The true cost of dining a la food cart

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Illustration by Chloe Kendall

How often a person goes out to eat can have a massive effect on their budget.

Grabbing food outside of the house seems cheap on a day-to-day basis. The average meal at one of Portland State’s roughly 45 nearby food carts only costs about six bucks each time, but that means people who frequent carts spend 30 bucks a week on quick lunches.

Adding in a sit-down dinner here and there could bring that up to 50 bucks a week or more. Looking out further, that is $200 a month or $2,400 per year. Add that on top of grocery expenses, which are about $150 per week for low income Americans according to a Gallup poll.

Groceries plus dining out comes up to $800 a month, or $9,600 annually.

If you want to save money, cut out the carts. Dining out should be bimonthly at most.

Eating on a budget starts at home. Setting the bar at six bucks a meal means that preparing three meals just needs to cost $18 or less per day plus some snacks here and there. Three meals and a few snacks at $18 a day, without dining out, will only cost $549 per month.

To recap, the starting figures are based on eating lunch at a cart once a day, a weekly dinner at a restaurant and the average cost of groceries. All that adds up to $800 a month. Going with groceries only and preparing all meals at home with a target of $18 a day costs $549 a month. That is a savings of $251 per month, or $3,012 annually.

Saving an extra three grand a year is where the appeal really starts to kick in.

The first thing to do is outfit your kitchen with everything necessary for packing a healthy lunch. Amazon has a multitude of lunch containers available. Finding a package of multiple, dishwasher-safe boxes with separated compartments and lids is a good start. Other essentials—in case any readers are starting with empty kitchens—include pots, pans, baking pans, a slow cooker and various cooking utensils.

Also, grab some common household spices. A quick internet search will yield several lists of spices. Pick the most common ones across a few lists.

Start out with an easy recipe to get used to cooking at home. Roasted chicken with a vegetable is an easy start, and the leftover chicken bones are good for chicken stock.

Saving money on groceries comes through kicking out non-essentials. Soda and juice are big ones. All your body needs to drink is water. Buying flavored, sugary drinks is not only unhealthy, it is financially unsound.

Shopping by price (instead of brand or variety), buying fewer packaged, premade goods and going to the store with a list are some healthy habits for saving money on groceries. Planning out cheap and healthy meals can cost very little per day with careful planning.

For a few years, I made a game out of spending as little as possible per month on food. Buying expensive things like meat in bulk can lead to some months in which groceries cost less than $100. The key is using everything purchased before it expires and sticking to a meal plan.

To get started on your money-saving journey, set a monthly food budget using an educated guess, track expenses each month, and make revisions to the budget. Establish limits on how much food should cost per month. Stay within the limits and watch as the amount spent on food gradually decreases.

Cut out the junk. Learn to cook for yourself. Save money.

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