Soda and fast food are both convenient pick-me-ups that many people utilize for a sweetness fix or for getting rid of a case of the munchies.
From a personal finance perspective, though, there are much better choices for each of those options.
Let’s look at soda for starters. You have the sticker cost of the soda, of course, which can vary greatly but often seems to settle at somewhere around $0.05 per ounce. Of course, on top of that, there are health costs. Studies like this one have shown a direct correlation between soda consumption and health care costs later on in life. Quantifying it down to an exact cost per ounce is impossible due to the variables (not all sodas are the same, not all people are the same, not all diets are the same, etc.), but there is a real connection and a real cost there.
Simply put, if you’re looking to quench your thirst at a bargain price, look at water. A glass of tap water is incredibly inexpensive, and even filtered water gets down to a tiny fraction of a cent per ounce. If you need that sweet fix, do what I often do: squirt a little bit of lemon juice into a big cup of water and add a pinch of sugar or two, then stir. That’s still far less expensive per ounce than your average soda. Want it convenient? Fill some water bottles and keep them in the fridge as a replacement for soda.
You can tell a similar story with fast food. Much like soda, it’s convenient and it can often become part of a normal routine. Much like soda, the cost each time doesn’t seem like too much. Much like soda, it’s usually tasty. Much like soda, there are long term health costs associated with repeated use.
If you want to replace the convenience and tastiness of fast food, make it yourself in advance of your crunch time. Make a big batch of homemade breakfast burritos and nuke them on your way out the door. Keep a container of nuts in your car to munch on instead of swinging into the Mickey D’s drive-thru. Prepare meals in advance so that all you have to do is pop them in the oven when you get home. There are tons of inexpensive recipes where the cost per serving just blows away fast food in terms of immediate savings.
I’m speaking from experience when I say that the hardest part of switching away from routines of drinking soda or eating fast food is not giving up the item, it’s breaking the routine. Human beings are creatures of habit and shaking our routines is something we’re not particularly good at. Over the years, I’ve found a few specific tactics that really work for me when it comes to breaking an unwanted routine or establishing a new one.
One, try to change just one routine at a time. If you have a routine of getting a soda and a burrito after work each day, just focus on breaking that routine. Ignore other changes you want to make in your life right now. Focus just on going home instead of stopping for that snack, and keep that money in your pocket. If you want to, eat something else instead when you get home – something that’s likely far less expensive.
Two, minimize the resistance to the new routine. It’s a lot easier not to pick up a soda if you’ve got an easy alternative to grab when you’re thirsty, such as a water bottle you filled yourself earlier and stuck in the fridge. It’s a lot easier to ride right by a fast food restaurant if you have a few nuts in your vehicle to munch on instead. It’s a lot easier not to eat out if you have an easy meal at home all ready to toss in the oven (or is sitting there ready for you in the crock pot).
Three, find alternatives you really enjoy. I used to really enjoy drinking a particular type of soda. I liked it so much I didn’t really believe I would get enough enjoyment out of anything else to make it worth the savings. What I did is I spent some time just experimenting with different alternatives until I came across a great mix of water, a bit of lemon juice, and a pinch of sugar that I really, really liked. Having a cheaper alternative that I genuinely liked made the switch much easier.
Finally, recognize what you’re gaining from the change. If you eliminate three sodas a day (on average) that cost $0.50 each (on average), you’re saving $500 a year in immediate soda costs, plus a significant amount more in long term health care costs. If you move from eating one $3 fast food snack a day to eating a homemade snack that costs $1 to make and a few nuts that cost $0.50, you’re saving $500 a year in immediate food costs, plus a significant amount more in long term health care costs. Keeping those dollars and cents in mind was a real motivator.
The thing to always keep in mind is that there are a lot of savings to be had from changing your dietary routines. Nothing is sacred as long as you’re meeting your basic nutritional needs.
This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.