Saturday, November 6, 2010

Saturday Throwback: When Food Frugality Pays Off - See Ya, Sallie Mae

Every Saturday, we post a little somethin' from the CHG Archives. Today's piece is from September 2007.

Next week, barring disaster, I will pay off college. Undergrad and grad school, both. I'll be 30 in November.

Before we get into how eating frugally and healthily helped that happen, we must do this:

*Happy dance!*
*Happy dance!*
*Happy dance!*

Okay. Sweet. On with the show.

Between a small scholarship, tuition reimbursement from my job, and eight years of incremental Sallie Mae payments, I started the year with a little more than $15,000 in college debt. Being fairly oblivious, it never dawned on me to dump it until I perused Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. It’s the kind of life-changing book that advocates debt awareness and financial responsibility, and it convinced me to tackle my loans before I even finished reading.

So, in addition to moving to a cheaper place, cutting cable, and living off the salary I made three years ago (and banking the difference), I decided to chop my food bill. To my surprise (not really), of all my self-imposed cash conservation rules, the chow-related ones were hardest to follow.

This is partially because I’m thrifty, but not a cost-cutting psychopath when it comes to my gaping maw. I eat, I take trips where meals are a key component, and I go to roughly 12 billion baby showers a year, where I purchase layette sets in exchange for massive plates of chicken francese. So, yeah - chopping the comestibles budget was not easy. But I managed, and axed a few calories, to boot. Here’s how:

1. I started brown-bagging it to work. When you’re employed in the smack center of the most expensive five-block radius on Earth (Schtimes Square, Schnew York), your lunch budget is secondary only to rent. The average mid-day meal goes for about $7.50 around here, meaning it’s easy to blow $1700 bucks annually on sandwiches and soup. Plus, overeating is endemic, as you’re constantly striving to get the most food you can for your precious salary. Since starting to pack from home consistently a year ago, I estimate I’ve saved about $1300 along with several inches off my rear end.

2. I began shopping exclusively from the supermarket circular. The Boyfriend and I save an average of 21% off our weekly grocery bill this way. (I did the math!) We usually spend about $51.55 for food that would have normally cost $65.25, which saves us $13.70 per week, or $712.40 a year. As an added bonus, our fruit and veggie intake has about doubled, since produce is a loss leader and constantly on sale.

3. I switched to water. Admittedly, I was never big into fruit juice or soda, but I like Crystal Lite a LOT. The chemical aftertaste appeals to me in a way I can’t explain and don’t want to. Happily, agua is just as thirst-quenching, not to mention free. Oh, and it doesn’t contain any of these: Maltodextrin, Citric and Malic Acids, Raspberry Juice Solids, Aspartame, Red 40, Calcium Phosphate, Acesulfame Potassium, Blue 1.

4. I became a Trader Joe’s convert. Not for food, you see, but for booze. Where else on god’s green earth can you get a glass of semi-decent Sauvignon Blanc for $3? Despite lines that stretch to Peoria, The Boyfriend and I visit TJ’s wine store regularly, saving between $5 and $10 per bottle. We purchase less beer now, too.

5. I launched a blog about frugal, healthy food. Finally, an activity that encompasses my passions: eating, giving unsolicited advice, and linking to George Clooney pictures. But seriously, I find it’s much easier to save money and think nutritionally when I feel some responsibility towards others for being consistent, accurate, and informative.

Besides these five steps, I also:
  • Stopped frequenting Jamba Juice and Starbucks
  • Snacked increasingly on fruits and whole grains
  • Relied more on generic foods
  • Cut my meat intake
  • Obtained a Costco membership
  • Shopped using a grocery list
  • Began cooking in bigger batches
  • Stocked a decent pantry
  • Emphasized whole foods and meals cooked from scratch
  • Started a price book
Sadly, my restaurant expenditures have not changed. I’m still dining out or ordering in twice or thrice (that’s right, THRICE) a week, which wouldn’t be terrible except for my fancy-schmancy tastes. While I don’t begrudge myself the occasional date night, there’s gotta be a way to slash the bills. It’s something to work on for the future.

In the end, though I made some mistakes, it worked. College is (almost) paid off, man. While I’ll miss Sallie Mae’s jumbled interface, bad-deal consolidation offers, and bizarrely middle-aged “college student” photos, I’m glad our relationship is over. It’s time to concentrate on new things now, like saving for a house, going to India, and of course, linking to George Clooney pictures.

But once more, for old times’ sake:

*Happy dance!*

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