Last fall, right before the holidays and right before I turned 40, I lost my job as a magazine editor. It wasn’t completely unexpected — job security in the world of media is basically non-existent — but it did completely floor me. And even though I had freelance work I could fall back on, freelancing isn’t the same as a steady paycheck. One day you’re flush with projects (and income) and the next day you’re wondering if there will ever be another job, ever. (Hello from the other side … )
I knew I’d have to make some changes to my budget — and a large part of my budget goes to food. Last year, I spent roughly 20 percent of my discretionary income on food, evenly split between groceries and eating out. I knew I could do better without living off rice and beans for the year (I did that in my 20s and would not recommend it).
Here are the food choices I made that added up.
1. I started tracking my food expenses in earnest.
My credit card summary gives me an estimate of where my money is going, but I decided that if I really wanted to be aware and accountable, I should track my food expenses on a more granular level. That meant looking at where I was shopping (i.e., Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, the corner deli), how often I was eating out, and what my happy-hour habit was really costing me.
Surprisingly, eating out, at least for me, isn’t an issue. Where I spend beaucoup bucks is at specialty stores where I’ll decide to pick up a bag of jamon-flavored chips, pimento cheese, and a baguette and suddenly I’ve spent $30 on snacks I don’t actually need.
2. I made myself wait a day before going grocery shopping.
I have a tendency to get a little over-excited about grocery shopping. Maybe I’ll read a recipe that sounds so delicious I want to make it straight away. Or maybe I’m just hungry for snacks. The thing is, I almost always have enough food in the house to last a day or two — or even longer.
When I started forcing myself to wait a day before going to the supermarket, it meant taking stock of what I had in my pantry and finding something that could easily be turned into a meal. The other day, for example, I found a can of pumpkin purée and made pumpkin bread — which served as an afternoon snack and breakfast for a few days.
3. I started shopping at Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s kind of stresses me out — especially during peak shopping times. It’s also a bit of a hike from my apartment. But Trader Joe’s is considerably cheaper than my go-to grocery store, and because I had time to walk the extra half-mile and I could avoid the crowds by shopping in the middle of the day, I had no excuses!
I stocked up on frozen finds, like peas, fruit, and potstickers, as well as nuts, olive oil, and other pantry staples. My new totals came to around $20 or $30 compared to the $40 or $50 that I would have spent.
4. I unsubscribed to food subscriptions.
At any given point in time, I usually have some kind of food subscription. I also almost always forget that I have this food subscription and end up with too much food in my refrigerator. Not to mention, with food subscriptions, you’re often paying for the convenience of getting food delivered to your door, a luxury I decided I couldn’t afford. So I canceled my subscription for monthly smoothie deliveries — and I didn’t miss it at all.
If I wanted a smoothie, I almost always had frozen fruit from Trader Joe’s and some kind of non-dairy milk on hand to whiz something up. More often than not, though, I made overnight oats, toast with nut butter or avocado, or eggs — all of which are significantly less than the $7 a pop I was paying for my ready-to-blend smoothies.
5. I didn’t stop going out for coffee.
Eliminating going out for coffee was not a food choice I was willing to make in order to save a few dollars here and there. I didn’t do it every day, but I didn’t do that before I went freelance. It’s an expense that’s 100 percent worth it, in my opinion — and if you don’t believe me, read this article by Ellevest founder Sallie Krewcheck.
Are you a freelancer? What food choices, if any, did you make when you left the salaried workforce?
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