Thoughts on a Low Grocery Bill

Whenever I post a recipe or another food post, I usually hear from a reader or two who tout cooking everything from scratch. They’ll tell me about their very low food bill and encourage me to post recipes that start from even more staple-oriented food.

A great example comes from my recent recipe for

lemony fettuccine with asparagus:

Fettuccine in our pasta bowl

Commenters on the recipe offered lots of great suggestions for how to improve the recipe: use broccoli instead of asparagus, use olive oil instead of canola, and so on.

One reader emailed me and offered up a further interesting suggestion:

Your lemon fettuccine recipe was pretty low on protein. I make my own pasta and sometimes add ground flaxseed to the dough to increase the protein count. It creates a great taste and keeps my grocery bill low.

Undoubtedly, making my own pasta (something I do from time to time) is a great way to make mind-blowingly delicious pasta and it’s way cheaper than the boxed stuff. You can make a giant pile of pasta with just a couple cups of flour and a few eggs.

There’s a problem, though: from-scratch pasta is time expensive. Making the dough, pressing it, cutting it, and drying it can eat up a good hour of your time. Considering that I’m trimming about a dollar in cost off of a box of pasta for that effort, I’m only saving $1 for that hour of my time.

For a busy person (and who isn’t), saving $1 for an hour’s worth of work is not a good deal.

This is true for many from-scratch dishes: the closer you get to the raw ingredients, the less it costs, but the more involved time it takes. I don’t mean total time – it’s often comparable between from-scratch recipes and others – but the time you have to spend focused on the meal itself.

Time has a cost. Time spent on one activity is time not spent on something else – even if it’s just idle relaxation. That time could be used to increase your earnings or to save money in other ways.

Most of us are biologically wired to enjoy and to crave fattening foods. Our ancestors found such foods so rarely that they were hard-wired to love them and to pack it away when such an opportunity arose.

Today, with the abundance of food around us, that can be a real danger. Without psychological reinforcement that we shouldn’t, we tend to eat everything served to us. Without being careful, we’ll eat an unbalanced diet. Both of these are detrimental to our long term health.

This problem is made worse by the fact that unhealthier options are generally less expensive. Take a look at the cuts at your local butcher or meat counter – the fatty cuts are the cheap cuts. Wander through the aisles and compare the cheap pasta sauce and the organic pasta sauce on the nutrition label. Compare a loaf of bread made from whole grains and a loaf of generic white bread. Time and time again, the unhealthy option is the cheap option.

I look at such food purchases in a very simple way: you save money now to pay more later on. Pay more later? A consistent diet of unhealthy foods will cost you later in life with medical bills and other health-related choices that are foisted upon you.

Personal Values
For some people, food is merely a fuel to help you plow through the day. For others, it’s an art form that speaks directly to your soul. The rest of us are in the middle, alternating back and forth.

Take me, for example. Most days, I’m perfectly content to eat leftovers for lunch and prepare a really simple dinner with my family.

Yet, every once in a while, I’ll devote three hours to making coq au vin from scratch, as I did last Friday. I’ll splurge and make croque-madames for a surprise lunch on a lazy Saturday. I’ll attempt some soul food dish from my own childhood, slaving for hours to recapture some flavor from my youth.

I don’t make these things because they’re quick. I don’t make them because they’re healthy, either, and they’re certainly not cheap. I make them because cooking is a pastime I get a great deal of personal enjoyment from.

Finding Value
In the end, it’s all about value. What’s truly important in your own life? Do you view an occasional afternoon in the kitchen as drudge work or as a soul-nurturing experience? Do you look at breads in the bread aisle by their price tag, by their nutrition facts label, or by their texture and color – or some combination thereof?

For many people, minimizing your food bill is a worthwhile goal. You live an active and very busy life and minimizing the costs in an area where you don’t have much personal added value is a great way to maximize value in your overall life.

For others, personal health is a key value and thus spending money on healthy ingredients is key. It’s worth your extra dollar to get raw organic vegetables for the meals you create and you pride yourself on putting pure, whole foods in your body.

For still others, food is their art form, a way to get in touch with their spirit. It’s worth their extra money and extra time to create the perfect meal, combining sublime flavors like an artist at the canvas.

Each of those groups sacrifices something along the way, whether it’s time or flavor or money, in order to get in touch with what really matters to them.

The happiest person is the one who has looked inside themselves, figured out what they really valued, and chased it with gusto. No matter which path you follow, if it’s in line with what your true values are, your dollars are being spent in the right place.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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