What You Spend, What You Eat

spicesOver the last year, I’ve really rediscovered my passion for cooking and food. We’ve moved into a house with a good-sized kitchen (not the large one of my dreams, but plenty big enough) – it’s the largest kitchen I’ve ever had access to in my life. I’ve used it with gusto, making homemade breads, homemade pastas, and countless other interesting things. This summer, it gets even better – we have a box garden where we plan on growing a bunch of vegetables.

Many of the discoveries I’ve made through this process directly relate to personal finance. In short, in both direct and indirect ways, this rediscovery of food has saved me a lot of money. Let’s take a look at the direct implications.

The Direct Implications of Cooking Meals

I’ve drastically reduced my levels of eating out

A typical Friday and Saturday evening used to involve a trip to a place like Applebee’s and a $30 bill. Even on weeknights, we used to often order takeout, with a bill adding up to $15 or so. Now, I often prepare meals at home for $10 or less – and these meals usually generate enough leftovers that they amount to a free lunch.

A corollary to this: my food spending is actually higher now than it was a few months ago because I’m now selecting higher quality ingredients. I buy things like Boston lettuce, organic vegetables, free-range chickens and eggs, organic milk, and so forth – they’re more expensive, but they genuinely taste better and produce a better dining experience. I’ve made a garlic and rosemary-crusted chicken using fresh, organic, and free range ingredients – it was rather expensive, approaching an Applebee’s bill, but it was by far tastier and healthier than anything we could have eaten at Chili’s – and it gave me two days’ worth of leftovers for work that smelled like heaven in the break room.

I feel healthier

Even with two children in daycare, I’ve not had one severe cold this winter. This is completely unusual for me – I usually suffer three or four bad colds in a winter. I’ve lost about ten pounds during the winter as well, even though a normal winter sees me gaining that much (then losing it again during the summer – that’s what a 100 degree seasonal temperature variation does for you). Some digestive issues I was having a year ago seem to have largely vanished. Most important, I genuinely feel better on a daily basis – mentally happier and physically more energetic than usual. The only signficant change I’ve made in the last year is that I’ve moved heavily into eating at home.

What does that mean for my wallet? No doctor’s visits, no cold medications, no prescriptions, no lost days of work. All of those have a direct financial cost to me, and they’ve all gone away this winter.

I’ve found a financially responsible hobby

Over the last several months, cooking has really grown into one of my primary hobbies. I deeply enjoy it, and it’s an enjoyment that I would never have discovered without considering my money first. I’ve always realized that cooking at home is cheaper than eating out and I knew that my house had a large kitchen on it, so I pledged to give some real effort to the cause of cooking at home. What I found was that it was fun. I enjoyed it – a lot. Not at first, when I was just rehashing old skills, firing up the crock pot for basic recipes, and stuff like that, but when I began stretching my skills and trying new things. That was fun, and that’s what has kept me in the kitchen.

Perhaps even more interesting than these obvious benefits are the indirect implications, which are also worth mentioning:

Indirect Implications of Cooking Meals

My family eats dinner together, at the dinner table, every night

We eat a homecooked meal, talk about our day, and bond together. We don’t scavenge for food, call for takeout, or eat separately – we eat a single meal, together. This is one of the key parts of my day and food preparation is a big part of that process. This fosters a deep relationship with my wife and with my children, one that I don’t have to foster with gifts or other big splurges to “make up” for time that I didn’t set aside for them.

I can receive gifts that aren’t redundant, silly, or take up space

Instead of receiving an Uncle Joe’s Bathroom Reader or an ill-fitting t-shirt as a gift, my friends and family got me a lot of useful stuff for the kitchen as gifts for Christmas this year – several excellent cookbooks, a pasta mill, and an electric carving knife, for starters. These are gifts with utility – the best kinds of gifts – and I have many more ideas along those lines, too. I’m certainly thinking of upgrading my knife set over time, particularly in terms of getting a few top-notch general chef’s knives. I’d also like a collection of herb jars and a nice spice rack – again, utilitarian gifts instead of junk.

The investment in some bulk quantities of food makes more sense

I’m currently involved in buying a quarter of a grass-fed cow to stock my freezer with several months’ worth of beef. Buying at this quantity means my prices, as compared to buying grass-fed beef at the store, are far, far cheaper – roughly 40% off on everything. Without a commitment to preparing my own food, this would be a poor purchase, but I’m quite sure we’ll get through all of this meat.

In short, a commitment to home-prepared food opens up many doors for trimming your budget, sometimes in subtle ways that you don’t even expect.

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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