Eating Well, Without Spending Too Much Money or Time

{17 Comments}

Before I share today’s article about eating well, a quick reminder: don’t forget to enter the TF “Beginner’s Guide” Giveaway! The prizes include a copy of the book, PUMA headphones, a gift card and a genuine 80% silver piece of Canadiana! Lots of people have been getting comment entries, but don’t throw away the social media entries. Only three people have entered on Twitter (which is worth TWO entries each) and six people on Facebook (again, two entries each).

I’m a conflicted man. You see, I like eating well. I also don’t want to spend a lot of money.

I should quickly define what I mean by “eating well”. No, I’m not referring to eating healthy food — that’s not a financial challenge. I do try to eat fruits and vegetables, and recently redoubled my efforts on the latter, but keep it in perspective. Fruits and vegetables are dirt cheap in first world countries — even northern wastelands like Canada. Shop out of flyers and buy things in season. Problem solved. If you’re truly destitute, go to the food bank. There’s just no excuse. What I’m referring to when I say “eating well” is eating delicious food. You know: meats, cheeses, cheesy meats, and the like. It’s tougher to reconcile this type of eating with frugality.

I don’t ration toilet paper like Trent Hamm (who looks like he’s eating well but who only actually eats weird broths and nasty, cheese-less breakfast burritos). On this ‘micro-scale’, I live frugally by ruthlessly cutting unnecessary expenses — my monthly bills are limited to electricity, internet, a cell phone, and car insurance. I’ll spare you my rant about cable bills today — it’s coming soon — but I’ll state the thesis: I refuse to pay for TV. I don’t pay bank fees. I shop sales and use coupons. I could go on ad nauseum, but this would turn into the kind of benign article you’d see on MoneyLifeandMore (at the end of yesterday’s article, he seriously asked “Do you think tooth fairy inflation is outrageous?“).

I know, I know ControlYourCash. Nobody ever got insanely wealthy by harnessing the powerful secret of the latte factor. But, left to their undisciplined Ids, people are stupid enough to outspend any income. Small leaks sink great ships, etc. People have gotten rich by living extremely frugally and passively investing the proceeds wisely, despite a meager wage. So I do believe in frugality to a point. I don’t compete with people to see who can use less toilet paper, but I don’t use five dollar bills.

One area that I’m willing to spend some money, because I think it improves my enjoyment of life significantly, is food. How is it possible to save 50%+ of my income, while still eating well?

A tool like MoneyLifeandMore would give an easy answer without thinking: “don’t eat in restaurants.” It’s one of personal finance’s Ten Commandments, after all (OH LOLOLOL I SHOULD DO A POST ON THAT! GENIUS!).

But if you think you can make a burger better than Five Guys, apply for a Zagat’s rating. Until then, you’re full of it. Burger’s Priest grinds their own chuck multiple times a freaking day. Your burger is a sad, over-cooked amalgam of poor quality ground beef.

OK, so I fundamentally disagree with the idea that I could produce a better burger than Five Guys for a cheaper price. Heck, I really don’t think I could beat a $1.89 Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, especially given its low price-point.

So I don’t even try. I blow $15 or $20 on burgers every month (you laugh, but when I lived in Toronto it was more like $50 thanks to Five Guys. They’re just that good. If you live in America, you also have In’n'Out Burger. You really don’t grasp how lucky you are). Buying that many burgers might make me fat, but it doesn’t make me a spendthrift.

Let’s talk, however, about a more complicated money issue: steak. I enjoy steak. As they say in Texas, steak is murder. Tasty, tasty murder.

Can I buy a whole sirloin at the grocery store? Yes. Will it taste like a steak from The Keg? Yes, if I took it home to my humidity-controlled dry-aging room and carefully aged the cut for a month. Damn, I should have built that, rather than my walk-in cigar humidor. So, no, it won’t taste the same.

But I really can’t afford to eat weekly or even monthly at The Keg, let alone at a truly great steakhouse, while saving as much money as I do.

This is why, to me, premium grocers like M&M Meats are a godsend. They offer simple, one-step food items that you can use to orchestrate a delicious meal.

Top sirloin isn’t quite as good as sirloin, but when it’s been aged for three weeks it’ll still cut like butter and melt in your mouth. A top sirloin steak was less than four bucks, taxes in, at M&M Meats last week. Compare that to at least $22 (taxes and tip in) at a steakhouse. Thaw one out, toss it on the George Foreman grill, and enjoy. After thawing a steak, I often add the step of applying a thick layer of salt, waiting an hour, and washing it off, to make it extra tender. But so long as you cook it to medium rare and let the meat rest for seven minutes before you eat it, you really can’t go wrong. Here’s an example I grilled the other day:

Eating Well - steak

My partner, earlier in the day, had picked up some fresh, stuffed pasta on sale at the grocery store for two bucks. She made a simple sauce with a base of ricotta she’d bought for $1.

Eating well - pasta side dish

This pasta could have been a sidedish for four people, but I ate half, so I’ll be honest and say it’s $1.50 per fat-person serving. For an even better starch, I’d recommend a cheese- and bacon-stuffed baked potato with a dollop of sour cream.

I also ate a microwavable lava-cake cookie for dessert, which cost $1.39 plus tax (did I mention I’m fat?):

Eating well - dessert

Total cost: seven bucks. That’s $14 for a couple, which is less than I’d pay for two Wendy’s combos (well, at least in Canada). It’s proof that eating affordable food isn’t synonymous with eating like a student, and that eating well isn’t synonymous with paying too much. This is the Goldilocks zone of eating well for people who aren’t rich but aren’t poor. It’s living life to its fullest without using your line of credit to its fullest.

If you’re still in debt, eat some lentils. If you’re super rich, then just go to The Keg all the time.

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17 Comments… Share your views

  1. I’m having homemade lentil soup for lunch, actually. Vegetarian for 16 years. My wife is gluten intolerant, so she cooks almost all of our suppers, since the risk of eating gluten accidentally at a restaurant is very high. Still, we do eat a fair amount of premium-priced (expensive) ingredients, so we don’t eat all that cheaply.

    • Congrats on your lifestyle, I’m sure it saves you money and you’ll live longer.

      I think I could survive for a week or two going ‘vegetarian’, thanks to dairy products. But I have never had a ‘vegan’ day in my entire life.

  2. I have to admit this is something where it’s hard to cut spending. But that’s partly from trying unusual (and often unreasonable) things. So if you’re focused on cost more than variety you could do better than me :)

    It’s hard to get any cheaper than fast food and frozen meals, but it’s usually cheaper to cook than to eat at a good restaurant 2-3 times per day! You can even upgrade in the process, and cook a tenderloin for a lower price than a lesser steak at the Keg. I think the last one we got was around $20 for two. A lot of good things can be made in the time it would take to drive somewhere, wait for your order, and come home so it doesn’t need to take up all your time.

    Cooking is a lot like personal finance, it seems hard when you have no practice but learning a few basic skills can put you ahead of most others without a lot more effort.

  3. Do you go to any nice restaurants that aren’t chains?

    • I’m not sure what you mean by nice, but if you’re referring to steakhouses and such, I don’t really go to those. I’ve been dragged to a few in TO just by virtue of working there, but I’m much happier hitting up modest establishments where I fit in much better.

      If you’re referring to “nice” as in delicious food, then I definitely frequent chains more often than independently owned/operated establishments.

      Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this generality.

      In Toronto, the best burgers aren’t actually made by Five Guys. Their burgers are amazing, and they’re populating Canada, so I reference them because they’re accessible. The best burger in TO is definitely found at The Burger’s Priest — sufferable hipster vibe, considering how incredible their freshly ground chuck is. I’ve only eaten at the Queen location but I’ve been told both are good (they’re opening a third in December!).

      The best greasy spoon I’ve ever found is Admiral Submarine, aka The Admiral’s, in downtown Brantford. The amount of food you get for 10 bucks is unbelievable. A burger could feed a family, for real. But the food isn’t particularly excellent or original, just OK with MASSIVE portions.

      In Peterborough, there are a bunch of places. I used to like Olde Stone (had my first date with my partner there), but it’s gone way down hill. Hot Belly Mama’s was good — they pioneered the perfect sauce for thin and crispy sweet potato fries — but I haven’t been back to that since I quit Olde Stone (it shares the same kitchen). The best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life is at a tiny joint called Soupcon; it’s their ‘beer bread’. Outrageously good. There’s a little vegetarian place downtown too, The Planet Bakery, and its egg salad sandwich honestly redeemed egg salad in my mind — something that I thought was beyond salvation.

      When I’m across the border, south of the Queenston-Lewiston bridge, there’s a fantastic southern US style buffet. You pay like $8 at the front (I think the most expensive is weekend dinner, and it’s like $10 all-in). Then you walk in and everything’s on the menu — including pop and milkshakes — excluding only alcohol. The variety is magnificent. There are three kinds of gravy (to go with biscuits. mmm). I tried deepfried okra for the first time. Everything there is just wonderful. I tried to Google it, but can’t find it on Google Maps. I could swear it’s on Niagara Falls Blvd but the last time I was there was two years ago :( Anyway, it’s not a chain and it’s incroyable.

  4. Speaking as a student, I can attest to how far your budget can go by eating at home. However I do have to confess that I still eat out more than I should since I’m at school all day there’s little room in my bag for food with all my books in there. So until the internet at my house gets fixed, it looks like I’ll be eating out more. :(

    Also don’t forget to get M&M’s discount card. If I remember correctly you can get one card and two extra that you can give to family and/or friends.

    • Yes, I signed up online to get a number instantly (you don’t need the card, just the #; and actually they can pull it up by a person’s phone number). The card is basically required b/c without the discount, the prices are just ridiculous, even on sale items. They clearly LOVE tracking peoples’ purchases based on demographics.

      Don’t feel too bad. I ate a ton at university. I did a lot of reading at the library (novel concept, right?). If you go to the study carrels in the stacks on the 3rd or 4th floors, there are so few distractions. I’d turn off my BlackBerry and blow through a reading in no time. Like you I didn’t own a car/used the “free” (mandatory) bus pass, making cheap fast food impossibly far and even going home was too much time / effort. For these reasons, I justified eating on campus. Maybe it was a waste, but I walked away with a 94% average and a government job, so YOLO amirite?

  5. Mmmm… the picture of your steak makes my mouth water. Typically I almost never buy anything that isn’t in the grocery flyer AND it has to be a good deal. Half of the flyer is just promoting random crap that’s overpriced. I pretty much never go to Sobeys cause their margins are actually insane but check EVERY flyer anyway! One week I went there and bought like 6 bricks of butter for my freezer cause it was actually a great price. Once upon a time I tried the vegetarian thing. But… I LOVE ARBY’S roast beef too much. Are vegetarians allowed to have a cheat food? LOL!

    • Flyers are like window shopping to me. I used to look at flyers all the time. Then I realized it’s a waste of time and encourages me to buy things I don’t need. I’m a man, I don’t window shop; when I need something I will independently realize it and I will go buy it.

      But that’s awesome you shop out of flyers and can discern a loss leader from a normal price that’s just being advertised. People don’t realize the value home economics can add to one’s life. It can really stretch paycheques further. If one spouse earns less then it’s easy to make up the difference: shop smarter, repair things, sew clothes, maintain your own car, cook rather than eating out, etc etc

      • And now to totally embarrass myself… The term is “loss leader”? Wow. I thought it was “lost litre” like you know well… a lost litre. Because wouldn’t be lame to lose a litre of milk or gas or really anything worth bothering to measure a litre of. whoops. LOL

        • lmao I’m going to be honest. Your reasoning makes absolutely no sense. But I’m glad you know now. And if anybody ever finds this site by searching for “lost litre”, it’ll definitely go in the weekly roundup.

  6. I didn’t realize you can get stuff so cheap at M&M’s! I might have to find a location close by and check out the selection. We usually don’t go out to nice restaurants often, but do spend a decent chunk of change on fast food.

    Nice job on that steak! :)

  7. Love the blog! Very helpful and reminded me of two reviews I did for 5 guys and burger’s priest….so good :)

    check them out:

    http://masticatingmolars.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/five-guys/

    and
    http://masticatingmolars.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/burgers-priest/

    Look forward to more blogs :)

    Dr Fressen

    • Looking at your review of Five Guys, I must say I was slightly disappointed with how Five Guys assembled your burger! The mayo over the edge, etc., definitely wasn’t my experience. But delicious food man. I’ve heard “Holy Chuck” is really good in TO. I feel like, for balance, I should stop by.

      If you ever want to do a review of a Cdn food spot on here let me know.

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