Sustaining a Reasonable Food Budget

If you are new to budgeting and intentionally living within your means, you may wonder if it is sustainable to live on less than you make and not totally hate it. After setting up how much you are going to spend on each category, how do you continually make choices to move towards the financial life that you desire? How do you stay consistent and remain unwavering in your decision to make some short term sacrifices to enable you to succeed in having long term financial success?

If you listen to Dave Ramsey for any length of time, you will hear him regularly talk about living on “rice and beans, beans and rice.” The concept is that while you are paying off debt, you should not “see the inside of a restaurant unless you are working there.” You should not go out to eat during this time frame. I do understand where he is coming from, and where he is trying to get his listeners to. I can relate to this, and did go this direction early on in our debt repayment journey. I was stingy in my allocation of money for nights out or having a bite to eat at a restaurant. And the logic behind it does make a lot of sense.

Spending money on restaurants and drinks out can be a huge drain on your budget. When Jos and I were dating early on, I was eating at restaurants regularly, especially for lunch and dinner. Heck, I even got in a routine for a while of stopping at a place on my way to work in the morning to get a bagel sandwich and a coffee to go. Money, money, money. I wasn’t even eating extravagant meals, I don’t have very expensive taste when it comes to food. But it was adding up. At one point we sat down together and I highlighted on my bank and credit card statements (sadly a lot of this was ending up on credit cards) all of my dining out expenses. It was staggering. Just an example from one of my average months showed I was blowing over $650 just on food. It was out of control.

In light of this, Ramsey’s approach made sense for someone like me. If I wanted to make a change, I need to do some drastic changing. Food was one of the areas where I needed a major wake up call. After we got married, we ate out very little in our first few months as an overcompensation to the large spending I had done in this category beforehand. Little to no spending at restaurants for us. But here’s the thing: extremism applied to any good cause is likely to fail.

After a few months of our fairly stiff frugality, we both became a bit miserable and a bit resentful toward this standard that basically banned restaurant eating from our budget. To make matters worse, we had just moved to the greater Portland, OR area which is notorious for great places to eat. It was a bad combination.

What I have learned after being on both sides of this fence is that there must be a healthy compromise. Beans and rice would be great from a pure spreadsheet point of view. And sure, on the flip side, I would love to say that we have tried every trendy eatery in town. But we haven’t. Somewhere in the middle lies the sweet spot between frugality and gluttony. We mustn’t punish ourselves with the budget or blindly swipe plastic aimlessly at any joint that looks like it’s worth trying out. Find that sweet spot and embrace it.

For us, our number is $80 every two weeks. This allows us to eat out a few times at cheaper places, or once or twice if we try something nicer. It would be a crime to have lived in the Portland area for 18 months and to have not tried some of the awesome food it has to offer. And it would be foolish to think that we can afford a steady stream of food prepared by someone else, outside of our home while paying off student loans. So what is your number? This will probably take some trial and error. Maybe you really do have a tight budget and you need to stick to eating out once a month or less. Or maybe you do have more flexibility as you pay off debt, but you know that you are spending too much on food. A budget is a flexible, fluid tool that is designed to serve you and get you where you want to go. Try a number, and then re-evaluate. Then try again, and see how it goes. You will find your happy medium.

My last thought on this is to identify and embrace that food is a huge part of our social lives. We are blessed to eat three meals a day, and each of those meals offers a chance to break bread with people we love. It provides an excellent environment to share ideas, laugh, catch up, and grow our social and relational connections. Food is important. With a proper perspective on it, we can allow food to be the wonderful gift that it is!

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