After housing and auto expenses, the next biggie (since we have all ready talked about childcare in Parts One and Two) is food. We all need food, perhaps even more than we need cars and houses.
Food, however, is a much more flexible category on the expenditure side of your budget than houses and cars are. How much you spend on food is greatly dependent on how willing you are to get your hands dirty. If your hands never touch your food, other than to lift burger, fries, or pizza to your mouth, you are going about eating in a way that is more expensive than necessary. If you touch a spoon to mix ingredients from boxes and cans you are doing better. If you actually wash, peel, cut and/or measure then cook the ingredients in the meals you eat, you are well on your way to fiscally responsible nutrition. And if your fingertips have a definite darker tint to them during the growing season for your area (as in, you have dirt stains and plant juice stains on your skin from gardening and preserving), well, food can't get much cheaper than that!
I readily confess to being somewhat of a cooking-from-scratch Nazi. It is the cheapest way to eat healthy food. Notice I didn't say the cheapest way to eat, period, because if you play the coupon game right, I hear you can get all kinds of crap for free or nearly so. But it is crap, in my book, not real food. And real food is cheaper in the long run because if you fuel your body with junk, it isn't going to run right, or run as long, as if you fuel it with nutritious stuff. You wouldn't fill your car's gas tank with the garden hose just because water is cheaper than gas, would you? No. Because you know water in the fuel line and engine is not good for the car. Empty calories and tons of chemicals and preservatives are not good for your body. Don't substitute protein with carbs and chemicals. Eat real food, or don't eat at all.
'Nuff said on that subject.
So, now that you know where I stand on what kind of food to eat, let's look at how to go about cooking it.
This is an area where I think it is okay to responsibly spend a little money now in equipment (frugally, as always! Watch for sales, don't be afraid to buy used, and make your choices wisely--don't get every gadget on the market.) in order to save money on food in the long run. If you don't have a crock pot, you should get one. Especially if you are still a family with two working spouses who are trying to save enough money to pay off enough bills so that one of the spouses can leave their job to be at home full time. You also need, of course, a working stove and oven. These do not have to be brand new!! I would rather you bought used of good quality than brand new of an inferior model that will just need repairs in a few years. A griddle is a nice tool, and a freezer can be your money saving best friend (again, get a good deal; our first freezer was $20 at an estate sale in 1993. . . avocado green, and probably made in the same year I was, but you know what? It still runs 21 years after we bought it used.)
Now that you have a stove and oven, a crock pot, a griddle, and a freezer, make sure to use them. They aren't doing you any good sitting around collecting dust while you eat out night after night after night.
If the idea of cooking your own meals scares you, and you are sure you are going to starve to death without eating out or buying zap and heat food from the store anymore, relax. You need to approach this with the right frame of mind. When you were a kid, and you wanted to learn to ride a bike, you took the falls and the scary moments and kept trying. When you wanted to master a new video game you kept restarting every time you got killed off, didn't you? You kept at it, kept trying, learning from the oopses along the way until you accomplished your goal.
Think of cooking this way; your goal is to learn to cook, and there might be some skinned knees or you might figuratively die a few times during the journey, but if you keep at it, you will master it. Geez, if cavemen could figure out how to cook food, surely you can, right?
Goulash is a good, quick and easy meal to start out with: a pound of burger, cooked til brown, a box of noodles (your choice of shape!) boiled until tender, a can of tomato sauce and whatever spices you want to put in it. Some shredded cheese, too, if you wish. Throw them all together, and voila, you just cooked dinner! (Meat, veggie--tomato sauce, grain--pasta, and dairy if you added cheese. Balanced meal.)
If you need me to give you another kick in the pants, here it is:
Do you want to eat like a baby all your life, only being able to put in your mouth what someone else has prepared for you? Or do you want to be a self-sufficient grown up, who can eat whatever strikes your fancy because you can whip it up in the kitchen any time you want?
Okay, enough tough love. Get yourself a few recipes with words you know (so, probably not anything that says 'braise' or 'until centers are set' or anything foreign like that), and give them a try. It's okay to use a can of soup or sauce and a box of noodles for now, as long as you are combining and heating them. You can branch out once your cooking bicycle isn't so wobbly.
Along with saving money by cooking comes learning to trim your grocery budget. Cost compare when you are at the store; sometimes the brand on sale is not cheaper than the other brand which is not on sale this week. Sometimes two of the smaller size are actually cheaper than one of the larger size (go figure, this defies logic, to me, but I find it from time to time while shopping). Cut the chips, cookies, alcoholic beverages and sodas. Really. You don't have to go cold turkey. Unless you have a teeny tiny amount of cash to feed your family this week, in which case, yes, you do have to forego these things for now. Case in point: when we had a grocery budget of $45 a week to feed 5 people during a tough financial time (the one where I went back to work), DH did not get to drink beer. Once things looked better money-wise and we could pay all our bills, nourish the kids and still have enough for a six-pack, then DH could enjoy a brewski again.
(On a side note, it really burns me to no end when I see families who insist they cannot afford to feed their children, yet the adults in the family are running around puffing on cigarettes and drinking beers. For crying out loud, people, feed your children before you indulge yourself!)
Anyway, this post could get astronomically long if I went through every single way to save money on food. Check out my posts with the tags 'frugal', 'recipes', and 'gardening' if you want more ideas. And let me point out, before I end for now, that cooking and grocery shopping are things men can do just as well as women. So any at home guys out there, you should be taking notes. ;0)
To Be Continued. . .