I don’t have a food budget. Not even a ballpark budget. Only making $15 an hour, you’d think I would be more inclined to penny-pinch and have a strict food budget for groceries and eating out each month. But I don’t. I’m such a rebel. I’ve found that I can feel good about my no budget food budget by understanding my food mentality.
The reality is that food and I have never had a healthy relationship. I’m a small thang, and people have commented on my size my whole life like I don’t live in this body every day. It developed into me having very disordered eating, exacerbated by mental illness, low income, and diet culture. In short, I really struggled with my mentality around food.
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 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 each month when I’m not comfortable restricting one of the most reducible parts of a budget?
First, I had to change my mentality about food in general.
Since I deal with bipolar disorder and a generalized eating disorder, food is very tough for me during depressive episodes. I know I should eat. And, I know I should eat well. However, I don’t have the energy or will to do so. Plus, I honestly don’t feel like I don’t deserve to have something as simple as food. I tend to eat out a lot during these times because it’s easier, and I need easier.
Before, I would feel so guilty about eating out a lot.
It felt like I was failing not only with my money but also at taking care of myself. Slowly, I was able to change that thought process. I realized that spending money on take-out was a means of showing 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 much more guilt to the equation.
Let’s talk about how that impacts budgeting for groceries. 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. As a matter of fact, this is just shady marketing. A 50-cent pack of ramen is not more or less morally superior than a $7 bunch of organic spinach. Plus, ramen is the bomb and can be spruced up into a freaking great meal. And you know what? It fits in my grocery budget.
At any rate, these buzzwords can have us spending more money per grocery trip because we’re tricked into thinking these products are better. As a result, 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 don’t care enough about my health or the environment? Heck no.
Given these points, I started to feel better about buying food that I liked and was affordable for me. Canned and frozen are just as good as fresh. Pre-made is just as good as home-cooked. On the whole, this actually helped me REDUCE my food budget each month. Yes! For real, real! Now, I buy what I like and, more importantly, what I will eat. I have less food waste, and the products I purchase 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. I went all out when I first tried to work out a meal plan, and my grocery budget showed it. We’re talking a whole week of three daily meals, plus snacks. Whew, boy. That bombed hard. I was so stressed in the kitchen, food went to waste, and I bought products I didn’t even like, like kale. Who actually likes kale? I did this for weeks before 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. 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 precisely; for others, 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 other life stress. If you can only batch cook a pack of chicken from Costco on Sundays, do that. Because of that, 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.
Sorry if you were expecting more, like how to clip coupons or save money at Costco. Clearly, 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 its mentality as the product price itself.
With a limited income, we often face past trauma that manifests in some strange way as we get older. Yes, that could certainly include your food budget.
Many of us have issues with 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 is unbelievably 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. Check in with yourself before budgeting food for a given month. You know yourself, and your food mentality, better than anyone else.
Don’t be afraid to trust your gut with decisions that affect your money. A good food budget is one that works for you. You’ll find you end up more aligned with your values, which makes 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.