How much do you spend on food each month? Don't know? That's okay. For a long time I didn't have any idea how much I spent on food, until college graduation gave me a dose of reality.
I just had to know—how much did I spend on takeout? How much at restaurants? What about when I decided to cook? I had this nagging sensation that I was being wasteful in terms of dollars, but in also in terms of food that I didn't end up eating. And what I learned startled me—I found out that the average amount of food waste, per person, is 40% of all the food that we buy.
Armed with this troubling statistic, I began to track all of my food expenses and kept at it for 6 months. The results were surprising (and totally worth it).
My Food Expenses Over Six Months
The blue line: Groceries ($300 beginning - $205 now)
The yellow line: Restaurants ($170 beginning - $80 now)
The red line: Takeout ($80 beginning - $60 now)
At the beginning of this experiment I was averaging $540/month in food expenses (and this is when I was earning $1250 / month after taxes living alone in Vancouver!) Now my average food bill (still trending downwards) is $335/month. So, what changed?
1. Being aware of the problem got me started. Simply being aware of a problem can help to automatically solve the problem. In Tim Ferriss's The Four Hour Body, he recounts the story of Phil Libin, who, at 258 pounds, decided that he needed to lose weight. And lose weight he did—to the tune of 28 lbs over 6 months.
So how did he do it? Did he subscribe to the hottest new diet, or click that ad that seems to be everywhere on the internet, "Lose stubborn belly fat with this one weird trick ..."? Nope and nope. All Phil did was track his weight in an Excel graph every day. He set his goal weight, drew in upper and lower daily targets to get to that goal, and then did...nothing. Simply being aware of the problem (or goal) caused him to lose 28 lbs in 6 months.
In my case, being aware of how much my almost-daily $11 chicken schwarma plate was costing me every month automatically allowed me to lower it. The same went for restaurant expenses, which generally tended to be the most expensive and wasteful of the three. The result: awareness and analytics—even without conscious action—can solve the problem by itself. No awareness or tracking... good luck. In the words of Peter Drucker, "What gets measured gets managed."
2. The pareto principle gave me a big win. The pareto principle states that approximately 80% of the effects of an event come from 20% of the causes. What this meant for me was that making small changes to my most expensive habits (restaurants) could cause disproportionately large monthly savings.
I saw that my most wasteful habit was the impromptu restaurant visits when I had no food in the house. I'd get home from work, being hungry and tired, notice that I had no food, and end up spending $30—$50 at a restaurant with a friend. Armed with the knowledge of what was causing my biggest expenses, I sought to replace the odd restaurant visit with an attempt to cook at home (which I identified as the most efficient thing I could do).
I learned that even if I was fairly wasteful when cooking at home, it was still much more efficient (in dollars) than going out to a restaurant. So I changed my routine—instead of heading straight home after work, I'd stop by the grocery store and see if inspiration struck.
When beginning this new habit I'd often end up buying groceries that went bad before I used them, or I'd attempt to cook and make something that tasted, well, interesting. But despite these necessary growing pains, I did begin to save money. And I found out that this new, less-wasteful habit I had created was beginning to become more enjoyable than going out to restaurants. Double win. The result: replacing a higher waste activity with a lower waste activity allowed me to save money without drastically changing my lifestyle. Big wins come first.
3. I optimized away the remaining waste. Now that my graph was trending downwards and I didn't feel like I was giving anything up, I decided it was time to optimize my grocery bill. Restaurant and takeout expenses were pretty well taken care of. But my grocery bill still seemed unnecessarily large for somebody cooking for one.
I began to plan my meals manually and, later, developed a meal planning service for people like me to automatically solve this problem. I made it easy on myself by identifying meals that were simple to cook and high yield, and wrote down all the required ingredients. These would be my go-to meals that I could make in a pinch. Not only did these meals provide a high amount of low cost (and healthy) food, they also eliminated the need to get my favorite chicken schwarma dish for lunch at work because I brought the previous evening's dinner instead.
I then progressed to planning my entire week of meals ahead of time. I would head to the grocery story on the weekend to grab groceries for the week ahead and set aside recipes to cook each day after work. The result: my grocery expenses continued to trend downwards. I've drastically cut my 40% food waste number, and my total monthly food expenses are down to $335 (from $540).
Other Ways I've Optimized My Food Bill
I've continued to refine my meal planning strategy and have managed to cut my expenses even further by having the right tools for brown bagging my lunch to work, and by getting co-workers on board for moral support. I have more expensive months like everybody else (holiday and birthday months tend to be the biggest) but because of the system I have in place, I can occasionally indulge without feeling guilty about it.