Eating Your Way To Financial Independence
Today’s post is about food. If you’re allergic to pictures of food, this probably isn’t the post for you. Instead, you could try reading something I wrote about investing, saving, or even dividends.
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.
46 thoughts on “Eating Your Way To Financial Independence”
Mr. Tako, your food spending is ridiculously low! I need to get on your level.
This is a great example of “snowballing knowledge”. Your carnitas tacos look like something you’d pay $12 for two at a restaurant here. I should try and cook 1 different thing every 2 weeks. That way I’d learn how to make a bunch of yummy things. I just cook the same things over and over now haha.
$3/pound is a great rule. I probably eat .5-1 poind of food per meal so you’d never get above $1.5 per meal!
Yep, you got it Olivia! The 3 Dollar rule helps us keep the cost per meal down below $2 per meal.
Simple rules of thumb like this help us make smart choices in the grocery store.
Wow, that graph with grocery vs eating out is simply shocking! I like going out to dinner on occasion, but we will never manage to match these two expenses! But that an entire nation is able to pull this off, that says something.
By the way, when is your cook book coming out? 😉
Haha! A cookbook? I’m not sure anyone would read it Cheesy!
Great post. I’m guilty of buying prepared snacks as a vegan. But generally I buy fresh produce and do a lot of cooking / steaming in our rice cooker.
Food bills for a family of 3 is about $750 per month. If I were to go shopping at the local wet market I’m sure I could take a pretty big whack out of that but it wasn’t worth the effort of driving or taking a taxi over and navigating through the hot, smelly and dank corners to score that deal on fruit. Now for buying in bulk, the economics definitely change and it’s worth going.
I really like the analysis you did on having a home garden and looking at the input costs (seeds) vs the produce harvested.
Keep up the great posts.
Wow, you have a wet market nearby? I guess our local asian grocery store is about as close as we get to a wet market. We make a trip there about once a week to stock on cheap asian foodstuffs.
Someone spill to the mid-westerner: What’s a “wet market?”
“In my not-so-humble opinion, restaurants and junk-food culture make people lazy, poor, and helpless when it comes to food.”
You forgot overweight/obese in this statement but I agree. Some of the chemically injected franken-foods in our stores scare me.
Looks like you’ve got food hacking down to a science. Your pics are awesome! Now I’m hungry after reading this and am going to make a breakfast omelette – simple, healthy, and cheap!
Nice! Thanks as always for your kind comments Accidental FIRE. 🙂
Mr. Tako – I really like your Three Dollar Rule and I may give it a shot if I can convince Mrs. FF.
We typically eat out about once per week for “fun”. We used to eat out a lot less when we lived in the Burbs but now that we live in downtown Philly we constantly walk by tantalizing restaurants.
Fortunately, Mrs. FF is a great cook and cooks dinner 4 days per week. I’m not as good a cook but I cook the other 3 days. I need to up my game to some of your delicious looking dishes.
I also have the American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card which gives 6% off on groceries up to a $6,000 spend per year.
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6% off groceries? Nice. That would work out to be $360/year for us.
Not too shabby! 🙂
Back when we were in grad school we used to shop circulars among other ways of cutting costs. Now we buy whatever we want at the grocery store, which makes me feel ultra wealthy. But we still don’t spend that much compared to many ($100-200/ week for a family of 4, mostly organic or minimal ingredient), I think because we make a lot from scratch and most importantly we don’t let a lot of food go to waste. As far as I can tell it is the food wastage that starts to add up, not the being ridiculous and buying a $14 duck (which we did this week and has been used in curry, will be salad tonight, and turned into duck stock this weekend).
Wow, less than $200 for a family of four is really good. How old are your kids?
$200/week, not month! We spend more than you do.
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Nomnom this is one of my most favorite posts of the week! Whenever you write about food, I know I have to read it. I have to admit I’m usually too lazy to look at the coupons and deals. Mr. FAF, however, is very good at this. He refuses to buy certain ingredients like pork bones and radish when they are not on sale.
I LOVE all of the food pics you posted!
Thanks Ms. FAF! You always leave the sweetest comments!
Sounds like Mr. FAF is a keeper! 😉
$3.99 dungenees crab! Where? I haven’t seen that price for years. I need to drop by our seafood store.
Great pictures. It’s so much easier to cook now. There are so many great videos on YouTube. Pretty much anything you can imagine.
The food culture is neat if you’re not caught up in it. There are so many great restaurants now. Even the good ones can’t stay open long. We go out once in a while and enjoy it.
We go out on special occasions too, but it’s quite rare. Mostly when we’re traveling.
The crab was on sale at Fred Meyer. The circulars said the sale was $5.99 but when I got to our local store it was $3.99/lb. I was surprised at the low cost too! Haven’t seen that price in years.
Haha, eating your way to FI… love it.
It’s funny, I was just thinking about this last night. We actually do pretty good with our grocery bill (thank you Aldi!). However, with both of us working, I feel like we’re always rushed for dinner.
I can’t wait to quit working in a couple years. Being able to start a garden, have fresh ingredients, take our time making a nice dinner, and actually enjoying eating the food sounds wonderful.
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It is pretty great! We *wish* there was an Aldi nearby us. Unfortunately they haven’t made it out West yet.
The other thing we do for meat is often it will drop to 50% on the sell by date. This is perfectly ok as long as you eat or freeze it soon.
We also buy a lot of pork, chicken, beef when it’s under $3, then also grind a lot of it up for sausage or ragu. You can also bulk it out with cheap veggies that kids won’t see!
Our goal for this year is $600 a month for groceries as I have two older kids who eat us out of house and home.
Yep, meat is one of the most expensive items on any grocery list. We try to not eat a lot of meat and to always buy it on sale.
Mr. Tako, this post is spot on!
The importance of eating at home is astronomical when it comes to reaching Financial Independence. I often times hear coworkers say how broke they are in the office break room… as they are eating take out from a neighboring restaurant.
We spend about $150-200(2 adults) per month now and feel like we are eating better than ever. It does take a little additional planning and preparation but the end result is worth it!
Loved this post!
Thanks MT! Nice food spending you’ve got there!
The shredded pork and home-made pizza look great. Yeah, it takes a lot of time to cook. I don’t enjoy cooking, but try to make something every day. It’s a chore to me. Look forward to an A.I. cook at home, so I can push a button, and let it cook and clean afterwards.
I try not to make it a chore, but to keep it a passion. Some of the time I make what the family likes, but a lot of time I simply make what I’m craving. 😀
Totally agree with you about home cooked meals! A win-win for your health, budget, family time and taste. Last year I mastered baked chicken and no knead sourdough bread. With online resources and great you-tube videos it’s easy to learn a lot of great recipes.
How do you stick to your buying habits though? I’m finding it harder not to splurge on things I’ve always wanted to do (mainly home renovation and trips) now that we’ve paid off the mortgage and have hefty stock market gains that have been converted to cash.
How do I stick to my buying habits?
Well, they’re habits! I don’t even think about The 3 Dollar Rule anymore…I just walk into the grocery store and my brain does it automatically…
“No…No….$1.99/lb? Yes, I can make something with that!”
We do travel more these days, but I limit it to one big trip per year and then a number of smaller road trips.
This is probably the biggest area I think we can do to reduce our budget. It isn’t unusual for us to spend $1200 or more a month on food. Part of that is because of the convenience of take out. We just need to do a better job with not ordering it, particularly if we don’t want to cook (well I should say my wife not wanting to cook….because about all I can do is boil water). My goal initially is to get this to under $1000 a month and try to put the screws down from there. We have to start somewhere.
“all I can do is boil water”.
I think that’s part of your food budget problem right there. Too many men fall into this trap, and when the wife gets tired they get takeout.
Step up your game man! Start by mastering one of your favorite foods at home. Once you’ve got that down, move on to the next recipe. I guarantee Mrs. Jason will love it! 😉
One thing that has really helped us over the years is my wife plans the shopping and majority of menus, but I follow the recipes and do most of the cooking. And we spilt shopping.
She hates cooking, I hate planning. We both are “ok” with doing the other chores. 🙂
I also make up meals via Google searches… Hmmm, I have these ingredients, what can I make. For example I had brussel sprout leaves (like collard greens) and eggs…. Google Google Google…. And poof, I had polenta made from cornmeal with steamed greens and fried eggs.
Later that day “greens parsnips potatoes lentil”…. Came up with a curried dish after throwing in other veggies and whipped up some injerra style sourdough flat bread from our sourdough starter with some herbs thrown in and fried pancake style. Crazy meal! Delicious!
So, we Rarely eat out, usually only on vacation. Even this week, we’ve been on at-home-vacation and only ate out once because we lost power with the wind storm.
Our bills had been higher for a long time due to still buying lasagna, ravioli, pizza, etc to fill in. But have done a lot more from scratch lately due to some diet restrictions. It’s actually been nice, the food is way better and we’re really expanding our repertoire.
I always find the rules of thumbs helpful. $3 a pound is a good one. It will probably help me create some other rules of my own.
I love it when you post pictures of delicious food but it is hell on my diet!
Also, I am human or cephalopod and have checked the appropriate box.
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We’re vegetarian so for the most part our food costs are pretty low, ‘thrifty’ on the government scale. Gardening, though, feeds hubby’s soul, not just our bodies. It’s a weirdly near-zen thing for him being out with the plants. Comes by it honestly, one of his grandfathers was a farmer.
Vine-ripened tomatoes… I’d have to have some tomato plants, at minimum. Fortunately he can grow quite a variety beyond that but even if all he grew was tomatoes, he can play in the dirt all he wants.
You’re absolutely right about food spending being high for many people. Food spending is #2 on our list of highest expenses behind housing. We don’t cook at home enough because we really do enjoy eating out a lot. Additionally, we view eating out as an entertainment/food expense. This is why we’re not FIRE’d but I’m okay with that for now. I’m slowly adding different, delicious recipes to my repertoire so eventually we’ll fix this…
We shop similarly: letting the front page loss leaders tell us what meat, fruit, & veggies we’re going to load up on. I’ve found that if I can come up with one or two recipes for a kind of meat, then we’re golden.
Haven’t tried something as cool as pork shoulder though: with just two of us, I end up staying away from big cuts. Though maybe a big freezer would do the trick.
One of these days we need to gather the foodie PF bloggers and have a big cookoff!
Awesome! We have a food budget of $500 a month too! And this includes going out to eat (not just groceries)!
I’ll admit it’s probably easier for me to keep to our budget because we have a family of only two (for now it’s just me and my wife until our baby comes next month), we only eat whole plant foodd (cheaper than meat) and we rarely go out to eat (maybe once every other week). Plus I do intermittent fasting (only eat two meals) and one of those meals is provided for me (the perks of being a doctor and a having healthy lunch catered to me for free!)
I too have a garden, but like you I doubt it saves me much.
I consider it yard art, and just plant what we like that produces over a period of time. Tomatoes, green beans, and okra in the spring/summer and spinach and kale in the winter.
Mr. Tako, you definitely have a nice balance of flavor and finances! $500 (or less) and you still eat like a King… props.
I love food as well but definitely spend a whole lot more than you eating out. The good news is I do get lots of invitations to try restaurants from my food blog… so at least some of my outings are subsidized. 🙂
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Hi Mr Tako 🙂
I absolutely LOVE my slow cooker! As you said you can put in the cheapest cuts of meat and the most humdrum of ingredients and 8 hours later they are magically transformed. Plus the house smells absolutely delicious while the food is cooking 😉
Mmm that carnitas taco looks delicious. I buy things when they are on sale too but I don’t have the conscientiousness to go to multiple places that are on sale. I usually just go to one store and buy whatever is on sale there.
I like your $3 rule, I should adopt it!
Do you have a recipe for your pizza from scratch on your blog? I would love to learn how to make pizza from scratch.
Have you tried the Flipp app or Flipp website, I’m not sure if it’s in US but you can see all the local flyers online. My husband likes drinking red bull and I just search “red bull” and it tells me where it is on sale for the week. I don’t get so many circulars being in an apartment so using Flipp has been great.
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Eating out is definitely one of my favourite things to do (although, it does depend on where. Eating out in Holland isn’t really worth it, but eating out in Poland, Hell yeah!) , so while I can probably save more money by cooking all the time, I don’t bother, just because I love eating out so much. I do, however, limit the number of times we eat out–ie no more than 50% of the week. Not just for pricing reasons but because eating out makes you gain SO MUCH weight. Unless we’re in SE Asia, then it’s eating out all the time and somehow losing weight 😀
I like your less than $3/lbs rule. I use to cook way more when we were working–I’d just do easy recipes in big batches so I don’t have to cook everyday. I also buy the stuff that’s on sale and in season and those ingredients into my recipes rather than the other way around. I think the key to getting people to cook more is a) easy recipes and b) do it in batches so they don’t need to continuously do it. It also helps to have some convenience food around (like frozen pizzas), for those days where it’s too hectic and they didn’t plan in advance (this happens surprisingly often when you’re stressed from work). Cooking requires a lot of planning, and sometimes people just don’t have the time or energy and they slip up every now and then. It’s understandable. I used to give up on some days and just go out to eat, but if I had bought frozen pizzas the previous week, that would save my budget.
I’d also make the argument that going out to eat to celebrate something is totally worth the cost. The change in scenery and having someone else take care of the prepping and dishes does wonders for your dopamine levels 🙂
Great post on saving money with cooking! All it really takes is some planning and experience.
Nice hack on the $3/lb rule! I can’t math it but I’ll see the orange clearance 50% off stickers stores put out so I mental half the price and if it seems worth, I’ll buy it.
It never occurred to me to make pizza in a skillet! Does it work well? I should try that. I hate using the big oven just for one small pizza.
I continue to be amazed by what people by every time I go into a grocery store or Costco. Boxes and cases of soda, bottled water, prepared foods, and who knows what else. I listen to the checker say, “$250.00.” What is in the cart? Nothing. And then I think about the fact that we live on that for a month when we are frugal, and for two weeks when we are not. My grocery cart, full, would be about $700 because of what we would put in it . . . but it would last about 3 months if nothing spoiled. Dining out is a treat in our home. Making meals in bulk – and there are only 2 of us – is a habit: kettle of soup, kettle of stew, casseroles of chicken. Everything is then parceled out and put in the freezer for days after or when we are too tired. Then pull it out, add a salad or something else, and there you are. And, both of us work full time.
I like your receipes! We are struggling with cooking daily. I quite like cooking but the problem is that my partner is a very picky eater and a terrible cook. He does his fair amount of chores around the house but when it comes tot our meals I’m the one that decides what’s on the menu, which ingredients we need tot buy and I do the actual cooking. Because he is picky I cannot ‘play around’ that much with new dishes to serve and all of this together makes cooking meals after a long day of work another chore instead of something I enjoy. Because I get tired and sick of this we fall into the takeaway trap. Still haven’t found a solid solition for this which is also kind for out budget. I would love for you tot write a boom with frugal receipes!