A brief look at how mindset impacts even grocery shopping.

The No Budget Food Budget: Life at $23k a Year

by Mackenzie Stewart 

I don’t have a food budget. Not even a ballpark budget. You’d think making only $15/hr I would be more apt to penny pinching and having a strict budget for groceries and eating out. But I don’t. I’m such a rebel. 

The reality is, food and I have never had a healthy relationship. I’m a small thang, and my whole life people have commented on my size like I don’t live in this body every day. It developed into me having very disordered eating which was exacerbated by mental illness, low income, and diet culture. 

What does this have to do with my food budget? Everything. 

We tend to use the food portions of our budgets as the first place we can look to cut back when making changes to our overall financial planning. That, in itself, messes me up. Restrictions on food have hurt me before. Financially, mentally, and physically. It’s not something I want to revisit. Like ever.

So how do I, making $15 an hour, manage my food budget when I’m not comfortable restricting one of the easiest parts of a budget to reduce? 

First, I had to change a lot of my mentality about food in general.

Dealing with bipolar disorder and a generalized eating disorder, food is very tough for me during depressive episodes. I know I should eat. I know I should eat well. However, I don’t have the energy or will to do so, and I honestly don’t feel like I don’t deserve to have something as simple as food. During these times, I tend to eat out a lot because it’s just easier and I need easier. 

Before, I would feel so guilty over eating out a lot.

That I was failing not only at my money but at taking care of myself. Slowly, I was able to change that thought process and realize that spending money on take-out was a way that I could show love to myself during a hard time. I refuse to feel guilty about being able to take care of myself when I’m at my lowest.  

Second, I also had to recognize that diet culture adds a lot more guilt to the equation.

Now, I don’t mean diet culture in the way you’re thinking. I mean in the way that words like “healthy”, “clean”, “organic”, “guilt-free”, and “natural” have now come to mean that these foods are “better” than others. This is just shady marketing. A 50 cent pack of ramen is not more or less morally superior than the $7 bunch of organic spinach. Plus, ramen is bomb and can be spruced up into a fucking great meal. 

Yet, these buzzwords can have us spending more money per grocery trip because we’re tricked into thinking these products are better, and because we can buy them, we are better. But if I can’t afford that $7 bunch of spinach, does that mean I suck as a person or that I don’t care enough about my health or the environment? Fuck no. 

Once I realized that, I started buying food that I liked and that was affordable for me. Canned and frozen is just as good as fresh. Premade is just as good as home-cooked. This actually helped me REDUCE my food budget. Yes! For real real! I was buying what I liked and, more importantly, what I would eat. I have less food waste, and the products I buy cost less for the same result. 

Third, meal prepping looks vastly different for everyone.

Now I absolutely love meal prepping when I’m in the headspace for it. However, when I first tried to work a meal plan, I went all out. Full week all three meals plus snacks. Whew boy. That bombed hard. I was so stressed in the kitchen, food went to waste, and I was buying products I didn’t even like, like kale. Who actually likes kale? I did this for weeks before just giving up. 

Further along in my financial reset, I tried my hand at it again. Bless Talia from Work Week Lunch for popping into my IG explore page because her approach is exactly what I needed. Cook what you like and keep it simple. Some weeks I only batch cook one meal, others it’s four. Some recipes I follow exactly, some I remove the things I don’t like or substitute what I have on hand. You do not have to go all out for meal prepping. Especially when dealing with kids, mental health, or any other life stress. If you can only batch cook a pack of chicken from CostCo on Sundays, do that. Now you have one less thing to cook during the week. That’s awesome! Or take an hour on Tuesday night to cut up some veggies for tomorrow’s dinner. Work it so it works for your time and wallet. 

If you were expecting more things like how to clip coupons or save money at CostCo, sorry. This was not that. (If you’re looking for that type of post: find it here.) I like to remind people that spending money is just as much about the mentality behind it as it is about the product price itself. 

With a limited income, we’re often faced with past trauma that manifests itself in some strange way as we get older.

Many of us have issues around food because of financial circumstances. If you are the type of person that needs to budget and have hard limits, I envy you because that shit is hard.

But, if you need some fluidity, try removing thoughts about what you should be doing with your food and money. Tastes change just like budgets change. You know you better than anyone.

Don’t be afraid to trust your gut when it comes to decisions that affect your money. You’ll find you end up more aligned with your values which really does make your wallet do a happy dance.  


Mackenzie Stewart launched her site Life at 23k to fill a void for the people who can’t afford to invest or start an emergency fund. She wants to find and give financial advice that the underemployed minimum wage worker can use – not just those making great salaries with marketable degrees already.

You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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