I went from being a spendy gourmet to a frugal foodie after finding the Financial Independence (FI) movement.
What I learned from the FI community is that there are three main categories of expenses that typically eat up people’s budgets the most: housing, transportation, and food.
Food was a category that we could start making some immediate changes. I had to take a good hard look at how much money we spend on groceries and eating out.
But you see this was not just as simple as spending less on food. This required an all out transformation in mindset.
In my lifetime I have approached food, cooking, and eating from many different angles but NEVER through the lens of frugality.
Food has always been a focus in my life.
Coming from a French family of chefs I was raised with a great appreciation for cooking, good food, and restaurants. My mom, dad, and sister are all chefs. My parents met at my grandma’s hotel-restaurant in the south of France.
I too met my hubby at a restaurant. Mr. Root was a manager at an Italian place where I waited tables. We fell in love and moved to Austin to open a restaurant together.
Here’s a photo of our DIY wedding in Austin with all of my folks in our restaurant helping to decorate the wedding cake my mom made. My family catered the entire wedding. To this day my friends tell me that’s the best food they’ve ever had at a wedding.
I love to cook for friends and family and enjoy many different types of cooking. Cooking for health, weight-loss, deliciousness, entertaining, work.
When Root Jr. came along I made his baby food from scratch. Whatever I was into I would apply it to how I cooked and what kind of food I bought.
Not only do we love to cook but we also love other people’s food. Over the past few years Austin has had a booming food scene with restaurants and food trucks popping up all over the city and being featured on foodie TV shows.
I kept a list of restaurants to try and ones to go back to. I even categorized the list by the type of meals: brunch? weeknight? fancy dinner? celebration? big group? (A wee bit obsessive).
I subscribed to food magazines and my shelves were jammed with cookbooks (pre-decluttering days). My Pinterest boards are packed with recipes.
You get the picture. My life has been a food journey to say the least.
Then I found FI and I started to look at food in a whole new way. We are on a mission to get out of debt so we can invest what we save so we don’t have to work until we die.
How was I going to reconcile my gourmet foodie ways with frugality?
Here are some ways that we changed our food habits, some things that worked (and some things that didn’t) to help us cut back on our food expenses.
EATING OUT AS A TREAT, NOT A HABIT:
As my mindset shifted towards frugality I came to realize that we had been soothing ourselves with spending money to feel like there was more to life than just paying the bills. Going out to eat wasn’t just a treat, it was a release from drudgery.
Sampling new menus and dropping $150+ was not unusual. It felt a little naughty and irresponsible but if we didn’t get to treat ourselves then what else was there for us?
Weekend brunches were my fave meal out. The weekends in general were ripe ground for restaurant bingeing. Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend right?
Sometimes eating out was just straight up convenience. At the end of a work week when all the groceries were depleted the convenient solution was to eat out.
Not everything about going out to eat was great though. Root Jr. hates restaurants. We had to drag him along which kinda put a damper on the experience.
Since Austin is a booming city, that translates into long wait times and parking hassles.
There was a keeping up with the Jonses feeling sometimes too. We couldn’t possibly keep up with all the coolest restaurant openings. It got a little overwhelming. As parenthood and middle-life settled in I gave up on trying to be in the know of the city’s restaurant scene.
Then there was the disappointment. Let’s face it, restaurant food and service can be hit or miss. When you’re relying on the outing as your pick-me-up and the experience sucks, buyer’s remorse sets in. We’d end up saying something like we could have cooked this better ourselves and saved a lot of money.
Being honest with myself about the pros and cons of dropping dough on restaurants made changing our ways a little more palatable (forgive the pun).
Here’s what we tweaked.
What we used to do:
When Root Jr. has a sleep over or some other social event to attend we take advantage and have a date night. When he was younger we sprang for an occasional baby sitter.
We’d get dressed up, take a Lyft to downtown Austin, and try some new restaurant. Afterwards we might stop for a drink or dessert somewhere to feel like we weren’t lame for going home too early. With the dinner and the ride, and sometimes a babysitter, that came out to beaucoup bucks. Not to mention calories.
What we do now:
There are two ways we have hacked date night.
The first is cooking dinner at home. That doesn’t sound very exciting but here’s how we make it special.
We splurge on the ingredients and make something that Root Jr. wouldn’t eat. Like mussels in white wine dijon cream sauce. Since I’m usually the cook, Mr. Root might cook for us instead which adds some novelty. Luckily he happens to be a great cook (messier than me though).
We get some good wine and wait for it… PAY to stream a movie! An R-RATED movie!! Yes, this is actually so enjoyable. We don’t get to watch grown-up movies much these days. Good food. No crowds. No driving. Comfy clothes. Yeah. It’s the best. And much cheaper than going out.
The second way it to just go ahead and eat out. We have cut back on eating out for convenience, keeping up with the Jonses, or consumer-driven self-soothing, so we justify the occasional splurge.
We have made peace with not keeping up with Austin’s restaurant scene. Instead of paying for a Lyft to get us downtown we drive to nearby neighborhood joints that we know we like.
This reduces the likeliness of a hit-or-miss experience. We pick independently-owned places so it supports our local businesses. We split stuff and go easy on the adult beverages. We aren’t far from home so we have plenty of time to rent an R-RATED movie and maybe settle in to enjoy a take out dessert.
I enjoy this much more than the Pre-FI way of going out. Maybe I’m just getting older and set in my ways but I’m really enjoying replacing FOMO (fear of missing out) with JOMO (joy of missing out). Ha.
And sometimes FI-Fatigue sets in and we just say screw it. We want to go out for whatever reason. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s okay because we are conscious of what we’re doing.
What I used to do:
I work a 9-5 regular ol’ W-2 job (actually it’s 7:30 – 4). I used to stock up on those frozen meals to bring for lunch. These are about $5 – $6 bucks each. Four or five of those adds up to at least $20 bucks a week.
If there was an opportunity to meet my friends out for lunch and get away from my desk I happily ditched the frozen meal for a restaurant meal and a chance to connect with friends. I never thought of my work lunches as an expense with room to cut. I never even thought of them as an expense.
What I do now:
I make frugal lunches that are less expensive than frozen meals. I plan for it as part of my weekly meal planning.
Sandwiches are easy and cheap. One of my favorite lunches is homemade hummus, crackers, and a hard boiled egg. Hummus made from dried beans is ridiculously cheap and delicious. Another fave is avocado toast. These things are simple, cheap, nutritious, and tasty.
Here’s the trick. It’s gotta be easy to assemble. If it’s something I have to cook in addition to dinner I ain’t gonna do it. I have to be able to just grab stuff and throw it in my bag. Also I’m easy to please. I don’t need nothin’ fancy for my work lunch. I keep a list of lunch options so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every week.
Sometimes I just get tired of prepping and planning and just go out to eat or enjoy a dang Amy’s frozen meal, and that’s okay.
I mentioned in a previous post that my work lunch hour is also a chance to catch up with friends. If that means eating out it’s totally worth it to me. Staying connected with my peeps is important so I do eat out for lunch sometimes. If I can brown bag it with a buddy we do that too.
Meal planning keeps us from eating out for convenience, reduces food waste, and cuts down the grocery bill.
I have been a meal planner for quite some time but never with a frugal bent. Here’s what I do now once a week on the regular.
I get out a pen and paper and look through the fridge, freezer, and pantry to take inventory of what we have on hand. I write down a list of potential ingredients. This is called “shopping the pantry”.
You can get creative and challenge yourself once a month to plan a week’s worth of meals from just stuff you already have on hand. Turns out I actually enjoy the challenge. It’s kind of like being on Top Chef when they get a mystery box of ingredients and have to come up with something tasty. This is how I discovered that breakfast for dinner is delicious!
I also check to see what staples we need like milk, eggs, bread, etc.
Plan the meals
When I say “plan the meals” what I really mean is plan the dinners.
I don’t plan breakfasts. We just have toast, oatmeal, eggs, fruit, etc. This keeps it easy and requires no extra planning.
Same for lunches. I buy whatever items I need to make my work lunches or eat leftovers. Weekend lunches are usually sandwiches or breakfast tacos.
Since I shop on the weekends I usually plan one meal that is more time intensive to prepare for a weekend dinner. Then I plan 4 to 5 other meals that are quicker to assemble for the weeknights.
At least one of those meals will be leftovers. In fact part of the weekly plan is to make a large enough meal one night that is specifically meant to eat twice in one week. Or freeze half of it to eat the following week.
Let’s talk about decision fatigue. I experience this every time I make a weekly meal plan. I get overwhelmed trying to think of tasty, frugal, healthy meals we will all enjoy. To add to the planning complexity, I am pescatarian, the boys are omnivores, and at 10 years old Root Jr.’s palate isn’t quite developed as ours.
That being said the boys are pretty easy to please and don’t care if we repeat similar meals week to week.
My solution to minimize the decision fatigue is a list of “winners”. These are meals, and variations on said meals, that are proven crowd pleasers. It’s a list of about 15 – 20 options that I keep as a note on my phone. I also have a Pinterest board of recipes that qualify as “winners”. I don’t have to cook something spectacular and innovative every night.
Make the list
I sit down with my inventory list and a fresh piece of paper. I look at our calendar for the week ahead to see if there are any nights that I won’t need to cook, or I might need to cook something super fast or whatever. I write down each day of the week in a list form. Like this:
W: soccer practice
In this example I’m shopping on Sunday and Root Jr. has soccer practice Wednesday night.
So Sunday night I might cook something a little more time intensive like spinach lasagna and Wednesday night it’s gotta be quick and easy. I don’t typically plan a meal for Friday nights because we usually have plenty of stuff left over from the week and if not I keep a frozen pizza, canned soup, and mac-n-cheese on hand. We can always find something to eat.
Starting with my inventory of what we already have I reference the winner list and my Pinterest board and come up with my meals. I make a list of the ingredients I need to buy and whatever staples we need restocked. I put the list of produce on the left side of the paper and the rest on the right side. Yes, I’m a creature of habit.
And voila! The list is made. I take that sucker with me to the store and try not to buy anything that is not on that list.
MAKE STUFF INSTEAD OF BUYING IT:
Making stuff can really cut back on the grocery bill. The challenge of course is finding the time to do it.
Working full-time, commuting, and being a parent means not having a lot of free time and if you do have any extra time do you really want to be stuck in the kitchen making shit from scratch when you can just buy it already made from the store? Hells no.
Well, that’s how I used to feel anyway.
When Root Jr. was younger I seriously just did not have any time. From a cost/benefit perspective it was seriously worth it to spend money on convenience. But he’s 10 now and things aren’t as frantic. So I gave making some things from scratch a stab.
I still buy items that are convenient, like pasta. I’m not gonna make that from scratch y’all. Not crazy. Or milk my own cow or whatever.
But here’s a few things I tried. Some that worked and I now do on the regular, and some not so much.
We like to eat good crusty bread as toast for breakfast and sometimes with dinner. I used to shop at our gourmet supermarket and buy ciabatta, French bread, or some other artisan type bread. These were $3 – $6 each and we bought one or two a week.
Now I make two loaves a week. The recipe I use is a super easy no-knead bread that makes enough for two loaves. I make one loaf and refrigerate the other half of the dough to make later in the week. Here’s the recipe. I have adapted it to make a loaf bread.
There’s nothing like the smell of bread baking in the oven. It’s really tasty and I feel like a total boss when I make it. Like I am creating life sustenance.
I can make 4 loaves of bread with one 5 pound bag of flour which costs about $1.50 a bag. I buy a bag of yeast instead of the little packets and keep it fresh in a mason jar. Much cheaper than the $8 – $10 bucks a week I was spending.
We used to buy some yummy gourmet oatmeal in microwaveable packs. A box was about $6 bucks. I know how cheap bulk rolled oats are so I tried making it from scratch.
Here’s what I do:
I hoist our Cuisinart out and throw in the following ingredients.
1/2 cup of rolled oats is one serving. I like to make at least 7 servings at time to be efficient. I count out 7 scoops of oats using a 1/2 cup measuring scoop. Toss it in.
Throw in 7 tablespoons of brown sugar.
Throw in 7 teaspoons of cinnamon.
Throw in 7 pinches of salt.
Whir it all up. I do this because it makes the oatmeal a little finer which makes it easier to microwave and chew. I mix it until the oatmeal is evenly chopped up but not powdery. Still pretty coarse.
Then I divide it into 7 little snack-sized Ziploc bags.
When we’re ready to eat it we just mix one bag with 2/3 cup of milk and zap it for two minutes. Stir it and let it sit for a minute.
It’s ready to eat or add extras like peanut butter, maple syrup, or fruit. We keep the Ziploc bags so we can reuse them for the next batch of oatmeal.
A pound of rolled oats is about $2 and makes a ton of servings so it’s way cheaper and takes little effort. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.
I knew chefs made their stocks from scratch but I always thought who the hell has time for that? I would just buy ready made stock from the store. But it turns out it’s not as time consuming as I thought and the stock is delicious.
It starts with saving veggie scraps. Every time I cook a meal, I put aside the veggie scraps that make good broth. Like onions, garlic, carrot peels, celery ends etc. Throw them in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag and freeze them. When I have two bags full I make the broth. I use this recipe. It’s super easy and I just freeze the broth for use later.
I had made hummus with canned beans before but never with dried beans because it seemed to laborious. All that bean soaking and who knows what. I had some dried chic peas in my pantry for some reason. After doing a little research on bean soaking I gave it a go.
In the morning I just throw the dried beans in a pot with cold water and leave them to soak for 4+ hours. I use one cup of dried beans. Or you could do this over night. Just depends when you want to be cooking the beans.
Boil them for about 20-25 minutes until tender. I throw a bay leaf in there for flavor and salt them when they’re almost ready. I keep the boiling water and freeze it to add the veggie broth pot the next time I make it. I also add some of that liquid to the hummus to thin it out to use less oil.
Next I puree the beans. I use half of the cooked beans and freeze the rest. Add lemon juice, olive oil, and salt to taste. Traditional hummus has tahini in it. Tahini is a little pricey but a little goes a long way. I think it’s an optional ingredient. You can add a bit of raw garlic too if that strikes your fancy.
Sometimes I get crazy and add some of my dad’s homemade harissa to spice it up. One time I added canned beets which was delicious although a little grim looking in color. I take the hummus with me to work for lunch.
I love biscuits but I never made them from scratch at home. I thought they were too hard to make and would take too much time. But then I found this recipe. That’s when I discovered the joy of homemade biscuits.
These are SO easy to make. It takes 10 minutes to mix them up in one bowl. Then you just spoon drop them onto a baking sheet and cook them for about 15 minutes.
Now I make them almost every week to go with dinner and they are great in the morning with a little butter and jelly. The boys love them.
Save the bread ends
You know the butt ends of bread that no one wants to eat? And those extra hamburger or hot dog buns? I freeze them in gallon-sized Ziploc bags. When I have enough saved up I make bread pudding with bourbon sauce. This makes a great dessert to bring to a potluck. You can also save them to make croutons.
Ginger beer… One of our fave cocktails is a Moscow Mule. That’s vodka, lime, and ginger beer. Ginger beer is pretty pricey. I tried making a substitute. It was terrible.
I spent a good amount of time peeling and chopping a bunch of ginger and boiling it down on the stove per the recipe instructions. It turned out tasting like apple pie for some reason. Blech! Tossed it all. If I find a better recipe I would try it again.
Tortillas… these are a staple in our home. A pack of 10 costs less than two bucks. But I was feeling invincible and gave it a go. This was quite labor intensive. The result was a bunch of thick, chewy, unevenly-shaped frisbees.
Mr. Root found me making these and asked me why on Earth I would bother? That from a cost/benefit ratio it hardly seemed worth it.
I was in no mood to hear his critique. In denial, I declared them just fine and vowed to eat them. I wrapped them carefully and placed them in the freezer to save for later. And there they sat. I never ate those slabs of drywall. They eventually made their way to the trash (when Mr. Root wasn’t looking).
Do I make all of things all of the time? No. Finding the time is sometimes challenging so I have to just be comfortable with a balance, doing what I can when I can, and being okay with not being perfect.
The cool thing is that making stuff feels good. It’s a satisfying feeling knowing you made this food that’s feeding your family. There’s also satisfaction in acquiring a skill.
Making stuff instead of buying it is not only frugal but also healthier for our bodies and better for the environment. It cuts back on processed foods that include excess salt, sugar, and preservatives. We’re also reducing the amount of packaging that goes into the land fill. Good for your wallet, body, and planet.
DOES ANY OF THIS ACTUALLY SAVE MONEY?
Yes! All of these little efforts add up over time.
I used to spend upwards of $1400 a month on groceries (including household products and pet food). Now I have it down to $1000 or less. There’s room to improve here. I’m trying to shoot for under $800 a month. But the reduction so far is pretty amazing for us.
I’m not sure how much we used spend on eating out but it had to have been at least $400 a month on the low end (we didn’t start tracking our expenses until January 2019 when we found FI).
What I do know is that every month this year we have saved money – ranging from $800 to $2200 a month! We don’t know where that money was going before we found FI. On restaurants and food I guess? LOL.
With that money we have paid off $8,000 in credit card debt! We have saved up two and half months of expenses in our emergency fund! I opened a 457 retirement account at work and started socking away an extra $250 a month!
Some months are better than others but overall the changes we’ve made add up to savings. We have a long way to go to pay off our remaining debt (about $49,700 not including the mortgage) but we are making progress in the right direction.
Being frugal saves us money. Saving money helps us pay off debt. Having no debt means we get to keep our whole paychecks. Owning our whole paychecks means we have choices.
Onward and forward!
Do you have any tried and true ways to keep your food expenses low? Share them with me in the comments!