…And keeping a moderately full wallet sure helps, too!
I moved in with my boyfriend 4 months ago, and it’s only now that I’m starting to feel like this is “home”. I had my stuff, we redecorated and refurnished…but what I really needed to stop feeling out of my element was to have control over food. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But I grew up on the southern edge of Chinatown and that means I was accustomed to cheap yet fresh food. If I ate out in Chinatown, a meal was $5.50. If I bought produce for me and my uncle, $7 would last us two weeks. Meanwhile, I know coworkers would talk about how joining a CSA (local farms produce sharing) was cheap at $20 a week. I could barely fathom what they used to pay before joining a CSA, the thought horrified me. So that means my grocery bills for me and my uncle were roughly $150 a month – we probably only got outside food on weekends, and remember again that Chinatown food is still a third of the price of an American restaurant.
There’s an app you can get for Macs called “iBank” – it’s basically the same as Quicken but with a better UI, in my opinion. My credit card statements get imported every month, and I hand-input the cash-transactions I make. It creates these awesome pie graph charts for me to see how my spending is going. I haven’t figured out how to truly balance it with my income, since I refuse to link it to my actual bank account. Security reasons, personal preference. I started doing this in July and it was SUCH a shocker….I didn’t realize that after moving in with my boyfriend, we were spending so much more on food!!!
July Food Bill (Groceries + Dining Out) – $307.27
I have NEVER spent that much on food in one month…in my life. While freaking out, I talked to some friends and coworkers, and it seems that the “300s” is what they consider a good range for food per month. And keep in mind, my boyfriend sometimes pays for stuff and we usually go dutch, so our collective food bill is surely even worse. I immediately became homesick….being near Chinatown at home, our bills were $150-200 max…this was not something I was used to seeing.
So I set out to lower my food costs.
There is a lot of strategy that goes in to saving money on food, so rule #1 is absolutely the most important.
Rule #1: Do Not Be Lazy
This is an overall rule. Convenience has it’s fee, and that fee may seem small in a single transaction…but it really adds up. Instead of buying everything I need for the night’s dinner in one spot, at one time, you really have to check circulars and see where the sales are. You have to make time for grocery shopping; people often stock up on groceries on their weekends for a reason.
Rule #2: Know Your Area
Back home, I’d hit up 3 different grocery stores plus Chinatown to get ingredients. Here in Park Slope, bringing down my food bill seemed hard because the closest grocery is 50 cents to $1.50 more expensive per item than the groceries where I used to live. And you know what…? Chinatown is only ONE subway stop away. So I stopped being lazy and started going back there on weekends, with an empty backpack. Why pay $3.50 for a sleeve of garlic when I can pay $0.50 to $1.00 for it? And that lasts over a month, even with daily use. I also explored my area a bit more and realized that just two avenues over, prices DROP. It’s a slightly less gentrified area, and the prices are more like home. Even the nail salons have more of the pricing I’m used to – in Park Slope proper, a mani pedi is $35. Two avenues over, it’s $20! So I started shopping at that grocery, plus another Korean grocery that I found near the subway with cheap, Chinatown-like prices for produce. Example, 2 giant green peppers for $1 (good for 6 dinners). This weekend, I explored an extra avenue over and realized the Gowanus Whole Foods is NOT that far away. People I’ve met in the neighborhood kept telling me it’s far and I’d want to drive. That’s just…lazy…I used to walk 25 minutes to Whole Foods back in Manhattan. I’d get my grocery round up done in a couple hours in the morning and have the rest of the weekend free…just plan your route, where you wanna hit up that day, before you set out the door. It can be efficient if you make it efficient.
Rule #3: Only Buy Items On Sale
I learned about “circulars” from my parents, and I worry that my own generation has no idea what they are….because well, when I mention a store’s circular, they have no idea what I’m talking about. Even my boyfriend, who’s 4 years older than me, has no idea what that is :( Anyway, it’s that flyer you get in your building (or at the front door of any grocery/pharmacy) that shows the sales for that week. You can still find them in print, but for your convenience, all the chain stores put them online as well. Keyfood, Associated, CVS, whatever, it’s all online. Look for the “Weekly Circular” on their site. That’s your game plan – find ingredients there that appeal to you and write them down. Only buy on sale. Buy items that can be used on several different meals. Don’t just buy all the ingredients for one meal you want, especially if that meal’s ingredients aren’t on sale. Have the patience to wait.
Rule #4: Shop At Ethnic Markets
I’ve heard great things about Mexican markets but have not tried those myself. Been to some Indian ones for fresh spices are those are 1000% worth it!!! If you’ve ever bought spices you know that a regular grocery charges crazy prices for it. I do, however, go to Chinatown and Korean groceries a lot. Going to them means the difference between paying $5 for a bag of noodles or $1.99 for a bag of noodles two times the size. The grocery here wants $4 for a single green pepper and I can get that for 50 cents at a Korean or Chinese market. I know some people are intimidated because …I don’t know…racism? They are uncomfortable and scared in a new area, where they don’t look like the people shopping there or speak the language. Well…you shouldn’t be scared. And I do see white people, Indian people, Hispanic people, all kinds of people going to Chinese markets so there really should be no cause for concern. If they can do it, you can do it. Yes, they speak English. Enough to make a sales transaction at least, and that’s all you need. Another concern I hear is they are afraid of dirt. Well….even if you get produce at the grocery, you gotta wash it!!! So why is it a problem? Not to mention this stuff gets cooked and peeled. And if it looks rotten or dirty, trust your instincts and don’t buy it, simple as that. Use your eyes and not your prejudice. Also I’ve picked up rotting tomatoes at groceries and peppers with COBWEBS on them at American groceries, so I really see no difference. Sorry this became ranty. I was just working at a studio in Chinatown (run and staffed by White and Hispanic people), and they seemed to look down on Chinese food. They absolutely never ordered any, despite being in the heart of Chinatown, and would literally snarl when they talk about Chinese people in the area, wtf. They bought $15 sandwiches for lunch all the time, from places that constantly messed up their orders, meanwhile Prosperity Dumpling was NEXT DOOR and you can buy really delicious dinner for 3 people for $9. RRRRGHHH.
Rule #5: Get Creative
Menu strategy! This is a hard one to teach, but I suggest you get a few cookbooks or use the plethora of recipes you can find for free online. Personally I still like having a physical cookbook to flip through. If you like online recipes, Evernote Food is a great way to organize them, and cache them on to your phone or tablet. Now…menu strategy! You’ve got ingredients on sale, so this is where you have to get creative and figure out what meals you can assemble out of them. I’m a big fan of stir fries because they are easy, fast, and fairly healthy (less cooking time = less nutrient degradation in vegetables). You can virtually stir-fry anything, and it’s perfect for random leftovers. Green peppers, string beans, carrots, onions, garlic, it’s all stuff you can use and reuse on infinite amounts of meals. I’m not too sure how to ‘teach’ someone menu strategy, except you just search the internet or flip through a book and see where “pork chop” or “cucumbers” show up in an appealing way. There’s also a bunch of sites like SuperCook.com, where you input some ingredients and it will display recipes that use it.
Hope those tips were helpful…Comments appreciated, especially if you have more tips on budgeting for food! Oh and to close…
My August Food Bill (Groceries + Dining Out + Coffee splurges) = $135.39
Again, note that my boyfriend also buys his own lunches and splits the bill when we dine out. I do buy ingredients for cooking and such, as I did in July. So the factors are all the same between July and August, except I started being “smart” and strategic with buying my food. My one vice left is that I still keep buying coffee :( It’s 1 of the ways we socialize at work, so at the very least I have switched from getting $4 lattes to getting just a hot coffee with milk for $1.25~1.75. I actually made a separate category in my iBank for “COFFEE” and it’s Hiiiiiighhh. Out of $135.39, I spent $40 on coffee in August…no joke.