Monday, July 09, 2007

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

I haven't been overly obsessive about my food spending lately, despite my post about financial lessons learned from a diet book! So it's time to get into the nitty gritty again...
I'd been feeling good about keeping my food expenses under control, as I've been under budget every single month this year except while my mother was visiting. But as a single person with a pretty normal dietary routine, it still seems like my expenses are higher than they should be. Do I make great efforts to clip coupons and cook frugally? Well, no. But I don't go to restaurants much lately, and I at least try to sometimes bring lunch and snacks to work instead of buying them each day. So where is my money going?
Here's a graph of my monthly dining spending since January 2006:

A few things to point out:
Breakfast and lunch spending are relatively consistent. I always buy a coffee, and usually a bagel and banana in the morning. I buy lunch most days of the week, except for occasional times when I do get my act together to bring lunch from home.
Liquor spending is another fairly consistent sliver in the graph. Consistently too high, that is. I do love a glass or two of wine but I should probably cut back a bit for health as well as financial reasons!
Then the biggest chunks are dinner and groceries. You can see that most of last spring and summer and into the fall, my dinner expenses were much higher than they are now. For part of this time, I was living in sublet apartments with lousy cooking facilities, so I didn't have much choice but to get a lot of takeout. Also, I was going out more back then. Sadly, another one of my best friends (and most frequent partner in crime when it came to restaurant spending) left New York City a few months ago, and the result is that since then, my dinner-out expenses have dropped quite a bit.
And since I haven't been going out as much, I've been cooking at home more. Hence the increase in grocery spending. It's not as dramatic increase as I thought-- possibly because I haven't been buying as much expensive meat as I used to. I used to make lamb chops (at up to $15 a pound) at least once a week, but I don't any more, mainly because I find it hard to broil them in my new oven without the fat catching on fire. Talk about weird cause & effect relationships.
What else? You can see a big spike in November from when I stocked my kitchen just before moving into my apartment, and again in March when my mother was visiting and I was entertaining family a lot. December was a small month because I was away on business and for the holidays. I should also note that the grocery expense category just captures whatever I spend at the supermarket-- this can often include cleaning supplies, toilet paper, etc, which I tend to stock up more on now that I have more storage space.

What else has been affecting my eating habits? As I said, I hardly ever order takeout anymore. Part of the reason is that I no longer live in delivery range for some of my old standbys. (And strangely enough, when I was back in the old 'hood this past weekend, I realized that my two favorite places had both closed! I must have been giving them more business than I thought!) Not that my new neighborhood doesn't have lots of restaurant choices: you can have Mexican, Mexican, or Mexican. Ok, that is an exaggeration: you can also have Chinese. I'm also not that crazy about the local supermarket, so I find my grocery shopping habits have changed: I'm more likely to buy food in Manhattan and carry it home with me. And when I shop in Manhattan, it tends to be at pricier markets like Whole Foods or Garden of Eden. But on the other hand, now that I live in a much more comfortable apartment, I'm less likely to go out for food on days when I'm not working. I tend to make sandwiches for lunch at home, or have crackers and cheese, and the other day I made myself a delicious banana/peach/blueberry smoothie that would have cost me $5 or so if I'd bought it elsewhere-- the price people charge for smoothies always astounds me, as it is just a handful of fruit and ice thrown in a blender. Or if I'm going to be out for the day, I dump a bunch of nuts and fruit into a ziploc and bring a bottle of water from my Brita pitcher so I don't have to buy snacks. Now that I have more room to store food, I tend to keep more of these kinds of snacks on hand, which may also be a reason I'm spending more on groceries.

Well, as usual there is no clear answer, but it is always interesting to throw things into an Excel chart to see the effect of various factors on my spending habits. I'm already trying to whittle these expenses down by clipping out some new recipes for pasta dishes that are cheap and easy to use as leftovers. I will also have to revisit the frugal food blogger cookbook for some other ideas!


Caleb Elston said...

The craziest thing about grocery shopping is that it seems impossible to spend less than $15. When you have it in your basket you think, "Aw this is gonna be like $9", and then it ends up being quite a good deal more. And then when you get home and unpack, it is like, "where did all the food I just bought go?"

Anyways, thanks for keeping us posted on your spending.

Anonymous said...

You can save quite a bit of money by having your breakfast ready at home.

1. Make your own coffee and taking it with you in a thermos. If you love Starbucks, it is still cheaper to buy the coffee beans from them than to buy a cup of coffee. There are a lot of good organic coffee companies online that are willing to ship premium organic coffee beans to you. Since you are living alone, you can get a coffee maker that makes an adjustable amount of coffee depending on how much you feel like having.

2. Bagels are cheaper by the dozen. Seriously. If you buy some bagels and keep them at home, you can toast a bagel and take it with you on the way out the door.

3. Bananas are the same way. Buy a bunch of bananas instead of one at a local breakfast place. I used to buy bananas near my work until I realized that the price for one banana was equal to the price of a bunch of bananas. They are also great in shakes and if they start to get too ripe for your liking, you can freeze them for putting in shakes.

SavingDiva said...

I agree with Anonymous. You should really buy a cute thermos and a decent coffee maker. Even though it isn't that much money, you could save quite a bit over the long run.

I also struggle with not going out for food (I frequently buy my lunch). Today I packed my lunch, but I never feel satisfied. Thanks for being a financial blogger with a weakness...

mapgirl said...

Save yourself the money and just get french press ground coffee. I've been dumping a few tablespoons into the bottom of a tall mug and pouring hot water into it. I let the grinds float down and drink the coffee off the top. Dump out the wet grinds and rinse. EASY and no stupid filter to replace daily. Short of making the water, it doesn't use much energy either.

I used to buy filters and consumable stuff for a living (large manufacturing equipment spare parts) and I am trying to get away from buying stuff that gets thrown away. The only consumable in this method is the coffee itself.

beth said...

I can't tell if you're posting this so you make changes, or just as an observational thing. Considering how well you're doing big-picture, I hope you're not losing sleep over this chart! Still, if you're interested in more tips:

I realized that I really like buying coffee or chai in the morning, for a number of reasons (social, fresh air, yummy), so I've built it into my budget - $50/month.

I eat breakfast at home and don't buy lunch, either, so it's my main extravagance. Perhaps giving yourself an allowance for those expenses would work for you.

I've only started tracking grocery and other food spending, so I admire your record-keeping if nothing else! (booze tracking will be the LAST step for me!)

Anonymous said...

If you are serious about reducing your monthly food expense you may want to spend a month or two tracking that spending in more detail.

See what you are spending on produce, dairy, baked goods vr. canned, dry goods, etc. You may find that you are spending a lot on food that goes bad before you can consume it. Tracking what you are throwing away each month will also help you see where the waste is occuring.

Another thing to pay attention to is the price per unit you are paying. As someone who buys groceries for one person, I find myself looking for small portions. This is particularly true in purchasing meat. However, if I buy larger portions and take the little extra time to repackage and freeze I save a lot of money.

As for the Bagel thing - I understand the daily breakfast purchase. I finally broke myself of that bad habit when I got into the habit of bulk buying my favorite bagels (Finagle-a-Bagle here in Boston) and took the time to slice them, put them in individual zip lock bags and put them in the freezer. I take one out of the freezer on my way to work. By the time I hit my desk it is defrosted. I keep a jar of peanut butter in my desk and enjoy a quick and cheap breakfast when logging in for the day.

frugal zeitgeist said...

Do they have free coffee at work? We do, so I taught myself to wait until I get there. It occasionally means putting on my clothes backwards or something, but I'm pretty okay with that.

Madame X said...

Thanks for the responses, all. I have to say that I'm kind of with Beth on just accepting the morning coffee expense, though I have toyed with buying a coffee maker that runs on a timer so I could just have it ready for me first thing.
The office coffee maker is really nasty! If I had to drink that with a frozen bagel, I think I'd yak.
Good coffee and a nice fresh New York bagel-- I think these are things I'll budget for and pinch pennies elsewhere!
I do plan to look more closely at the unit costs of various groceries, to see if I can vary my shopping habits a bit. But oddly enough, someone commented on an earlier post about bananas that the price I pay at the fruit stand might not actually be bad compared to the per-pound cost of a bag of bananas. I need to investigate to see if it's true!

Anonymous said...

Bronx Chica...Nice chart!I need to establish how much to put towards food every month! I sike myself to only do $100/monthly..but no! I do bring my lunch, buy breakfast, and bring my own snacks. I need to make a change pronto!

Bitty said...

You should paint that lovely chart on a canvas and try selling it.

Who might become an overnight artistic sensation!