Friday, June 25, 2010

Your eating habits may be keeping you from reaching your goals

Last week, faced with a slightly unappealing piece of homemade lasagna I had packed for lunch, I accepted an invitation to go to lunch with two of my co-workers. We settled on fast food, where I ordered a chicken sandwich, a side salad, and hot fudge sundae, spending $3.21. I silently congratulated myself on my frugality. Of course, given that I had lunch in the refrigerator at the office, I wasn’t being frugal at all.

While we sat in our corner booth, both my co-workers mentioned that they wanted to eat out less. One commented about the power of the up-sell; he’d planned to buy a snack and spend less than $3. Instead, he bought a meal and an iced coffee and spent nearly twice as much as he had intended. The other ordered a $5 salad.

This lunch scenario reflects how complicated our decisions about food can be. According to Cornell University professor Dr. Brian Wansink, we make approximately 220 decisions about food every day. That’s a lot of decisions, most of which probably seem small, but together, they can have a significant financial impact. Sure, my lunch only cost about $3, but it was money I hadn’t planned on spending. I also threw away the lasagna and accidently left the chocolate bar I had packed melting in my car, which just upped the ante on my supposed $3 lunch.

Nationally, American households spent an average of $7,514 on food last year--$2,736 of this amount went to eating out. Do you know how much you spent last year on food? If not, you should, particularly when you consider that your eating habits could be keeping you from building an emergency fund, saving for a down payment on a house, taking a vacation, funding your retirement, or reaching your other personal financial goals.

This doesn’t mean you need to stock up on 10-cents-a-package instant soup or stop eating out, but you might consider ways to become more intentional with your food budget. What could you do with the money you’d save by eating out half as much? How much money would you save if you prepared and froze meals ahead of time instead of hitting the grocery store several times a week? What if you bought an inexpensive French press and brewed your own coffee at home or the office? Small changes can add up to a significant amount of savings.

Consider a homemade breakfast burrito. At first, a $2 burrito at a fast food restaurant seems inexpensive. However, I made my own sausage and egg burritos at home for 98 cents each, including tax. Without the sausage, the cost drops to 68 cents—plus, I have more control over what I’m putting into my food. I used all-natural sausage and farm fresh eggs I purchased from my niece. Even when I paid a premium for these ingredients ($3.69 and $2 respectively), the total cost of each burrito was half what it would have cost at a restaurant.

When I add a glass of not-from-concentrate orange juice (42 cents per serving), my total at-home cost increases to $1.40. By comparison, a small orange juice costs $1.59 at a fast food restaurant, bringing the total amount spent for a burrito and drink to $3.59, plus tax. If I ate a homemade breakfast burrito three days a week, instead of eating out, I’d save about $30 a month, or $360 a year.

What could you or I do with $360 a year besides order fast food? That question surely will inspire me to think more carefully about how I spend my food budget.


  1. In your July 23 column, you asked for ideas: here's one that might surprise you! I started buying milk at the local convenience store on the way home! While it seems intuitive that you should buy the best priced groceries, I found that if I stop at my grocery store, or worse yet, at Walmart because we are out of milk, I end up spending a lot more on other things that catch my eye! Now if I am out of milk, I spend the extra buck by dashing into the corner store on the way home, and save a lot more in the long run!

  2. You bet. That is creative, spending to save :) I personally try to avoid the big box stores because I always end up spending a couple extra bucks on something; those stores are so good at selling stuff!

  3. These are great ideas.

  4. I agree, too, that simply staying out of the store is a good way to save money. Case in point: A few weeks ago, I went into the store for aluminum foil, lunch meat, and ice. I came out with those things and Greek yogurt, cheese sticks, and a bottle of champagne--albeit a cheap one. I was in the store for about five minutes and spent close to $50.

    Fortunately, my husband's employer offers milk and bread in their cafeteria. While a gallon of milk comes in at $3.06, buying it a work means there's not an extra stop and no opportunity to spend unnecessarily. No browsing means no spending.