Living Well Within My Means: Food

When my partner, J., reduced his hours last year, our household took a financial hit. I’m at a place in my life where saving every bit will make a huge difference in my end of life quality of living. (As a side note, it is very weird to have your attention focused on 20 years in the future.) To make my savings goals, and still enjoy a reasonably comfortable life right now, we both concentrate on living within our means.

That means we do a lot of planning. Every penny we earn is earmarked and some months we have to say to one another “well, we can fix the electrical system of the car or we can get a new garage disposal unit.” Some months its more like “car insurance is due next month, we need to watch our pennies so we can make that payment.” Generally, however, for major expenses that I know are coming, I manage to save enough in the household account to pay for most, if not all, of it. The summer car insurance payment is tougher than the winter one, because household expenses (particularly our energy bill) are much higher (the energy bill is doubled).

A few years ago we ate out, or brought food home from a place (teriyaki, pizza, chinese), at least once a week. That is a very expensive way to live, and not particualrly healthy. We gradually stopped going out, and saved that money for fancy meals every couple of months.

This year we’ve begun doing meal planning. In previous years we just bought what looked good, and ate a lot of processed foods — frozen pizzas in particular. Last year we started eating less processed foods and more home made meals, but we were still buying what looked good rather than what was on sale. We had a lot of leftovers, and we threw away a lot of food. A lot.

So now we make lists and buy in bulk. The Seattle Costco has a lot of organic meat (the Tukwila one doesn’t) so we buy whole chickens, and organic beef there (no organic pork yet) as well as specialty cheeses. When we get it home, I re-portion the meat into meal-sized portions and freeze them. This means the most expensive part of our meals — the protein — is purchased at the best possible price, and available any time we want (with defrosting time factored in). We can also get organic chicken broth there, which is a huge timesaver and all-around meal maker.

We eat vegetarian 2-3 times a week — tortillas wrapped around cheese, steamed vegetables, and rice are a meal at least once a week, sometimes twice. Homemade soups are on the menu every week or two — and they freeze really well, so one time of cooking means at least two meals. J and I especially like my potato soup variations.

Most meals make leftovers, and we plan to use them either for lunches or for an ‘etzeput’ dinner later in the week. We now only eat a pre-made (frozen pizza, potstickers, meals from Trader Joes) dinner once a week, if that. If not leftover-based, lunches are sandwiches we make. Its a bit boring, but healthy and inexpensive.

This year we’ve also started tracking the cost of individual items at the various places we shop. Based on this, I now know that I’ll spend about a dollar more for milk at Metro Market than I do at Safeway, and that both are more expensive than Costco (which now has organic milk and butter). I know that the quality of produce is better at Metro, but its also $0.50-$1 more expensive, so I have to balance cost over quality when making meal decisions. (If I have to look at it, I’ll go for quality, if its just a flavor principle, I’ll choose cost.) We haven’t shopped at Trader Joe’s since last year (we’ve been eating our way through the frozen meals), so I don’t know how their prices factor in. Tracking the costs is the final touch for me — it helps planning and saves money.

Bottom line:  our food costs are about 1/3 lower (yes, 33%) so far this year — and this is the expensive time of year to eat (so little fresh produce is available, you’re paying for shipping).

As a side benefit, we’re enjoying meal-making more than before. We each cook 2x a week, (etzeput, wraps, and a premade meal make up the other three nights) and are exploring new recipes. We talk, we compare notes, and we’re expanding our skills.

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