I opened up my budget tracking tool last November and my jaw dropped -- I had spent $1,200 on food that month. That's when I knew I had to make a change.
Now, a few notes about that $1,200 total: That includes groceries, restaurants, bars and fast food. Also, November was a month I prepared Thanksgiving dinner, which meant I spent about $125 just to make a couple of pies and cook a turkey for six people -- an out-of-the-norm expense for me. Also, I often buy groceries for both my fiance and myself. However, that $1,200 number stuck with me -- I needed to make a change and cut the amount of money I was spending on food every month.
It's no surprise that food was a big budget-breaker for me -- it's one of the most common expenses on which financial planners see clients spending too much money. I definitely felt like I was throwing money away. After all, if I could cut even just $300 (25 percent) off of that monthly balance, that would mean $3,600 a year. There are so many other ways I could use that money -- paying for a vacation, investing more money in an individual retirement account, saving for a down payment on a home, paying for a wedding...
It was when my now-fiance proposed over Christmas that the reality struck me -- I knew I needed to buckle down and cut my food spending by a lot. Weddings are expensive, and the money that was going toward nights out and nice dinners with friends was wrecking my budget. While I wasn't going into debt, I realized it was just a matter of time. And debt is something I strenuously avoid. (I never carry a balance on my credit cards and am constantly monitoring my credit scores for free on Credit.com to make sure my credit utilization level is low.)
How I Cut My Food Spending in Half
If I was going to start cutting my food spending, I needed new rules for myself.
Rule #1: Pack lunch for work. A simple step, yes, but I realized that I don't need to pack a lunch every day for work, just pack supplies for a lunch once a week. I realized I could get a big supply of baby spinach, some dried cranberries and some salad dressing and have enough to last me for lunches the entire week. It made packing a lunch less of a hassle, and helped me avoid ordering lunch to the office on Seamless on a daily basis. (I do let myself order every once in a while, though.)
Rule #2: Make grocery shopping a priority. I'm a New Yorker, so stocking up on groceries for the week is a bit more difficult than hopping in my car, filling up my cart and heading home. I have to carry all my groceries from the store to my apartment, and a week's worth of food is shockingly heavy. I opted instead to use Fresh Direct to order groceries every week. Even though I know I'm not getting the best deal on every item I buy, I know that by regularly filling my fridge, I'm not ordering a $25 meal from an online food delivery service. The savings add up.
Rule #3: Just say no. Part of my food spending problem was that I would go out with friends and feel pressured to order another round of drinks, splurge on dessert or get a bunch of appetizers for the table. I deserved it, right? I had to learn some self-control and think about the bigger expenses I really wanted -- owning a home in a few years, saving money for my upcoming wedding (and the awesome honeymoon we want), and planning for a fully-funded retirement (yes -- I'm a millennial who is thinking about retirement, we do exist!).
I looked at my food spending in May -- it's down to about $600, a huge accomplishment for me. It took me about six months to really get into a groove with these new habits, but the payoff is big. My fiance and I are on track to save more than $1,000 a month for our wedding, and we're hoping to have a little left over to save for the other big costs down the road.
This post originally appeared on Credit.com. Kali Geldis is Credit.com's Editorial Director. She writes about a wide range of personal finance and credit topics. She previously ran MainStreet, the personal finance website powered by TheStreet. She has also worked for The Wall Street Journal as a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern and at The Huntington Herald-Dispatch as a reporter.