Welcome to a new column from The Financial Diet, one of our very favorite sites, dedicated to money and everything it touches. One of the best ways to take charge of your financial life is through food and cooking. This column from TFD founders Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage will help you be better with money, thanks to the kitchen.
I love food, I love cooking, I love going out to eat, I love the clink of those extra-big wine glasses coming together over a candlelit table, I love walking down the road with a foiled dish in my hand to go to a friend's dinner party — I love food.
Eating and drinking well are two experiences that I will not compromise on, which can occasionally feel like a source of shame, as I also co-run a (very chic, in my opinion) website about personal finance called The Financial Diet. I often feel like my refusal to give up on these sensory experiences that many a more serious personal finance writer has deemed superfluous can make me feel like a traitor, and I know that a direct reduction in how much I spend on food each month would mean a lot for my long-term finances.
Whether we want to believe it or not, how we eat will in many ways dictate our financial future. Depending on where you live, food and dining represent the second or third biggest chunks of most budgets, and figuring out how to eat well for less is a huge key to getting control over a monthly money spreadsheet.
8 Habits of the Financially Healthy Kitchen, According to Chelsea
I will fully admit that I still go out to restaurants and bars more frequently than I should, but I would also consider myself an avid cook. My Instagram is my quiet, ongoing audition to be the next Ina Garten — except I curse a lot — and I have mostly mastered the art of feeding myself well and for little money.
As a result, since starting The Financial Diet, I have managed to cut my total monthly food and drink expenditure by nearly half. In that time, I've learned a few key things that must be changed in one's kitchen in order to make a change in one's finances.
1. You stock seasonings to make any meal delicious.
It doesn't matter if you're making a pot of rice, a piece of meat, a big bowl of veggies, or anything in between. It's guaranteed to suck — and you are guaranteed to be like "Screw it, I'm ordering Thai again" — if your kitchen isn't locked and loaded with all kinds of seasonings.
You should have your basic herbs, spices, bouillon cubes, a red and white wine that are good to cook with, lots of garlic and onion, a few oils and vinegars, and a couple spice mixes (I personally love Old Bay, Cavender's Greek Seasoning, and Adobo).
I made a more complete list here, but it's definitely something that should be adapted to one's individual tastes. The point is, always having a good range of flavor available means that nearly any base foods you have can be transformed into something fantastic.
Read more: 19 Ingredients Every Home Cook Needs in Their Kitchen at The Financial Diet
2. You invest in a small, essential set of tools.
Now, when it comes to "what it's worth investing in" in terms of tools, there is an entire rabbit hole of debate we could go down (and we'll dedicate an entire post to that at a later time), but for the purpose of the very basics, if you don't have a solid pot and pan, a few baking dishes, a good chef's knife, a mixing bowl or two, and the most utterly basic hand tools (spatula, spoon, whisk, grater), you aren't going to be doing much cooking.
And this seems like it should be obvious, but you'd be shocked at the amount of people who straight-up never think about getting the basic tools covered.
And even among those who do, the tendency can be to spread your money out on a ton of cheap crap instead of getting a few really good, solid items.
You'd be shocked at the amount of people who straight-up never think about getting the basic tools covered.
You don't need a dozen crappy knives — just start with one good one (and a sharpener). You don't need an entire set of bad pots and pans — you can go to Marshalls and get one quality version of each.
Starting small with just what you need, and expanding outward from there, is the key to the functional (and chic) kitchen.
Read more: 12 Beautiful & Practical Kitchen Basics to Get You Cooking More from The Financial Diet
3. You make your own TV dinners.
It's a simple thing, but so easy to forget: Get yourself in the habit of cooking for several people, even if you are living alone, and start portioning out several extra meals in oven- and freezer-safe Tupperware (you can even get the sub-divided kind!) to make your own TV dinners.
If you know you have a delicious homemade curry and rice or leftover chicken Parm waiting for you to pop it in the oven and enjoy, you are going to be much less likely to fire up Seamless.
TV Dinners to Make Now & Freeze for Later
4. You know how to create a "restaurant experience" at home.
I'm a big fan of making the things I love about eating out a part of my living space at home, and that happens both in the kitchen and the dining room.
Keeping even a little makeshift bar cart with a few great bottles of spirits and wine means being able to mix up a fancy drink for cheap, instead of feeling like you have to go out and pay a big premium for the experience. (While I have, myself, invested in an actual bar cart, they can be extremely cute just using an existing shelf or furniture top.)
Keeping candles around, getting a few of those aforementioned big, clinky wine glasses, putting on a little light background music — these are the steps to making the restaurant experience at home, even for one, extremely simple.
The point is that you should treat your home as a space to luxuriate, and not just get shit done.
5. You keep a running (and cute!) grocery list.
I have yet to put one up in my current apartment — we only just moved in a month ago! — and it's already biting us in the ass. Get thyself a cute little wall-mounted chalkboard or stick-on whiteboard sheet for a cabinet, or something to go on the fridge — anything that lets you succinctly keep your grocery list as you go.
Not only does this keep you remembering things, and make sure you are not getting redundant groceries while out, but it also functions as a super-cute piece of decor.
6. You master the art of entertaining in (instead of going out).
Having some basic supplies to entertain on a moment's notice is a great way to keep yourself from always going out as the go-to social solution. I love to organize rotating dinner parties with friends, do potlucks, and have frequent picnics when the weather permits.
The real struggle is making sure that you are always ready to host someone when you and a friend are feeling the need to hang out and chat, and your immediate answer would have been overpriced tacos and margaritas somewhere downtown.
I like to keep a chilled bottle of rosé, a block of cheese, some olives, crackers, veggies/fruit, kettle chips, and other things to provide a nice little spread when someone drops by. This has led to me having people over with much more regularity, and therefore spending much less to just hang out.
7. You keep things clean.
In addition to keeping the entertaining basics on hand, it's always important to keep things clean, particularly in your kitchen. (Having frequent guests is, I hate to say, one of the only things that truly motivates me to keep things as clean as I'd like.)
But the kitchen especially is a sacred space to always be wiping down, as a messy or disorganized kitchen is the first thing to make you feel like "The hell with it" when you're thinking of doing some cooking.
It's incredibly easy to discourage yourself from putting together a meal, and the last thing you need is a messy kitchen convincing you not to. Doing a daily kitchen tidy, once it becomes a habit, can actually be one of the more pleasant moments of your day.
Get Inspired to Clean
8. You create a happy cooking nook.
And beyond being clean, creating a happy nook in your kitchen that is great for lingering over a dish is key. When I moved into our new place and hadn't even finished opening boxes, one of the first things I did was set up the little corner where I could put my laptop playing Netflix, sip my coffee or wine, and just enjoy the feeling of being in my kitchen. A little plant here, a comforting color scheme there (we immediately whitewashed all our kitchen walls and cabinetry, because mama loves a bright kitchen) — it's totally up to you.
Kitchen as Pleasure, as Peace
The more you feel like your kitchen is an extension of yourself, with a space that you can listen to your favorite things and zen out, the more time you will want to spend there — and the less you're going to be overpaying at a restaurant.
What big changes in the kitchen have helped you save money over time? Let us know in the comments.