Failure in January: My Month Spending Less than $100 on Food

Prices of bulk cashew pieces vs whole bulk cashews from dispenser in the grocery store

I still can’t believe that whole cashews are worth 2 times as much as pieces of cashews. This is the sort of thing I never paid attention to before.

Total spent on food for the month of January: $106. Failure. Glorious failure.

I started the month (and the New Year) strong. At home with my Mom I was treated to my first free meal of the month – breakfast before my flight home to Portland. I stacked up on some nuts and fruit for the plane in order to avoid buying the airport food, and headed out. For simplicity’s sake I decided that any meals that are gifted to me are not going to be included in my total spending for the month, but that I would track them for full disclosure. Over the month I received 5 free breakfasts, 5 free lunches and 4 free dinners for a total of 14 meals. At $1.07 per meal that’s $14.98 saved. In reality, since those meals were at restaurants or from sandwich shops, the total value of all of those meals is probably closer to $100. Most of them were received through work.

For the first couple of weeks I was doing really well. I went to the local WinCo and stocked up on stuff to make inexpensive vegetarian meals. I took advantage of food that I had stockpiled in my pantry, like Japanese rice and canned tuna. By mid month I was sitting right about $45 total spent.

Then the Chargers made it into the playoffs.

And they won their first game.

I put on the powder blue number 85 and went downtown to show my support in round two against the Broncos and stupid-face Peyton Manning. Like the Chargers, I was feeling undeservedly confident. I got this, I thought to myself. I’m meant to be here. I can be downtown, drinking with my friends and not spend money on food at a restaurant.

Three beers deep and my friends order a round of wings. But the Chargers haven’t lost yet and I’m still strong – politely I decline “none for me thanks”. Then things fall apart. More beers are ordered. The Chargers defense breaks down. My defense breaks down.

We leave the bar in a haze but I know where I’m going. In poor decision making mode, with my appetite on overdrive and a nice buzz going, the bacon cheeseburger went down smooth. And the fries dipped in mayo were a nice treat to top it off. Immediate, painful regret kicked in. For the previous couple of weeks I had been eating much smaller, plant-based meals and this heavy dose of meat with more meat and cheese had a significant effect on my wellbeing. Coupled with the thought that I had just spent the equivalent of 10 meals worth of money on this thing that destroyed my insides, I had trouble sleeping.

And it got me thinking about the real cost of food, the real cost of “eating out”. A thought that I can’t believe I never thought before.

If I can cook a filling and healthy meal for myself for around $1 per meal, what am I paying for when I have a meal in a restaurant that costs 20 or 30 times that amount?

I realized that I’m paying for a whole host of costs that I hadn’t even considered. I’m helping to pay the rent of the building, the utility cost to run the establishment, and part of the wages for and entire team of people to serve me. I’m paying for the fancy dishes (and for some of those dishes to break and be replaced), for the napkins and silverware and for all the cleaning of those utensils as well as the cleaning of the entire kitchen on a nightly basis. I’m helping to pay for the culinary education the chef has received and business education that the restaurant manager has received. On top of all of that, I’m paying for the exotic ingredients that have been sourced and shipped from afar to this location for my consumption.

In a way I’m paying to act like a Feasting King for a bit, only I hadn’t even realized it. There are days where I’ve eaten every meal this way. I’ve become the kind of person that thinks it’s normal and deserved that I should be able to hire a an entire company of people to prepare my food for me. I’ve thought to myself “If I’m going to work today I deserve to buy myself lunch for all the hard work I’m doing.” I’ve allowed myself to feel entitled and even, at times, bored by the prospects of all the options at my fingertips!

This is part of the luxury that the world is becoming accustomed and, I would say, jaded to. The fact that the profession of “food critic” exists baffles me. These are people who are experts at going to restaurants. Can you believe this? We are so rich that food has become art and there are people that make their living by judging the most transient art of all – fine cuisine.

All of this is fine and well, to each their own. However, for me, these thoughts have brought awareness to what, exactly, I’m spending my money on. Am I earning money so that I can hire other people to do my cooking? Is that why I work? There are other social aspects to eating out but there are also other things you can do with your friends, including inviting them over for dinner at your place.

That $10 burger and fries was way more food than I needed, and I can point to that meal alone as sending me over the $100 mark for the month. Although I failed, this month was a lot of fun. It brought massive awareness to my eating and grocery shopping habits.

If you’re interested in reducing your food bill I have a few tips.

1. Don’t eat out. Not even fast food. 

With 31 days in January, thats 93 meals. I had 14 free meals so I ended up paying for 79 meals myself. I had some leftover food from the month before, so lets assume I got 10 more free meals from those leftovers. So I payed for 69 meals and spent $106 (including a big ass cheeseburger and fries). $106/69 meals = $1.54 per meal. Even a super inexpensive meal from McDonalds is going to cost you two to three times that amount. I estimate I saved $200 in January by not eating at fast food or restaurants. Ask yourself this question – If someone were to pay you $200 to not eat at restaurants next month, would you take them up on their offer?

2. Plan Your Meals

If every time I came into the kitchen I had to cook myself a meal I wouldn’t have made it a week without going out. I usually take one day a week and cook a few things that would last 5-7 days, so every time I come into the kitchen I’ve got something tasty, cheap and healthy to consume. I make sure the stuff I’m preparing can be refrigerated and/or frozen. Soups and chillis do really well.

When you go to the grocery store, have a grocery list. Know what you need to cook what you’re planning to cook. Don’t haphazardly buy things that you might waste. I ended up throwing away an Avocado and half a yam over the last month. I’ve never before paid attention to how much food I’m throwing away and it scares me to think about it now. Might as well have been throwing dollar bills into the trash.

3. Eat Less Meat, More Vegetables

Meat is simply more expensive than vegetables. I’m not full vegetarian but I try to eat mostly vegetables. Compared to vegetables, meat is undeniable more damaging to the environment, and probably more damaging to your health. It’s definitely more damaging to your wallet. For all of those reasons I eat more vegetables. This website has some awesome plant (and meat) based budget recipes:

Budget Bytes

Which has one of my favorite new recipes for coconut rice.

And I found this recipe for super delicious and filling Butternut Squash – Coconut Thai Curry:

1 large butternut squash, about 2.5 pounds
1 tbsp oil
1/2 an onion, chopped up very small
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
4 cloves garlic
2-3 tsp Thai Red Curry paste
4 cups chicken broth
1 13-14 oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tsp  salt
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice

Fancy optional things:
Some toasted coconut for garnish
A few kaffir lime leaves, chopped up a bit

Cut the squash in half, take out the seeds, brush it with oil, and bake it for an hour at 400°F. Then scoop out the soft squash with a spoon when it’s done.

Fry the onion, ginger and garlic in some oil for a few minutes. Add the curry paste and cook for a few more minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, coconut milk, salt, squash and shredded lime leaves. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice.

Finally, blend up the contents of the pan in a blender or a bowl with a hand mixer. Serve in colorful bowls with the garnishes.

4. Watch Where You Shop

Spend less time in Whole Foods and more time in Food For Less. Pay attention to price differences. Write down the prices for things that you buy regularly and know when things are discounted, and buy in bulk at those times. Use your freezer.

5. Have Fun With It!

If you approach this like you’re depriving yourself of something then you’re not going to have fun. Think of it as a fun adventure, where you are outsmarting the system around you. You know that thing they’re offering can be had for 20 times less so you simply laugh, cook it yourself, and go back to counting your gold.

Next Month: February – My Month of No Complaining.

  • kenneth macias

    I work in restaurants and I’m a part of the crowd that sees food as art… At times. I love how the dining experience can bring people together and I appreciate how we can take something so mundane as eating and elevate it and celebrate it. The great chefs I’ve worked with have introduced to me to so many foods and cooking techniques from so many different places in the world and it truly is an art and I appreciate it on that level.

    However, i don’t eat out everyday. I eat out once or twice a week. The rest of the time, I agree with you, I eat mostly raw, mostly vegetarian (and I made the conscious decision to stop eating meat over 20 years ago).

    Appreciate food, be conscious of where it comes from how it’s made and what the impact is on the planet and your wallet, but like everything in life there are also time to celebrate and appreciate what food can ultimately be, a robust, flavorful, enjoyment of earths greatest treats, and at times, it can be a work of art. Appreciate that too!

    • Brandon Cronan

      Kenny, great points! Thanks for the perspective. I think my experiment has given me a whole other level of appreciation for prepared food and the dining experience. Ultimately what I’m trying to get at here are the keys that will allow people to save money to travel long term, and I think it starts with awareness about your food spending. I think getting that under control is step one to saving for a trip.

  • Dave

    I’d recommend reading some of the works of Anthony Colpo, regarding meat specifically. His writing style can be off-putting, but the science and the controlled clinical trials are on point.

  • Ericka

    I just found your blog through MMM and I gotta say, I love everything about this post! I love cooking (was going to suggest Budget Bytes to you about halfway through reading but you beat me to the punch!) and I love eating out. I am fully aware that eating out is my biggest budget buster and it kills me! However, two things you wrote were a total face punch, I am acting like a feasting King (ouch) and if someone gave me $200 to not eat at restaurants next month would I do it? Yes!
    Damn it.
    Thanks for the great words.

  • Alex Knight

    I loved this article! So true as well with taking eating out for granted. Ive found that looking at going out for a meal with friends or family as a luxury or social event in which there is purpose behind the spending on the food / drinks etc to be more rewarding as opposed to picking something out while by yourself. Viewing it as an experience instead of purchasing a food product. Its fun to cook at home as with the added benefit of it being cheap. Thank you for the article.