Balancing Convenience and Cost

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It’s been a long week. I am tired. I need to make dinner and to be honest I couldn’t think of anything worse. Yes, I am supposed to be a foodie, but believe it or not, sometimes I hate cooking. So, what do I do when I am feeling like this? Well, just like I am sure so many of you do, I order-in, go out at a restaurant, or arrange a week of DIY boxed dinners.

The Pros of Convenience

Ok so what’s the advantages of ordering in or going out to eat? Well, there is no time wasted cooking, perhaps just some time waiting for the food to arrive or driving there, but that is all relative when you feel lazy. By ordering a week’s work of frozen or DIY meals, there is little thought process needed to throw together a meal and there is very little cleaning up.

The thing is, while you might think you are saving time and money, what is important to remember is you are actually paying for convenience. Now convenience may sound appealing, but it can often have a very high price tag. After all, the food has not only been marked up, but you are now also paying for packaging, petrol or delivery fees, tips and let’s not forget that most restaurants make their money through the drinks you’ve ordered.

The Cost of Convenience

Here’s a practical example I wanted to share. Let’s say five days’ worth of frozen or DIY dinner meals for two costs you R1000. However we still need to go to the shop to buy other items for breakfast, lunch, the weekend and possibly some snacks and drinks. We spend another R700 per week on this. This excludes mandatory coffee and lunch meetings we both take for work. At the end of the month, we’ve spent R8000 and upwards on our food bill. That’s the hard lesson of trying to take the convenience route. To put it in perspective, we have a budget of R5000 per month for food.

The thing is, the cost of ready meals and takeout is deceptive, because often they only provide a single serving. When we make dinner at home, there are almost always leftovers for lunch. Plus, any ingredients left over from our dinner can be used in a different meal, for example, leftover mushrooms from Stroganoff can be used in omelettes the next day.

Another way we waste money is by purchasing conveniently portioned fruits and veggies in expensive packaging. So, a head of lettuce can cost R15.99, but a bagged packet of washed, portioned lettuce (which is actually less lettuce by weight by the way) is R21.99.

One of the most heavily marked up convenience foods you may be grabbing while shopping (in my experience) is a ready-made sandwich. If you buy two a week at R35 a pop, in one month you’ve spent R280 on sandwiches. To put it into perspective, 1 loaf of bread, which can make 12 sandwiches (albeit without toppings, but still) is R15.

So how can you save money and avoid convenience?

Here are 7 ways we are trying to save money on our food bill every month.

1.    Set a Budget & stick to it: Setting a food budget may be difficult to stick to until it becomes a habit, but it is one of the best ways to keep finances in order. Having a spending limit will encourage practical purchasing and what we have started doing is drawing out cash and keeping it in an envelope that we ‘draw’ from weekly, so we don’t go over our monthly limit. When you swipe your card, you can often swipe blindly as you don't physically see how much you are spending.

You can even set a budget if you do decide to plan a monthly eat out excursion. A few years ago, my husband, mom in-law and I walked 5km along the beach and eventually got to a restaurant. We were now very hungry, but only had R200 between us. We had quite a lot of fun making sure we only ordered what we could afford, which turned out to be 1 pizza and 3 iced coffees. By being forced to stick to a budget we were amazed at the value we actually got. Plus it was kind of like a weird challenge trying not to overspend!

2.    Plan Meals each week: Every weekend, plan a week's worth of meals (even if it is just dinner) and buy only those ingredients needed. That may help you stop adding random items to your trolley. You can even make and then print yourself a template here.

3.    Eat Less Meat: Having at least two nights of meat free meals can greatly reduce your grocery bill. Try spinach and courgette stuffed butternut boats, pad thai, caesar salads, mac and cheese, vegetarian pizzas, stuffed potatoes, the list goes on. Just follow the hashtag #MeatFreeMonday for inspiration on Instagram. Plus, the planet will thank you.

4.    Make Bulk Meals: Winter is coming so it is a great time to make bulk soups and stews. Buy your veggies and meat at a local green grocer or butcher and make a few meals in bulk and then freeze. By doing this simple task you’ll have large batches that you just heat and eat, which make it easier to avoid takeout.

5.    Buy in bulk: If you like snacking, it is best to buy things like nuts in bulk. Those tiny little 100g packets at the till will chew into your budget in a big way.

6.    Go Naked: Hear me out, there is a move towards package-free shopping which is not only good for the earth, but your pockets too. You will be surprised at how much packaging is weaved into the price of consumer goods. There are lots of waste-free shops popping up that allow you to buy pantry essentials in bulk in brown paper bags.

7. Waste not, want not: You know when you look in the fridge or pantry and are not sure what to make with all the dregs of ingredients left? Don't throw these away, but rather get creative and think about how these ingredients can get you one more meal. I often make a “everything but the kitchen sink salad” for example.

There is a saying that goes, if you fail to prepare then prepare to fail, and I think it is quite apt when it comes to your food budget. While planning and preparation may seem like a lot of work initially, the saving you can make monthly will no doubt be seen in your bank statement. And just think, with all that extra cash you are saving monthly, how much you can invest into your Franc account. 😉