Back in the day, I had Affluenza, but good. My strain was special, though. It was food-borne.
See, when I first graduated from college, I made just over $20,000/year. In New York dollars, that puts me above Tiny Tim, but well below any of the Friends. I had three (dearly beloved) roommates, didn’t shop or travel, and ate whatever wasn’t A) rotten, B) over a dollar, or C) nailed down.
As my salary increased, so did the demands of my palette. Influenced by my hip, hip surroundings and burgeoning awareness of good food, I started buying finer meats and smooth, stinky cheeses I didn’t fully appreciate yet. I dined out frequently, developed an abiding passion for sushi, and thought nothing of asking for the Good Beer (Magic Hat). Newly stripped of my adolescent metabolism, I also gained enough weight to sink a small cruise liner. When my poundage spiraled out of control, I dieted (successfully), but spent a load of dough doing it, since that’s how I was now used to buying food.
After a few yo-yo years of high-priced, low-fat noshing, I started keeping a budget, the results of which left me gobsmacked: all my cash was being piped directly into my stomach. The food-borne Affluenza had reached a critical point, and in order to stop the flow, I had to take action. I had to buckle down, cowboy up - screw my courage to the sticking point.
Also, I had to stop spending so much damn money.
Desperate, I tried a few different strategies. I changed my outlook, attempted to conquer my fear of homecooking, learned how to buy groceries, and rethought restaurants. And while there’s definitely been some success addressing my leanings (see here), curing the Affluenza is an ongoing battle.
If you’re experiencing symptoms, please keep reading. These tricks helped (and continue to help) me, and they might come in handy for you, too.
FOR MINOR CASES
1. Limit your pop culture consumption. The boom in gourmet magazines, cooking blogs, celebrity chefs, and a certain vittles-based television network has given birth to a mini-nation of Foodies. To some extent, this rules, since folks are increasingly conscious about what they eat. But there’s also a dark side: it’s really easy to overspend when you’re trying to ape Julia Child. Without checking out completely (that would be ludicrous), try reducing your food media intake.
2. Ban yourself from Whole Foods. Sure, upscale supermarkets and corner stores tend to have fresher options than the regular ol’ Key Food around the corner, but that same Key Food will save you about a billion dollars over time. Think of it like you’re an alcoholic: avoiding tempting places is half the battle.
3. Cut back on luxuries. Instead, splurge on a few that will go a long way. Spending a little extra on high-quality condiments, herbs, and add-ons will sate discriminating taste buds without piling on too many calories. Stuff like real parmesan, a tiny bottle of truffle oil, or a bunch of thyme can work magic on a simple meal.
4. Wait to buy pricey foods. It works for electronic equipment, so why not a side of beef? Say you spot a particularly alluring filet mignon while you’re grocery shopping. First, run away. Then, go home and hang out a day or two. If you still want the meat after that, feel free to head on back.
5. Reconsider the restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with visiting eateries for good food, excellent service, and relaxing ambience, but when a caloric abyss like Chili’s becomes a thrice-weekly habit, there’s a problem. Thinking of a restaurant outing as a special experience rather than an accepted routine will help ease the budget blow. Check out this Simple Dollar article for more.
6. Go nuts on special occasions, only. Thanksgiving can’t be every Thursday. (I mean, it would be fantastic if it could, because I’d get to have my mom’s sweet potatoes every week, but…) Constant cash-and-calorie expenditures deplete savings faster than you can say “Lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce garnished with truffle paté, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.” Making one special side dish per night or experimenting with a traditionally less-expensive meal (like breakfast) might help ease the pain.
7. Cut back on chow-based social activities. Friendly meals make the world go ‘round, but it can’t hurt to slug a movie, softball game, or cornhole marathon in there every now and then. If that doesn’t sound feasible, next time you gang up, do it during the afternoon or late night – times when meals won’t necessarily be part of the equation.
FOR MAJOR CASES
8. Keep a record of all food expenditures. Write down everything you spend on grub, separating it into two categories: Groceries and Dining Out. At the end of the first 30 days, tally up the totals. If it’s reasonable, go back to tip #1. If it’s roughly equal to your rent, continue keeping records and then ...
9. Set a budget, stat. Using the envelope method or whatever else strikes your fancy, set aside a concrete fund for the month’s food. Though it’ll be difficult and it’s okay to make mistakes at first, try not to exceed that amount. Adjust as necessary, and continue tracking all your food payments in the meantime.
10. Seek out a simplified cookbook. Real Simple Food Made Easy, Everyday Food: Great Food Fast and Mark Bittman’s new tome are foodie-minded, health-conscious, and price-wary.
11. Start cooking at home. Now that you have a guide, set aside X nights a week to whip up dinner yourself, OR cook once on Sunday, and have food for the duration. Self-prepared meals conserve money and are generally healthier than restaurants.
12. Commence Operation Brown Bag. A home-packed lunch can be as scrumptious and filling as one you buy in local Japanese joint, and it’ll cost a fifth of the price (which, over a lifetime, can save up to $600,000). Odds are, it’ll be healthier for you, too, since you’re in control of the ingredients.
13. Research cost-cutting strategies. Shopping from the circular, collecting coupons, and signing up for club cards and discounts can be tough at first, but the more you implement new behaviors, the more intuitive they’ll get, and the more motivated you’ll be to seek out new ones. CouponMom, Money Saving Mom, and Chief Family Officer are three solid resources to launch a search.
14. Don’t totally deny yourself. A no-frills, no mercy diet is the surest way to failure, since you’ll recommence craving your … uh, cravings … in no time. Food is one of the great joys of life (also: baseball, The Office, bubble wrap), so don’t forget to indulge every so often.
15. Keep on keeping on. Even if you think you’ve got the Affluenza problem licked, there’s always the possibility it’ll come creeping back into your life. Constant vigilance can stave off the temptation. Keep recording your feasting costs, and don’t scrap that budget. It’ll become easier over time.
In the end, food-borne Affluenza is curable. Whether it’s a chronic illness or a passing bout, recognizing and addressing the symptoms means you’ve already won the most important battle. Happy eating.