Category: Living on Less

How to be a foodie on $75 a week

Today I’d like to introduce a friend of mine named Anne. She’s a foodie blogger who currently lives in the Windy City of Chicago.

Since this site is about saving money and retiring early I challenged Anne to maintain her foodie status, but in the confines of $75/week.

If you have ever read my blog, you will know that food– both the restaurant and homemade varieties– is a big part of my life. You may even call it a passion.

I consider myself to be pretty money-conscious, as a general rule. I was raised by hardworking parents that started their married life (and our family) without a whole lot of money, so the principles of budgeting, saving, and worth vs. value have been instilled in me from a young age. My husband and I have both been laid off (twice each) over the past 5 years. We have since bounced back and are frantically trying to save up enough money to buy our first home so that we can start a family– not an easy task on two modest incomes in downtown Chicago. Living in a city known for its amazing restaurant scene and its amazingly high taxes, we do all that we can to keep our cost of living on the low side: limit our dining out, cutting coupons, cooking at home…

Even so, when Johnny Moneyseed challenged me to be a foodie on $75/week I realized I had no idea what a REAL food budget actually looked like. This challenge was a big wake up call for me and a really great exercise in learning how to budget, plan, and cook effectively– and to still be able to enjoy what we are eating!

Today I want to share a few of the biggest takeaways that I learned in this challenge. But before I do that, here’s how the whole thing transpired:

I first got to work on meticulously planning out a menu for the week with a corresponding shopping list. Staying within JM’s budget constraints was tricky, but I did make it work. In total, I spent $87.61 on groceries for the week. However, a lot of of the items that I purchased weren’t used in full during that week and could be frozen or used in meals the next week. After doing some nerdy calculations about how much of each item I actually used during the challenge week, the grand total came out to be $69.82 spent.

One other caveat to mention: I did not include what I consider to be pantry staples in my budget. These are items that I think most home cooks have on hand to use on a regular basis: oils, vinegars, butter, salt, pepper, and dry herbs. I didn’t use anything too out of the ordinary in terms of seasonings this week– just the basics like garlic, oregano, basil, parsley. If I were to have used something a little more obscure that you’re not likely to have on hand then I would have included that in the budget.

I’ll be posting some of the dinner recipes from this challenge week on my blog!

How to be a Foodie on $75/Week:

  1. Plan, plan, plan! Even before this challenge, I have always planned out a weekly menu and shopping list before heading to the grocery store on the weekends. It’s a great way to keep yourself from buying too many items that you won’t need or that will go bad before you can use them. It will also keep you sane at the store and when you come home from work– you already know what you’re making that night, so there is no guesswork involved.

I also recommend using your grocery store’s circular as the basis for planning your meals. For the challenge week, I found my store’s circular online and noted that chicken breasts were buy one get one free and that pork chops, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, and a few other items were on sale that week. I added them to my list and started creating meals around those ingredients. It’s a great way to keep your costs down and because sales change each week, it will also add some variety to your dinners week to week.

  1. Shop with coupons and look for unexpected deals. I’m not suggesting extreme couponing, but coupons are a great way to shred a few dollars off of your grocery bill without a lot of extra work. My store, for example, sends a $5 off purchases of $50+ coupon to me in the mail each week. That’s a big deal– especially when you’re working with $75/week! Additionally, about every other week I go to and check for new coupons on products I use. You just print them off and take them to store and it’s an easy way to score some additional savings.

This challenge also taught me to look for deals where a foodie like myself may not always be looking. Buying generic products when possible, for example, is a great way to save some money. I’ll be honest that I don’t do it for everything, but for staple items like milk and cheese, I bought the store brand this week, saved some money, and didn’t notice a difference. And don’t forget the day old bread shelf! I’m a bit of a bread snob, and I found some great discounted (and still good) take-and-bake Telera deli rolls there.

  1. Find multiple uses for the same ingredient. This step is key for avoiding food (and money) waste– and boredom. Nobody wants to eat the same thing for dinner every night, no matter how much money it saves you. This week I made a big batch of BBQ chicken in my slow cooker, which became sandwiches one night and then a topping for Irish Nachos later in the week. And I only needed a little bit of heavy cream for theFried Eggs with Rajas recipe, but knew I would have some left over so it was incorporated into the tomato cream sauce for our spaghetti and then whisked into the omelets we had on Sunday morning.
  2. Meatless Monday may be cliche, but it works. It doesn’t have to be Monday, but it is true– going meatless is good for your body and for your wallet too. Even the cheapest cuts of meat can be expensive (and then they can be difficult to cook). Instead, use other ingredients like cheese, eggs, legumes, or squash to add some heartiness to your meal. You’ll notice in our meal plan that we enjoyed a few meatless dinners like Fried Eggs with Rajas and a Baked Spaghetti Squash. I could go meatless everyday, but my husband would disagree. I have to say, however, that he cleaned his plate after both meals so I think we are on to something with these recipes!
  3. Buy seasonal ingredients — or grow your own (if possible). Cooking with seasonal ingredients is a great way to save money because produce that is in season is abundant and doesn’t have to travel as far to get to your store. These items are easy to spot when you’re shopping because they are typically on sale and prominently displayed in the front or center of your produce section. The other huge benefit of using seasonal produce is that food tastes best when it is in season.

And if you have the space, patience, and the green thumb then growing your own fruits and veggies is about the cheapest and most convenient way to enjoy fresh produce. I live in a downtown loft and don’t have the luxury of growing a full garden. However, I love to cook with fresh herbs (and that’s some of the priciest produce of all!) so I have planted a few window boxes on my little deck and just snip and cook with them whenever I need them. I don’t have to buy an entire bunch of parsley when I only need 2 tablespoons for a recipe and I don’t have to worry about a $4 package of herbs going bad in my fridge before I can use them all. At the end of the season before it started to get really cold, I picked all my herbs, chopped them up, and then froze them in an ice cube tray filled with olive oil so that I can cook with fresh herbs all winter too.

  1. Use online deals and loyalty programs when dining out. If we are being completely realistic here I can tell you that dining out is something that I can curb, but not give up completely in the name of budgeting. However, I have learned a few tricks to make it more budget-friendly. One option is using online deal sites like Groupon or Gilt City to get discounted deals on new or favorite restaurants. Another great way to save money when dining out is to join restaurant mailing lists and loyalty programs. It’s a great way to earn points toward freebies or receive coupons or deals from your favorite places. There is a Chicago-based group called Lettuce Entertain You and they own/operate over 30 restaurants in our area. They also have a great loyalty program where every time we dine at one of their restaurants, we earn points. Between the points we had banked and the $15 birthday gift certificate they sent me, we were able to enjoy a free dinner out at one of our favorite LEYE spots during the $75/week challenge. Not bad!

I’m no financial expert, but this experience certainly opened my eyes to ways that I can balance being a foodie, while still being frugal. I hope you found it helpful too!

Johnny’s confession: “I used to suck with money”

At times I may come off as someone who isn’t sympathetic to those who struggle with consumer debts, car payments, or who generally don’t make enough money to cover their lifestyle. This is more of a half-truth than anything, because I’ll let you in on a secret: I used to be one of them.

To be honest, I used to have a pretty terrible financial track record. When I was younger I had such a bad spending problem that I had to give my mom my debit card so I wouldn’t spend money…on multiple occasions. That was always a pretty good deterrent from spending for me, but I’d always end up in withdrawal (from not making withdrawals). I’d resort to writing $50 checks for $5 worth of groceries so I could receive cash back. I lived paycheck to paycheck and way beyond my means.

It was all fun and games until the debt collectors started calling. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I had a couple maxed out credit cards and stopped paying the bills on them. If you’ve ever had a debt in collections you’d know how awful the feeling is. Your phone will ring. Another random 800 number. You don’t answer it, because you know who it is. You hide your phone out of sight while your chest crushes in on itself, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

It’s truly one of the worst feelings in the world. Your mind will constantly revert to thinking about your finances, which may cause a sleepless night or twenty. You don’t want to look at your bank statements, because you know you’re broke. But you keep spending, because you have to.

I would love to lie to everybody and say that I’ve never been a victim of consumerism, and that I don’t know the sound of a collections call. I would love to tell you that I’ve never tried to run a credit card for a purchase and prayed that it would go through. But I can’t tell you that, just like I can’t tell you that I don’t know what it’s like to tell a cashier “I don’t know why that card would be declined”.

Then all of a sudden one day I started caring about money. No one would have believed in a million years that that was even a possibility, and to this day I’m still surprised myself. I chose the unpopular path of spending less than I made and after not too long I hit a milestone that I had never been able to achieve until that point: I was about to maintain a comma in my checking account. Yep, I was a thousand-aire. I knew I wanted to keep my precious comma, and I never went back to my former life as a spendthrift.

Sometimes when you make an improvement in your life you forget what your life was like before you decided to make the change. You might become more confident and maybe even develop a hint of arrogance. You might possibly look down on those that haven’t taken on the same changes within their own lives. You might think “When are they ever gonna learn?” as if you didn’t just figure it out yourself.

I went through a phase similar to that. And to be honest I think it did a lot of good.

In my younger days when I was lousy with my finances, I harbored financial insecurities. I wasn’t confident with money, and how could I be when I knew my credit card was going to be declined over and over? So when I made my transition, and stopped living paycheck to paycheck, I began to think “Why does anyone else live paycheck to paycheck. It isn’t that hard to save money.”

My thoughts that may have been negative at times actually kept me on track with my own personal goals. I was able to look at a desperate situation and think “That will never be me!” and fortunately I’ve been able to keep my head above water.

I don’t condone outward negativity towards others. I believe that everyone has a unique situation, and without close inspection there’s no true way to make a determination if they’re doing everything they can to improve their life, or if they’re just another hopeless over-spender.

Since then I’ve humbled myself quite a bit. I don’t look down on people who are less fortunate than I am, or even those that just need a wake-up call. I can now understand and respect the struggle that many families and individuals deal with on a daily basis. And I know firsthand what it feels like to be in their shoes. I know what it’s like to have to make the decision to either pay my rent or make a car payment, because doing both isn’t an option.

If you were to try to help me out before I was ready to change, myself, your advice would have fallen on deaf ears. It’s almost impossible to make someone see the bad situation they’re in for what it really is (this applies to more than just finances for a lot of people). Before I was ready, I wouldn’t have taken financial advice from the legendary investor and entrepreneur Warren Buffett.

I’ve also realized that not everyone wants help. People may ask for your advice, because you seem to have your shit together, but they may not have any intention of following through with your suggestions. They may just want to hear themselves admit that they’re in a financial rut. Letting the words leave their mouth is a way of telling themselves that they tried to fix the problem. You can try till you’re blue in the face, but people are always going to make the easier decisions, until they truly want to change.

I feel that if you make a serious positive change in your life you should become a beacon of hope and inspiration for those who need you. You only have the power to help those that you reach out to. Not everyone is going to come to you for help, but at least let them know it’s alright to. Leave your judgments with your bad habits, and try to understand what it’s like to want to help people. Not because you’re better than them, but because you might know what it’s like to be them, and you know that life doesn’t have to be that way.

Lowering the grocery bill

Some line items in our monthly budget are non-negotiable: mortgage, child care, insurance, among others. We have little to no control over these costs, as they are fixed, or we have done everything we could to minimize payments (ie, refinancing, raising deductibles on insurance).

One area where we have almost full control on how much we spend is food. Last year we overspent on groceries, restaurants and coffee shops. We used 2012 as a learning experience, as we tried to find the perfect way to save money on food, that was also the least impactful on our time.

$450 was our total grocery bill for January. This is for two adults and one 18 month old. Our other daughter is under 6 months old and doesn’t affect our monthly food budget. We also spent about $100 at restaurants, most of which was before I started this blog.

The following are the rules we follow to save money at the grocery store.

  1. Eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and dairy.
  2. Avoid the “middle-aisles” of the grocery store (basically avoid the cracker, chip, soda, cookie aisles).
  3. Only drink milk, water and coffee. No sodas, no juices.
  4. Compare similar items by unit cost, cost per ounce, per pound, etc. This is huge, because sale items aren’t always your cheapest option.
  5. Rice or pasta go with almost every meal. They’re cheap. Avoid “minute rice” as a huge bag of enriched or thai jasmine rice is super easy to make and will last a month or two.
  6. DON’T buy any personal hygiene items at the grocery store. Buy them at Rite Aid (or whatever pharmacy you prefer). This will also help you categorize your transactions easier with
  7. Buy store brand items if available, they’re pretty much the same thing (if not better) and usually cost way less. We shop exclusively at Safeway, and we love their store brand equivalents.
  8. Utilize a grocery store cash back card (American Express Blue Cash will earn you 3% cash back on groceries, or 6% cash back with the preferred version of the card). I don’t get paid to push this card, but we use it and it’s amazing!
  9. At the beginning of the month we purchase a grocery store gift card for the amount we intend to spend on groceries for the month. Typically for us it’s $500. Our store rewards us with gas points for every $100 we spend, so we are able to save at the gas pump as well. Plus we earn $30 cash back by using our AmEx Blue Cash.
  10. Always make a list and EAT before shopping, this will prevent impulse buying.
  11. Add digital coupons to your store card after you make your list (if your store has a program like this). This is as far as we go in terms of “couponing”. We tried the whole coupon thing, and it was a bigger pain in the ass than it was a money saver.
  12. Cook bigger dinners, and pack leftovers as the next day’s lunch!
  13. If you have a family member that is a picky eater try to have them help cook dinner. They may be more inclined to eat it if they had something to do with it’s creation. This will prevent having to cook separate meals for everyone.
  14. Just remember brand names almost never matter (besides Coke or Pepsi), but if you avoid soft drinks then you don’t have to worry about that either.
  15. Stock up on the things you use most often. Buying things when you run out, or when you need them will put you at a disadvantage because you may have to settle for a higher price than you could have paid.

Reddit user LibertyVanguard had these tips to help save even more money while grocery shopping:

  1. Potatoes, Rice, Beans, Onions, Carrots, Mushrooms (non-exotic) are good cheap staple foods.
  2. For fresh fruit, buy what is seasonal. Certain fruits can be frozen well, so stock up when in season. Frozen fruit is good in smoothies. Bananas and melons provided a lot of food for their price.
  3. Meat, Seafood, and Dairy are actually quite expensive when compared to fruits and vegetables. Buy what is on special and take advantage of good prices that you can store in the freezer. I cut dairy out of my diet and I save quite a bit of money. Consider buying meat on the last sale date (usually stickered) and freeze it.
  4. Consider alternatives to your more expensive purchases. Instead of dairy milk, try making your own rice or almond milk with a blender and strainer.
  5. Grocery stores like Aldi or ethnic markets can be half as expensive as big brand name stores. Ethnic markets are good places for cheap spices.
  6. If you live in a climate that is good for growing and you have access to a place to garden, try growing green onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
  7. Make your own snacks like popcorn, chips, and cookies.
  8. For baking mixes, nuts, and other dry, non-perishable goods, try buying online from Amazon. From experience, I can usually find most items cheaper and with free shipping.
  9. Try cooking a meal that will store for 3-4 days after, so you don’t have to cook each day and less food is wasted.
  10. Have a plan. Make a budget, analyze what you buy each month, identify expensive culprits, and identify methods for lowering cost. Focus on coupons, alternative foods, or bulk buying ahead of time for expensive culprits.

What tips do you use to help save on your grocery bill? I’d love to hear some other methods that you use to keep your grocery bill down. Our method works pretty well for us, but we are by no means perfect shoppers.

Living on less: Cutting the cord

It’s time to get serious about spending less, and saving more. Take a look at your monthly expenses. Hopefully, you have less money going out than coming in, but for now it’s okay if you’re not quite there yet. There is one item in particular that can drain your bank account, $100 at a time, and the funny thing is: you don’t need it.

I’m referring to cable, of course. If you live in America, odds are you have some form of network television being broadcast into your house. 90% of all U.S. households subscribe to either cable or a dish equivalent. This is because of two reasons: 1. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we need it and 2. Bundling cable/internet services makes each individual service cost less.

We currently have Verizon FioS as our Internet Service Provider. Until recently, we were also receiving cable television service through them as well. When we moved into our house in November of 2011, the first thing we did was call Verizon to have these services installed.

$100 a month! Hey, that’s not bad at all, we thought. That included a free DVR, 200+ channels and 25up/25down internet speeds. With all of this great news, and shiny new services, we tuned out the part of the conversation with the Verizon rep when they said “2 year contract” and “introductory price”.

Our bill was steadily around $100 for the first entire year of our cable/internet subscription, so it never really occurred to us that we were wasting money, since internet alone through Verizon would run us about $80/month without the bundle.

But then, our November 2012 bill came in the mail: $134.88. This price increase was attributed to one simple fact, which was that we were no longer “new customers”. The DVR went from free to $14.99/month, and our new customer discount ($15/month) expired.

I called Verizon immediately and pleaded with them to lower our bill, because it was out of the range that I was willing to pay. They told me to call back in January, as this is the month they receive incentives to pass out to customers in need.

Long story short, I called back in January and they still couldn’t do anything to reduce my bill. After a heated conversation I told them I wanted to drop my cable service altogether, all I wanted was internet. They tried to keep us from dropping cable by saying, “Internet alone is $74.99/month, if you keep your cable service it’s only $84.99*/month”.

Why then was I paying almost $135 for an $85 service? I told the guy to screw, and shortly thereafter we returned our $15/month set top box to the Verizon store. The shitty part is that we had to pay an early termination fee of $120, but it was worth it and we would make that money back within 2 months.

I realize that $75/month for internet isn’t stellar, but this area is duopolized by Comcast and Verizon, and a lower price can’t be obtained without a new contract. Either way, without our cable service, we’re currently saving $60.00 every month. Or $720.00 a year. Or $9,153.82 compounded over a 10-year period.

While cable added $60 to our utility bill every month, alternative media sources that provide nearly the same exact content are available at significantly lower costs (and without contracts!) Three simple and cost effective additions to your TV can make it a media powerhouse: HD antenna, DVD or Blu-Ray player, and a streaming-media box.

We already had an Xbox 360 to play DVDs, so all we had to do was purchase a Roku streaming-media player and an antenna (starting at $10). Installing the Roku was extremely simple. Plug it into the wired network or connect to the wireless network. Open an account at Authorize the device.

Then pick the channels you want (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Pandora, Spotify, etc) and add them to your device. Some of these require paid subscriptions, others like Pandora only require you to have a free account.

There are a ton of options if you choose not to use Roku: Boxee, AppleTV, and Slingbox are some of the other big names. You might also choose to set up a Home Theater PC instead, which is an all-in-one solution.

We have a subscription to Neflix ($8/month), Hulu Plus ($8/month), and free access to Amazon Instant Video with our Amazon Prime subscription. If you’re a sports fan, you aren’t going to have very much luck with these subscription-based services. That’s where the HD antenna comes into play. These aren’t the same crappy antennas from years past. New HD antennas produce crystal clear images and are extremely reliable. They give you free access to NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS among others (list of channels for your area).

You don’t have to be embarrassed about having a Super Bowl party at your house, because no one will know that they aren’t watching cable (unless you tell them).

With our optional services we pay $75 (for internet) + $16 (Netflix/Hulu) for a total of $91/month. This is at least satisfactory, and the service so far has been terrific. I would highly recommend switching away from cable, even if you have to pay a termination fee you will make your money back tenfold in the long run.