Updated on 03.20.12

Resist the Temptations of Soda and Fast Food (81/365)

Trent Hamm

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.

Resist the Temptations of Soda and Fast Food (81/365)

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.

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  1. Johanna says:

    “Studies like this one have shown a direct correlation between soda consumption and health care costs later on in life.”

    The linked study has nothing to do with health care costs later in life.

  2. lurker carl says:

    Hopefully, the substitutes for sodas and fast food are more healthful. Make sure they aren’t nutritionally empty and loaded with the same undesirable sugars, fats, sodium and chemicals that you’re trying to avoid. Price isn’t everything when it comes to food.

  3. Lisa Newton says:

    This isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

    For years, the only beverage I drank at home was diet soda. Many years ago, it wasn’t as expensive as it currently is. Plus, you could get it on sale and store it for a while.

    Then, about 9 months ago, it suddenly occurred to me just how much money I was wasting on soda. Plus, because name brand diet soda didn’t go on sale as frequently, and even then the price was pretty high, I started drinking generic brands.

    These weren’t as appealing.

    So, one day I said, enough is enough.

    Since that day, I have started drinking iced tea, which I make at home.

    Not only am I saving money (approximately, $80 per month), I feel healthier and better yet, sleep better. When I make my tea, I use half decaf.

    So, now, my routine is to make sure I have iced tea in the fridge, and I really enjoy it.

  4. Johanna says:

    “Much like soda, there are long term health costs associated with repeated use.”

    This article, likewise, has incredibly little to do with long-term health costs of fast food.

  5. Krantcents says:

    Small changes work best. Give up one day of soda or junk food and build from there.

  6. Jules says:

    I feel obligated to point out that granola bars are about as bad (if not worse) than an order of small fries. Though it could be that my idea of “small” has been miniaturized somewhat due to my living in Europe for a while. But the point is that some foods that we think of as “healthy” aren’t, and other foods that are “unhealthy” are probably healthier than some of the healthy foods. To my mind, what matters more is eating a wide variety of foods, and acclimatizing your palate to lots of differnt flavors. An occasional splurge at McDonald’s, in this context, isn’t a problem.

  7. This article is very timely. A lot of us know what long term benefits cutting back on soda (sugar) and fast food (empty calories) will make on our health but we just can’t really fight the urge to “indulge” on something that makes us feel good – other than the fact it kicks you after a couple of weeks and you’ve “surprisingly” gained a few pounds (from personal experience). Krantcents got it right too.

  8. Sara says:

    Holy crap, Lisa — you were spending more than $80/month on soda?! My rule of thumb is that I buy soda only when it’s $.25/can or less. At that price, I’d have to drink more than 10 cans/day to spend $80/month.

  9. Kevin says:

    Eh, I like my Diet Dr. Pepper. If that’s the worst thing I do I’d say I’m incredibly okay.

  10. Tom says:

    5 cents per ounce is like $0.60 per can or $3+ for a 2L bottle. That’s probably the case if you’re shopping at a vending machine, liquor store, or movie theater, but I think a more realistic price at a grocery store is more like 3 cents per ounce (when not on sale).

    Ditto to the commenter that pointed out that, often, foods advertised as healthy snacks aren’t always that great for you.

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