Should we change our relationship with food?

Dec 31, 2019
No one likes to admit they are flawed. Unfortunately, we all are in some way. One of my biggest faults is my relationship with food. I am an average cook at best, but it serves me well enough. However, I do know the ins and outs of nutrition. I would say I have more than a passing knowledge of the basics, from my degree, but more so from my own interest and study. I have always been a bit overweight, and I have struggled with this for years. Tending to yo-yo a bit between weights. So I tried to learn about nutrition, to help myself be healthier. Yet it is still a struggle. I discovered that the problem lay with my relationship with food rather than my knowledge. It is similar to smoking. Smokers know that cigarettes are bad for their health, yet they continue to smoke, not because of their knowledge, but because of habit, a “relationship” with cigarettes. At the end of a long day in work, I feel lazy and end up ordering a takeaway. Other times I might just be bored so I eat absent mindedly. This leads to over eating or eating more indulgences than necessary. therefore, my food spending is a little far too high. I have already switched my career in an attempt to increase my salary long term (and for a better work-life balance). Now it is time to focus on reducing expenses. After all, the lower my expense, the less passive income I need to retire on. I have tried different diets over he year to focus on getting in shape, some work, others don’t. Invariably, I fell back into my old habits. Now, I am going to focus on forming a healthy relationship with food, but with the financial twist and motivation as well. While I am doubly motivated this time, it will not be as simple as I will layout below. It is not just a case of make a decision and go, there are so many factor with food; cost, convenience, need for variety, nutrition, psychology.

Why focus on food expense?

Unhealthy Food Relationship

Over the last number of years, my spending on food has gradually crept up. It started with buying a lunch in work every so often, eating out once a eek or maybe a takeaway at home. This cascaded into buying lunch in work every day, including coffees and soft drinks. Then the takaways go out of control, to the point I as getting one every evening after wrok, just for convenience. Now you can see where both the health and expense is affected. But let’s put a number on how bad it is. Below is my current spending on food.
Monthly Yearly
Groceries €250 €3000
Takeaway/Eating out €864 €10,368
Total €1,114 €13,368
I won’t lie, I actually got a bit of a shock when I calculated that. My food spending is higher than my rent and utilities. Yikes! Food expense is a problem that needs fixing. I am wasting money on food. Simple as that. I am buying convenient food that has me malnourished. No matter how I rationalize it, the money I am spending is not worth what I am getting back. Yearly spending on food makes up more than 55% of my take home salary. That really brought me crashing down to reality. A drastic change is needed, so I will start on reducing food costs.

No Bang for my Buck

One of the things I do not do, is compare myself to national averages or the likes. How much I spend on different items is determined by the amount of happiness that particular thing brings me. Food brings some enjoyment, particular if I go for a good meal with friends or family. But it is the company I enjoy more than the food. The enjoyment and satiety from a meal is finite. Should I be spending extra for a little more enjoyment that lasts at best an hour? I realise that spending money on all these takeaways is an expense of convenience, rather than one of pleasure. Therefore, I am not gaining any added value from having such a high food bill, not to mention the opportunity cost. What about the nutrition? Takeaways are bad for you, or are not good for you. If you spent the €20 in a shop instead, hand selected the ingredients, I dare say you will be able to create a healthier dish, with left overs. You can have a protein rich meal, that will in turn, keep you fuller for longer. Therefore, by focusing in reducing my food expense, I will save money while eating healthier, purely fro a greater awareness of what I am fueling my body with.

Big Ticket Expense

For me, food is a big ticket item. You can spend endlessly or sparingly on food, but it is a necessary expense that everyone has month to month. As seen in the table above, food bill has gotten out of control. On of my biggest concerns with my lower salary after the career change was that I could only manage a small savings rate, if any. This would be short lived but even still, I needed to reduce expenses, as I can’t push up my salary until next year. The fastest way to do this is tackle the largest expense categories. Turns out that food is the largest one in my life. It is the obvious first starting point for me as reducing my average food bill will have the most significant impact on my Financial Independence date. Don’t take my word for it, let’s check out the numbers: Let’s use my savings rate from today of 5%. If I can reduce my spending by €500 each month starting now, I can go from a 0% savings rate to 25% (current take home: €23,000). That s an impressive jump, that equates to retiring in 32 year rather than over 66 years.  It literally knocks more than 30 years off my retirement date. SOLD!! That impact is enough to motivate anybody out here, certainly motivating me.

Target 1: €500 or Less

I have let things get out of control so time to nip it in the bud and get my food spending under control. Cutting €500 is a great start, but I am feeling motivated so am going to do better. My aim will be to get my monthly food expense below €500. This was an arbitrary number, as I was not sure how much I needed per month to get by. I needed to test it. €125 per week seemed plenty when I cut eating out, and stuck to cooking for myself, but lets see.

How to Keep Tracks

Up until now, I only ever checked my how I was doing month to month. I considered that I would check the weekly tally’s and if I went over budget in a given week, I will break that week down even further, to a daily budget. Only now, I discover that the FI community go even further and calculate how much each meal costs on average. I have never tried it before. Only thing is, the diet I follow means 5 smaller meals a day, rather than traditional 3 meals. Factoring that in, €500/month creating 150 meals comes to €3.33 per meal. Much better than my current €12.38 per meal. For now, I think I’ll keep track with a weekly cost with the further breakdown if I go over budget. My reasons for choosing this way is that it is less work to start. If you start off too militant when creating new habits, it can be hard to stick to it. I want to gradually increase my frugal ways to ensure long term sustainability.

What’s my final food bill?

I shop at my local supermarket as it is close, well priced and I know that it has all the healthy ingredients I need, from trusted sources (did my research on this about a year ago). There is a specific butcher I get my meat from, Kerrigan’s for all the Irish readers on here. Fantastic quality meat, delicious flavours and deliver to your door when you buy in bulk. Surprisingly, the price is actually lower than most shops. I decided to try a new shop to see if I can compare prices to my usual shop. I stick to the same butchers as they are great quality, even though a little more expensive. It’s something I decided I did not want to sacrifice. Today, I ordered 2 weeks worth of meat online from my butchers, amounting to €81. Followed by a quick 20 minute round trip to the shop for the other essentials. I had an exact list of groceries before I even left my house so I wasn’t tempted by anything extra. Final tally here came in at €27.95. Between these 2 shops, I will be coming in well under budget at €278/month. The added savings from this can push my savings rate up to 40%, knocking another 10 years off the retirement.

Summary of Ways to Reduce Food Expense

These are what worked for me, not necessarily will work for everyone but give them a go and see how they can reduce your bill.

1 – Negate Waste

This is something I am a terror for, I buy food with the best intention and let it go to waste by not using it by the best before date. If you buy food, use it. Take a look at what is in your fridge and cupboard and use up whatever is closest to it’s best before date. That will help avoid waste.

2 – Make a plan

I have a specific diet that is tailor made for myself. The correct calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat intake needed for me (slightly less while I am losing weight). The benefit of this is 2-fold; you know what you are eating so can pre-make the food and take the decision making process out of it, and you know what you need to buy well in advance so can buy some hings in bulk, reducing your casts even more.

3 – Aim for Healthy

You should eat a healthy, balanced diet. Figure out what your caloric intake should be for the day and stick to that. Indulgences should be rare treats rather than regular occurrences. If you eat healthy, you’ll likely reduce your portion size automatically. Maybe consider eating smaller, more regular meals. I eat 5 a day, the bigger meals about 400-500 calories, and 2 snack meals worth 200 calories. This serves to control my cravings from dips in my blood sugar, and ultimately saves me more money as I am less likely to buy convenient food.
Food is a necessary expense so it seems prudent to focus on optimizing it early when aiming for Financial Independence. I’ll check back in after a few months to see if I have attained the 40% savings rate. Stay tuned!
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