The diner is a New Jersey staple of the restaurant industry. Once you sit down at a diner, you are presented with a thick menu, enumerating more dining options than you could possibly handle. If there’s any indication that having more choices makes the selection process more difficult, it’s the diner menu.
The story of the man who drives to work and spends too much money on lunch.
Although I generally don’t listen to the conversations at adjacent tables, when the topic turns to financial issues, my ears perk up.
While I was enjoying a nutritionally dangerous Reuben sandwich at the local dinner this weekend, I overheard two women discussing their male acquaintance — possibly the son of one of the women.
The particular individual, the topic of this discussion, was saddled with a $400 car payment each month and a monthly charge of $400 for his transportation costs. This is New Jersey, where commuting to the office is a common pastime.
More damaging to this man’s financial situation, according to these women, however, was his habit of buying lunch every day. This man’s story was my story for many years. I remember my days working in an office, commuting to work. My company’s building included a cafeteria, where I could enjoy large portions for a large price.
I wasted so much money, and I would like to say I learned from these mistakes, but I never get the hang of it.
One of my biggest financial failures.
The convenience of the cafeteria prevented me from putting a serious effort into saving money by making my own lunch.
As I was no fan of cooking in general, I just didn’t want to be bothered with what I perceived as extra work. As my side business thrived, the money saved by brown-bagging my lunch seemed decreasingly relevant.
Although I didn’t experience personal success saving money by bringing in self-made meals rather than buying expensive cafeteria meals or visiting local restaurants for lunch, it’s still a good idea, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, from single men and women to families.
At the time, I was aware of a system that would have helped. Putting this financial system into action, the plan I will describe below, makes wealth growth easier to achieve, especially when starting from a vulnerable position with money. If you’re spending more than you earn, even on necessary expenses like food and housing, successful money systems are more imperative.
A successful system becomes a habit. Once you’ve established a routine, these tasks should seem natural. Although I didn’t quite get to that point on my own, had I remained in a bad financial place, I would have had no choice but to figure it out.
The system anyone can put in place to cover up the financial hole this poor gentlemen lets his friends or relatives discuss with disdain at the diner comes in two parts.
Part one: buy groceries on a schedule.
When I wrote last week about automating your savings, I described several other systems. In one of these examples, I described a potential system for shopping for groceries.
There are several options or features included in a grocery shopping system.
I keep a pad on the refrigerator, noting the items that are running low or that have run out. If I don’t make a note, I’ve found that I have trouble recalling what I need in the next shopping trip. This way, in addition to my regular food order, I know that I need to pick up garbage bags the next time I visit the store or place my order online.
In terms of food, I generally order the same items each time I shop. If I’m shopping online and having the groceries delivered, this is easy. The Peapod website keeps a record of my orders, and I can choose from any previous order when starting the next online shopping trip.
This saves me time, and when it comes to chores like food shopping, I want to save as much time as possible. Ordering from the same list every week (or two weeks) keeps me focused and offers less of an opportunity to browse or spend money on items I don’t need.
Alternative option: packaged meals and meal plans.
When I expressed my laziness in cooking, many people have suggested that I try ordering pre-made frozen meals such as those offered by online meal planners like eMeals or eDiets. eDiets no longer offers meal delivery; they seem to work with another company, ChefsDiet.
It’s unclear whether ChefsDiet provides enough food for a family or whether the meal portions are designed for one person. The price does not exactly make this the frugal choice, if it is in fact for one person as it appears to be. The daily prices range from $30 to $60. Shopping for ingredients and cooking is the much more frugal option, but for someone who doesn’t have time or has no desire to cook, perhaps it’s an expense worth dealing with.
But don’t forget the goal here is to save money habitually in order to achieve financial independence faster, but prioritization is a personal matter. If you’re willing to sacrifice wealth for personal convenience, you’re an adult, and you’re free to make that choice as long as it’s an informed decision and you weigh the consequences.
The plans from eMeals and eDiets no longer include delivery, but for the price of a subscription, you can have these companies take care of the system. They will provide you with meal planning guides for every day and a shopping list to make sure you’re getting everything you need.
It can take the guesswork out of planning meals, but at an expense. Even still, it is possible to save money over the long term because if you can’t stick to a system on your own and revert to dining out frequently, your finances will not improve.
Part two: cook one day, freeze your meals.
This is the advice I’ve heard the most as others observed the sorry state of my food spending and health and were concerned enough about my well-being to offer suggestions.
- Cook healthy meals on Sunday, when you have fewer time constraints and less stress.
- Freeze the meals to be thawed and eaten throughout the week.
- Buy a small soft cooler with a lock to package your lunch to take into the office if you work outside your home.
This can be a winning strategy for saving money regardless of the size of your household. The bigger the household, the bigger the savings, and the more money you’ll have free for the future or for other pressing needs.
The key is turning this process into a habit. And that might mean making it more enjoyable. I’ve never been a big fan of cooking, and so I’ve avoided it as much as possible. But I have discovered that when I put my mind to the process, it can be a somewhat creative outlet for me.
For example, the geekiness in my personality can be satisfied by experimenting with different taste combinations. I have the opportunity to consider other recipes and add my own potential improvements. Even when I’m not feeling creative with culinary, knowing my way around a kitchen and its various gadgets in order to complete the chore of cooking can be somewhat fulfilling.
So how much money can you save? For me, lunch in the cafeteria used to cost between $8 and $10. Eating out for dinner or ordering delivery could cost anywhere from $10 to $20 a meal. Had I done more to cook healthy dinners and eat leftovers for lunch, or made better use of sandwich meats, I could have saved $10 a day or more. That’s about $250 a month just taking weekdays into account; dining out less over the weekends could save another $100 a month.
$4,200 a year might not sound like a lot, but at a time, it was one tenth of my income. That’s significant enough to make a big difference over the long-term. Instead of saving 10% of my income for future financial freedom, I was wasting it.
How closer will this get you to financial freedom? It’s hard to say. As you get into habits where you make better financial decisions in one area, you have an effect on the decisions you make in other areas. With better systems in place, you create your own micro-culture of better financial living, and that helps bring financial independence significantly closer.
The key to successfully building wealth is finding the systems that work for you and sticking with them. Meal planning is perfect for such a system.
Forming a habit takes some time and motivation. Even if you’ve failed before, like I have, continuing to put some effort into designing your approach to food can save you money fairly quickly when you’re used to dining out frequently.
Do you have a system put in place for food shopping and preparation?
Published or updated November 11, 2013.