I graduated undergrad late, in 2011 at 26 years old. Not terribly late, but late enough to have racked up $110,000 in student debt after the Great Recession, with a journalism degree from a state school, and zero internships under my belt. To be fair, most of those private loans were taken out to pay for basic living expenses — rent, insurance, phone bill (not tuition, fees or books) — that my family wasn't able to help out with. But since they are private loans, the interest rate and the repayment options aren't ideal, and my loan payments are twice the amount of my metro-Atlanta rent.
That said, I've still been able to pay off nearly $20,000 in six years on rather meager salaries – nannying, freelancing and, now, nonprofit work. A lot of this has come down to being downright obsessive about how to save money in certain areas so that I can spend in others — specifically, saving money in the health and wellness departments in order to still have something of a social life.
Before all of this, I was incredibly reckless when it came to food and money. I would randomly go to the grocery store, wander every single aisle, and grab whatever looked good. I had zero awareness of price, nutrition, or shelf life. For example, I'd usually drop between $100 and $200 at the grocery story every couple weeks, and then immediately order a pizza once everything was put away. And I usually ended up throwing out half of it; it always went bad before I decided to finally cook and eat it.
How My Food Budget Is Helping Me Pay Off My Student Loans
Now, I've been circumstantially forced to reckon with my food and my finances. A lot of trial and error has me finally arriving at a good place — that aforementioned place of having paid off $20,000 of student debt in six years. My food budget is now $200 a month (single, no kids). Here's what I've learned.
1. Take one day to plan ahead.
Meal planning has become something of a trend recently, but there's good reason as to why. It doesn't have to be nearly as involved as some people make it out to be. Meal planning doesn't necessarily mean meal prepping — you don't have to spend every Sunday in a hot kitchen.
When meal planning, take just one day (my day always ends up being Tuesday, for some reason) to take stock of what you have in the pantry and fridge, and plan meals around what you already have. Half an onion left over? What can you use that for? Probably some guacamole to go with some black bean, sweet potato, and corn tacos. Leftover blueberries that are going to go bad soon? Freeze them for now, then use them to make some breakfast muffins.
Along the same lines, cook in batches. Those tacos I was talking about? It takes me about 45 minutes to have a huge batch of sweet potatoes, black beans, and corn cooked and mixed together, and that batch will feed me for an entire week. I can put them in tortillas, make nachos, or even just put a bunch in a bowl and throw some scrambled eggs on top for a breakfast bowl. Figure out what kind of foods you like and cook big batches that you can mix with different toppings to create different dishes so that you don't get bored (or deficient in necessary nutrients).
Meal Planning Tips and Ideas
2. Plan shopping like you plan meals.
Similarly, plan your shopping as carefully as you plan your meals. This is incredibly important for those of us who are swamped with full-time jobs, plus two or three other side gigs and those pesky families and friends.
I'm lucky to be able to work from home on Fridays, so I always do my shopping on Friday afternoons when things are winding down. You can also use grocery delivery services if they're available in your area. I'm obsessed with Instacart — especially on days when I'm particularly exhausted.
Other delivery options to try are Thrive and Brandless. Thrive requires a $60 annual membership fee, but I often make up for that $60 in one order. It's not just groceries, but everything from personal care to pet supplies, and most of what you order comes in bulk. Shipping is free when your order is over $49, and they almost always give you free samples or gifts.
Brandless is a new online dry goods store where everything — literally everything — is organic and only $3. My favorite thing to order from Brandless is their tomato-basil pasta sauce. Yes, it's delicious, but it also doesn't have any added sugar, which is practically impossible to find with pasta sauces. I also really love that I can get a six-pack of toilet paper for $3, delivered straight to my front door.
3. Don't beat yourself up over splurges.
One of the hardest things I've had to learn is that it's okay to enjoy myself — I can balance fun with practicality. But if you can find a healthy balance, you'll be happier than you thought possible when dealing with what, at times, feels like crippling financial stress.
Like I mentioned, take your one day to plan: Balance your budget, make shopping lists for the week, plan your deliveries or grocery trips. But also take one day to let loose: Go out with your roommate for brunch, watch a game and have some beers with your brother, go to a show with your best friend or even just turn your phone off and watch Netflix in bed all day.
I've spent a lot of time and energy chastising myself for enjoying things that normal single, 32-year-old women should enjoy, all because I felt guilty for spending money that should have gone to student loans. While hiding away in my bedroom obsessing over my budget might be frugal, it isn't good for my sanity.
The thing is, if you go too far in one direction, it can be bad for your wallet, your mental health or, worse, both. Be practical, but also remember to have a life. Don't punish yourself for decisions you made in the past, but do figure out how to deal with them.
Do you have any food budgeting tips that have helped you? Let us know in the comments!