Revisiting my food budget

In a recent post about my whole life policy budget item, FrugalShoppingIdeas left the following comment which has had me thinking ever since:

The amount you set up for restaurants is sooo high though! There are so many free options these days or discounted. Even at Arby’s, buy a soft drink and you get a free Roastburger. haha Restaurant.com has deals pretty often where you can get a $25 gift card to a restaurant thats listed for only $3.

I don’t really keep track of my spending for this, just because it would be fiddly. I tried for a little while, using some of the online budgeting tools (Wesabe and Buxfer, to be exact – chosen because at the time, they were the only ones that let you input cash income and purchases), but accounts like PayPal and ING Direct were getting screwy so I stopped.

My eating out budget is high because (a) I get a lot of take-out, and (b) those great fast food deals that FrugalShoppingIdeas mentioned are very, very limited in NYC – the chains either don’t have any branches in NYC, or they just don’t participate in promotions. So no free slurpee at 7-11 on 7/11, for example, because there are no 7-11’s in Manhattan. But I take advantage of anything I can — well, except things like yesterday’s free pastry at Starbucks because I really don’t need the calories.

I decided to keep one of the free assignment pads I got a CVS on Sunday for myself, so I can keep track of food spending. When I created that budget back in September, it was really just a guess and a lot of my habits have changed since thanks to both bargain-hunting and health restoration (no, I’m not sick – just fat again, which sucks). Even though I buy groceries and household items for another family, I think I’m spending quite a bit less than I used to. So here’s the influence blogging has had on my food spending…

It turns out those restaurant promos are for real. Whenever I visit my mother, we don’t automatically go to her favorite steakhouse. She’s totally up for a deal, and we have taken advantage of the last two BOGO entree specials at Ruby Tuesday’s (sheer chance that my visits coincided with them). Not only does it save me about $30 on a meal for two, but Ruby Tuesday’s doesn’t offer unlimited free homemade bread like her steakhouse of choice – which my waistline appreciates.

I double-coupon shop by “electricity”.  I look at online circulars for the supermarkets in my mother’s area that double manufacturers’ coupons, then send her coupons and a little list to do along with her own shopping. I’m lucky if I can get 8oz of cheddar for $3 in NYC, but there I can get it for under $1. And I go through a lot of cheese. It’s also how I get free and nearly-free food for donation (tomato sauce, mustard, pasta/rice side dishes, peanut butter, salad dressing, cereal, brownie mix, etc).

Chain restaurant promotions – unless there was a commercial for it (and even then I figured there was a lot of fine print), I never knew about it. I now think of them as “treats for free” – a meal from KFC, McDonald’s Free Mocha Mondays, ColdStone Creamery birthday club, Starbuck’s volunteer pledge coffee. I also sign up for their online clubs – no need to ever pay full-price at KFC again.

CVS ExtraBucks system = free milk, free eggs, free iced tea whenever I want it, meaning I don’t wait for deals and just use up some of those “bucks”. Besides, drug stores in NYC have the best day-to-day prices on milk and eggs anyway, go figure. Also, there are times when it’s worth burning a few “bucks” to pick up the slack on cereal, crackers, spices, mayonnaise, coffee, nuts/cookies/snacks, tuna, gum deals.

I never say no to doggie bags and leftovers. I don’t actually do this for financial reasons – I do it because I hate cooking and don’t have a lot of variation in my home-made repertoire. It adds variety, costs nothing, and tastes better than anything I can concoct. Hm, maybe I’ll encourage my mom to make her artichoke and cheddar quiche for us when I visit this weekend, and then make off with a big chunk when she’s not looking. I’m her kid, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? I mean, just because I’m too close to 40 for my own comfort doesn’t alter my birthright to pillage the contents of my parents’ fridge.

Anyway, I’m not going to let recording my food spending alter my spending habits – I might if I think they’re ridiculous though, but for now, I’m just going to figure out the reality.

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4 Responses

  1. We mainly eat in, which helps with the food budget. But even then we spend quite a bit on food at the grocery store, LA like NYC is just more expensive than a smaller town. Mr M prefers eating in, I practically had to drag him out to lunch this weekend. I only wanted to go cause we had a coupon!

  2. You got some awesome ideas! I am all about great deals and eating healthy. I watch out for deals on Yelp.com and Restaurant Week. DealNews.com provides great information on dining or food as well. However, budgeting really helps me keep track of my cash flow. I recommend using Mint.com; it is free and helps you monitor and budget your spending very easily.

    • I did try Mint – it doesn’t (or a least, it didn’t 6 months ago) have the capability to handle a cash budget. I didn’t know about DealNews or Yelp, I’ll have to check them out.

      As for Restaurant Week…it used to be a great deal back when it was once or twice a year during the “off season”, but now it seems like they have one every month, and the restaurants alter the menu and portion sizes, making most of the meals unworthy of the label “deal”.

  3. I just realized I never commented on this post!

    Thank you for your lovely mention of me. Lol it’s such a shame that New York is deprived of so many deals. I don’t really understand the reasoning behind this considering that the population density is so high in New York, more people would be able to take advantage of the deal, which is a good thing..

    Don’t forget to add Quiznos, Hometown Buffet, Chili’s, Applebees, places like those. Usually when I sign up on a restaurant’s website for birthday specials or whatever, I always put down a different birthday! That way, I can spread out the money savings throughout the year and not just on my birthday. 2 years ago, I received like 6 or 7 really good coupons so I basically ate like a pig everyday of my birthday week!

    Here is a list of some restaurants in Manhattan (i don’t know your exact zip code so its a rough list) http://www.restaurant.com/rdc_site.net/listings.aspx?StateID=&zip=10001&x=23&y=9

    I usually get a $25 gift card for $3 (during one of their promotions) and they usually have 2 simple rules. There is usually a minimum of $35 and it does not include drinks. Some require 18% gratuity but not all.

    SO buy $35 worth of food (and just water! healthiest for you!)- $25 gift certificate = $10 + 18% tax~

    btw, the steakhouse isn;t “A. J. Maxwell’s Steakhouse ” is it? they’re on restaurant.com =)

    LAST THING, it really is tiring eating the same old food all the time just because they’re having a special or whatever, which is why I like restaurant.com so much. I discovered 4 new restaurants I never would’ve gone to just because of their prices! =)

    and.. you can always cook at home. a lot of random places like churches or elementary schools offer cooking classes for free. i was never fond of touching raw chicken and stuff like that until I took a free clcas and its actually really fun. =)

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