My spending goal for 2020: Spend less on food

My spending goal for 2020: Spend less on food

I'm pleased to report that 2020 is off to a fine start. As I mentioned in my year-end review, 2019 sucked for me. I have high hopes that this year will be a vast improvement. So far, it has been.

The biggest change is that I'm not drinking alcohol. While this is meant as a January-only test, it's possible that I'll extend the experiment. It's saving me money and making me more productive. Plus, it may be helping with my anxiety and depression. I like that. (Thanks to the GRS readers who sent me private notes about their own struggles with alcohol. I appreciate it.)

I've made other small changes this year too. While I didn't make any resolutions — I rarely do — I'm using the new year as a prompt to alter some of my habits, to do things differently.

One area that both Kim and I want to focus on in 2020 is our food spending. In 2018, I spent an average of $1038.03 per month on food. While I don't have complete numbers for 2019 (my expense tracking was messy in the latter half of the year), I know that while my food spending declined, it didn't decline by much. I want to change that.

To that end, Kim and I are making a couple of changes. For one, I'm canceling HelloFresh…at least for now. Plus, there's the whole “cut out alcohol” thing. While alcohol isn't included in my food spending, it contributes to my food spending. It leads us to eat out more. We want to reduce our restaurant spending in 2020.

Let's take a closer look at how I hope to spend less on food this year.

Good-bye, HelloFresh

Last year was the year I experimented with HelloFresh, the meal delivery service. Mostly, I like it. Mostly. I like the HelloFresh recipes. I like the convenience. I like the company itself.

That said, there are enough downsides to HelloFresh that starting next week, I'm dropping the service. Part of this is because of me. Part of this is because of HelloFresh itself.

On the me side, I need to walk more. I need to get more exercise, and I need to experience my neighborhood. As part of that, I want to make regular trips to the grocery store — by foot.

Also on the me side, I like greater variety than HelloFresh offers. It's not that HelloFresh doesn't offer different meals and cuisines — because it does. But the recipes themselves have a relentless sameness about them. Yes, you can choose Italian or Korean or American dishes, but the preparation is always always always the same. It's boring.

Those are the problems with me. There are also problems with HelloFresh itself.

For instance, I'm sick of the never-ending push to get me to promote the service to my friends. Get lost. Every week, the HelloFresh package contains a plea to share sign-up codes with friends. Every week when I choose my meals online, there's an additional plea to share sign-up codes with friends. Every week in the follow up e-mails, there's a plea to share sign-up codes with friends. I'm over it.

But the biggest strike against the service is its inability to get produce right.

Most weeks, there's at least one meal with a shitty piece of produce. It's usually (but not always) a tomato. One meal I prepped last week had a rotten lemon. (I've never even seen a rotten lemon before!) It's as if there's no quality control.

And at least once per month, a vegetable is simply missing. Absent. Not in the bag. During Thanksgiving week, for instance, I was prepping a meal with asparagus almandine, which sounded awesome. But the package I received contained no asparagus. I scrambled to find a substitute — Brussels sprouts — but it was a poor replacement.

The Cost of Convenience

Plus, there's the cost. When we first tried HelloFresh in June 2018, I crunched the numbers. Meals from HelloFresh cost about $10 per person. If I were to purchase the ingredients myself, the cost was just over $3 per person. At three meals per person per week, I've been paying an extra $175 per month for groceries that I don't need to pay.

When I signed up for HelloFresh, I did so because I hoped it would save me money. I hoped that it would keep me out of the grocery store (which it does, actually) and that in turn would reduce my grocery spending. I tend to make a lot of impulse purchases at the supermarket, so this seemed like sound reasoning.

The results of this experiment were inconclusive. For the first half of 2019, my home food spending (HelloFresh and groceries combined) dropped from $620.92 per month to $553.45 per month. But during the last two months of the year, I spent $729.38 per month. Was that year-end spike because of the holidays? The huge Costco trip I made in early November? I don't know. Maybe I should dive deeper.

In any event, if I did save money, it isn't nearly as much as I'd hoped I would save.

That said, Kim and I have really enjoyed many of the meals we've ordered from HelloFresh. And we're especially keen on the recipe cards. They're a lot of fun. They make cooking simple — even if they are relentlessly the same.

Because I'm a nerd, I've saved every recipe card from every HelloFresh meal we've ordered. And to get nerdier yet, I've both graded each recipe and taken notes on it. In other words, we have a customized illustrated “cookbook” containing over 100 different recipes. (Plus, all 2500+ of the HelloFresh recipes are available for free from their website.)

Going forward, I intend to use these recipe cards to plan and prep our meals. Instead of ordering from HelloFresh itself, though, I'm going to walk to the grocery store (carrying my backpack) to buy the ingredients. This should prevent me from buying crap we don't need while allowing me to obtain better produce than HelloFresh tends to send.

We'll see how it works.

Here's another way Kim and I have come up with to cut costs on food: batch cooking. It's nothing new, I know, but it's new to us. We won't do once-a-month cooking, but we'll each pick one recipe per week and make a larger version of it.

I'll pick one HelloFresh cards and make three nights of the meal, for example. Last Sunday, Kim prepped a big batch of pork tacos that we've eaten for dinner the past three nights. And so on. We think this'll keep life simple and keep me out of the grocery store.

Rascally Restaurants

Kim and I will also try to cut back on food spending this year by reducing how much we dine out. Left to our own devices, we choose restaurants much of the time. That gets expensive.

  • In 2017, I spent an average of $567.97 per month on restaurants. Kim spent some unknown amount too (but much less).
  • In 2018, I spent an average of $389.63 per month on restaurants. Plus, Kim spent some. So, we made big gains in 2018, but our spending was still high.
  • As I mentioned, my records are incomplete for last year, but I know I spent $288.04 for restaurants during the last two months of 2019.

From 2017 to 2019, we cut our restaurant spending in half. That's great progress! Still, there's room for improvement.

I spent an average of $66.47 per week on restaurants last year. My gut feeling is that this is basically dining out once per week. I know from experience that our typical check is about $55, which includes our two meals plus two beers each. After tip, that's $66. That's our standard meal. (And it's usually on a Thursday night.)

So far in 2020, we've had one restaurant meal and it cost us exactly $34 (including tip). If we'd both had our typical two beers, that check would have been about $58. By not drinking, we saved ourselves more than twenty bucks!

Kim and I do enjoy eating out together, so it's not something we want to eliminate. Instead, we want to be more mindful about how and where we dine out when we do dine out.

We've already shifted our focus from fancier places (which is where we were eating in 2017) to cheap and tasty spots. But now we're interested in finding places that are even less expensive. And, at least for now, we want to be careful to avoid spots that might tempt us to drink. (Our favorite pub has great food and a cozy environment, but we both know it's madness for us to eat there. It'll make us want to drink beer.)

It's far to early to predict how this whole restaurant thing is going to go in 2020. But we've thought of a couple of ways to cut costs (in addition to the “not drinking” thing.) As I said, we can turn our attention to less expensive eateries. Why go to the fancy Mexican place with “gourmet” tacos that cost $8 or $9 when we can go to the cheap place down the hill with $4 tacos? Let's try that new ramen spot.

Plus, we might try take-out this year. Neither one of us has ever been a big proponent of ordering food to go, but I think it makes some sense right now. On my way home from the new office, I can pick up something tasty for dinner from the Thai place or the Italian place, maybe. We can have the restaurant food without restaurant temptation.

The Last Big Win

Food seems to be the last major place that I can trim my budget. My austerity measures in 2019 yielded excellent results, and I'll continue to pursue those in the future. But I've cut most of my discretionary spending as far as I want to cut it at present. Food is the exception.

  • I averaged spending $1176.06 per month on food in 2017.
  • That dropped to $1038.03 in 2018.
  • During the last two months of 2019, I spent an average of $1053.28 per month on food.

As I say, we're making progress, but I feel there's more to be had here. This is the last big win left in my budget. It'd be great if I could trim my food spending to, say, $800 per month (or lower!) in 2020. That'd be a fantastic drop from $1200 each month in 2017, right? I'd call that a victory.

On a food-related note, I should point out that eliminating (or reducing) alcohol could also save me plenty of money. During the past three years, I've reliably spent about $250 per month on alcohol — and that doesn't include alcohol in restaurants. Going dry could help my health and wealth.

More about...Food

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El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 months ago

Hahah—Goodbye Fresh! Glad you’re ditching paint-by-numbers cooking as I said in a previous post. I don’t think you have to make so many apologies for it, but I guess it’s a kind of review. I could help you a bit to achieve cooking self-sufficiency if you want. I mean I’m the sort of person who feels almost scammed when going to a restaurant because I could eat much more, much better, for much less… So I only tend to eat and places that make things I can’t make at home, or when I’m on the road. And at home, even… Read more »

olga
olga
8 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

100% here with you.

Frugal Portland Gal
Frugal Portland Gal
8 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Awesome! We do many of those same things – and sometimes our home cooked meals are so good, one of us says, “I wonder what the President is eating tonight?”

For those who would rather not have to begin with figuring out their daily nutrition needs, I recommend lots of fresh veggies and fruits, lean protein sources, beans/lentils, whole grains (look in the bulk section at the grocery store), and nuts. Cut out or reduce anything processed, sweets, and fatty foods.

Dan Shigley
Dan Shigley
8 months ago

Read science. Fat doesn’t make you fat. Insulin does. Don’t recommend “lean” protein. Recommend “quality” protein. Agree on cutting out processed crap. Eat plenty of healthy fats, protein and veg. And hey, wanna save money? Fasting is free and good for you.

Alice
Alice
8 months ago
Reply to  Dan Shigley

Dan Shigley: YES! EXACTLY THIS.

FiddleFaddle
FiddleFaddle
8 months ago

Check out Budget Bytes. Most of my recipes come from there and she has lots of dishes that work well for batch cooking.

PawPrint
PawPrint
8 months ago

We like to make meals out of what’s on sale. So a $6.00 6 lb whole chicken can be roasted, leftovers made into a bunch of casseroles and the bones boiled and made into soup or bone broth for later use. If you get tired of chicken meals, just freeze leftovers. We always like to have frozen leftovers around to avoid the urge to go out when we dont feel like cooking.

Janette
Janette
8 months ago

Good spices makes all the difference in the world. Spice House in Chicago sells jars or pouches. We enjoy their blends.
We still do an envelope for dinners out.
Thank you for your honesty in the actual struggle in getting good food at a reasonable price. It is work.

One Frugal Girl
One Frugal Girl
8 months ago

I’ve found the best way to enjoy cooking at home is to light candles and turn up the tunes. We have a lot of fun cooking and dancing around the kitchen, which makes the experience more fun than simply going out to eat. Plus the house smells so yummy when we are finished. I love how you are wrapping food prep into your plan to exercise more. I don’t know how you feel about going to the grocery store, but I love walking around picking ingredients. It’s one of those pleasures that I don’t want to give up for convenience.

Pete
Pete
8 months ago

My wife and I are lucky in that we enjoy cooking. Certainly we paid for a number of cookbooks and still subscribe to America’s Test Kitchen, but for us, it’s very worth it.

But I also understand it’s not necessarily everyone’s favorite thing to do. The supply of spices and if you eat meat, the meats, really matters. Our local butcher has some things which I still find are better than just about any restaurant when I grill it at home. Anybody could grill the meat and make it taste great.

Good luck for this year’s reduced food spending!

J. Aubrey
J. Aubrey
8 months ago
Reply to  Pete

I’m a fan of America’s Test Kitchen as well. I read the digital version of Cook’s Illustrated “free” from my library.

dh
dh
8 months ago

JD, as a public service to you, and all the readers of this blog, I offer my daily meals, which save money, give optimal and nearly-perfect keto/paleo-style nutrition, and require ZERO cooking. For breakfast, Greek yogurt with berries, cacao nibs, and ground flaxseeds. Black coffee. Lunch is mixed nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, etc.) and string cheese. For din-din, it’s always a Cobb-type salad: leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard, etc.) as well as other veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, onion, garlic, bell pepper, tomatoes. I also add half of an avocado, canned fish or pre-cooked rotisserie chicken or pre-cooked bacon, chopped hard-boiled… Read more »

dh
dh
8 months ago
Reply to  dh
El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 months ago
Reply to  dh

^^ This is a good example of systematic thought that uses ingredients to fit desired nutrient targets. Not everyone will want to do keto, not everyone wants to eat the same every day, but look at the meta-model, it’s the way to go. – Now, ez cooking hacks for dh’s menu, plus some free associations: Making yogurt, boiling eggs and roasting chickens: a piece of cake and super easy to do in batches. “Greek” yogurt is just yogurt that has been strained through a fine sieve to separate the whey. There is a plastic sieve for that sold in various… Read more »

dh
dh
8 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Some great tips, tricks, and ideas here for sure. Personally, I’m just always trying to come at everything from as minimalist a perspective as I can muster, hence my reliance on buying hard-boiled (already peeled) eggs from the grocery store, pre-made rotisserie chicken, fully-cooked packaged bacon, canned fish, etc.

In addition to wanting an almost zero meal-prep time and clean-up time, I also want to minimize food odors lingering in my condo. Cooking bacon, for example, makes quite a stink!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 months ago
Reply to  dh

I think you meant BEAUTIFUL AROMA. I briefly attempted kitchen minimalism last year. Was great for moving, but it was terrible in the long run, and also expensive. A $5 artisan bread loaf? I can make one for 35 cents, with little labor, tyvm. Same thing with the cans of yogurt. 75% savings by punching a button. Of course yes. So I am now recasting my cast irons—oh yeah, the return of the heavy stuff. Goodbye, Fumio! xD But seriously, cooking and eating is too much damn fun to trade it for “free time”. Free time to do what? Well…… Read more »

dh
dh
8 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Well, I get all my pre-made supplies at Wal-mart, so they are pretty cheap, especially when compared to eating out!

And of course I understand some of my comments won’t appeal to the gourmets out there or the people who love to cook. 😉

gkt
gkt
8 months ago

Is eating out included as part of the food total?

Nikki
Nikki
8 months ago

I love reading your perspective on food! It’s always interesting to see how people approach the basic necessity of eating. I had a lot of the same thoughts on HelloFresh when we did it: cost was high compared to just buying the ingredients myself and recipes were repetitive. I also really, REALLY hated the amount of packaging that each box used. I’m not a hard-core environmentalist (please don’t shame me!), but even *I* felt like the packaging was excessive and wanted to quit the service just by that fact alone. My husband and I have also been trying to scale… Read more »

Maria
Maria
8 months ago

We’ve also been spending over $1000 per month on food for 2 adults and our 2020 Q1 goal is to knock that down to under $800. In addition to meal planning, we’ve been saving receipts and tracking our spending on an envelope on our fridge. It started at $800 and we subtract what we spend, mimicking the envelope system. It’s looking like we’ll make it halfway through January only spending $300, with lots in the cupboards. Good luck to you!

Dan
Dan
8 months ago

JD, Serious question, an I think I’m interested in the psych part of the answer as much as (if not more so) than the $ part. *Why* do you want to spend less on food? I ask, because for me, food is the largest discretionary item in my budget. (My rent’s not cheap either, but I live in a HCOL area, so there’s a price to be paid for that.) I could cut back on it, as my food spending is probably larger than yours, and I’m only paying for one most of the time. But you know what? I… Read more »

Mid America Mom
Mid America Mom
8 months ago

Thank you for sharing as always. For us, our biggest expense and concern is the evening meal. This also is the meal where we are NOT ok eating the same thing every night. Things we have done. -For us eating out once a month, dinner, at a lower range place. We would save more if this was breakfast as that tends to be the least expensive meal to eat out. -The family tends to drink water. Sometimes juice. For some reason my kids find soft drinks mostly too sweet and that is great! -Ignore fast food as the majority is… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 months ago

– Reduce meat consumption. Per pound it is the most expensive component of a meal. Sure, but substitution is not as simple as just cutting out something. Meat is pricier but it’s also the most nutrient-dense component of the meal. The price counts for something. I can’t swap out meat for, say, lettuce, because I’d miss out on the protein, iron, B12, B6, etc. I could eat dairy or eggs to make up for the protein, but I’d miss out on the B12 and the iron. I could eat lentils with spinach instead of animal protein and get some iron,… Read more »

JanMN
JanMN
8 months ago

A trick to save money when eating out is to split one entree between two people. Half the cost, half the calories. Portions are usually huge in restaurants, or at least pretty decent sized, so you won’t miss it. If you are still hungry when you get home, you can eat a top-off snack from your own kitchen.

I second Budget Bytes – great site for lower cost recipes that work.

Petra
Petra
8 months ago

Good luck, JD!

I hope you’ll see your food spending reduced, but your health increased. 🙂

Joe
Joe
8 months ago

Good luck JD. I think cutting alcohol out will help a lot.
We rarely drink alcohol these days, just on special occasions or social. I don’t miss it at all.

Tim
Tim
8 months ago

I finally got my wife to agree to a family budget. Due to over spending on eating out (1,100.00/month), we were way out of balance. Now let’s see how committed she will be. 2020 will be different!

Kristen
Kristen
8 months ago

I haven’t tried Hello Fresh, but I have tried three other services: Blue Apron, Sun Basket, and Home Chef. Blue Apron was just ok – there were a couple of recipes I repeat. Sun Basket was absolutely boring. There wasn’t a single meal I would repeat. Home Chef has been the best. Every meal has been quite good. I only get a delivery once every few weeks because of the expense, but I recently discovered that they apparently have some meal kits at my local Fred Meyer. I’m anxious to try those. I’ve never had a problem with any of… Read more »

Paul Freidhoff
Paul Freidhoff
8 months ago

I have heard food delivery services are frequently as expensive as restaurants. I have heard of some that are less expensive, but they frequently have you pick up food instead of order it.

Good luck on drinking less alcohol (almost hands down the number one wealth killer just slightly above fancy coffee).

Ryan Schlomer
Ryan Schlomer
8 months ago

I have not tried any meal delivery service, but I have always thought the cost was pretty high. Maybe there are some situations where it works out. My wife order one box with fruits and veggies in it. I didn’t like most of them. I like grocery shopping with my kids anyways. We have our grocery spending for a month around $100 per person.

Frugal Portland Gal
Frugal Portland Gal
8 months ago

We have always kept our grocery budget separate from our “eating out” budget. To me, eating out falls more under “entertainment.” Yes, you get a meal while out, but for me, eating out is really about the change of scenery, socializing with friends, and trying new, exciting foods. If we are trying to cut back on spending for a few months, we can easily reduce our expenses in the area of entertainment. It is more difficult to reduce grocery expenses if you are already frugal in that area. Good job on the alcohol! Save money, sleep better, feel better –… Read more »

Sharon P
Sharon P
8 months ago

Agree. Eating out is in our “entertainment” budget.

Craig
Craig
8 months ago

If you’re looking for a cheap alternative to Hello Fresh, check out Fresh Fill Meals. They basically send you a group of recipes to choose from each week, you select what you want and then they send a populated shopping list over to your local Walmart or Kroger pickup (I think they do Albertsons and Safeway also). You then can remove items from the list that you already have. Then you just go pickup your order and they have simple steps and videos to guide you through the cooking process. To me there are three big benefits; one, you don’t… Read more »

FM
FM
8 months ago

It might be interesting to compare the numbers. In 2019 we spent 5,257 Euro = 5,830 USD for food for our family of five. This is just for the food we bought.

We don’t use HelloFresh.

Sometimes we are eating in restaurants, but not that often. We tend do eat in restaurants while travelling, but not in everyday life.

We like to have guests and to spend time with them in our house. If we have guests, we sometimes cook together, which is fun. Or we prepare meals beforehand for them. All within the amount shown above.

Sharon P
Sharon P
8 months ago

Try using a crock pot. I make a dish with dried beans, broth (or water) onions, carrots, celery, left over ham or bacon. I use a lot of spices. It’s low-cost, very tasty and slow-cooking the beans means much less gassiness. You can make delicious soups, stews, chili, chicken cacciatore, the list is endless. If you sign up for a site, fresh recipes are delivered to your email regularly. There are just the two of us, so each crock pot meal lasts 2-3 dinners, in keeping with your “batch cooking” method. We also write out a meal plan week by… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
8 months ago

Sounds like you’re on the right track. My boyfriend and I really like restaurants so our trick is to each order a drink and split a meal. This reduces the bill and our waistlines. Just ask if they charge a “plateing fee” to split the meal onto 2 plates in the kitchen, (up to $3) most don’t but it does occasionally happen. If so, we just ask for an extra plate and do it ourselves.

Emmanuel Chibuikem
Emmanuel Chibuikem
8 months ago

Cooking is ideal but sometimes one can be too occupied to actually get down to business in the kitchen. and i totally agree with you, convenience is very expensive.

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