will update you all in March on how we did.