A Frugal Dinner with Friends

Kris and I had dinner last night with our new acquaintances friends, Chris and Jolie. Dinner was fun. This was in part because our hosts made a point of preparing a frugal meal. “If you bring wine,” Chris told me on the phone, “bring something cheap. I can't tell any difference from the good stuff.” I happily complied.

I love good food and good conversation, but the truth is I'd rather have a great talk with friends over ramen noodles than have a gourmet meal filled with awkward silences. Fortunately, we had both good food and good companions last night — and it didn't cost a fortune.

Cooking one meal a year
For dessert, Jolie served some fantastic chocolate candies. “These are great,” I said. “Did you make them?”

“I did,” she said, grinning. “They're just chocolate chips melted in the microwave and then topped with raisins and cranberries.”

“Well, they're delicious,” I said. You can never go wrong with chocolate chips.

Our conversation turned to food preparation, and how different families have different habits. Some spend a lot on food. Some spend very little. Some prepare all of their meals at home. Some never cook at all.

“My mother only cooks one meal a year,” Chris said.

“One meal?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah,” said Jolie. “The only meal she cooks is Thanksgiving dinner, and it's quite a production. She has a spreadsheet that lists everything that needs to be done. She has columns for everyone who is helping her, and rows that show what each person should be doing at any given moment.”

Kris and I were awestruck.

“She's an engineer,” Jolie explained.

“What does she eat for the rest of the year?” Kris asked.

“A lot of Domino's,” said Chris. “And Burger King. That sort of thing.”

“That must be expensive,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Chris. “But both of my parents are engineers. They can afford it.”

“And was it like that when you were growing up?” Kris asked.

“Yup,” Chris said. “Pretty much.”

The notion of eating out for every meal is foreign to me. I'm sure that people do it, but I can't imagine the cost. When I was a boy, my family rarely dined in restaurants. My parents couldn't afford it. We were poor. Now that I'm older, I eat out much more often — sometimes too often. But every meal?

McDonald's every day
“I think Chris had quite a shock when we started eating at home,” Jolie said. “He grew up eating in restaurants. In college, he ate on campus. Then we spent four years overseas at a job where there were communal meals. Other people did the cooking. Eventually, though, we had to make our own food.”

Chris nodded. “When we got married, my goal was to be able to eat at McDonald's every day. If we could do that, I thought we'd be rich.”

“McDonald's?” Kris asked, screwing up her face.

“Those were my early days of goal-setting,” Chris said, and we laughed.

“You have to understand,” Jolie said, “when we got married, we had a budget of $30 a week for food. For both of us combined. That's not very much. When your food budget is that small, you learn to pinch your pennies. Chris ate a lot of raviolis. I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese. And I'd buy the Wal-Mart brand because it was 33 cents per box. Kraft macaroni and cheese was better, but it cost twice as much.”

“Right,” said Chris. “And we each got $3 a week from the $30 to spend on special treats.”

“Little Debbies were 99 cents!” Jolie said.

Chris smiled. “I ate a lot of Zebra Cakes.”

I smiled, too. I was thinking of how I used to buy boxes of Jiffy muffin mixes when I was in college. Who needed chocolate cake or apple pie? Give me a 25-cent box of blueberry muffin mix and I was a happy camper.

30 bucks a week
Our conversation reminded me of a website that a friend sent me recently. 30 Bucks a Week is a blog chronicling the adventures of one couple in New York as they try to squeeze all of their home-cooked meals out of a $30 weekly budget. (This isn't a militant experiment — the couple still eats in restaurants about once a week, and occasionally has alcohol. Those costs are not included in the $30.)

Reading 30 Bucks a Week, and speaking with Chris and Jolie, makes me realize how much lifestyle inflation has affected my eating habits. As I've earned more, I've spent more on food. My appetite has grown to match my income.

But expensive food doesn't necessarily make me happier. Some of the best times Kris and I have had were when we were scrimping and saving, living on chicken noodle soup and Jiffy muffin mix. Though fine food can be a wonderful thing, the real pleasure of dining comes from the people you're with. Good food doesn't have to be expensive.

More about...Food, Frugality

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
67 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adam @ Checkbook Diaries
Adam @ Checkbook Diaries
11 years ago

I completely agree that good food doesn’t have to be expensive. My wife and I have been making it more of a habit to make the experience of cooking and enjoyable daily event as opposed to something that we just rush through so we can eat and move on to something else. Almost all of our meals contain very basic ingredients and a spice or two. Basic ingredients keeps our shopping list small and inexpensive. A sense of satisfaction and accomplishment is felt when we cook our own food, and it always tastes better and makes us feel healthier than… Read more »

Charlie-paylessforfood.com
Charlie-paylessforfood.com
11 years ago

Great post. I’ve saved a lot of money by cooking more of my meals at home – and I can’t even cook that well! We often don’t realize that eating out not only costs more but is usually less healthy than eating at home. The food at many “fine establishments” is chock full of butter and cholesterol. Fast food is loaded with sodium, fillers, and preservatives. Its not only a lot cheaper to cook at home but people don’t realize that it can be much faster as well. By time you find the restaurant, find parking, order, have your food… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Yes, yes! One of my favorite meals is a huge bowl of popcorn seasoned with various combinations of spices (salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne, lemon juice, turmeric, pre-mixed seasonings, garlic powder). I buy the pop-it-on-the-stovetop stuff, super cheap. You can stretch a big bowl into an hour’s worth of chomping. In the past, if I was stressed, had a bad day, wanted to escape, my first thought would be to go out to a big dinner with appetizer and dessert and treat my “poor me”. Hunger was beside the point (I don’t have to be hungry to eat). But really, the… Read more »

Heather
Heather
11 years ago

Great post. Funny that your second paragraph is just what I was reading this weekend:
“Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.” (proverbs 17:1)

John Ingle
John Ingle
11 years ago

When I moved out on my own for the first time last year I set goal to get my grocery bill down to $40 per *month*. I didn’t include eating out or my expensive craft beer habit in that figure, that all came out of the entertainment budget. I never officially met that goal. The closest I came was $60 one month. Every other month was closer to $90 or $100. Now I’ve adjusted the budget to give myself $100 every month but also raised my expectations accordingly. I don’t expect to get more food with the money so much… Read more »

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
11 years ago

I’m in full agreement that expensive food does not necessarily make us happier. And I find this to be true with most wines, too. I’ve been a frugal cook ever since I was a girl. I do think good quality food makes us happier, and healthier — but in some cases the cheapest food can be the best quality (provided you know how to cook it). I recently made a company dinner that was $1.56 per person when I penciled it out http://www.diamondcutlife.org/my-cheapest-tastiest-healthiest-dinner-menu/ Interestingly, our friends complimented the above dinner more than the time we served them wild salmon, which… Read more »

RJ Weiss
RJ Weiss
11 years ago

I can’t remember where I found read this but it was about how eating dinner with people was one thing that correlates to happiness…Stanford I want to say?

It’s very true when I look back. Some great family memories have common after Sunday night’s pasta and meatballs.

Kristia@FamilyBalanceSheet
11 years ago

Have your friends or their parents’ seen the movie “Super Size Me”. That is the first thing I thought of when I read this post. I can’t imagine what their health must be like from eating all of that fast food…yuck

I put alot of time into planning our meals and they are not expensive, but they are healthy. I am finding that a healthy, inexpensive dinner with my hubby and 2 kids makes me a very happy momma.

Baker @ ManVsDebt
Baker @ ManVsDebt
11 years ago

I grew up in that exact household. We ate out far more than we ate in. It took me a long while to break that habit.

AD
AD
11 years ago

We rarely eat out, but we spend for high-quality ingredients (grass-fed beef, real butter, fresh olive oil, all raised/made locally).

I think cooking from scratch and not dining out evens it all out, though. For us, cooking at home isn’t a sacrifice. We both love to cook…it’s a hobby, really, and fast food and chain restaurants just don’t appeal. The places that we really like are so expensive that it’s a once-a-year treat!

Steve
Steve
11 years ago

Was that Chris & Jolie Guillebeau that you had dinner with? I was wondering if you would get together with them after they moved to Portland. I just found Chris’s site a couple of months ago and I love it. You guys should do some posts together so you can bring together two great sites.

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
11 years ago

I love the story of the spreadsheet thanksgiving. During Christmas, I make time charts when I’m making potato dumplings for my extended family. The microwave gets covered with Ti and Tf times like a hood (I’m a chemist). My mother threw a fit the first time I covered her microwave in writing with a Sharpie. Side note: Sharpie comes off with acetone nail polish remover. I love baking! It’s cheaper and tastes better than anything I could buy. Drives my boyfriend nuts that I won’t let him buy store cookies, but he agrees that my cookies taste better. This weekend… Read more »

Erika
Erika
11 years ago

I totally agree what you’re saying about taking the time to enjoy good friends and food. I think, though, if you’re trying to survive on noodles and Little Debbie that spending a little more to buy fresh or minimally prepared healthy food (vs. high sodium, high fat fast, frozen or pre-prepared food) makes economic sense in the long run because you’ll be healthier. From Michael Pollen (food/health author, NYT): Did you know that: …”as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on… Read more »

Aperson
Aperson
11 years ago

Erika, I completely agree with you that you will pay a long term cost if you try to survive on a very cheap food budget consisting of things like Little Debbies, ramen noodles, Kraft Dinner and muffin mixes. All of it is highly processed, sugar-and-salt-laden, nutrient-stripped GARBAGE. I would much rather buy good dairy products, whole wheat breads and pastas, fresh fruits and vegetables, and spend a lot more if I can reap the benefits of a healthy, nutritious diet. The doctor’s bills and medicine paid for due to an unhealthy diet later on will exceed your short-term savings.

Tim
Tim
11 years ago

My family is frugal, but I try not to go crazy-cheap on the food. I’m not talking prime rib every night, but I’m talking fresh, healthy and often organic food. The cost savings of eating McDonald’s and other cheap fare (which are doing well in this economy as people shift to lower-cost items) just can’t be outweighed by the costs to your health and your well being. In the long run, eating poorly will cost you more — and you’ll feel lousy to boot.

Snowy Heron
Snowy Heron
11 years ago

Learning to cook and paying attention to costs is a great way to be careful with your money. But I will say that after 20 years+ of marriage and cooking almost all of the meals during that 20+ years, it got a little boring. Fortunately, our financial situation had improved to the point where on Saturday nights we now get carryout and sometimes even eat at the restaurant. But by getting carryout we avoid the exorbitant costs of the wine since we just buy our own bottle, as well as the cost of a tip. Nor are we tempted to… Read more »

Mercy Mei
Mercy Mei
11 years ago

If you cook, it’s easy to make a little extra and have enough for another meal or leftovers for lunch. I buy ground beef, season it and make hamburger patties, then add breadcrumbs and Italian seasoning and voila! Meatballs. Roast a chicken or two and use the leftovers for sandwiches, chicken salad or a pot-pie (which is super-easy to make, btw.) I hate McDonalds and refuse to eat there EXCEPT for breakfast and only when I’m on the road. It’s fast AND cheap and holds me until I can eat a decent lunch. But for the most part, I like… Read more »

Chelsea
Chelsea
11 years ago

Erika, Thanks for that Pollen quote — loved it. I’ve always thought of eating healthy food — which, again, doesn’t have to be expensive (I spend $50-100/wk for two people at Whole Foods & look what GRS’ garden has provided) — as an investment in my future, but also my present. I feel so much more energized and able to work and relax when I’ve eaten a good meal. Yesterday, one of my students (senior in college) was shocked when I said it was cheaper to buy fresh veggies at WF than most people’s food budgets; maybe he wasn’t thinking… Read more »

Aman@BullsBattleBears
11 years ago

wow, eating out everyday must be nice, but the consistent high sodium diet is really going to hurt you down the road. I am sure a lot of us have the finances to eat out all the time, but its a matter of not only saving money, but making healthy choices. Those chocolate chip cranberries sound good…might have to make a batch later today!

skywind
skywind
11 years ago

When I first moved to the area I now live in, my son (age 4 at the time) and I lived on $150 a month for groceries. I had a job that paid very little and had to pinch a LOT of pennies, and that was all I could afford. At the time I was contributing to some personal finance boards, where some folks would spend that much in a week, and complain that it wasn’t enough. My son is nine now and eats a lot more, and I’ve doubled my income, so now we spend about $250 a month.… Read more »

Eric
Eric
11 years ago

You can easily eat on $30/week without eating total crap.

Incorporate rice, nuts, homemade bread, and cheap fruits/veges.

Cut out dairy (milk AND cheese) and all meats. Cut out restaurants and fast food.

Voila!

Bre
Bre
11 years ago

I have to echo what a few other commenters have said – I don’t think that eating super-cheap, highly processed food often or everyday is the best way to go, considering the cost to your overall health. If you have the means, investing a little more $$ in nutritious “whole” foods is much more beneficial in the long run. I’m willing to spend a bit more on good food I can prepare myself, and cut back on spending in other areas to balance out my budget. It’s really interesting that people try to spend as little as possible on food,… Read more »

Katherine
Katherine
11 years ago

All I could think when I read this was, how on earth can a person with food allergies live cheaply? I know I spend more than others on my grocery bill, but really. I can’t eat any of these “budget” foods despite the fact that I have cut down on my grocery spending substantially but it still needs to go down more…

Paula D.
Paula D.
11 years ago

I cook most meals, especially now that I’m not working but I must say, every once in awhile it’s nice to have some one else do the cooking.

I had absolutely killer Indian food last night that I could never had made and it was worth every penny.

The key is balance.

Tina
Tina
11 years ago

Dinner with friends is usually one of my favorite kinds of dinner. I don’t have to worry about the check or tipping at the end and everyone has a great time. Thanks for mentioning $30/Week and stay tuned for a dinner for friends we’re doing this Friday on the cheap.

e e cummings
e e cummings
11 years ago

I read GRS almost every day and I agree with pretty much everything here. However, one thing ALWAYS steams me up – “frugal eating”. If you are in a place where you have to squeeze every dollar out of a budget (I did it when I was a student), then OK, you do what you have to do. But if you don’t, where is the evil (financial or otherwise) in buying good wine, eating the wild salmon in season, having the once a year crosnes that cost 20 euros a kilo (because it only appears for about 3 weeks). and… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

e.e. cummings (#27) Ah, my favorite poet. 🙂 Let me be clear: I agree that there is nothing wrong with eating well if you can afford it. Trust me, I spend a lot on food. When I was cutting back so that I could pay off debt, food was one place I did not make sacrifices. I said that then, and I’ll say it now. Kris and I love good food. That’s one reason I have to run a fitness blog! 🙂 But that wasn’t the point of this article. This was mainly meant to be a story about how… Read more »

Tina
Tina
11 years ago

e.e. – Eating well is something that I love to do and I usually do it organically, but that doesn’t mean it has to be ridiculously expensive. I have the great fortune to belong to an excellent Food Coop with prices for organic and bulk items far below most in retail and do not buy “junk” or fast food that costs $1. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to eat great things. You DO have to spend a little time on it though. And having a bottle of wine doesn’t hurt either.

Linear Girl
Linear Girl
11 years ago

@Katherine – You live cheaply by cooking from scratch. I don’t which allergies you have, but almost everyone can eat rice and legumes (beans, lentils, peas, tofu). Almost everyone can eat most vegetables and fruits, and those with common-ish allergies (strawberries, melons, mangoes) aren’t really necessary to a good diet. If you adopt a style of cooking that has an Asian base you can have a really flavorful, colorful, varied diet based on rice, beans and veggies. If you can eat any meats, poultry or fish you can add that in small amounts to most Asian dishes. This is inexpensive… Read more »

katy
katy
11 years ago

“Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.” (proverbs 17:1)

Truly. (smile)

guinness416
guinness416
11 years ago

The spreadsheet thanksgiving story is very funny. “She’s an engineer.” Haha!

EK
EK
11 years ago

In college a few years back, I managed on $20/week for both food and gas. While I certainly didn’t have the healthiest diet – a big sack of potatoes makes for a lot of cheap meals, even if it doesn’t have too much nutritional value – it taught me to take great pleasure in the little things. It was a triumph to be able to afford eggs, and grocery trips became a fun game in finding how far I could stretch those dollars. With less time on my hands I don’t do as much bargain-hunting as I once did, and… Read more »

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

Generic mac and cheese was 33 cents when I got out of college :). And it seems to me sometimes you could get ramen 12 for a dollar. I am SO glad I’m not trying to live on $4 an hour anymore.

Buckeye
Buckeye
11 years ago

If people are living on tight budgets, I would suggest they first cut back on expenses such as cable, internet, magazine subscriptions, etc. I enjoy frugality, but not at the expense of healthy food. I am a big believer in eating fresh meat and vegetables. Plus, my wife and I get our best quality time helping each other out in the kitchen rather than watching American Idol together!

okgirl
okgirl
11 years ago

Thanks for the new blog information1 (New to me, anyway.) Really enjoyed reading it.

Corporate Barbarian
Corporate Barbarian
11 years ago

I remember when we bought our house, and we were literally going through the couch cushions looking for spare change. McDonald’s was a luxury! But, I’d too still rather split a grilled cheese sandwich with good friends than sit through an expensive dinner at a steak house while having to tolerate dull conversation. Good friends make the food taste better.

Anna
Anna
11 years ago

But what did you eat for dinner!

Craig
Craig
11 years ago

I am a big eater and spend a lot on myself every week for food. Sure I could eat a little bit less, maybe have less snacks, but I think it’s difficult to always be so frugal with food. Especially if you enjoy food and eating different things. You can only have so much pasta and sauce.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Anna (#38)
Ha! Good one. I forgot to list what we ate for dinner. We had a green salad, manicotti with home-made tomato sauce, and sorbet. Very tasty.

When the conversation is good, the food doesn’t matter. 🙂

LLnL
LLnL
11 years ago

I love eating at home or with friends. Eating out has lost its appeal because of the amount and quantity of food is not worth the cost. I forget that you can invite people over for a simple meal, I don’t know why we assume when you have guest there must be a big production.

EMBO
EMBO
11 years ago

One of the things that has saved me a ton on good food was learning to BBQ. I bought a smoker, a vacuum sealer, and a deep freeze. Now I buy meat in bulk. I can pay $100 for enough brisket to feed my family of 4 for a month, and it tastes fantastic. Vacuum sealed, cooked meat will keep for a year, and still tastes as good reheated as it did coming off the smoker.

Carla
Carla
11 years ago

For health reason, about 80% of the food I buy is fresh, organic fruit and veggies. I get really good deals at a local produce store (Monterey Market – Berkeley) and save a ton not buying pre packaged foods, processed foods, etc. Everything else I buy is fish, nuts, etc. Good and healthy food is important to me and some weeks I spend more than others. I prefer to save in other areas in my life and not skimp on food and nutrition. When I friends over, I also have a lot of fun preparing good meals without breaking the… Read more »

Cathy
Cathy
11 years ago

I agree with you J.D. What matters is the people whom you share experiences with. Of the dining I’ve done with friends, the memories I’ve cherished the most have been the ones where we shared food in our own homes. More than any ‘fine dining’ experience. Among my friends, we never went crazy with fancy dishes or fine silverware. It was about spending time, not about trying to impress each other. That’s how you know you have good friends, not superficial ones.

Miss M
Miss M
11 years ago

I’m an engineer and I can’t afford to eat every meal out! Well maybe I could but I’d have no savings and weigh 200 pounds.

Cathy
Cathy
11 years ago

I’m an engineer too, but ugh…there’s more to life than pizza and Burger King!

freemo
freemo
11 years ago

I wonder where you all shop where you find that you can eat fruits and veggies for cheap. In my market, most fruit/veggies range from $2-$4 a pound, which makes it comparable in price to meat. And the farmer’s markets aren’t much better (when things are in season). We are talking about $1 for one zucchini, $4 for a small box of tomatoes, $2 for a bunch of carrots…so comparable in price, and sometimes more expensive than, to the grocery stores. We were on a strict $60/week food/household expense diet for 8 months and found we ate a lot more… Read more »

Erika
Erika
11 years ago

@freemo – I live in an urban area with produce markets. These are generally much cheaper than grocery stores, and I end up spending about $30/week there for most fruits/veggies, supplementing the rest with frozen. I shop at chain grocery stores for other items (like meats, starches, pasta, canned goods). I haven’t seen these kinds of produce markets in the suburbs much, though. The farmer’s markets here are insanely expensive, at least 2x the grocery stores.

Jen
Jen
11 years ago

I can totally relate to Chris. My parents didn’t have time/can’t actually cook so we ate out all of the time when I was young. I continued that tradition all throughout college until I got married. My parents are engineers too, haha. We did the Boston Market thing for Thanksgiving though. Luckily, we ate at only the really good restaurants and man have I got some stories to tell about places I’ve been and some really good dining experiences. I can’t cook either, but I ended up marrying someone who’s a professional cook and loves doing it. So he does… Read more »

E
E
11 years ago

Fortunately I have some family and friends who love to cook because I hate it. 🙂 I much prefer being in someone’s home, eating something made by someone I know, than going to a restaurant. It’s so much more relaxed! I hosted a dinner party once with my former BF, and it was a disaster. All my attention was on cooking and I couldn’t enjoy our friends; not only that, but the dinner didn’t turn out too well and that was quite awkward. My friend C, on the other hand, can turn out delicious meals without ever appearing to DO… Read more »

shares