For everyone else, let’s talk about food!
For our family, food is an important part of how we reached financial independence. Food is also part of how we enjoy our financial independence. We absolutely love to eat in the Tako family, and we might even be a little obsessed with food… but we STILL manage to keep our food budget relatively sane.
Good food doesn’t have to be expensive!
Readers are always commenting on how low our food expenses are — typically we spend around $500 per month on groceries for our family of four. It’s as regular as rain in Seattle.
This seems to blow people’s minds for some reason. I get blog comments and emails about it all the time.
“How do you spend so little on food?”
“I’m simply amazed you’re able to keep your grocery budget so low!”
“Do you eat cat food or something? How do you spend so little?”
Apparently spending more than $700 per month for two people isn’t uncommon these days.
Well, it’s time for me to come clean — I’ve been keeping a little secret. Not everything I include in our grocery expenses is just food. It also include toiletry items — toothpaste, toilet paper, diapers, baby wipes, shampoo, soap, etc. Basically all of the miscellaneous stuff a person might buy at a grocery store, but can’t be bothered to subtract-out when writing a blog post on monthly expenses.
In reality, our monthly food cost is actually lower than $500/month.
Want to know how we do it? Read on!
Popular Food Culture
Forgive me for making generalizations, but I believe the vast majority of humans in this world love to eat. Very few people enjoy cooking however. This is a sad state of affairs.
Apparently preparing food is hard … so much so that many people would rather pay someone large sums of cash to do it for them. People now spend more dining out than they do on groceries:
There’s several things going on here — Most people realize homemade is healthier and cheaper, but making a home-cooked meal every day isn’t easy. Most of the families in my circle of friends do attempt to cook at home. Notice I said attempt.
They try, but inevitably these same families end-up eating-out multiple times per week. Fatigue and laziness win. They’ll order a pizza, go out for dinner, or simply reheat prepared food from Costco.
These same families also fail to save a lot of money. Correlation or causation?
The world is also filled with delicious food that many people would never attempt to prepare at home — Either because they lack experience, or simply won’t attempt because of the time investment required (good food often takes time).
Eventually though, somebody gets a craving and it’s off to a restaurant to devour some sushi, slurp-up some pho, or munch down a delicious gyro.
Holiday get-togethers are a different story of course. A typical family goes “all out” to prepare traditional meals with no expense spared. In the United States, this might be a turkey with all the trimmings on Thanksgiving or a nice Christmas prime-rib. These kinds of meals destroy the monthly food budget.
No matter how you add-it-up, food spending is now a significant portion of most family budgets. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food spending is now #3 on the list of top consumer expenses (right below housing and transportation).
Eating-In For The Win
As you might imagine, the Tako household does things a little differently. Unless we’re traveling, we really don’t eat at restaurants — Like at all. You can go ahead and check all my old monthly expense posts, but we only eat at restaurants a handful of times per year. We cook at home instead.
This was a conscious decision Mrs. Tako and I made many years ago, and the simple act of “opting-out” from restaurant and fast food culture made a huge difference in how much we spend on food every month. No longer were we paying someone else to prepare our food, but we began paying ourselves.
It made a dramatic and immediate difference in our budget. This started a snowball of food savings that continues to this day.
Meal Planning & Shopping
Of course, just cutting-out restaurants won’t get you down below $500/month. At this level of spending, you’ll need to reduce the daily cost of a food down to under $4 per person. That’s not a lot of money to throw around.
Am I some kind of crazy master meal planner or extreme couponer? Nah!
Once a week I simply open-up the weekly grocery store flyer and figure out what we’re going to eat. We buy what’s on sale. After years of doing this, I have a very good idea of what’s a good price to pay for dozens of ingredients.
Most ingredients we purchase fall under what I call The 3 Dollar Rule — Simply put, if an item costs more than $3 per pound we don’t buy it. There are exceptions of course (such as spices or nice cuts of meat), but I would say 80%-90% of our grocery spending falls under this one simple rule.
The remaining 10%-20% is reserved for more expensive items.
Seasonal & Special
The 3 Dollar Rule means we take good advantage of opportunities when they arise. We’re basically always eating food in season (when ingredients are at their cheapest), OR when they’re deeply discounted to drive store traffic (aka loss leaders).
Just last week my local grocery store had pork shoulder on sale for $1.47/pound. It was a good deal, so I bought plenty. Half of that pork shoulder went into my chest freezer for later meals, and the other half was made into two meals last week.
For the first meal, I made fresh ground sausage. This was combined with other ingredients to make a delicious sausage and bean soup.
The second meal from the pork shoulder went into a personal favorite of mine — Carnitas tacos. If you’ve never tried carnitas before, it’s a Mexican shredded pork recipe that’s marvelous.
It takes all day to cook, but I don’t mind — I use the slow cooker to do most of the hard work. After cooking for 5ish hours, the pork is then shredded and ‘browned’ in the oven. It looks like this…
The final product makes for a very delicious taco. Easily one of my favorite taco recipes that uses one of the cheapest cuts of meats around.
Carnitas is a great example of a dish that takes plenty of time to prepare, but very little money.
Most really delicious meals are like this — time is more important than money to create incredible flavors. Slow cookers and pressure cookers are excellent for achieving great flavor on a budget.
I try to make a few of these “special” meals every week to keep everyone happy. My kids (for example), absolutely love pepperoni pizza. Rather than buying a mediocre frozen pizza, I take the time to make it from scratch.
It’s cheap, and the results always tastes outstanding!
If you spend some time thinking about my 3 Dollar Rule, you’ll realize that most snack foods won’t cut the mustard.
The vast majority of prepared snack foods are WAY too expensive. Kale chips, chocolate bars, or fancy drinks? All too expensive under our budget constraints.
That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy a good snack of course! The Tako family loves snacking, but we simply limit ourselves to frugal options — Fresh fruit that’s on sale, or our family favorite: popcorn!
We love popcorn so much that I wrote an entire post about it. It’s easy to make, really cheap, and can be flavored in a million different ways.
What About Growing Your Own?
Believe it or not, gardening used to be one of our main hobbies. We use to plant a garden every year, and put in a lot of effort trying to grow our own food.
Unfortunately, the Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly a great spot for gardening (due to the cold-wet climate), but we tried anyway. This went on for several years, and then I ran the numbers…
After adding up the cost of seeds, fertilizer, plant starts, pots and other garden paraphernalia, I realized it was less expensive to buy food at the grocery store. Small scale gardening just isn’t productive enough to compete with commercial food production at scale.
For most people, trying to grow your own food isn’t going to save you money — Putting your money in the stock market will earn a far better return that attempting to save money on food via gardening.
After that, we seriously scaled-back our garden aspirations. We now operate what I call an Economic Garden. It’s extremely low-cost (basically free), and produces a small portion of our food in the summer.
Like most important things in life, a balance has to be found. There’s a tradeoff between flavor, frugality, and convenience… and it’s all very personal.
On one hand, food can be a source of pleasure in life — You could eat out every meal, but your budget and culinary skills would suffer as a result.
In my not-so-humble opinion, restaurants and junk-food culture make people lazy, poor, and helpless when it comes to food. Relying on others to provide food is dependence.
I’m all about independence. I love making meals that taste twice as good as anything in a restaurant at half the cost. When a frugal-yet-delicious meal comes together, I’m giving myself mental fist-bumps for a job well done.
That’s not something that can be bought. You have to make it.