Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Eating on a (serious) budget

I live in Manhattan. Quite possibly the world's most expensive city to live, work and yes, eat in. I have spent most of my adult years not budgeting (at all) and then crying to myself I work so hard and never have any money left over!!!! My philosophy was pretty simple, if I wanted something I bought it. Most of the time on a credit card. I moved to NYC 2 years ago 6 months ago, my boyfriend helped me get on a budget. I am just now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Closing my eyes and pretending my bills disappeared didn't work. Trust me, I tried. What did work was creating a REALISTIC budget, learning how to say no to social outings (very difficult) and having a partner who was equally committed to sticking to the budget. Budgeting helped me get rid of that "pit in your stomach" constant feeling of worry that I had been feeling for years. The biggest realization I've had is how cheaply you truly can live in New York City. So for those of you who think living cheaply is impossible, I am here to prove you wrong!
First, groceries.

#1. I don't food shop in Manhattan. We drool over Chelsea Market and Trader Joes but it's window shopping. For now. Every Sunday, we take good old New Jersey transit out to the 'burbs and buy our groceries at ShopRite. Even paying $8 for the bus ticket, we still estimate the savings to be about 25-30% by commuting off the island for this excursion.

#2. Menu planning. We currently have a budget of $75/week for food. That means breakfast, lunch and dinner for 2 people for 7 days. And my boyfriend eats. a lot. Planning takes time and patience but it truly is what makes eating on a budget possible. My formula is pretty simple. I list out each day of the week and write out what I want to make for each meal. Here is this week's menu:

Breakfast- Bagels & cream cheese
Lunch - Leftover pizza
Dinner - Stuffed chicken and green beans

Breakfast- Granola
Lunch - Ham & cheese sandwiches, yogurt, apple
Dinner - Spaghetti & meatballs, broccoli and garlic toast

Breakfast- Egg & cheese on bagel
Lunch- Leftover spaghetti & meatballs
Dinner - Crab Cakes and Corn

Breakfast- Yogurt and granola
Lunch- crab cake sandwiches
Dinner - Italian sausage baked ziti and spinach

Breakfast - Eggs & toast
Lunch - Leftover ziti
Dinner - Ham & Cheese sandwiches

Brunch: Pancakes & eggs
Dinner: Cobb Salad and Scalloped Potatoes

Sunday: Shopping day

So as you can see, lunch is usually some variation of leftovers. Being that we are 2 people, most recipes serve 4 so we have just enough for 2 dinners and 2 lunches. Smart, I know ; )

#3. Use the circular
The hardest part of eating on a budget is achieving balanced, nutritious meals. Fresh produce and meat are by far the most expensive thing at the grocery store. So, we let the sales dictate what we will eat that week. Allow me to elaborate...
Our food store, ShopRite, has a weekly circular. Every Saturday, I sit down with this circular and I make my menu..not based on "hmmm, filet mignon and caesar salad would taste good this week"...but based on, "ooh Perdue chicken is 50% off this week and artichoke hearts are 2 for 1, we'll have artichoke stuffed chicken breasts!!!!!"
This week alone, we saved $15.70 just by buying things on special.

#4. Don't go in blind. Make a list and STICK TO IT!
I love shopping. I could (an do) spend hours looking at product, displays, people. Shopping is my zen. Even food shopping is fun for me. The problem is if I went food shopping without a list, I would end up buying a lot of stuff I don't really need and probably can't afford. So, I make a list and I look up every single item's price. How? ShopRite from Home.
You can make a list on of all your groceries and they'll deliver them to you. I use the tool basically just to determine the prices of each item I want to buy that week. This is the only reason I can budget $75 and spend $75.38....This is the best I've ever done on staying on budget! I'm so proud!
I can't tell you how many fights have started at the food store regarding variances to the budget. Time and time again, we would spend hours making our menu and our shopping list only to get to the checkout and have spent WAAAAAY too much. We'd both look at each other is shock & awe like, What did you buy?????? I dissected the receipt to our shopping list and identified the issue. MINOR SUBSTITUTIONS. For example, they're sold out of the 8oz. ricotta so we'll get the 16 oz. instead. Boom. Budget blasted. Another fatal error, ADDITIONS. Crap, we forgot to put orange juice and milk on the list. BOOM. $6 over. My lesson learned is to be secific in the list, brand size and price!!!! No substitutions! $.38 over budget??? I think my process is working.

#5. Channel your mother. Clip coupons.
My boyfriend comes home every week with piles of coupon/flyer books. I dilligently look through all and usually only clip 3 or 4. But they are valuable, you just have to know how to use them. ShopRite DOUBLES manufacturer coupons up to a $1. So, $.30 off of Yoplait Yogurt becomes $.60 off! Major savings! The biggest bang for the buck comes when you have a coupon and it's in the circular. Whammy! Those are the times I buy basics like pasta or olive oil. We won't necessarily use it that week in the menu, but it's a great deal!
This week I only used 2 coupons but I still saved $4.08!

#6. Go green and save some green. Use reusable bags.
Most grocery stores now offer a discount if you BYOB(Bring Your Own Bag).
We have 4 bags @ $.05/bag, we saved $.20 this week! And we were earth-friendly!

#7. Skip the snacks.
A limited food budget does not leave room for snacks and sweets. Unfortunately. A bag of chips on average is $4. I cannot justify spending an entire meal's worth of money on a bag of fatty chips. Therefore, we don't buy snacks. When popcorn is on sale, I buckle, but otherwise, I bake. It is much more cost effective for me to bake an oatmeal cake with cream cheese frosting (ttl cost: approx. $6) because chances are I already had the key ingredients on hand. And, baking from scratch has a lot more nutritional value than Little Debbie.

#8. Never run out of the essentials.
When I first started budgeting, each week we tended to run out of food by about Thursday. Why? Because I wasn't factoring in the portions of food my boyfriend eats. I was calculating based on my 5'2" self, not his 6'2". So I had to get creative. Bread, pasta, eggs, cheese, ground beef. These are the BIG 5. You can make breakfast, lunch and dinner on just these ingredients. So, in a pinch- I have back-ups if we're running low on meals.

#9. Know your weaknesses. Mine is popcorn.
I am a freak about popcorn. It reminds me of movie nights with my mom where we'd make 2 huge bowls of popcorn, slice up apples and that would be our dinner. Loved it. Still do. I know if popcorn is in the house, I will eat it. If popcorn is not in the house, I will go to the deli and pay $7 for 3 bags of Orville goodness. Bad decision. Much smarter to admit to my weakness and buy it at ShopRite for $2.50. Smart.

#10. Stop eating out.
You'll see from my weekly menu that eating out is not in the equation. Living in Manhattan, people think it is CRAZY that we cook. Most of my friend order in or eat out most nights of the week. I am a LOVER of food. Both my boyfriend and I would probably rank eating out as our #1 favorite thing to do! But any restaurant in NYC, we're easily blowing our entire week's budget in one sitting. Brutal. But eating out is special to us now and only happens a few times a month. Sometimes we'll say, "let's get sushi tonight" and it will sound like a really good idea but then we have to take the money out of another pot, like dry cleaning : ( My clothes suffer when I indulge.

So, I challenge you all to really take a look at how much money you are spending each month on eating out and on buying miscellaneous crap at the food store. You will probably be shocked. and apalled. Then, figure out how much you really think you could spend on food. Surf the net for recessionista-friendly recipes, find a great suburban supermarket, download their circular, and make your list!


Jessa said...

AWESOME info, jo! and fascinating. you have become an expert on budgeting!! you never cease to amaze me!

Kerry said...

Really great. I'm so glad you did this. Can I repost this as anote on Facebook?