I’m on a mission to get fit and eat healthy for cheap. I spent the majority of this winter sitting in front of a computer for 70+ hours a week, totally stressed out and exhausted, and it wreaked havoc on my body. Stress is tough to keep in control when you’ve got deadlines out the wazoo and the days fly by in a flash because you’re constantly on the go. And when my stress goes up and my schedule gets insane, I stop exercising, and I don’t eat well. And that makes me feel sluggish and tired all the time. So I’m trying to change that and get back to a more balanced lifestyle. I’ve gained a few pounds over the last two months and I’m determined to shed them before my vacation this spring and get some tone back while I’m at it!
The Trend Of Pricing Healthy Food At A Premium
Trying to save money on healthy food can be quite a challenge, especially when you don’t like to cook like me. San Francisco is an expensive city to live in too, and its been bugging me how much I’ve been spending just on eating lately. It’s almost embarrassing that I can easily spend $150-200 a week on food. There are so many incredible food trucks, to-go places, and sit down restaurants across all types of cuisine in San Francisco. And all of those checks add up fast, especially with the food taxes and “Healthy SF” surcharges that go towards health insurance costs for staff.
Food isn’t one of those budget items that I’ve found that shrinks with time either, at least not for me. My spending on food has actually gone up each year. Fortunately my body size hasn’t expanded at the same rate as my spending, but I’m definitely not as fit as I was a year or two ago. Since I’m on a mission to save 30% of my income this year, I’m trying to make some adjustments to my food budget without sacrificing my health.
Sure it’s possible to only spend $10 a week eating 0.25 cent ramen noodles and $1 cheeseburgers, but I won’t do that to my body. San Francisco loves to charge a lot for healthy foods because it’s hip to be health conscious here. People flock to places that have organic options, freshly squeezed juices, and use local produce. They’re trendy, expensive, but man soooo tasty.
Where Have All The $4-5 Lunches Gone?
There have been many reports of food inflation over the last few years and I believe it. Food prices keep climbing in San Francisco, and I can burn through $60 without even blinking just on M-F workday lunches. A take-out vegetarian burrito costs $7.50, a delicious and small Pilipino food truck lunch costs $9.50, 6 tiny pieces of avocado cucumber rolls have reached $8, most salads cost $10-13 (wth!), and a bowl of tofu pho (that leaves me hungry after just an hour) is a whopping $12. Sheesh!
There are a few places places where you can get $5 lunches in downtown San Francisco, but it takes some searching. I’m going to try and start focusing on those places when I need to grab food instead of getting trapped at the $13 organic mixed greens salad places. $5 can get you a small sandwich from a hole in the wall cafe, 2 Vietnamese spring rolls from a street food cart, 1 large samosa from a food truck, a small pay-by-weight salad, or a small cup of soup. About an hour after that though, it’s easy to feel your stomach growling for more food. 😉
What I’m trying to do now is get myself to the grocery store more often so I can buy my lunches there to bring to work. Trader Joe’s has a lot of nice ready-to-eat salads for $3.99-4.50 and things like frozen Indian meals for $3-4. It’s not as convenient having to go to the store and remembering to bring something to work, but the options are significantly cheaper! The portion sizes are on the smaller side but the benefit of eating a lighter lunch helps with productivity because it avoids getting super sleepy in the afternoon.
Cooking At Home vs Eating Out Debate
Before I became a workaholic, I actually enjoyed cooking. I wasn’t any good at it, but it was something I didn’t mind doing after a day at the office. I had more time on my hands to make grocery lists, plan meals, and felt relaxed in the kitchen.
Nowadays, just thinking about the words, “what can I eat for dinner?” tends to raise my blood pressure! It’s totally my own fault for not keeping a well-stocked fridge, and I need to learn how to buy ingredients on the fly that can actually make complete meals. I only go to the grocery store maybe once a month, so I’m going to have to step this up if I want to stop paying a premium for take-out meals and sit-down dinners. I just can’t stock up on too much produce because I don’t want to end up throwing away food from not cooking often enough, and I really hate wasting food and money.
I can’t see myself making all of my meals but I think if I can utilize more ready-made options from the grocery store, especially for lunches, I’ll be able to save roughly $50 a week. And cutting down my food budget by $200/month sounds really nice.
Slowing Down and Shrinking Your Appetite
I had a funny conversation with one of my friends recently over dinner. We met for dinner after work and I super hungry because I had a small lunch. Shortly after I started eating my pad thai, my friend started cracking up and said, “Don’t forget to breathe Sydney!” I looked up with my cheeks full of noodles and almost choked from laughing at how silly I must have looked. A picture of a chipmunk with a mouth stuffed full of peanuts popped up in my head.
“You should slow down and enjoy each bite,” she continued. “You’ll end up eating less that way and you’ll have leftovers to take for lunch tomorrow!” Talk about a nice way to “sandwich” my bad eating habit with a positive piece of advice. And even as much as I wanted to continue shoveling down forks full of that tasty Thai food, I found myself pausing and nodding my head in agreement.
I have a really bad habit of eating too fast, especially when I’ve got a dozen things on my mind, and as a result I end up overeating. I need spend more time enjoying my food, chewing thoroughly, and setting my fork down in between bites. If I can eat slower without overeating, I should feel better, stay more productive, and also save some money by having leftovers for later. OK, game on!
Avoiding Large Group Dinners & A Gym Membership
I’m also trying to avoid large group dinners. Don’t you just hate it when you’re out with a group and even though you came late and only ordered water and a side salad, you end up having to split the bill evenly with folks who ordered appetizers, filet mignon, and several bottles of wine?
I don’t drink that much and tend to order the cheapest entrees, so I always end up getting screwed when a big bill gets divided up evenly. If I enjoyed drinking wine it wouldn’t really be as much of an issue, but I don’t. So I’m trying to convince my friends to do more potlucks on weekends, which works out a lot better for everyone in terms of cost, and are also a lot more fun IMO. I’m much more a fan of casual atmospheres too and it’s nice not to have to pay taxes and tip, which gets expensive with large groups.
I’m also not paying for a gym membership because I never end up getting my money out of it. The weather has been warming up nicely here, so I’m spending as much time as I can outdoors now and getting my exercising in for free. I like to go on bikerides, hikes, yoga dvd workouts, and do situps and toning exercises at home. It takes discipline to carve out time to do it, but I’m getting better at it.
What Works Best For You?
What are you doing to get fit and eat healthy for cheap? Are you a clumsy cook like me who tries to avoid cooking whenever possible? Or are you a whiz in the kitchen who rarely goes out to eat? I imagine those of you who love to cook probably save more by cooking at home because 1) it’s something you actually enjoy to do, 2) you know what to keep in stock and pick up at the store, and 3) you actually know how to quickly whip up a tasty meal in 30 minutes or less.
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My Financial Independence Journey says
Even if you avoid the overpriced yuppie foods, regular healthy food still costs way too much. I do all of my own cooking and it’s amazing to me how much fruits and vegetables cost. The best tip I have is to shop at an ethnic food store (I go to the Asian grocery store for my vegetables). You can usually find stuff a lot cheaper there.
I have no problem with going out for group dinners. Over the last few years I’ve had to undergo several cross country moves, which reset my social circle to zero every time. I’m usually just thrilled to have the interaction and could care less how much it costs.
I do pay for the gym. But I’m there every day so I think it’s worth it.
Certain things at the farmers market here are much more expensive or inexpensive than at a typical grocery store. Butter lettuce is much cheaper at the farmers market but fruit can be a lot more expensive. I spent $8 on 2 pears and 3 tangerines recently at the market. I don’t think I’ll do that again!
I believe that the world is your gym! You can get a pump in at the park, gym, or even your living room. There should never be anything holding you back from working out.
Eating — this is a tough one, and a work in progress for me. My goal at the moment is to eat out less often. I spent WAY Too much money on food. It’s scary.
My yoga studio is my living room. There are so many free 10 minute workouts through Comcast that there really is not excuse not to exercise each week. I hear ya on spending too much money on food. It really is scary how quickly those costs add up. I got busy making soup and salad this weekend to take to lunch. It’s probably not as tasty as what I can buy to-go, but it’s SO much cheaper!
Dr. J says
It looks like people here don’t have much of a problem with this one, but breaking the habit of ordering sodas with a meal and instead just drinking water has been helpful for me. The health benefit is clear, and so many places are charging $2+ for soft drinks these days that it can help the budget as well.
Even diet sodas have so much sugar and artificial sweeteners in them. They are so unhealthy and ordering drinks really gets expensive too. It takes time to get used to drinking water after drinking mostly juices and sodas, but it is worth it. Our bodies are 60% water so it makes sense that we should drink lots of it!
Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin says
We have a Trader Joe’s by us and absolutely love it! We get all of our fresh stuff from there. They have this frozen chicken teriyaki meal that my wife and I stock up on when we’re in a hurry, it’s literally cooked within 5 minutes and goes great with brown rice.
Nice! I love Trader Joe’s Greek Salads. The dressing is really good and I like the cabbage in it. I just wish their produce section was better. It’s really hit or miss on freshness so I tend to get my fruit and veggies at Safeway or the farmers market.
Jules@Faithful With a Few says
I think you have great plans! I eat all my meals at home other than maybe 2 or 3 times a month. It saves me money and pounds. I have lost 88 lbs with no gym membership, but I love to run through my neighborhood and take bike rides with my girls in my bike trailer.
Wow only 2-3 meals out a month is impressive. Nice job on your weight loss and saving money. 88 pounds is quite an accomplishment!
Melinda Gonzalez says
One of the reasons I was reluctant to start blogging was because I didn’t want to be tied to a computer, and thus get out of shape. LOL, silly logic I know.
I came up with my own plan. I get some exercise before I even sit at the computer. I also blog standing up sometimes, LOL, it makes me feel more productive.
And Trader Joes is awesome, I am glad they are competing with WholeFoods now.
It definitely is easy to get tied to a computer! It’s my crutch, I love being on my laptop at home. I like your method of exercising first. I think that’s the only way I have any hope of getting exercise in during the weekdays. Once I get on my laptop, I get sucked in and don’t want to move lol. I have tried standing up myself too but I could never do it for more than 15 minutes without getting sore feet. 🙂
Edward Antrobus says
When I’m working, I don’t really need to worry about exercise. The only problem is when I’m not working, I still don’t exercise and I eat like I do when I’m working. I’m trying to fix that.
I would echo what Pauline said and try cooking in larger batches when you have free time on the weekend. Slow cooker meals can also be great for spending 10 minutes in the morning and having dinner ready when you get home.
Instead of buying pre-made salads, you could try making your own. Starting from scratch, I could buy all the ingredients for two weeks worth of garden salads for $10. Which, again, you could prep on Sunday and put in a large ziplock baggie to portion out as you go. Even with organic produce in an expensive city, that price can’t be more than $20.
Also, a tip from a similar discussion on Facebook: visit the ethnic groceries. I’m sure SF has loads of them. The produce there tends to be cheaper than at the supermarket, and ethnic ingredients such as spices, curries, chutneys, etc will be a fraction of the price charged by the supermarket. A couple months ago, I needed a small can of coconut milk. King Soopers: $3.99 Bangkok Market: $.89
Yeah thanks for the reminder. I need to bust out my slow cooker again. Soups are really easy to make and last for about 4-5 meals. That’s a good tip of making batch salads and using those large ziplocks to store them. I took one of my Trader Joe salads to work today and although it was good, I was a bit disappointed that some of the lettuce was dried out and not so fresh. I should start hitting the farmers markets again because all of that produce is super fresh. And wow that’s one big price difference on coconut milk!
Since you live in San Francisco and are lamenting the issue with $5 lunches, you should really check out Fresh & Easy. Their 3 SF locations are all a bit out of the way (Bayview, Portola, Outer Richmond) but they have a ton of non-frozen, really tasty, fresh microwave meals that retail for $4-6 and generally weigh in south of 500 calories each. I’ve lost over 30lb in the last year just by switching to these for all my lunches and exercising 5x a week. Sadly, Fresh & Easy is in some financial trouble (their parent company, Tesco, has put them up for sale and Walmart of all people may buy them) but you should check them out while they’re still around. I honestly prefer them to Trader Joe’s, especially for prepared foods.
Cool thanks for the tip! I haven’t heard of them before so I’ll have to check them out. I like the sound of $4-6 microwaveable meals. Nice job losing over 30 lb that’s great!
Financial Samurai says
I like your savings goal of 30% this year!
Where are all the yummy $5 lunches of yesteryear? I remember back in 2000, a $5 lunch was possible. Now it seems like $9-12 is the average! Crazy what food inflation has done.
With tennis season just 1.5 months away, I’ve got to lose about 5lbs and get back into conditioning. It’s much easier when there is actually a purpose to conditioning. Otherwise, give me all the lemon meringue pie you can find!
Own real assets folks. Things just keep on going up!
Thanks. Yeah, I miss those days when a $5 lunch was a really hearty meal. It does help to have a goal with fitness. Best of luck getting ready for tennis season!
I love cooking and would prepare my meals all the time, $12 for lunch is really expensive. When I was working like crazy, I would set aside a couple of hours on Sunday to batch cook for the week. Chicken breasts, pasta and sauce are easy to put together, then the chicken breast can go on a salad or a chicken sandwich. You can boil eggs in advance for salads too. Or like you say buy ready meals like lasagna and microwave them although the ingredients aren’t the best. When you do cook at home you can cook bigger portions and bring to lunch the next day, the prep time won’t be a lot more.
To keep fit I walk and swim in a lake, I don’t like the gym or any confined exercising space.
You’re lucky you enjoy cooking! Neither of my parents like to cook and I think that rubbed off on me. I love to go on walks myself too. If the water was warmer here I’d go swimming at the beach, but alas it’s freezing year round. At least it’s pretty to look at. 😉
TB at BlueCollarWorkman says
I tell you what, when I get home from work, I’m starving! I always sit down to the dinner table and wolf down whatever’s there! Eating slow and enjoying each bite is pretty tough business.
It IS so hard to eat slow especially when you’re hungry but I’m trying. My stomach rests better when I eat slower though. I’m also trying to drink more water while I eat. That also helps me slow down a little.