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When you think about budget breakers, do you think of things like vacations and big-screen TVs?  While those surely can be expensive purchases, from my experience of working with folks on their finances, I’ve found it’s the relatively smaller category of convenience food that does the most damage to our finances on a regular basis.

Life can be so hectic that many days are like a race from start to finish. When we’re running from home to work to activities and so on, hitting the drive-thru may seem like the only option to get a meal.  Even when there is time to eat at home, who wants to cook after an exhausting day?

Drive-thru orders, take-out meals, and regular dinners out can easily get out of control, shrinking our pocketbooks and expanding our waistlines. Yikes.

Facing Reality

The first step in getting a handle on any area of our finances is to know what we’re dealing with. So if you suspect this is a problem area for you, go through your food expenses for the past few months, adding up in categories for groceries, meals and snacks on the go (drive-thru lunch, take-home Chinese, coffee and bagel, and so on), and meals out, to come up with a monthly average. Are you comfortable with those numbers? If not, where do you see the biggest issue? Perhaps going out to dinner is your entertainment for the month and that’s not something you want to cut, but the quickie meals are more frequent or expensive than you’d like them to be. There is no right or wrong here, just a values check. In other words, are you spending in line with what you value? If you decide to cut back somewhere, set a goal for how much and what you’ll do with the savings, using that as a motivator.

Next is evaluating what kind of time you have to invest in making a change, and who you can enlist to help.  That reality may be that you don’t have a lot of free time and need to find solutions that will not require more of an already endangered resource; or it may mean that you may be able to squeeze out an hour of quality time with your spouse on the weekend, even though it’s spent in the grocery store.  Do you have teens who might do the shopping or start dinner for you, even if it’s for an extra bonus in their allowance?

Finally, in the rush of the day, who are you? What I mean is, what are your typical, in-the-moment responses? Knowing yourself and anticipating those reactions is key. I can have a lovely, idealized vision of myself as someone who will enthusiastically come home from work at 7:30 p.m. on a late night and cook a lovely meal for my family, or I can know myself and admit that there’s no way I’m going to feel like spending an hour to cook — I’m stopping for something on the way home. When I’m conscious of that, I can plan accordingly, and maybe I save take-out for those nights, while resisting the temptation on other less chaotic evenings.

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Think Out of the Bag

One answer to the daily “what’s for dinner and how fast can I make it?” question may be to go out early Saturday morning to do the grocery shopping, and spend time Sunday afternoon preparing and cooking for the week so you have easy-to-prepare meals that you can pop in the microwave or the crock pot. If you have friends in the same boat, you can make it a social thing by cooking together and sharing the finished product.

On the other hand, if you’d rather have a root canal than give up your desperately needed Sunday afternoon nap, that may not be a realistic answer for you. In that case, consider planning meals a month at a time, using ingredients that can be purchased in one large shopping trip with the necessary fresh ingredients picked up in smaller, weekly trips. You might try a recipe site like RelishRelish.com that can help you choose quick-to-make meals and generate a shopping list for the week.

Those all still involve going to the store, and when you’re in a hurry, a trip to the grocery store can be pricey, too. At least it is for me!  For those too pressed for time to take a leisurely, well-planned trip to the supermarket, many stores now deliver. You might pay a delivery charge, but it certainly cuts down on impulse buying and saves you time and gas. If your local stores don’t deliver, perhaps one near your workplace does. Order just your non-perishables, or use an office fridge if available and bring perishables home in a cooler.  Meet the delivery in the parking lot and load right into your trunk.

Have you met the dinner fairy?  I waited in vain for years for her to show up and make dinner, but she never came. Now there are companies springing up that are pretty close, though!  HelloFresh, BlueApron and others will deliver you the ingredients and a recipe card for three pretty easy to prepare meals a week. No shopping, no scratching your head about what to make; it’s all there. Of course there is a price to pay for the convenience, but you are getting healthy, freshly cooked meals (and dishes you may not have tried otherwise) instead of paying for take-out with questionable nutritional value. You can combine something like a meal delivery service with your own easy-to-make meals on the other nights to round out the week.

It’s important to leave some room in your planning and budgeting to give yourself a break on those nights that even with forethought it’s too stressful to cook, or perhaps a dinner out is a nice treat. But preparing ahead can help to keep those nights the exception rather than the norm. Your budget and your belly will thank you.

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