Monthly Savings: Food

There’s no way to sugar coat this. Before our turnaround, we spent a ton of money on food- well over $1000 a month. Coffee shops, bars with friends, eating at restaurants twice a day, convenience foods from luxury supermarkets… if the game was spending money, we were winning.

Every weekend was another celebration, and most of our socializing was done at restaurants. Our circle of friends revolved around restaurant hopping, and we all considered ourselves ‘foodies’. When we weren’t driving 50 miles to sample some new expensive restaurant, we were going bar hopping, paying exorbitant costs for rounds of watered down drinks.

After long workdays at the office, we always came home tired and hungry, and neither of us wanted to cook. Plus, we weren’t actually that good at cooking! So, nearly every night we headed out to another restaurant. It’s no wonder there was a time when there was 60lbs more of me to love… more on that in a future post!

The Turnaround

To turn things around, we had to once again change our behavior. We both needed to learn to cook things we actually enjoyed. We needed to study menus at different restaurants and try reproducing recipes at home. My wife was better than I was- I still needed to improve at the basics: chopping vegetables and learning to properly load a dishwasher. So many small obstacles keeping us from saving money.

Me, learning how to use the dishwasher. Image by The Oatmeal.

To help get the ball rolling, we gave ourselves a larger grocery budget to compensate for the restaurant reduction, and limited ourselves to eating out about once per week. This meant cooking on the weekends and making enough food to take with us for lunch at work. We had to learn what our weak spots were, and protect ourselves from them.

For example, we needed to keep frozen pizza and similar go-to items on hand for those times we were in a pinch and not in the mood to cook (thank you Frugalwoods). If we had to resort to that more than once a week we knew we had more work to do. We also keep Soylent in the fridge for a grab and go lunch when we fail to do our cooking for the week. Neither of us particularly love the bland flavor, so it is further incentive to remember to prepare meals before the workweek begins!

This Was Not Easy

Let me clarify something here. This process was NOT easy. Of all the habits we’ve changed over the years to become more financially fit, this was the hardest. Described above, it might sound like I simply enacted the plan and then suddenly we were saving money. This couldn’t be further from the truth- this took a lot of practice, patience, and teamwork.

So no, I didn’t enjoy spending my weekends on meal planning and cooking. Especially when we were newbies and prep took twice as long as planned and we made a mess. I value my limited free time, and I understand the convenience of restaurants. But I couldn’t stomach the costs, and I knew that eating out every day is unsustainable (unless you plan on working the standard 45+ year sentence).

But we soon realized that the more we practiced, the better we got, and the more streamlined the entire process became. Now, we enjoy cooking at home, having healthier meals, composting for our garden, and saving money. We also enjoy having more frequent date nights at home, where we mimic our favorite restaurant menu items for pennies on the dollar. I actually prefer our cooking to most chain restaurants, whose food is often bland, overcooked, and over-salted.

How much did we end up saving here? Before the turnaround, we were spending over $1000 a month on food. This included restaurants, bars, coffee shops, grocery stores, everything food related. Within two months of making the changes above, we were down to about $600 a month. But we still had room to improve.

Choose Your Supermarket Wisely

We soon realized that as a larger and larger portion of our food bill moved from restaurants over to grocery stores, our choice of supermarket made a huge difference. Take a look at this list of grocery items, and the price variations from store to store. I visited each of these stores to gather these prices on 1/28/17. When brands differed, I chose the most similar lowest cost choice:

The grocery store you choose matters!

This is a HUGE variation! If you think all grocers charge roughly the same prices for the same products, think again. From this chart, we can see that on average, Lucky's and Publix are around 60% more expensive than Aldi, and Walmart is about 30% more expensive. Let’s discuss these supermarkets:

Lucky’s is our new organic luxury grocer. Picture them like a trendier Whole Foods Market. It is nice to have one nearby for one-off luxury items, but I would never do my regular grocery shopping here. The best way to shop at Lucky's, in my opinion, is to just go for the weekly sales, where they are often the loss leaders, but don't buy anything else.

Lucky's. Funny signs… serious prices.

Publix is the supermarket I grew up with. My parents would always take me there as a child, and I have fond memories of the place. They are always super clean and have a huge selection, as well as amazing deli sub sandwiches. They are slightly less expensive than Lucky’s. Before the turnaround, this is where we shopped every week for all our groceries. I never really noticed all the unnecessary luxuries embedded in the cost, such as employees walking your cart to your car and loading it for you.

Walmart has a huge selection of groceries and relatively low prices, but not the best shopping experience. At our local Walmart, the aisles are crowded, the lines are long, and the parking lot is full- seemingly 24/7. We tried shopping here for a few weeks but it just wasn’t a pleasant experience. Then we found Aldi.

The $3 Rule

Aldi is the store that cut our grocery spending in half. I had written it off years earlier when they opened their first store in town. They were small, had less selection than the luxury supermarkets, and didn't have a fancy vibe. The old Joel saw this as a let down. But what did he know?

Nearly every item we buy here is less than $3. Compare that to Publix where most items were over $3. Each week, we play a game where we see if we can make every item in our cart $3 or less. We call it the $3 rule. Sure, they have expensive luxury items as well, but the basics are super cheap. We usually round out our weekly grocery bill at around $40, with only one or two items breaking the $3 rule. (Disclaimer: we are a family of two, don’t eat much meat, and choose our items carefully. Your results may vary!)

Aldi savings live up to the hype!

I should mention that at stores like Aldi, you are giving up many of the ‘full service' luxuries you get from other grocers. No one will help you load groceries into your car. There's nobody to bag for you- in fact, you have to pay for bags. There are no free samples and no full service bakery, deli, etc. There's no service counter to buy stamps. It is so efficient that at any given time, there's probably no more than 3 or 4 employees in the entire store. It is this efficiency that cuts my grocery shopping bill in half every month, so I'll gladly take the reduction in luxuries!

What if you don’t have an Aldi nearby? How do you figure out where to buy what? Until we learned the basics, we kept a list of items we purchased regularly, like the ones in the chart above. Every time we’d go into a store, I’d do a price check on these items, and write down the price per pound or per ounce. I wouldn’t just note down the cheapest prices I saw, I would write down every price. After a few weeks, I’d start to get a range of variation.

I now know the luxury stores can charge over $2.00 for an avocado, but I only buy when they are less than $0.75 each. I know where to buy and what season. This may sound like a horrible chore, but just as with cooking, things got more efficient over time. The hard work pays off. And hard work is one of the core principals of mustachianism!

The Savings

So what did we end up saving when all is said and done? After switching from Publix to Aldi, we were able to reduce our grocery shopping down to $200 per month. Add in another $200 per month for restaurants and other miscellaneous food purchases, and our total monthly food spending is now about $400 per month, down from $1000. That’s $600 a month saved, or over $7K per year.

Let's add this to the $2000 per month we accumulated by reducing our recurring bills and shopping expenses, and we now had $2600 a month in our savings snowball. But we weren't finished yet! We still had more work to do to achieve an 80% savings rate… on the next Financial 180.

Published by

Joel

Blogging about our dramatic financial turnaround as we approach Financial Independence!

13 thoughts on “Monthly Savings: Food”

  1. Sixty pounds? That’s no joke!

    Last year was a pretty bad year for me in terms of eating out, but somehow the total average stayed the same: $204/month, split into $77 on groceries and $127 on eating out.
    The year before that was $201 total, split into $143 on groceries and $58 on eating out.

    I’ve heard lots of people talk about Aldi’s but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I saw actual price comparisons. Apparently there are Aldi’s in Altanta, but they’re all pretty far for me. And Hmart still has good prices (better than Kroger, Publix, and Walmart), which I “need” to go to anyways since they have stuff I can’t buy elsewhere, like kimchi and Korean style marinated beef and pork.

    How long did this transition take you guys?

    1. It took a very. Long. Time. Like years long. It was an iterative and gradual process for sure. And I like food a lot. In fact, our engagement photos include a picture outside of Hmart in Atlanta!

      We went from buying produce to throw away at house to better meal planning in about 8-10 months.

      To defend/clarify myself: I could cook a little, but I was lazy, and most of my cooking was Southern (like Paula Deen style) or all the less than healthy Filipino/Asian dishes. All the bars and restaurants helped yours truly carry an extra 30 pounds.

  2. Love this article! ALDI is truly the best out there for quality and savings, maybe we can get them to sponsor the next CMSE.

    We had a much slower evolution to reducing our food budget within a similar range and now we eat healthier meals while spending less than we did years before when we spent more and clipped coupons. We last calculated our daily food costs at $4.42 per person back in December of 2015, it is probably time for us to re-assess and see how much more we have trimmed it.

    We love the health benefits of dining in as well. Being able to control the ingredients has helped us to cut added sugars from our diet and prompted us to investigate what is and isn’t good for our health. We are planning to do a challenge where we eat the exact amount of calories, nutrients, vitamins, etc each day for a month. We haven’t started yet because the math and the restrictions are a little scary, but we’ll get there.

    Can’t wait to read the next one!

    1. Your daily food costs sound quite reasonable- that comes out to under $300 a month for two people. It is amazing how much sugar and salt restaurants add to their food. We noticed that after avoiding fast food for a few months, when we tried it again, it didn’t taste good anymore!

      The nutrition challenge sounds fun. I tried something similar with Soylent: the original formula used to have 100% daily amount of carbs, fats, protein, and all micro nutrients. I was bummed to find out they modified the formula and it doesn’t have nearly enough protein or fiber anymore.

  3. We love Aldi so much, even if we have to drive 15 minutes to the closest one vs. 3 minutes to the neighborhood Publix. We’ve been able to maintain a grocery budget of $433/month ($100/week) for a family of three since switching in October. I remember years ago Aldi had kind of a bad reputation (“isn’t that where they sell dented cans?”) but I am always preaching the Aldi goodness to friends & family now, especially when I see prices at Publix for $4 vs. $1.50 at Aldi (for anything, like a bag of potato chips or a jar of Indian simmer sauce). Every time I walk out of Aldi with my huge buggy full of groceries (including wine, beer, organic milk, eggs, convenience foods, snacks, fresh produce, etc) for ~$90 I think to myself “this is my early retirement secret weapon”.

    1. Absolutely. The savings are incredible. A savings of $1 to $2 on every item really adds up when you buy 30+ items. Our Aldi has been slowly getting more crowded the past few months- the secret may be out!

  4. I’m so jealous of these grocery prices! Even the non-Aldi prices is so much cheaper than what I’ve seen here. A dozen eggs on sale is like $1.99 And I don’t live in the HCOL part of this region.

    1. I worked for one of the tech giants out in the Seattle area a few years back, and I remember the grocery prices were shockingly high. I distinctly remember a gallon of milk being almost $6! At the time I wasn’t as price conscious, but today that number seems startling.

      I play around on the website TheEarthAwaits.com quite a bit, and have noticed that food prices in much of Europe (Germany, UK, Finland, Spain, Italy) are nearly half the cost of here in the U.S. Not sure why.

  5. Aldi is awesome, so glad that they exist. You forgot to put some love in there for Thrifty Produce! That is truly a Melbourne original so it probably doesn’t help other people but I definitely think it is worth exploring local and ethnic groceries as well to see what kind of deals they offer. Mary and I have explored a few large hispanic groceries stores in SC but there is nothing like Thrifty here. I think being Vegan/Vegetarian definitely helps with the budget too. We haven’t gotten our grocery budget that low but we’ve been getting better at eating out less.

    As for Soylent and their formula, I’ve recently tried KetoChow which is similar concept to Soylent but it’s just super low carb. The creator of KetoChow “open sourced” the recipe allowing you to make it at home and through that I discovered the site: https://diy.soylent.com/. There are a lot of popular recipes for making your own complete-nutrition drinks like Soylent. Check it out, you can fork recipes and tweak them to get the stats they way you want then, it’s pretty cool.

    1. Thrifty has expanded to Orlando now – they are big time! I agree they are a good local find, but they are twice as far away as Aldi, and lately they have become very crowded. Last time we went it took nearly a half hour to check out. In FI this won’t be a problem- I’ll just go at 10am on a Tuesday. But for now, Aldi solves 80%+ of our needs. Still need the occasional item from Walmart or Publix, but not every week.

      I should have also mentioned BJs wholesale club. We do buy long shelf life items in bulk there (nuts, freezer items, pantry goods, etc). I’ve heard Costco is better, but considering we don’t have one within 50 miles, BJs will suffice.

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