Is being a self confessed foodie compatible with achieving FIRE?

Vegetable hearts salad with seafood, cream of lettuce and iodised juice – part of a tasting menu at Martin Berasategui, San Sebastian

I am a self confessed foodie!

Not really sure what the official definition of a foodie is but I LOVE food, glorious food.

And eating good food.

I also enjoy cooking and baking.

Plus I will seek out food experiences, gourmet or otherwise, especially when I travel. Heck, I have rejected destinations based on my inability to book a certain restaurant. Or conversely, I have booked restaurants before I booked my flights.

It can be an expensive ‘hobby’ … which is why I need to look at my food expenses, if I am serious about pursuing FI.

Sigh! I know one of the FIRE principles is to reduce food costs (after housing and transportation) to as little as $2 a meal.

As I have previously written on this blog, my other love is travel. I may be able to travel less on my way to FI but … food?? You want me to sacrifice my food???

Why is food important to me?

Besides keeping me alive, that is.

Festivals & celebrations

All through my childhood, food was an integral part of my life, ever present whenever we celebrated anything – cultural festivals, milestones, birthdays, anniversaries and so on. I learned this from a very young age, from my grandmother, mother and aunts.

Certain food is eaten on certain festivals. For example, we eat mooncakes during the Mid Autumn Festival – delectable sweets with a rich filling of typically lotus seed paste or red bean paste with a thin crust. These are not eaten or even available at any other time of the year.

There were sometimes days of preparation, anticipation building until the actual day arrived when family and friends gathered to eat the special meal together.

An example is Chinese New Year – the house must be spring cleaned; children get new clothes; travel arrangements made for family members to gather on New Year’s Eve for a ‘reunion’ dinner.

Then the night is here. Dishes abound – braised duck in a thick dark soy sauce with ginger, galangal, bean paste as its base; steamed whole fish with ginger and spring onions; soup with abalone and chicken; sea cucumber with ‘hair vegetable’, a sea moss. Sharing these dishes with family and friends signify good luck, health and abundance for the coming year.

As children, it is an immensely exciting time – amidst all this preparation and feasting is the anticipation of red packets filled with money given by married adults, a potential windfall.

Everyday meals

Daily meals are still executed with love and care. Even though my Mum did shift work, we still ate a lot of home cooked meals. She only shopped weekly at the local wet market whereas my grandmother would go daily. I learned how to look for the freshest fish, what cut of meat to buy, which stall had the best tofu, which fruits were in season.

My highlight of the day was to eat breakfast at the hawker stalls as my reward for helping them carry bags of food. I could choose from soupy dumpling noodles, fried flat rice noodles with bean shoots, fish cake and egg, Hainanese chicken rice  – I could go on and on. This was our version of fast food.

Then we moved to Australia

I came to Australia initially by myself and lived at boarding school in a regional city for high school Years 11 and 12.  I discovered meat pies, sausage rolls, meat and three veg meals, pizza, farm fresh full cream milk. Two minute noodles to supplement sometimes meagre rations also feature prominently.

After high school, I moved to Melbourne for my tertiary studies. Australia is a multi cultural country and this is best reflected in the various cuisines available, especially in Melbourne. I was in heaven. For the first time, I tasted Italian, Greek, Thai,  Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, French and Korean food. And DESSERTS, pastries, cakes …

Once again, food plays a significant role in my life – in conversations in a new country, exchanging recipes with new friends and colleagues, exploring a new cuisine in restaurants. In my experience, sharing a meal with someone breaks down barriers. Suddenly that colleague with a frosty demeanour lights up when you ask about her lunch at the shared work kitchen.

We establish new rituals in a new country based on what we know from our former lives. My parents now retired, shop at bustling Asian food centres for fresh food and Asian staples. Not quite the same as a wet market in Asia but close enough. The produce is fresher and prices are definitely cheaper than the supermarkets.

Even though my mum has dementia now, she still cooks once a week. Sadly her repertoire of dishes has shrunk considerably and she will repeat the same dishes weekly. But it is still very important to her to nurture us. She refuses to let me bring any cooked dishes when I join them for dinner once a week.

My food expenses

I had no idea how much I spend on food and food related items. (Or anything else, for that matter – until I started tracking my expenses.) All I knew was that I was happy to spend on food. And that spending on food made me happy.

Once upon a time, I subscribed to food magazines and bought recipe books regularly. Now I don’t have any subscriptions – stopped mainly because I just don’t have time to read them, let alone cook something from their beautifully photographed pages. And it was a hassle to store them or get rid of them.

My other weakness is cooking utensils and baking paraphernalia. I have everything under the sun – pots and pans in various sizes, rice cookers, juicer, pressure cooker,  steamers, paella pan, mussel pot and so on and so forth. Now, I pause before buying anything new for the kitchen. And really, I have everything I need.

So without further ado, my 12 month results are in.

I spent a total of $6321 on food from March ’18 to February ’19 inclusive. For a single person. That is an average of $121 per week or $5.76 per meal.

Yikes! That is nearly 3 times more than some FIRE bloggers’ ideal of $2 a meal per person.

What is included?

This amount includes my groceries in the earlier months as everything I bought from the supermarket was just lumped in one category. Until January when I started to list items and separate out the food component. So the figure could be artificially high as a result.

Eating out in restaurants, having take away food, bought lunches, coffees and food consumed during holidays are included plus all food cooked at home.

It includes celebratory meals with family and friends, Christmas and Chinese New Year being the most expensive examples.

What is not included?

I did not include ingredients bought to make food as Christmas gifts or food items such as a cheese platter to bring to dinner at someone else’s house.

Some analysis …

Four months stood out – March, October, December & February together accounted for a little over half the year’s total spend.

March ’18 – the first month of tracking expenses – came in at the highest at a whopping $974! This was due to bought lunches at work, take away coffees, takeaway meals (Friday nights are bad!) I also had a weekend away in country Victoria to attend a wedding and ate out for every meal that long weekend.

October ’18 – third highest spend at $786. This is easy to account for – my fine dining experience under the stars in Uluru (remote Central Australia) was $375 – I loved, loved this magical  experience so no regrets at all.

Tali Wiru dinner under the stars at Uluru

December ’18 – second highest spend at $836. It’s Christmas – what can I say? I host our family Christmas lunch at my house. This year I served home made beetroot and gin cured salmon, oysters, barbecued prawns, home cooked ham from scratch that took 12 hours in the oven, verjuice roasted turkey breast with lemon and pistachio stuffing …. a reduced menu since I acknowledged my stress levels at Christmas.

Home cured beetroot and gin salmon

Besides Christmas lunch, there were also other dinners at my house as overseas family members were visiting.  I spoiled them with lobster noodles, scallops and expensive exotic fruit like durian.

February ’19 – fourth highest at $685 – another big festival month. Chinese New Year was celebrated with a home cooked dinner with my closest friends. We had all the usual suspects to bring good luck for the coming year – raw salmon salad, eight treasure duck, steamed whole fish, taro and pork belly, abalone and chicken soup, sea cucumber, mushroom & sea moss, oysters and lobsters.

On further reflection …

Since I started tracking expenses, my most expensive months were months where we had big celebrations – when I had family and friends over for dinner.

Or when I travel as that is the time I indulge in fine dining experiences. I did not travel overseas at all last year so expenses were actually lower than usual.

Also, although I cook for myself, I do share some meals with my friends at work. I will bring in extra portions for my mates if I cook something special for example, if I make osso bucco or a large batch of fried rice.

There is good news – my March ’19 food expenses was $277 – contrast that with March ’18 at $974! Even accounting for the fact that I did not attend any weddings in country Victoria this March, I must have learned something along the way …

Lessons learnt

(1) The very act of recording my expenses makes me aware of what I am spending on.

And being confronted with the results just makes me want to do better, even though sometimes it makes me depressed.

(2) The cost of eating out at cafes, restaurants or having take away meals or coffee (my particular weakness) quickly add up.

While I may indulge in the occasional cappuccino or meal especially when I am out with friends, I have drastically cut down on this category.

My daily coffee habit used to cost me $3.80 – $4.00 per cup, sometimes twice a day. Now I make my own coffee at home with a stovetop moka pot and beans from my favourite roaster, costing me 85 cents per cup.  I know I can reduce this cost even further if I drink instant coffee and buy it in bulk when it is on sale. But hey, I gotta live, you know?

(3) Stress and being time poor are mortal enemies number 1 and 2.

I am just not in the mood to cook for myself when I come home late from work, stressed and exhausted.

To this end, I try to meal prep once a week and cook on the weekends. But on busy weekends, when social events are aplenty and I am feeling stressed because I really should be researching for upcoming travels (I know, first world problems) and … and … the excuses mount up.

I make sure I cook at least one dish that I can take to lunch for the next few days then hopefully be able to cook another dish one week night. It is a successful weekend if I can cook two to three dishes for the week ahead.

Oh, and have a repertoire of meals that you can rotate so it doesn’t kill your brain cells to keep coming up with new meals or recipes. Until you get sick of eating the same dish, of course. Then it’s time to do some more research 🙂  

(4) Be organised. And think about your week ahead.

Are there any days where you’ll be out of the office? Sometimes I visit aged care facilities and will not have a microwave to heat up my lunch which means I need to take a sandwich or salad or at the very least, fruit to tie me over till I return to the office.

(5) Have back up meals.

For me, that is two minute noodles – it doesn’t take any time at all to cook up and can even be nutritious by adding an egg (or two) plus lots of vegetables.

I love freezing a portion or two of bolognese sauce, zucchini slices, hearty soups etc. There will be days / nights when even cooking two minute noodles is a pain.

Home made bolognese sauce ready for to be portioned for the next week

And frozen home made chicken stock is my best friend. I once attended a cooking class where the teacher advised us “you career women, it’s easy to make chicken stock at night when you come home – let it simmer while you watch TV or do it on a weekend then freeze” She was right.

It costs $1 or $2 for a bag of bones (3 to 5 frames) – add 1 to 2 carrots, 2 celery sticks (freeze the rest in a container), an onion or two, peppercorns, water; bring to the boil then simmer for 2 hours or more. Strain and divide into portions.

One of my favourite ways of using it is to make soupy noodles Asian style – add your choice of protein and some vegetables and voila, a delicious and healthy meal.

(6) I am a creature of habit and therefore frequent the same shops, supermarkets for my food ingredients.

Sometimes it pays to check out if there is a cheaper source. For example, I know I can get cheaper and fresher produce if I visit the Asian food centre a little farther away but the stress of looking for a car park and fighting crowds put me off.

But I will absolutely go there if I am cooking for more than just me for the week ahead. The savings do add up. So maybe it’s time for me to make this a habit rather than the exception.

(7) Don’t throw any food out

Use up everything in your fridge or pantry before buying more (unless they are non perishables and on sale). Once upon a time, I would not hesitate to buy exotic ingredients to create a recipe – and be left with the excess which eventually I would throw out. These days, I am more mindful.

(8) I discover I am ok to eat basic but tasty meals during the week

I used to have a choice of food for breakfast – bread, various spreads, yoghurt, cereal. Now I just eat my rolled oats with local honey – cost less than 20 cents a meal. Plus it takes away decision fatigue.

And leave indulging in fine dining experiences when I travel or for special occasions.

I absolutely love trying different foods when visiting other countries so I will not be giving up on this. The joy it brings me as I remember the meals as if it were yesterday!

But if I eat cheaply at home for the majority of the time, then hopefully it will all even out.

Final thoughts

I may be a self confessed foodie who enjoy eating good food and sharing my meals with others. But is it compatible with my wanting to achieve FI?

I think the answer is yes. Even though I may never be able to achieve $2 a meal if I factor in fine dining experiences. But if I concentrate on meal prepping, reducing my ingredients cost and keeping my eating out at a minimum, I am well on my way.

 

How about you? Do you love something that is an expensive habit or hobby? How do you adjust on the way to FI? Let me know in the comments!

 

19 Replies to “Is being a self confessed foodie compatible with achieving FIRE?”

  1. This post resonates with me so much, because I am the same! Including the statements about CNY and Mooncakes, I am a new reader to your blog so I don’t know but I have a suspicion our cultural background is very similar, if not the same.

    And when we started tracking expenses, was when I first realised just how much we spent on food. Similarly, we don’t shy away from our fine dining experiences. I mean, why would you travel to NYC and not eat at Eleven Madison St? That’s just unheard of, for me.

    And I really want to be able to support all the amazing eateries in my city too. But something has gotta give, and balance must be achieved. I think we have managed to do that now. I definitely don’t do $2 per meal… I think we are more like a $2.5 per meal if you don’t count breakfast.

    We are on $105 per week in a 3 person household budget currently but it used to be so much more. Through this journey, we have reduced food waste considerably, meal prep’d our way to success and have never had a bad meal!

    1. Hello Pia! I’m focusing on reducing food waste and meal prepping too. I am single so it’s hard sometimes to eat the same thing again and again – that’s part of the reason that I like sharing my meals with mates at work.

      $105 per week for 3 – Wow! That is very good. My breakfasts are under control – just need to work on the rest. And increase my repertoire of meals that can be frozen. I find most Chinese food is not conducive to freezing besides say wonton dumplings … which I do make myself and freeze but don’t think that fits the $2 meal category.

      Ah … Eleven Madison in NYC … one day … dreaming …

      1. Why wouldn’t frozen dumplings not fit the $2? We do that too, especially with winter now coming, I just did a batch up 2 weeks ago. A must have in all asian freezers.

        I find pastes freeze well, so we can easily do up a batch of laksa or rendang etc, since we make our own pastes and just grab a batch of paste from the freezer. I do agree that being single, does mean that you can’t batch cook as easily, and your freezer probably fills up rather quickly too if you batch cook multiple different meals. But I do find that things such as curries freeze well, pork rib soups (take out the daikon first because that doesn’t freeze well), pork trotter soup, beef bone soup, all freeze extremely well. Veges don’t freeze well as part of a dish, freezes fine if just lightly blanched. I think I tend to freeze ingredients more than I freeze meals as I enjoy cooking, and freezing ingredients gives me more freedom than a ready cooked meal.

        I do share my meal plan on instagram if you are ever curious. I’d be keen to learn what you have on yours too!

        1. I’ve never costed the dumplings – must do that at my next batch! Good idea to freeze the pastes – I always end up with a big pot of say, chicken curry and eat it for a week. I do freeze yam and pork belly but never thought to freeze pork trotter. Thanks for all your suggestions – looks like I’ll be doing some cooking and freezing, yay!

          1. My mum and I froze up a batch of dumplings for my lunches a few weeks ago — it was $4ish for the sheets, $6 for the chicken, and I’m not sure, maybe $2 for the veggies? It was like 4 hours of labour though (we’re not Asian, and doing the dumplings was very slow for us!) That batch of dumplings has lasted me for 2 weeks of lunches so far and I still have a weeks worth left. So that’s 15 meals at 80 cents per meal!

          2. That’s pretty awesome! I love making dumplings but you are right that it is labour intensive but the reward is worth it 🙂

  2. Are you still living in Australia? I say this because food in the US is very cheap so it may not be fair to compare. I’m originally from NZ and so whenever I go home to visit my family, I am reminded how expensive food can be in other nations.

    “That is an average of $121 per week or $5.76 per meal.” ==> I’d argue this is already VERY good. Seriously.

    I came to conclude that FI isn’t worth it if I can eat delicious food. I wrote about it recently in my food budget fail.

  3. I think we’re from a similar cultural background. Food is life. My kryptonite was brunch – any sort of fancy brunch stuff, I’m there. That said, I’ve cut down a lot on eating out these days to save money. The odd brunch here and there is fine, but it isn’t the weekly thing it used to be.

    I think you can still be a foodie and achieve FIRE – it’s all about quality, not quantity. No harm splurging on a good meal on special occasions, as long as it’s not done regularly. My hot tip is to try finding discounts. Look at Eatclub or TheFork’s half price dining for deals at nice restaurants – that helps to keep the food budget down too.

    1. Food is indeed life in our cultural background! We greet each other with ‘Have you eaten?’ instead of ‘How are you?’

      Yeah, brunch is a killer in Melbourne – almost the cultural thing to do. I’ve limited mine to once in a while too – it’s good for the waistline

      Thank you – must check out Eatclub or TheFork; haven’t like Groupon in the past

  4. Great article. The positive about tracking your expenses is that you can see that you have been relatively frugal throughout the year, so you don’t feel guilty about those few ‘splurges’ and can treat them as a reward for all your hard work.

    1. That’s true – tracking my expenses has been an eye opener – had a vague idea of how much I spent on food before tracking but now I can’t hide when the facts are right in front of me 🙂

  5. I’m also of Chinese descent, and, like other commenters, relate to this post so much! My husband, kids, and I are all foodies to the extreme. When we travel, we aim to eat out as much as possible to experience the local cuisine. For us, there’s no better way to get to know another culture!

    But I break my food budget down differently from you… maybe you’d feel better about your food spending if you did it the way I did?

    I only aim for $2/serving with grocery-bought, home-cooked meals. The bloggers I follow who use the $2/serving number seem to do this too. $2/serving is darned-near impossible to hit with prepared/restaurant foods!

    I also don’t include travel dining in my god budget. That all gets rolled into our vacation budget. Not saying it’s the “right” way to do it, but it works for me! It also helps me save up the right amount for our trips. 🙂

    Anyway, I thought this was a great post and I look forward to reading more from you!

  6. Hi Chrissy, I did put my holiday meals in holiday spending but decided to add it to food budget for this exercise 🙂 I didn’t travel much last year so budget isn’t as distorted but this year …. we shall see!

  7. I just found your blog and love this post! Our food expenditures are higher than a classic FI budget but partly that’s because we also tend to be the place where the family gathers both for holiday meals and just regular get-togethers. I’ve started to track the cost of those gatherings differently because I don’t really see them as everyday food expenses … and because I’m happy being more frugal on the everyday so I can splash out a little bit on the gatherings! Although our Christmas lunch didn’t look anything like as amazing as what you describe!!!

    1. Welcome, Cath! I agree with you that I too can be more frugal for the everyday meals and indulge more in the family gatherings. And I love seeing others enjoy the food I cook.
      Thank you for stopping by!

  8. My issue is that I love food, but in reality I love delicious home cooked meals the best! But I get lazy and buy takeout at lunchtime, sometimes even at breakfast, rather than sitting down at home for breakfast before rushing out in the mornings. I spent over $400 on takeout this July! I was horrified when I looked at it – and in the second half of the month did cut that back to $50 over two weeks. I just get so annoyed at myself for spending so much on what isn’t even GOOD food for the foodie in me!

    1. I used to spend a lot of money eating out or just buying takeaway when I was younger too. But I can only do it for so long before I crave home cooked food again.

      It doesn’t take much to spend $100 per week on bought lunches and breakfasts 🙂 It’s all a matter of priority – if you really enjoy the takeaway food, then cut back on another category of spending.

      And I get the convenience factor, especially when you work long hours and it’s hard to meal prep in advance. You’ve done well though to reduce it to $50 over 2 weeks. Keep it up!

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