I’ve been living rather frugally for many years now.
As such, I feel like I’ve got things on cruise control.
However, it wasn’t always so easy for me.
One of the budget categories that I’ve personally found most difficult to control is food.
After all, we all like to eat.
Am I right?
Well, I’ve thoughtfully approached food using a three-pronged strategy that I’ve found helps not only my wallet but also my waistline.
It’s really just one aspect of a holistic lifestyle. And I can honestly say that I don’t feel like I’m holding back at all.
Even if I had unlimited wealth, I probably wouldn’t eat much differently than I do now.
Moreover, as someone who works out six days a week and is studying to become a personal trainer, I’m always fascinated by the interplay between saving money and losing weight. Fitness and finance follow similar patterns in many ways.
Saving money is just one way in which these two aspects of my life intersect.
While they used to intersect in a fairly disastrous manner for me, they are now in sync with one another in a wonderfully harmonious way.
There are three limitations I place on myself that has led to this harmonious relationship between my wallet and my waistline.
This is probably my biggest tip of all. It involves a very simple decision when it comes time to eat: just don’t eat so much! It’s just portion control, folks.
Food portions in in America’s restaurants have doubled or tripled over the last 20 years, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Naturally, it stands to reason that most of us are eating a lot more than our predecessors were.
Great. More food. Food isn’t just eaten for survival these days; I, like most anyone else, enjoy eating.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to eat every last crumb a restaurant serves you. And you don’t need to make huge meals at home, either.
I’ve actually been out to dinner with people, only to watch them struggle to eat everything on their plate. It’s nonsensical. And potentially harmful.
A restaurant doesn’t determine how much you eat; you do. You determine what’s appropriate.
Moreover, one should be watching their portions at home, too. Especially at home.
I remember I used to eat two sandwiches for lunch when I was in high school. Whether I was at school or at home, it was usually a couple sandwiches (PB&J, deli meat, tuna, etc.). These days, it’s one sandwich. I just don’t need that much food to enjoy the experience, receive my caloric intake for survival/fitness, and feel full.
And “feeling full” is something that one can manage.
When I first started dropping my portions way down, I felt a little hungry here and there. But if I always listened to that little internal voice, I’d be a very large man. Well, I don’t want to be. So I ignore it. I’m also cognizant of the fact that hunger pangs are a deadly part of life for millions of people around the world, rather than just a minor intermittent inconvenience for someone like me.
I’m not saying one should starve themselves. But portion control is absolutely my best secret weapon to keeping my wallet thick and my waistline thin.
I’ll often eat a small sandwich or drink a small protein shake after I get up. Then it’s a reasonable dinner. And I’ll oftentimes finish up the day with a very small snack. If I find myself at a restaurant for a dinner (say, on a Saturday night), I never feel pressured to eat everything in front of me. If I take something home, that’s just spreading the wealth and the love. Something to eat later.
Limiting Restaurant Visits
Speaking of eating out, we don’t do it that often. I’d say we go out a couple times per month, but we definitely do not find ourselves eating out of the house multiple times per week. Not even close.
Now, I used to eat out often. That was back in the days when I was still broke (or below broke, actually).
And you know what?
I actually didn’t enjoy it as much. I guess I took it for granted. It just became part of life. I never liked to cook, so I’d eat out of the house often. But it became commonplace.
I now enjoy it that much more because it’s a bit of a treat. It’s a luxury. And I’m more picky about when I go and where I go. It’s not just an off-hand decision. It’s something that’s treated with thoughtfulness, and I look forward to it so much more.
In addition, when we do go out, we’re reasonable about it.
I find it funny that so many people change their dietary habits so substantially when they go out to a restaurant. Appetizer? Bring it on. Entree? Make it big! Desert? Absolutely.
Nobody eats like that at home. I’ve never once made an appetizer, an entree, and a desert to eat in one sitting at home. Never. But for some reason it seems like a perfectly fine thing to do out of the house. I’m not sure why. Approaching eating out like this means you’re probably ingesting way too many calories in one sitting – and you’re probably spending way too much on food.
So what we do is this: we’ll oftentimes stick to just entrees or just appetizers and desert.
If we want to snack, have some variety, and have something sweet, too, we’ll go with the latter option. Since appetizers are often meals all by themselves, but usually quite a bit smaller than entrees, this allows us to sample a couple different things without feeling like we went too crazy on the calories or the cost. Plus, there’s something sweet to look forward to.
The former option is also great – and more often used. I try to go to places that provide great value anyway, so I often find myself leaving a restaurant feeling like both my wallet and my waistline came out pretty much intact.
One last thing I want to mention about restaurants is this strange trend among younger people where very expensive, independent restaurants are “trendy” and cheaper, chain restaurants are “passe”.
For me, I couldn’t care less about what’s “on-trend” in terms of where and what I’m eating. I actually purposely patronize chain restaurants (think Chili’s, etc.) when I go out because the food tends to taste good, the price points are reasonable, and the service is pretty solid. It’s a standardized experience that means my food, bill, and service are all going to be pretty similar from one visit to the next.
I’ve been to a few independent, “trendy” restaurants over the years. And I’ve found that, more often than not, I end up paying more money for less food, making the overall experience slightly less enjoyable. And it’s not like the food was somehow substantially better in terms of taste or quality, at least not to my tastes. Does paying 30% more mean you’re going to get 30% more food or food that tastes 30% better? Perhaps not. You’re probably just going to pay 30% more to see and be seen, in my opinion. That works for some people. But not for me.
A maxim I live by in life: more cash, less cachet.
Again, if I’m going to make restaurant visits a more occasional luxury than most people, I want to maximize my value, which in turn maximizes my experience.
My third prong is to limit alcohol. And I’m actually using the term “limit” liberally. Truthfully, I very rarely drink at all.
Alcohol is expensive. And I don’t particularly enjoy the taste. Most alcoholic drinks also have a good number of calories in them. Plus, there’s that whole carcinogen thing.
So I almost never order alcohol when I’m out and about. And I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had alcohol at home.
This saves me a ton of money. And it’s great for the waistline, too, obviously.
Ordering a few drinks at a restaurant can add up quick. Drinks can quickly eclipse food costs. I mean, if you enjoy drinking and you budget for it, go for it. But it doesn’t really do anything for me. I guess I enjoy living pretty cleanly. And I’d rather eat my calories than drink them, although I do enjoy my soda. That’s just me.
I had a reader email me once to question me on my food budget. How could I spend a couple hundred dollars per month on food when this reader was spending almost that much just on alcohol? Well, I spend $0 on alcohol. Pretty simple.
But I realize that I’m in the vast minority of people. Most people enjoy beer, spirits, or wine. Or all of the above. To each their own. However, that doesn’t mean one needs to imbibe daily. And one doesn’t need to consume many servings per sitting. It’s all about balance in life. Portion control extends beyond just your food, too.
I don’t talk about saving money or frugality as much as I used to. I suppose that’s because I think saving money is something that comes naturally once one puts their mind to it. If you want to save money, you just have to start spending less. It’s not a hard concept to grasp.
However, implementing certain changes in real life can be more difficult. I’ve personally found that spending less on food has been more challenging than any other single budget category.
So I figured I’d share my approach here. It’s not for everyone, but I do hope that it helps a reader or two out there that is also struggling with food.
Once you realize that we’re eating way too much, we don’t need numerous courses in one sitting, and that alcohol can certainly be limited, spending less becomes pretty easy. And once you realize that your waistline can improve in line with your wallet, you see that it’s all part of a holistic lifestyle. Living a holistic lifestyle where all of these lifestyle elements fit together in a complementary manner is something of a mantra for me these days, which is why I write so much about that.
Now, one can get really intricate with this. And there are a lot of concepts to explore. Some prefer eating a lot less (or no) meat, for instance, which can limit one’s costs and calories. I personally like meat a lot, so I don’t do that. And this is really an article designed to take a look at things from a high level rather broadly. I’m not intending to tackle every possible minutiae of food budgeting; rather, I’m just discussing my real-life, practical approach to saving money on food and improving my health in the process.
Everyone has to figure out what works for them. That goes for food, but it also goes for everything else. I’m not saying that these tips will work for everyone. There’s never a one-size-fits-all solution. But I can say that I’m enjoying food (especially eating out) much more these days. I savor it. I look forward to it. And it’s no longer an enemy to my wallet and waistline – both are instead in the best shape they’ve ever been in!
What do you think? Do you use a similar three-pronged approach to limiting food costs and improving your wallet and waistline? Any tips you want to share?
Thanks for reading.
Image courtesy of: samuiblue at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.