In an earlier time, as a frugally-minded but financially-careless young bachelor, I decided $10 a day was a very solid baseline for a food budget. It was a nice round number and it felt about right. Cold cereal with milk couldn’t cost more than $1-2 total for two bowls, a bagel with cream cheese and/or an assortment of frozen lunches could be toasted or microwaved respectively for about $2-3, and a $5 burrito wrapped up the day. In fact, I figured that many days I probably snuck in under ten bucks, justifying the odd lunch or dinner out with friends. I felt like I was managing things reasonably, but I really have no idea how I did because I didn’t actually keep track.
I’m entirely certain I didn’t stay under $10 in terms of food consumption as I measure it today, partially because I don’t put much stock in my “I’m sure it averages out to $10” methodology, but largely because I now include alcohol and drinks like coffee in my food budget. It’s also quite obvious that my eating habits were, let’s forgivingly say, suboptimal. So if I could barely keep it to around $10 per day living off bachelor-chow, where do I get off talking about eating like royalty for that rate?
If you’re picturing nightly chalices of ale and platters of buttered pheasant, I kind of think that’s awesome, but you’re right to scoff. Of course, nobody needs to eat like glorified medieval nobility in order to eat exceptionally well. If you can adjust your perception of good eating to one that involves a varied, nutritious diet filled with delicious dishes you made yourself with your own hands, you can easily eat well for ten dollars a day.
Those that have already gotten the hang of controlling their food budget are probably nodding along paternalistically at this point – from things I’ve read, people who are really good at this can get their cost per meal somewhere around $1. I’m angling for three times that! While I would like to imagine one day getting down to around a $2 CPM (accounting for living in a relatively high-cost area and opting to pay the premium for a high percentage of organic food, this could be our floor), it seems a bit hasty to jump to that on day one. $3.33 per meal, inclusive of drinks and alcohol, seems like an appropriate first step.
There’s a question of how much of a difference a baby step can make. My partner and I are already pretty non-spendy, and according to our records from Quicken last year, we actually didn’t spend vastly more than $20/day (total) at grocery stores, which even includes some household goods like paper towels that we weren’t splitting out then. However, let’s take a hypothetical and say you’re enjoying a CPM of around $4. Cutting down to $3.33 is a 17% drop, a not-so-crazy sounding $0.67 per meal. Multiply this out over a full year’s worth of meals though and you’re saving nearly $1500 annually – per person in your household. If you’re looking for the quickest path to financial independence, invest this sum and you’ve probably just shaved years off your working life, in no small part because you’ve also reduced your lifetime expenses, forever, reducing the total you need to save even as you’re saving more.
This aspect of home stewardship was one of the original goals I had upon becoming unemployed, and I’m excited to try and implement it. To that end, I finally got it together and took my first trip to my local wholesaler, hoping to reap the benefits of bulk pricing and use it to cut my costs. Early results are mixed. For example, we don’t eat a ton of eggs, but we needed some to bake that night, so I got them there. The smallest package of organic eggs was 18, at a cost of $5.79, or $0.32 per egg. That per egg number compares extremely well with the $2.69 we usually pay for a mere six eggs, which works out to $0.45 – that’s almost 30% less! But sometimes we don’t even finish the six eggs before they go bad, so we’ll have to make a real effort to consume 18. Still, when we cooked up five eggs for the two of us yesterday at a total cost of $1.60, compared to the $1.34 it cost me a week earlier to whip up three for just myself, we were certainly making the CPM gods happy.
A longer post on wholesale shopping may come down the line later when I have a bit more experience with how it will work with our diet and lifestyle. For now, I’ll be happy to work on bringing our CPM down by shopping smarter and cooking more, hopefully blowing past my fuzzy bachelor logic for reasonable costs in no time, and setting us on a firmer path to financial independence in the process.