Welcome to our Gen Y money blog, where a recent grad chronicles her real-life journey to becoming a financially independent adult.
One of the things I miss most about university is the abundance of free food.
I remember hearing an urban legend about a University of Toronto student who managed to eat free for an entire month, simply by making it his business to know where the free catered events were happening on campus - poetry readings with free wine and cheese, open club meetings with free pizza to lure attendees, and so on. Myself, I was able to survive on a $30 a week grocery budget by leveraging free or cheap food opportunities.
Upon shedding my student status, however, I've found that people are less inclined to take pity on me and my empty stomach. And, as I learned the hard way, it's not exactly professional to try to sneak out the leftover couscous salad from an office lunch and learn.
Fortunately, the combination of a steady income and a structured nine-to-five schedule have made it easier for me to stop living like a scavenging student. I've been able to create a grocery budget that fits my single, young professional lifestyle and, more importantly, stick to it.
My current budget for grocery shopping is $60 a week, which covers everything I need to prepare breakfast, lunch and most dinners. I make an effort to search for online flyers, compare prices and plan my meals around items that are on sale. As a rule, I never go to the grocery store without a list, and I try not to make the trip when I'm hungry so I have enough willpower to stop myself from reaching for that unnecessary bag of chips.
As much as I try to prepare most of my meals at home, my social life isn't quite as predictable on a week-to-week basis, something I've had to take into account when planing my finances. I allocate an additional $50 a week for either eating out or ordering in, which will usually happen at least once a week, depending on parties, work events, or if I just want to blow off steam at a Friday night dinner with friends.
Of course, eating out or ordering in every day would bump my food expenses from under $10 a day to between $30 and $40. So spending an extra hour each week to plan and prepare my meals is one of the best ways I've found to stretch my grocery dollars. Beyond shopping for deals and planning my grocery trips, a big part of this is dedicating myself to the practice of "cooking once and eating all week."
Over the weekend, I'll prepare my weekday lunches and dinners and package them so that they're easy to grab when I'm rushing out the door or getting in after a long day at the office. Some nights, it's a relief knowing that dinner doesn't require any slicing, sautéing, or thinking – just five minutes in the microwave.
"Don't you get sick of eating the same thing every day?" a co-worker once asked. Sure, but there are cost-effective ways to add variety, like switching up salad dressings, spices or adding hot sauce.
I'm no Chef Michael Smith, but I know my way around a kitchen. That means I can make certain dishes in large quantities with relatively few ingredients. For instance, pre-made pasta sauce can cost up to five dollars a jar, but I've been able to make a batch of four jars at the same cost by taking the time to learn and prepare a recipe.
Other ways I have found to stretch my dollars include making my own coffee, as much as possible, and limiting the amount of meat I eat at home. Not only is a largely vegetarian diet cheaper, meatless dishes are easier to prepare.
I've also managed to cut back on my grocery bill by shopping locally and seasonally. My downtown Toronto apartment is a five-minute walk from several fruit markets, which have great deals on fresh produce. Sure it involves an extra trip, but I don't mind if it helps me save up to 10 per cent on my grocery bill and often, the produce there is better than in the large grocery stores.
Managing a grocery budget is no different than managing any other budget. As I've learned, the key is finding what realistically works, creating a plan and sticking to it.
I have to admit, it's far less stressful - and arguably healthier - than the scavenging student life.