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.

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Food waste and food consumption in the United States

I've been thinking a lot lately about how much food I consume (and waste). I'm not happy with how I shop and eat, and it's not just because I'm fat right now. I don't like what I'm eating and I don't like how much food I'm throwing out.

Food waste is a huge problem in the United States. Most studies find that Americans waste about one-third of all food that enters the supply chain. This is insane. And when you consider that food spending is the third-largest component of the average American budget, this is a great place for most folks to boost their budget.

According to the 2017 Consumer Expenditure Report, the average household spends $7,729 per year ($644.08 per month) on food. If, as the USDA reports, 31% of the average family's food goes to waste, that's the equivalent of burning $2395.99 per year ($199.67 per month).

For most families, $200 per month is a big deal. That can be the difference between deficit spending and earning a "profit". That $200 per month could be enough to purchase a new car or to afford better health insurance.

Today, I want to think out loud about food consumption and food waste in my own life.

Our actual fridge at this very moment

This article is unusual in that I'm not going to try to offer any solutions. Instead, I'm simply going to share some observations, and I'm going to divide these observations into bite-sized chunks.

If you have solutions to food waste, however, I'd love to hear them.

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An introduction to square-foot gardening

I grew up in the country. My family always had a vegetable garden. For us, gardening meant a large plot, plowed and raked, then planted with long, widely-space rows of vegetables. It also meant weeding and hoeing, weeding and hoeing. Lots and lots of weeding and hoeing.

Gardening was a chore.

When my ex-wife and I bought our first home, we both wanted a vegetable garden, but we didn't want the drudgery that came with it. Besides, we didn't have a big space in the country — we had an average city lot. Fortunately, we discovered Mel Bartholomew's Square-Foot Gardening.

Bartholomew's method allowed us to enjoy reasonable crop production in a small space. With his technique, almost any homeowner can grow her own food.

How Square-Foot Gardening Works

The square-foot gardening concept is simple: Build a raised bed. Divide the space into sections of one square-foot each. Lastly, plant vegetables (and/or flowers) in just the amount of space they need.

The advantages of this system include reduced workload, less watering, easy weeding (and not much of it), and easy access to your crops. This is a great way to learn to grow some of your own food.

Back in the 1990s, Kris and I had raised beds similar to these (from Flickr user johnyaya).

raised beds

We built our square-foot garden one Saturday in mid-April. I spent the morning constructing three raised beds out of two-by-sixes. Each bed was twelve feet long, four feet wide, and twelve inches tall. At the time, I most certainly was not a handyman, yet I was able to build these in just a few hours. It was fun.

Digging was less fun.

I spent the afternoon double-digging three patches in our lawn. We maneuvered the frames into place, leveled them, and then filled them with rich soil (purchased from a nearby nursery-supply center). Finally, we created a grid over each bed using tacks and twine. When we were finished, our raised beds looked like orderly grids.

After we built the raised beds and outlined the growing space, we followed the guidelines in Bartholomew's book.

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More about...Home & Garden, Food

Two months with HelloFresh: A quick look at the cost and quality of HelloFresh recipes

When I published my first HelloFresh review last June, I liked the popular meal-delivery service. Kim's employer had given us a one-week free trial. The three recipes we received were fun and tasty. In the end, we chose not to sign up with HelloFresh but resolved to remember it for the future.

At the end of 2018, as I was evaluating my spending patterns, I was shocked by how much I was spending on food. It's embarrassing to show the following numbers, but facts are facts and truth is truth. I was spending over $1100 per month on food.

2018 food spending

"Something needs to change," I told Kim. "Maybe we should try HelloFresh again to see if it can help us cut costs."

"Do you think so?" Kim siad. "Isn't HelloFresh kind of expensive?"

"It's not that bad," I said. "Besides, if having meals delivered can keep us from dining out so often, and if it can keep me from splurging at the grocery store, it might actually save us money."

I signed us up.

For two months -- January and February -- we received three HelloFresh recipes each week. Based on our experience, here's a new, revised review of HelloFresh.

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Beating the latte factor: One money nerd’s quest for the best cheap coffee

Like J.D., I'm a recent convert to coffee. For most of my life, I preferred to consume my caffeine cold in the form of Diet Coke. And then...fate intervened.

Four years ago, when my family moved to Oklahoma, my sister-in-law gave us our first Keurig coffee maker. I thought, "That's an interesting gift for a family that doesn't drink coffee."

But a set of sample k-cups came with the machine, so we started trying them.

The kids liked the sugary cups which were more like hot chocolate than coffee. And I found that I liked the taste of coffee now and then. I played with combinations of coffee, sugar, and milk until I found out I liked it a lot. I later dropped the sugar and went straight for the coffee/milk combo.

Within a month or two, I was hooked. But I started wondering: "We're drinking a lot of coffee. Is this the best deal? What are my options for finding the best cheap coffee?" Because I'm a money nerd, I decided to find out.

My Quest for the Best Cheap Coffee>

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HelloFresh review: Is a meal delivery service worth it?

"Hey," Kim said one day last week as she was leaving for work. "There's a package coming today from one of the doctors I work with. To thank all of his hygienists, he's sending us a trial of HelloFresh."

"What's HelloFresh?" I asked.

"It's a meal delivery service," Kim said. "Anyhow, it'd be great if you could bring in the package and put the food in the fridge. And it'd be even greater if you made one of the meals for dinner!"

I kissed her good-bye, then promptly forgot what she had told me. (This is par for the course.)

How Does HelloFresh Work?

That afternoon when I returned from walking the dog, a package from HelloFresh was waiting on the porch. I took it inside to open it. The box contained three brown paper sacks, each with a different meal from HelloFresh.

"Oh yeah," I thought. "I'm supposed to make dinner from one of these. I wonder what they are."

I opened the bag labeled Pineapple Poblano Beef Tacos. Inside was an illustrated recipe card and a set of pre-measured ingredients. "Seems simple enough," I said to the dog. Tahleuqah just looked at me as if I were supposed to feed her. That dog is always ready for food.

HelloFresh Recipe Card

When Kim got home from work, I made the tacos. They were amazing. I'm not joking. They were delicious. (The dog agrees.) "You know, I should have taken photos along the way," I told Kim. "I should write about this at Get Rich Slowly.

"Well, you could always make dinner for us again tomorrow night," she said. So I did. And this time, I did take pictures.

For round two, the dog and I prepared Sweet-as-Honey Chicken. Here's the bag and recipe card:

HelloFresh Sack and Card

Here are the ingredients from inside the bag and the other side of the recipe card (with actual instructions):

HelloFresh Recipe and Ingredients

Here's some of my meal prep:

HelloFresh Meal Prep

HelloFresh Skillet

And here's the final product:

HelloFresh Finished Meal

"You know what my favorite part of this is?" Kim asked as I served her dinner. "It's that you can use the paper sack to dispose of your trash while you prep the meal." (I'm kind of messy in the kitchen.) The dog looked hurt. She's always happy to help us dispose of kitchen trash.

While not quite as delicious as the tacos, the chicken was still very good. And simple. (The HelloFresh recipe cards estimate 20-30 minutes of prep time; for me, that was more like 30-45 minutes. But then I'm always slow in the kitchen.)

How Much Does HelloFresh Cost?

"How much did this cost?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," she said. "The doctor paid for it. But I think it's something like $20 per meal. So, since he sent us three meals, that's about $60 for the week."

"That seems expensive," I said. "I should research the numbers." So, like a good money nerd, that's exactly what I did.

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Grocery Shopping: Is it Eating Up Your Cash?

Saving money on groceries

Food. You can't live without it, but it sure can be expensive.

It's also a time suck, especially because the grocery stores spend so much time playing bait-and-switch with us, requiring Inspector-Clouseau-level skills to find, for example, the pine nuts.

For those who have been following my tales on GRS, it should come as no surprise The Husband does the grocery shopping, at least the bulk of it. I tend to suffer from sensory overload in the grocery store (the cereal aisle is paralyzing to me) and often will come home with $300 worth of … well, not much. So early on The Husband took it over. Recently, he was under the weather and the kids and I lasted as long as we could with the provisions we had, but the realization finally came that we needed to do what The Husband calls The Big Shopping. My daughter and I went together, and at the end of the travail, she turned to me and said, “How does Dad do this every week?” Whoever does the grocery shopping in your household, give them a hug.

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How to create a frugal holiday dinner for four or more

From late November until early January, we fill our stomachs and empty our wallets.

As I sat down to plan my own little family's Christmas dinner, I didn't mind the stomach-filling so much, but I would like to keep our wallets as full as possible too … without the necessity of tapping into our online savings account.

So, I decided to calculate some holiday feasts … on a budget - all kinds of budgets. You know, full of flavor and festivity, but light on cramping your budget style.

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Brown bag lunch strategies for grown-ups

Eating out for lunch. For many of us, it's one of the biggest temptations we face at work every day because it's a tasty, convenient excuse to get out of the office and socialize (or not!) with our coworkers. But there are good reasons not to eat out for lunch too -- like how long it takes, how bad it can be for the waistline, how much it costs (not to mention that it just makes it harder to reach your financial goals).

A couple years ago, Visa's 2013 Lunch Survey pegged the expense at about $10 per outing and "an average of $18 per week or $936 per year." (The national average is 1.8 times per week according to the survey.) It might be even more today.

Young women out to lunch

So if you're looking for ways to whittle down debt or boost your online high-yield savings account, packing a brown-bag lunch could be the frugal hack that does the trick.

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3 ways to beat McDonald’s All-Day Breakfast menu on speed and price

Are there seasons in your life where you're more likely to swing through the drive-thru because you're tired, stressed, or overwhelmed?

Fall is like that for me. My friends start talking boots and flannel. Pumpkin Spice Lattes start showing up in my Instagram feed. And the corn mazes and pumpkin farms open for business.

And me? While I love colorful leaves and impossibly blue autumn skies as much as the next person, I cringe when fall arrives.

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