The Easy Road and The Hard Road

I’ve spent the better part of my life on this planet in the driver seat on a reckless collision course. With nearly 30 years behind the wheel, I’ve added countless miles to the odometer. And until just a few years ago, I never had an actual destination in mind. The worst part about this aimless, wasteful driving is that I spent most of my valuable time and energy on this planet traveling down the Easy Road.

The Easy Road is the place where MOST other drivers are. It’s convenient. It’s popular. It’s well traveled. It feels normal.

It’s lined with SUVs and strip malls, as well as people who are coming or going from work. No one ever thinks twice about changing course, because the familiar landscapes provide a natural — almost hypnotic — path toward our collective destinations.

But the Easy Road is intrinsically flawed.

The Easy Road.

You can think about the Easy Road like the freeway. It has a high speed limit, is stoplight free, and under optimal conditions can get you from point A to B very quickly.

But it’s not all cherry gumdrops and rainbows. On the Easy Road drivers are prone to accidents. And road work should always be expected.

What happens when too many people are traveling down the same freeway? They end up in miserable lines of endless brake lights. Thus, decreasing its convenience level and reducing its dependability.

We can think of these Easy Roads in terms of our finances. We can think of choosing the Easy Road as choosing to live the “normal” consumer lifestyle. We can think about the Easy Road as a magnet for a herd mentality.

The more we make decisions based on their popularity and convenience, the less likely we will be able to break free from the poor financial habits that are commonplace on the Easy Road.

Think about the average person for a second. The person whose life is stuck on Easy Mode who spends their entire life on the Easy Road.

Does that person have a vast, endless fortune? Do they have an ever increasing Net Worth? Do they think about their financial future at all? Do they have the freedom to change professions at their discretion, or to leave the workforce altogether?

No, because all of that stuff takes a lot of Hard work.

It should be pretty obvious by now that Hard Road is the far less popular option.

The Hard Road.

This is the less advertised path. The one that Google Maps would have you avoid.

The Hard Road is a more scenic route. It’s very slow-going, but is always traffic free. It’s best to turn off the GPS, turn up the Spotify streaming radio and allow yourself to travel carefree while drinking a delicious cup of homemade coffee.

The Hard Road isn’t paved for your convenience, but is alive with endless choices and opportunity; with optimism and relaxation. The other travelers you encounter will become your lifelong friends. The experiences you have along the way will be genuine and relatively inexpensive.

This isn’t a mythical place, idea or concept. This is the difference between those who optimize their expenses and plan for the future and those who don’t.

It’s Hard to save money. It’s Hard to invest money. It’s Hard to cut back on monthly expenses. It’s Hard to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. And it’s super Hard to see other people constantly buying new high-quality devices and inflating their lifestyles, while you live below your means.

The average person is going to steer clear of the Hard Road. They’d rather stick to Easy decisions like “what cable package to sign up for” or “what big name store to buy brand new appliances at”.

Taking the Exit for the Hard Road

There are hundreds of off-ramps to the Hard Road — which is essentially why I write this blog — but I’m only going to list a few.

First, you need to stop letting yourself be advertised to unless the products will actually SAVE you money. Those are the only type of products that I endorse. My advertising range goes from awesome budgeting software like You Need A Budget to smart and awesome investment services like Betterment. AKA, stuff that will save you money.

Two ways to avoid being advertised to are to stop watching broadcast television, and to stop listening to broadcast radio. Thankfully, there exist various options to replace both of these outdated forms of media.

Start choosing Hard decisions over Easy ones. It’s easy to go grab a greasy cheeseburger and fries on your lunch break. It’s harder to bring food from home to eat.

It’s easy to shop aimlessly at the mall. It’s hard to budget for the things you want, and save up enough to buy them.

It’s easy to  buy brand name products that you know and love. It’s hard to figure out what the good, cheap alternatives to these things are.

Other hard decisions include:

  • Paring down the crap that you own.
  • Clearing out and getting rid of storage units.
  • Choosing less expensive entertainment options.
  • Avoiding extremely tourist-centric vacation destinations (Disney, cruises, etc).
  • Learning how to utilize credit cards to your benefit.
  • Choosing to KEEP money from every paycheck for the future.
  • Eliminating excuses and complaints from your life.
  • Getting in shape and maintaining a healthy diet.

This is an extremely condensed list, because almost every decision in life has a hard option.

Why should a harder life appeal to you?

The Hard Road requires that you become more resourceful. It requires learning. It requires a great deal of mental focus. And it requires it’s travelers to use advanced thinking skills. Sometimes life on the Hard Road is absolutely shitty.

No one would purposely choose to live a harder life for no reason.

But the Hard Road doesn’t exist for no reason. It provides a path for us to escape the mundane. It allows us to save money for the future, so we can have the choice and freedom to decide what to do with our lives.

Our hard decisions have the ability to make our lives EASIER in the long run.

Reducing or eliminating expenses from our lives have a permanent financial impact. It frees up money in the present day. That money can then be invested so it can grow over time, and the original expense will never appear again in your life.

I gave up drinking soda 4 months ago. It was a hard decision, and initially it was an extremely hard transition for me. But it will have a permanent impact on my life, both physically and financially.

I NEVER HAVE TO BUY ANOTHER SOFT DRINK FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE!

Think about that for a second. 4 months ago I reduced an expense that would have occurred tens of thousands of times over the course of my existence.

I’d like you to think about yourself and your life for a few minutes. Think about all of the shortcuts you take. Think about all of the ways that you allow yourself to take the financial or mental Easy Road.

Now that you know what’s keeping you on the Easy Road, you can start to change course. Make a Hard decision this week, and don’t look back on it. Think about how much of a badass you are for making a decision like that and for sticking to it.

Once you understand how easy it is to live on the Hard Road, you’ll never go back to the traffic on the freeway.

**This article is mostly metaphorical. While I would definitely encourage people to drive less, I wouldn’t encourage ANYONE to take longer, or less efficient path toward their destination.

Everything You Need to Know About Leaving the Middle Class

Since January of this year I’ve been sitting down at my computer a couple times a week and jamming my thoughts into my WordPress dashboard. For reasons I won’t claim to understand, more and more people find their way onto the blog every month to read what I have published.

Recently, the site has seen a huge uptick in traffic from Lifehacker and the AARP blog (due to a nice article by personal finance legend Jean Chatzky). These articles led to an overnight doubling of subscriptions, and brought many of you here.

Since there are a bunch of new readers trying to figure out what’s going on here, I think it’s a good idea to welcome everyone and reintroduce myself and the purpose of this site.

Should you be reading this site?

There are over 500 personal finance blogs on the Internet. I know this, because there were at least 500 blogs represented this year at FinCon (the conference for finance bloggers). Is Johnny Moneyseed the right blog for you? Are you better suited for one of the other 499+ blogs that aren’t this one?

I’m not going to claim to appeal to everyone. My goal is to encourage, and help individuals or families fund an early self-retirement through saving, investing and creating passive income streams. If you’re looking for a coupon site, or for a place to find “10 ways to save money at the grocery store” this is not that place.

However, if you’re looking for a way to figure out exactly how many years you’ll have to rot inside a cubicle, while learning how to reduce your overall working career, then this IS the place to be.

If you’re interested in leaving the Middle Class behind, with all of their Starbucks-fueled weekend shopping binges, and are interested in becoming a self-declared member of the First Class, this IS the blog for you.

“But what if I have debt?”

When I was younger I was pretty terrible with my finances. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, and carried an enormous debt-load. After reading pretty much every finance book on Earth, my wife and I created a Debt-Attack Plan that helped us eliminate $60k of debt in 18 months.

We haven’t had any consumer debt in years, which is why I hardly ever write about it.

This site is dedicated to the pursuit of Financial Independence. With that, I will assume that most readers are either debt-free, or are preparing themselves for when they become debt-free.

What is this blog all about?

The primary goal of this site is to teach you to think differently about your finances. Forget EVERYTHING you’ve ever been told about money, unless one of these bloggers happened to say it.

You may think that eating gourmet food is expensive. You may feel like it’s necessary to be in constant competition with your neighbors. You may think that it’s important to get larger, more extravagent houses, as you make more and more money.  You may even think that you have the ability to save money when you’re buying stuff. This is all silly Middle Class thinking.

Over the past year I’ve made a lot of changes to my financial lifestyle. I saved myself almost $600/year by cancelling cable TV. I started selling stuff around our house that we had no use for. I reduced the cost of my daily commute by moving within a few miles of work. I decided that my children would be paying for their own college. And I started experimenting with new investment options. I even switched to a $10/month no contract cell phone plan.

You can start making changes in your own life by treating everyday like a recession is right around the corner. You can realign your values, and understand that there are alternatives to  40-hour workweeks. Eventually you’ll be able to save over half of your take home pay — especially if you can entertain the crazy idea of trying to earn more money.

Keep in mind that there are literally thousands of people who are interested in Early Retirement. This is one of the places that they come together, and provide an amazing, empowering support system to help people do things that most people wouldn’t believe is possible.

I can honestly say that even though my wife and I save around 70% of our post-tax income, we don’t ever feel like we’re suffering, or living a lower quality of life than anyone else. If anything, we are living a higher quality lifestyle by avoiding unnecessary expenses. We’ll be able to leave standard employment in less than 7 years. We’ll be in our mid-30s and living so efficiently there will never be a need to work ever again.

Welcome to the site. If you still think we can be friends then make yourself a nice cup of coffee, get comfortable, and enjoy!

How to Act Like a Human Being During the Holidays

1. Holiday traffic is a nightmare. Plan ahead.

It’s 2013 and we’re an advanced civilization, yet 99% of travelers tend to hit the highways and airports at the exact same time. There has to be a better way. Why not try an alternate mode of transportation this year like a Greyhound Bus, or the Amtrak? One is a traffic reducer, and the other is traffic-evader.

If you choose to drive your POV across the country, state or county, try to time your driving against the other 100 million drivers. Depart a couple days earlier? Take the trip home a couple days later? I highly recommend using the Waze app on your Android/iPhone. It will get you to your destination in the fastest manner possible.

2. Don’t fight over electronics in Walmart (no matter how inexpensive they are).

There isn’t a TV on this planet priced low enough that it would be worth a night in jail.

3. Avoid shopping during big sales.

Obviously, being a frugal-minded individual, you prefer to buy stuff on the cheap — BUT — big sales lead to bigger than anticipated purchases. You might walk into Best Buy looking for a cheap TV and walk out with a new cell phone, some Blu-Rays, and a new oven.

This time of year EVERYTHING is on sale, so it’s hard to avoid the temptation to buy all new stuff. How about blocking yourself from visiting Amazon.com, and limiting mall and department store trips down to zero as well. Sales are intended to get you to spend more money.

The super-low priced products are used as bait to get you into the door. Choose to not bite.

4. Stay away from crowded areas.

With crowds comes stress. With crowds also comes enormous lines (which are even more stressful). When you’re forced to stand in a line for any long period of time you’re prolonging your exposure to the goods and products that surround you.

The crowded mall food court starts to smell delicious, and before you know if you’re spending $20 on lunch which only adds to the spending you’re at the mall for in the first place.

5. DIY gifts can be super affordable and totally awesome.

Unfortunately, the masses have been conditioned to purchase all of their gifts pre-assembled. It can be a huge time saver to hit the mall, grab a few things, and be done shopping for the year like it’s some kind of chore. Or you can create stuff for your friends and family that is completely badass and insanely inexpensive.

Check out this photo pin-board my wife made recently for less than $20. Yeah it took a little bit longer to physically make it, but she didn’t have to battle her way through the mall to purchase it either.

6. Remember books?! They, too, make great presents.

When I was a kid I loved getting books as gifts. Then, when I was a angsty teenager I hated it. Then, I became an adult and I began loving books again. They make the perfect gift, because they’re fairly inexpensive and they can be entertaining, educational, or spiritual. Whatever the recipient is into.

You can pick up used books at thrift stores for $1 or less. Sometimes you’ll find a gem of a book, and it will be in GREAT condition, and it will come to $1.06 after tax. How’s that for a great, cost-efficient gift?

You could even print out every Johnny Moneyseed article ever. Bind them. Put a sweet cover on it. And give it as a gift. Holy shit — that’s nearly a free gift and it’s amazing.

7. Less is more when decorating your house.

You may have recently watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but hopefully you weren’t inspired to have the brightest Griswold-style house on the block this year.

There are many reasons to keep your holiday decor to a minimum:

  • The more lights you have the more electricity you will use which will lead to a bigger than normal energy bill.
  • The more things you have plugged, the higher the risk that you’ll burn your house down.
  • It costs a lot of money to buy a ton of decorations.
  • AND, your house probably just looks tacky if you load it with tons of lights and giant blow-up characters.

8. Keep drinking to a minimum (level of intoxication).

95% of the people that read Johnny Moneyseed love to drink alcohol — in moderation. Personally, I love a great craft beer or 5. But, when you’re hanging out with people you haven’t seen in a while a few drinks could end up in an impromptu wrestling match, or countless other bad decisions.

While we all love a good excuse to throw a few back, leave it at a few and don’t end up in jail for the New Year.

9. Don’t buy people shit unless they asked for it specifically.

Starting on December 26th, millions of people will be heading back to the malls with gift receipts in hand, for the purpose of getting rid of the crap they didn’t want.

Why enable this behavior? You’re going to avoid the mall in the first place, so it would be fair if no one else had to head to the mall to return stuff either. This is pretty easily avoided by getting people stuff that they actually want.

10. Gift cards are garbage.

I need to set the record straight on this. Why the hell would you ever buy someone a gift card? It’s like giving them money that they can only spend in one place.

It doesn’t mean that you want them to be able to pick out whatever they want, or even that you understand where they like to shop. It means that you’re lazy, have absolutely no creativity, and you just feel bad giving someone cash for whatever reason. Just give them the damn cash!

11. Set a limit on gift buying. and DON’T buy yourself ANYTHING.

I’ve seen it on Twitter and Facebook multiple times already “I went to the mall to buy gifts and ended up buying myself a few things. That’s okay right?” NO, IT’S NOT! Well, it is if you absolutely NEED something, but unplanned purchases typically fall into the ‘want’ category and should be avoided at all costs.

Without creating an upper-limit for holiday spending, gift buying can add up very quickly. With $200 you should be able to buy gifts for 10-20 people easily.

12. Great deals and saving are NOT the same thing.

Keep in mind that if you spend money of any kind, you essentially aren’t saving any money. You’re spending less than you normally would typically, but in no way are you saving anything.

Marketers have done their best over the years to make you feel like a good sale is extra money in your pocket, but this idea is complete lunacy.

13. Craigslist will be loaded with actual deals starting on December 26th.

Something magical happens right after a few hundred million Americans exchange gifts with each other. Tons of those people need to make room for the new stuff by getting rid of the old stuff.

You can find cheap appliances of all kinds, TVs, electronics, cell phones, games, etc. Pretty much everything you actually want is going to be on an instant fire sale, so set your Craigslist alerts and make sure you have a friend with a truck on standby.

14. Be grateful for what you do have.

Thanksgiving isn’t the only time of year that you need to be thankful of what you have. It should be an ongoing process, and shouldn’t be influenced by what you don’t have.

If you don’t receive the thing you really want, reflect on all of the things in your life that you do have. Think about the kids in Third World countries that have absolutely nothing. Think about your family. And, just think about how great the holidays really are.

17 Things That Will Push You From Middle Class To First Class

1. Learn the ins and outs of the US tax system.

The tax code may be one of the most boring and complex collections of documents in the history of the world. But — hidden under all of the Washingtonian lawyer jargon is some extremely valuable information. Information that could shave years off of your working career.

Have you ever heard of tax hacking? Traditional to Roth conversions? The fact that if you make less than $19,500 a year you don’t have to pay taxes whatsoever?? A tax-free life sounds pretty First Class to me.

Luckily there are actual human beings out there that have translated the cryptic tax hieroglyphs into human-readable format.

2. Own vs. Rent doesn’t matter. Size and function do.

There are advantages and disadvantages to owning AND renting. Equity vs. Mobility. DIY vs. Landlords. I know wealthy people that love being homeowners and others that have chosen to never settle in one place. Semantics!

What does matter is the size of your dwelling, and it’s intended purpose. Generally, the more space you require, the more it’s going to cost and the more it’s going to cost to insure. The bigger the place, the more you’ll feel inclined to fill it with unnecessary stuff.

Only buy/rent as much as you actually need and feel the added benefit of an increased positive cash flow. For example, we downsized our house which saves us around $16,500 every year.

3. Eat food that’s good AND good for you.

Food that’s actually good for you never tastes good, right? Once upon a time this might have been true, but the Internet tells us otherwise.

Vegan food can be delicious. Carb-free diets can be delicious. Healthy snacks like fruit, nuts and avocados ARE delicious naturally.

There are entire websites dedicated to providing healthy eating tips and recipes for creating amazing, delicious, good-for-your-body food. Feel free to leave other great health food blogs in the comments.

4. Do something about those love handles.

The most exercise that the average person gets on a daily basis is the walk to and from their car. It’s insanity! What are you doing in line for the elevator when it only takes about 2 minutes to climb 20 flights of stairs!? Exercise whenever the opportunity arises.

Make walking, biking, swimming, and general aerobic exercise a staple in your day-to-day life. Got a few minutes? Do some pushups, lunges, sit-ups or planks. Staying physically healthy significantly reduces the chances of medical treatment, ie. reduced health-care costs.

The easiest way to a long, happy, hip-replacement-free life is staying in shape.

5. Challenge yourself. Set goals. Plan.

When I started this site my intention was to be able to retire within a 7 year period, by age 35. As time went on my cash flow has significantly increased, and my plans have been accelerated more than I could have imagined.

What type of voodoo sorcery pushed me toward success? The simple application of goal-setting.

Create a plan for the next year, next 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. Once you write out a finite list of things that you want to accomplish, and make those goals a priority, you’ll find that you’ll become unstoppable.

6. Stop watching, start reading.

At what point in human history did “unwinding” turn into watching TV for 4-5 hours every night?

Call your telecomm company and remove cable from your account. You have better things to do with your time that are going to empower you in ways that the CBS Fall Lineup can’t. Plus, you’ll save about $900/year — so let them charge you a damn cancellation fee — who cares!

Figure out what your passions are, and start reading about them. There are self-help books about everything from sewing to learning how to master your finances.

7. Avoid small thinking AKA excuses and complaints.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people talking about the “Government Shutdown”, the “Fiscal Cliff”, “Obamacare”, or countless other Capital Hill talking points. These people have been trained to think that it helps to be informed about the latest crisis-of-the-day in Washington.

They complain about new policies that may or may not be in effect. And they stress out about the “what-ifs”.  They also think that their paychecks are under attack by taxes, but don’t realize that we currently paying the lowest taxes in US history!

Choosing to ignore political chatter will put you on the fast track to a First Class lifestyle. No one likes hearing other people complain. Especially about politics, so why join the conversation in the first place?

8. Mock convenience. The hard road is much more satisfying.

America is the convenience capital of the world. From the fact that almost everyone in the country has the following items: A cell phone, a car, access to clean water and toilets, and at least one convenience store or Wal-Mart within a 5-mile radius.

Why are we so obsessed with convenience? It’s because we’re fuckin’ lazy!

Your mission here is simple: Never step foot inside another convenience store, for any reason, ever. That includes Wal-Mart.

9. Optimize constantly.

No matter how hard you try, you will NEVER have the perfect budget. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for perfection though.

I try to optimize my family’s spending every single month. There’s always at least one category that needs our immediate attention. Anything from eating out to electricity usage to grocery spending is fair game. Not once have I ever had a perfect month, but we continuously try to improve where we lack.

Pare down your spending in all major categories, then focus on the categories that fluctuate the most from month-to-month. They’ll be easy to spot, and when you’re constantly thinking about optimization, your spending in these categories will nearly disappear.

10. Keep job related costs to a minimum.

Here’s the logic: You go to work to get paid, so any money that you spend on/at work reduces your pay by exactly that much. A $10 lunch 5 days a week isn’t just a $50 credit card payment, it’s $50 you had to spend when you were supposed to be EARNING money.

Thankfully, it’s really easy to counter this type of blatant wasteful spending. Here are a few ways to reduce the cost of being employed:

  • Bring your own lunch to work. No seriously, this saves so much money it isn’t even funny.
  • Bring a coffee pot to work and use it. Why tempt yourself into buying coffee on the way to work?
  • Keep a bunch of snacks in a cabinet at work. Peanuts, cans of tuna fish, whatever.
  • Carpool. Ride a bike. Rideshare. Public transportation. Stop driving a 2-ton vehicle to move your less than 300 pound body.

11. Buy used, refurbished, or last year’s model.

A great way to avoid the typical Middle Class lifestyle is to stop allowing advertisers to fill your heads with wants and desires that you don’t actually care about (this is another reason why ditching cable is a great thing).

I buy everything used or refurbished. Last year we were able to score a brand-new-to-us yet refurbished vacuum cleaner from Amazon, and we paid half-price. It works exactly like a brand-new product should.

Everything from furniture to electronics to books can be purchased second hand or refurbished. Why would you ever spend more money on something you could get cheaper? If you’re in the market for “new” stuff try typing in “refurbished” after your search term at Amazon. Or just go to Google and type “yard sales”.

12. Upgrade your cell service by “downgrading”.

For the past 15 years cell phones’ services and capabilities have increased at a logarithmic rate. Which means that newer cell phones really aren’t all that impressive anymore. Even Apple, the frontrunner, hasn’t done very much with its flagship iPhone over the past couple years.

So what happens when consumers are satisfied with the current array of top-tier devices? Anyone!?

This is when the cell phone providers have to do something different to attract customers — ie, drop the month-to-month cost of the standard bill.

Companies like Republic Wireless have taken this model to a whole different level. They’re offering a no-contract top-tier phone with unlimited everything for HALF-PRICE with plans starting at $5 that range up to $40 per month depending on features. While you might be leaving your big name provider, you’ll be able to keep up to $80/month every month by “downgrading”.

13. Embrace frugality.

It’s cool to be frugal these days. Seriously. Try posting the words “I just saved $50 at the grocery store” to Facebook and see how many ‘likes’ you get.

My mom (a Baby Boomer) got a lot of her clothes from Goodwill when she was younger and it was horribly embarrassing for her. Second hand clothes used to be ugly, but now they’re awesome.

And saving money is cool again, so you can show off your “new” threads and brag about the price you bought them for. It’s a best time ever to be a consumer!

14. Collect memories instead of stuff/things/junk.

One easy way to live a First Class life is to shift your value system — from caring about having stuff to caring about having experiences.

Oftentimes, people dream about travelling during retirement. Yet they spend their entire working careers buying more and more stuff. Wasteful spending is the reason why many people have to work into their 70s, and the reason they don’t get to travel while they’re still working.

When you’re on your deathbed, you’ll think about all of the things you DID in your life rather than the things you HAD. A significant reduction in spending can help to pad your “vacation savings” enough to be able to travel at least once per year. Internationally, if you do well enough!

15. Buy for life, not for the moment.

When my wife and I got married we bought a house and some basic tools…at Target. Needless to say, the tools didn’t last more than 6 months. At which point, we were forced to buy replacements.

They sell power drills at Target for $25 and at Home Depot for $100. You can imagine the dilemma. Do I spend less money for something that I know won’t last another 6 months OR do I spend the big money ONCE?

This question needs to be asked whenever you’re about to make ANY purchase. Do you want something kinda shitty for less, or something that’s a little more expensive but could possibly last forever?

16. Keep your car running for 200,000 miles (at least).

Financed vehicles cost as much (if not more) annually than the places we live. Yet, when our vehicles start to “get old” and have “high mileage” we trade them in for a new car payment and more insurance.

Your car is a 2009 with 85k miles on it?? That’s practically BRAND NEW!

Have you ever heard of a Haynes Manual? They teach you how to fix ANYTHING on a car. They make them for every make and model vehicle from Chevy to Ford to Qingpi. They’re like $20 and will pay for themselves a million times over if you can keep your car running for the next decade.

17. Build and maintain relationships that make you happy.

If you asked a million people what they wanted in life the most common answer would be “to be happy”. While happiness can only be achieved by individuals, it’s always nice to have a little bit of help from our friends.

Surrounding yourself with people that have a positive impact on your life and distancing yourself from those that drag you down can be very empowering.

It doesn’t take any money whatsoever to be happy. Achieving happiness is the only thing you need to live a First Class life.

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 coupons.com 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!