I Tracked Every Dollar I Spent on Food in 2015. Here's What I Learned.
Disclosure: I would have to admit this isn’t 100% accurate, but I’d say it’s close to 98%
Why Did I Do This?
In 2014 I started my first "career-job" as a web designer. It was the first time in my life I had a respectable steady income. Just before the start of 2015 I knew I had to do something about my finances. In fact, I didn't really know anything about my finances other than the amount in my checking account and maybe my credit score. I had deferred student loans to exhaustion, and come tax-time I knew Uncle Sam was going to tip-off his pal Sallie Mae as to my whereabouts. With loan payments looming, I knew it was time for me to have a greater understanding of how I was spending my money. After budgeting out my expenses, only one area was still unknown and flexible… my eating habits.
How Do I Collect All Of The Data?
I use an app called You Need A Budget, or YNAB for short. Every purchase I make I manually enter into this app. At first that may sound like way too much work, but trust me, it’s worth it. It keeps you honest. I prefer YNAB to Mint based on one principal alone, it is proactive instead of reactive. Inputting this data probably takes me only 15 seconds per transaction. I spend a lot of time at a larger workstation during my day-job, so every few days I find a few minutes to input my spending in each category into a large Google Doc that a coworker built for me. Make a copy for yourself here. I broke down all of my eating and drinking into 5 categories,
- Eating Out (Restaurants and Fast Food)
Below you will find a more in-depth explanation of each category.
Nashville. Designer. Coffee Drinker. #liveauthentic
We live coffee culture, and let me tell you: Coffee is a danger zone. Once you become a coffee drinker, your expenses will change. I don't mean the kind of coffee drinker like an Alaskan crabber is, only drinking Folgers at wholesale prices. I mean the kind of coffee drinker who has a preference for what the sleeve is made out of. It was probably around early 2014 that I started drinking coffee, and at that point it was only iced coffee. I told myself if I was going to add this addiction to my lifestyle, I would learn to drink it black (and still do) with the goal to not become dependent on creamer/flavors. Drinking it black is also a dumb badge of honor and keeps the calories down.
I easily spend between $2.50 - $3.50 per coffee at a shop, per day if I'm not making any at home. Social coffee: the good and the bad. Everyone wants to meet up to get coffee, and honestly, I do, too. It's a great way to connect with someone new. The problem is, being only $2.50 (x2?) we can easily think of it as non-expense. It adds up. (Note: As I'm writing this, I'm sitting in a coffeeshop, oops.)
If you told me years ago that I would spend this much on coffee I wouldn't have believed you. This is the beauty of tracking. Compared to others in my demographic I would lend a guess that I'm around the middle of the pack.
Monthly Average: $54
2015 Total: $640
I’m quite an outlier with how little I spend on alcohol. I’m not a heavy drinker, and never have been. An interesting article was written by another designer about how cutting out drinking saved him $1,000 a month. That may sound crazy at first, but depending on the person and the city, the math starts to make sense. Just imagine... a few $10 cocktails, weekends, uber rides, buckets of beers, all multiplied by frequency.
So what happened in December? Yikes. Christmas Parties, New Years. Compared to my average, all it took were a few extra occurrences to triple my spending, at which point probably became a normal monthly expense for the average person.
Monthly Average: $50
2015 Total: $608
What counts as a snack? This category is definitely the least defined of the bunch. It's almost a catch-all for anything that slipped through the cracks. At my office we have an attached coffee shop with baked goods, as well as this college-book-store-like kitchen upstairs. Any snickerdoodle with my coffee would fall into this category. Other purchases that fell into this category would be the random gatorade at the gym, or road trip peanuts. These expenses were usually kept at a minimum but you'll notice they did start to creep up as the year progressed.
Monthly Average: $23
2015 Total: $278
This is the only area that I wish I could spend more on. Confession: My usual diet includes eating out a lot mixed with nightly cereal and the occasional PB&J. Oh and Stouffers’ microwave meals. Lots of those. Slowly as the year went by I was cooking at home less and less. Knowing what I know now about my eating habits - Eating at home is insanely more cost effective.
I’d like to learn more meals to cook (that I will actually cook) this year in the obvious effort to spend less but also to eat better. I could probably affect these results further by purchasing things I’d snack on more throughout my day. Cooking and eating for one is difficult.
Monthly Average: $91
2015 Total: $1,090.30
Eating Out (Restuarants / Fast Food)
Eating out is the main reason why this whole effort started. Eating out adds up fast. This is my largest expense each month after rent, but it doesn’t have to be. Working in an office in a downtown area, surrounded by restaurants - it is incredibly easy to go eat out with my coworkers everyday. Luckily, I live only a few miles from the office so I try to head home a few times a week at least to make lunch.
Calculating all of the times I eat out as well as the cost has given me the knowledge of what an average cost per meal for me is: $10.45. What is it for me to eat at home? About $2.50. This has changed my thinking when it comes to lunch time. Should I go out, or save $7.50 and eat at home?
Monthly Average: $299.71
2015 Total: $3,596.50
What I Learned
Aside from realizing that I'll follow through with something if it's beneficial and interesting to me - I learned a few things about how my money is working.
- One of the biggest takeaways is the cost per meal. Realizing that for me, eating out is 4.3x more expensive than eating at home on average.
- Even beyond that, taking in all of my eating habits combined - I learned what my cost is per day, around $18.
- This christmas I bought myself and Aeropress and have been making my own coffee each morning, saving around 70% so far. If I stick with that, it could mean a savings of almost $450 for the year.
- A friend taught me this year that going to the grocery store weekly, even when you don't think you need food, will save you a lot of money - and he's definitely right.
- Somewhere online I read about another budgeter implementing No Spend Days. These are just one day per week where you don’t spend any money on anything. You won't always be successful, but it forces you to think ahead, and buy food for the next day, or a few more groceries instead of eating out again. Doing the math, if my average cost per day is $18, that multiplied times 52 weeks comes out to $936 saved in a year!
Obviously, I could talk at length about budgeting - but this is just one small aspect that I thought I could share and hopefully someone would find value in. Thanks for reading, Noah