My Food Budget Demystified

In my recent income/expense report where I showed the world my exact budget for October, I got some interesting comments about my food budget. It seems that some readers are either confused about how I keep such a low budget or are under the impression (due to my own fault) that all I eat are ramen noodles. I’m writing this article today for two reasons. First, I want to show readers exactly what I eat on a daily basis which may or may not actually change anyone’s mind on how healthy my diet is. Second, for anyone who’s so inclined to try and dramatically cut their food expenses this post may serve as motivation or may provide an example of how it’s possible.

My weekly food nourishment routine is very different from my weekend food intake. I’m first going to discuss my Monday-Friday food routine. I work Mon-Fri, so naturally my diet revolves a bit around this fact. My daily diet varies little throughout the week, and the only meal that usually varies is dinner on Friday night due to the fact that the weekend starts there.

My weekly diet is usually thus:

  • Breakfast: 1 bowl of cereal (cheap, store-brand oat/rice/grain based) with 2% milk.
  • Lunch: 2 packets of ramen noodles and 1 can of pop. (Important note: I use very little of the included salt packets)
  • Dinner: 2 sandwiches (revolve PB&J, tunafish, deli meat/cheese, grilled cheese, etc.) and 1 glass of milk or 1 can of pop, depending on what I’m eating.

This is my usual weekly routine. Breakfast and lunch rarely change. I have taken breaks from ramen noodles occasionally where I’ll substitute a sandwich instead. I’d like to reiterate that I use very little of the included salt packets in the ramen noodles to keep my sodium intake down. Dinner changes often and I try to rotate out meals. I’ll sometimes also make macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza, fresh pizza or take-out from local restaurants here. I try to mix up dinner as much as possible to keep things a bit fresh on a budget. The best way I can put it is that I eat like a college student. It’s not recommended, but it’s great on the wallet. I want to make sure my readers know that I advocate eating healthy, and if you can do so cheaply then by all means do so. I really despise most “health foods” and I would find my quality of life reduced simply because I wouldn’t be enjoying my food anymore. Plus, it would likely wreck havoc on my budget. That’s a double whammy.

My weekend routine is vastly different, as thus:

  • Breaksfast: Cereal, as during the week. Sometimes on the weekends I skip breakfast, due to sleeping in.
  • Lunch: Sandwhiches or leftovers. My only rule: no ramen noodles during the weekend.
  • Dinner: This varies quite a bit. Usually on Friday night my significant other will cook Italian sausage, burgers, pasta based dishes, chicken based dishes or fish and rice. This goes the same for Sunday.  Saturday night is my choice, as my significant other leaves it up to me. I usually order pizza, get takeout from a local joint or sometimes I take us out to a restaurant on a budget. Chili’s 2-eat-for-$20 comes to mind.

I hope this clears things up a bit. I target ~$180 for all food-related expenses during the month. I’d like to keep it around $150 if possible, but sometimes it creeps up past $200. I don’t watch every penny here. I try to eat cheaply, but enjoy myself. A couple things keep my food budget very low. You’ll notice I don’t have things like chips/cookies/ice cream listed. That’s because I rarely eat that stuff. It’s expensive and doesn’t really fill me up. It’s just empty calories. Another really important thing is that I don’t have a car as I’ve explained before. I get all groceries by foot or by bike. It’s easy to only get what you need when you have to carry it home. Although it might seem like a great idea to buy that pumpkin pie on sale, it’s unrealistic when you know you also have to carry home a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and two other bags of groceries.

An important note that I’ve never explained before: I don’t pay for all food in the house. My significant other eats here too, as does her child and she pays for food as well. I would say it’s safe to say that when all food and restaurant visits are included I pay at least half of all food expenses. I almost exclusively pay for meals when we go out together.

As a final disclaimer I’d like to say I don’t recommend this diet to anyone. It’s not extremely healthy, but it is cheap and I like eating this way. I work out 3-4 times a week and I’m actually in fairly good shape, as I believe staying in shape is an extremely important factor to retiring early. I’m trying to accelerate my savings and compound my investments as fast as possible to become financially independent by 40 years old. I won’t eat like this forever. Once I have more time on my hands, I’ll try to find ways to eat well, but still cheap. To be honest, even if I had Buffett bucks I’d still eat similarly, as I don’t enjoy “health food”. If I had the money, I’d probably eat a lot more sushi, and I’d eat out more as I enjoy great food and ambiance, but can’t/don’t cook. In the end, I really like my cheeseburgers and Coke. I guess I’m just a kid at heart!

Thanks for reading.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Div,
    I commend you for being open and sharing as much as you do for you readers. I found you site at the beginning of the year and have been following along ever since. I wouldn’t worry to much about people questioning your diet. People are always going to agree or disagree on what you do based on their own bias. Walk the path you want and others opinions of that path fall where they may.
    I’ve enjoyed reading this as this month I’ve been trying to get my grocery bill down below 100.00 I’ve cut out most of the meat and rely on potatoes, rice, lentils, eggs along with lots of vegetables. It’s working out pretty well so far.
    Keep doing what your doing Div. At the end of the day your readers are here for far more important reasons than whether you eat raman noodles or not…

  2. MySavingStyle says

    Thanks for being so open. I really appreciate your insight on keeping your expenses so low. If you get criticism, it’s (probably) just jealous people trying to justify themselves for not meeting their goals :) No criticism from me! I have forced myself to eat more veggies, because I know it’s good for me, and surprise, I now enjoy eating them, I feel good and healthy! I’m a bit older, so I have to be careful of these things. I cut out soda, other than maybe one a week, or occassionally at the movies. Happy Friday!

  3. Anonymous says

    Why not cut out soda and add some fruit and veggies? Might help you avoid a chronic disease that you’ll have to deal with while living off your divs! Even working out three times a week isnt a substitute for having the occasional y fruit or veggie. Love the blog – keep it up.

  4. Anonymous says

    This is one area I refuse to budget for. Lucky, I enjoy cooking and do so at least 5 meals a week (have to eat lunch out for work).

    It can be cheaper to cook for yourself…a luxury ingredient is only a few dollars, while even a fast food combo meal will run you $7-8.

    Plus cooking simply tastes better, is healthier, and satisfies me more than eating processed junk food. My body feels disgusting when I don’t eat as many veggies as I do in my normal diet.

    Ramen is cheap and can be improved by throwing some veggies and even an egg into it.

    But to each their own.

  5. Whit says

    I don’t think there was criticism on Div Mantra’s food habits. It was more shedding some thoughts on what types of sacrifices do you have to make in order to maintain a very low food budget. You do indeed have to make sacrifices in the name of frugality, so at what point do you sacrifice too much in which the short-term gains do not exceed the long-term costs.

    The Extreme Early Retirement guy who lives off 7k in expenses a year (or perhaps less) lives in an RV. One could live in an RV, downgrading from a 3,000 sq ft. house and complain about the lowering of quality of living. In the long-run though, I would confidently say there wouldn’t be permanent long-lasting damages to health and longevity unless you succumb to depression.

    In the end, we all have personal freedom to do what we wish with our money. I personally believe, buying fresh food (going to a local market) can be rather cheap, even cheaper than processed foods. Eating healthy food can also be tasty. Eating a grass-fed beef rib eye steak, uncured bacon, and some cage free eggs is really healthy. Obviously, some of this stuff you can’t get at Aldi. It requires a little bit of a premium, but if my psyche feels like I’m eating healthily and it promotes my chances of living longer, I feel it’s worth the premium.

    Once again, thanks for opening your food budget to others. Don’t want to turn this into a nutrition discussion. I look forward to your next post.

  6. says

    Anonymous,

    Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your support and encouragement!

    Thanks for the “walking the path” comment. I appreciate it. I definitely do walk my own path, and I face criticism every day…especially when co-workers snicker when they see me walking to the bus stop. Doesn’t bother me any. To each their own, but I feel what I’m doing is best for me.

    Great job on managing your food expenses and cutting it down to a level you feel comfortable with, but still eating how you want to eat. That’s very important to budget and save money but not sacrifice quality of life too much. Gotta have that balance that is so hard to attain.

    Best of luck!!

  7. says

    MySavingStyle,

    Thanks for your comment!

    I wasn’t really trying to face any criticism but writing this article. All in all, everyone who stops by and comments are almost always really friendly and helpful. I think I’ve gotten more “confused” responses more than anything. I wanted to post this article so that way there is no confusion on how exactly I spend my food dollars.

    I wish I could cut the soda like you. To be honest, I’d say it’s my one vice in life. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs of any kind and I don’t eat a lot of junk food (cookies, chips)…but pop has been very difficult for me to cut. I guess it’s a quality of life thing for me now.

    Great job on cutting that out and keeping the veggies in. As I said in the article, if you can eat healthy and enjoy it then definitely go for it!

    Thanks for stopping by. Have a good weekend.

  8. says

    Anonymous,

    Thanks for stopping by and adding in some tips there.

    As I stated in the article, I really don’t enjoy veggies. Fruit is ok though, and I drink orange juice occasionally. Fruit is expensive though, and I don’t think I enjoy it enough to spring for it. I agree that working out isn’t a substitute for eating healthy, but it goes both ways. There are a lot of health nuts that don’t work out at all. It’s important to find balance.

    Thanks for your support and readership! I hope this article serves more as a transparent view into one part of my life than anything else.

    Best wishes!

  9. says

    Anonymous,

    Great stuff! I’m really glad you enjoy cooking. I wish I enjoyed cooking, but I like eating much more! :) To each their own. I do agree with you that if you take your time and have quality ingredients in bulk you can eat well on a budget. That was one thing I mention towards the end of my article…that one day I hope to have more time and I can perhaps improve on my diet.

    Thanks for stopping by. Take care!

  10. says

    Whit,

    I definitely don’t think I really faced any criticism on my diet choices. Like I said earlier, this article was more to clear up any confusion on exactly what I eat on a daily basis and how my low budget is maintained. This is more a reference article than anything else. This way in the future when people ask how I keep my food budget so low I can point to this post.

    As you point out, it’s important to find that balance between frugality and quality of life. Believe it or not, I’m pretty much in a sweet spot for myself diet-wise. But your mileage will obviously vary. Everyone likes different food. I enjoy cheap sandwiches and pizza. Even if I was a billionaire I wouldn’t eat much differently, save for eating much more sushi and eating out more often as I wrote.

    Jacob is killing me when it comes to a food budget. He’s mentioned a few times that he was spending (is still spending?) $50/month on food and eating once a day. I know he ate quite a few lentils in his time. I’d like to reduce my food budget slightly, but I don’t see it ever going below $100, as then my quality of life would be sacrificed.

    I think what you’re doing is great. I don’t think there is any “right or wrong” way to go diet-wise and trying to budget your food expenses. What works for me won’t work for others and visa versa. Again, I was simply trying to clear up confusion more than anything else. I also like being 100% transparent on my journey to financial independence and this article was just one way to do that.

    As far as considering health concerns, I think that sometimes this can be a little overblown. For instance, you can eat extremely healthy and still get cancer, heart disease, have a stroke and many other things. I obviously encourage reducing risk as I try to reduce risk in just about every facet of my life…but I think that
    there can be many examples of both ways. Again, I think it’s all about balance. I try to work out often to maintain some balance. I don’t encourage eating pizza and drinking Coke everyday and then sitting on your butt and watching television. I try to stay pretty active. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to still maintain an aggressive food budget but eat slightly better. This will come in time as I age.

    Thanks for stopping by. I enjoy these engaging discussions. My main reason for maintaining this blog is because of these discussions. We all learn from one another.

    Best regards!

  11. Anonymous says

    Wow D Mantra, NO one can ever criticize u for lack of detail; that’s for sure. I appreciate it though; gives us readers food for thought (Ha, no pun intended). On my end, I need to cut back on eating out. I don’t go anywhere fancy but it still adds up. I’m setting a monthly budget for this specific item and want to stay within it. More fresh fruits n veggies always good to strive for too.

    Like u, even if I had big bucks, I’d still eat mostly the same. I’ll pass on the sushi but I’m w/ ya on the cheeseburgers BUT instead of Coke, try a Mtn Dew (you’ll help my PEP stock; don’t have any KO rgt now). :)

    By the way, on that subject any thoughts on the PEP split-up rumpled? Like ur blog as always.

    -Rock the Casbah

  12. thomasa510 says

    I agree (was anonymous before) that food choices are mainly individualist and I’m happy I enjoy cooking my own food and love veggies. Wouldn’t want to change my food choices either and have my own vices (way too much coffee for one).

    Also really enjoy your blog and the transparency and responses to comments.

    Would love to get some lively stock discussions going as well. Suppose we are all dividend growth investors here. Everybody has those hidden gem stock investments that seem poised for dividend growth, and we can jointly gain from sharing investment ideas.

  13. Debbie M says

    Actually, some fruit is cheap. Bananas, oranges, apples. Also, you can buy frozen fruit and make a fruit salad–frozen is usually cheaper than fresh.

    My diet is similar. I have chocolate milk (skim milk + sugar + cocoa) for breakfast. (And vitamin pills.)

    Then I do better at work if I have something hot. It’s always freezing cold in there. So I make a big batch of spaghetti or chili or something and eat that all week with a little juice (often just 4 ounces of juice has quite a lot of vitamins, so you can really stretch it out). I’m not a fan of vegetables, so I’ll try to chop up something really tiny or grate it into my cooking–some spinach or squash; also you can add a can of pumpkin to a big batch of chili.

    Also, I bring a few pretzels, two graham crackers, and V8 juice for snacks.

    For dinner, I like cereal or smoothies/milkshakes (they have fruit, but they also have ice cream) in the summer and quick hot food (eggs, mac-n-cheese, hotdogs, ramen noodles) in the winter.

    My vices are not enough produce and too much sugar. I didn’t mention it, but I will occasionally make dessert and eat it for a week, and I definitely eat loads of sweets at parties (including work parties).

  14. says

    Rock the Casbah,

    You cracked me up with your comment. You are right on the detail part. I’m a bit OCD with some things and managing money is something that falls into that category for me.

    I hear ya on the cheeseburgers! You should try Five Guys if you haven’t already. I feel bad eating there as I own MCD shares, but it’s a great burger joint. If they ever go public I’m all over it!

    Hey I own PEP too. I’m actually drinking a Mt. Dew as I write this comment. So…I’m doing my best to support us both. :)

    As far as the PEP split-up Indra Nooyi seems dedicated to keeping the company intact and as is. I’m happy about that. I really like what she’s doing with the company and she’s very popular over in India which bodes well for growth over there.

    Thanks for stopping by and keeping in touch! Much appreciated.

  15. says

    thomasa510,

    I’m glad you enjoy the transparency. If there is anything I strive for on this blog it’s transparency. In 10 years or so when I’m close to financial independence, this blog will serve as an open book as to how I got there.

    I try to get some lively stock discussions going on this blog all the time. One of my biggest goals is to share ideas and mutually gain from one another. I hope we can all learn from each other and our investments are all successful. I always post my ideas and purchases, so if there’s any hidden gems out there that I know of you’ll all be the first to know!

    Best wishes!

  16. says

    Debbie M,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing some of your diet ideas. It sounds like we have similarities in terms of what we eat. I’ve tried V8 before and that is definitely not for me. I wish I liked it as it would be a great way for me to get veggies all in one serving. But, I digress.

    My vices are the same as yours. Too much sugar and not enough produce. I do hope to change this up a bit in time.

    Thanks again for stopping by and sharing. I appreciate it! Keep in touch.

  17. Debbie M says

    I admit that of my work snacks, I always eat the pretzels, almost always eat the graham crackers, and rarely drink the V8 juice, but it’s there if I’m desperately hungry. I don’t mind the flavor, but I’m not wild about it.

    My brother had a crazy potassium deficiency once, so now he thinks of V8 juice as medicine instead of as food. It’s just something he has a daily dose of. I should probably do the same, but I still think of it as food!

  18. Jack Harris says

    It took me quite a while to get to the point where I would not overeat. For some reason, I have always been eating twice more that my hunger really was. Once I realized that, it was easy to kick that habit, because really, a man does not need a lot of food in order to live healthy and happy.

  19. james says

    Since you already have all these ingredients, you can always add peanut butter, hot sauce and soy sauce to the ramen, just make sure you don’t put too much water in the mix.

  20. says

    james,

    Great tips there. Adding a little peanut butter, or nuts, might give it a Pad Thai flavor! Soy sauce is another idea to give it that trademark salty flavor.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  21. Anonymous says

    I must admit that you should NOT skimp on what you eat when it comes to living frugally. I can’t stress this enough because what you eat is basically count as a “human capital”, that is if you feed yourself junk you’re going to feel like junk. That will affect your mood and how you feel about life. The foods you eat are literally investments in your body, if you don’t eat healthy it would lead to increased costs in taking care of yourself (time and money).

    You shouldn’t deprive yourself eating like a college student. There are creative ways of not getting hungry. For example, buy a large instead of a small sub for lunch, because it will give you a better unit price, and eat half at lunch time and the second half two or three hours later. That way, you don’t spend so much money when you go home and eat dinner. Plus, you get so much more energy (bodybuilders eat 5-6 times a day and they are portion controlled so that the body intakes the nutrients much more efficiently).

    Also, why not substitute pop with water… water is very cheap and healthy, pop is loaded with sugar and it is expensive. You’re paying for all that sugar. Bring your own bottled water when going out for lunch or order lunch without drinks and drink water from the tap when you get back to the office.

    Personally, I target $10 per day for food (fast food or not). You don’t have to spend $10 each day on food, it can simply be going to the supermarket and buying $100 of food and chances are it will last more than 10 days (instant savings right there). Just make sure that if something is on sale, it’s not an excuse to buy it. Buy groceries that you need, that is good for you, and if possible what’s on sale. You can buy the occasional snack or two thrown in just to indulge yourself, just make sure to keep it close to $10 a day.

  22. says

    Anonymous,

    Thanks for adding that. I appreciate you looking out for my health!

    I enjoy pop. If I didn’t drink it and instead drank all water I would find my quality of life reduced. Seeing as how I don’t smoke, drink alcohol or engage in risky behavior I think that having a Pepsi/Coke at the end of the day is well deserved.

    I don’t really deprive myself. I tried to make that clear in the post. I quite enjoy eating like I do and it just so happens that it only costs around $5/day or so to feed myself. It’s really a win-win.

    I agree that being healthy will save on health care costs later, but I also have to point out that you could eat as healthy as possible and get hit by a bus or get cancer or die by many other ways. What I’m getting at is that I’m trying to find my own personal freedom as soon as possible so that I can enjoy as much of my life as possible before I do pass on. In the meantime, I’m also trying to find an agreeable balance between quality of life and frugality. I think my food budget is pretty well justified.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  23. Jay G says

    I’d replace the ramen noodles with spaghetti. A box of spaghetti is 16oz & 1 dollar=6.25 cents an ounce. Ramen noodles is 3oz & 25 cents=8.33 cents an ounce. And spaghetti is way better for you.

    • says

      Jay G,

      Ahh, the good ol’ days! :)

      I actually don’t eat ramen noodles at all anymore. While I ate them for about a year straight every single day at work for lunch, I haven’t opened a package of ramen in quite a while now.

      However, I ate my fair share of other pasta back then as well. And still do. Pasta is cheap and it tastes good, but I generally limit it to the occasional weekend meal.

      I plan to update my frugal diet here pretty soon. It’s not vastly different from how it was in 2011. Mainly, I’ve cut out the ramen noodles and now eat Lean Cuisine instead. I also don’t drink as much soda, and drink flavored water instead. These changes, coupled with more aggressive workouts, have allowed me to lose substantial weight (about 20 pounds).

      Thanks for the suggestion. I totally agree. And I think ramen noodles aren’t that bad for you, assuming you’re eating them in moderation and you’re not using much of the included salt packets. I used to pinch off a tiny portion of those packets and throw the rest away.

      Cheers!

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