Do It Yourself 1 – Cooking

To me, FIRE isn’t about sacrifice, it is about finding a balance and alternatives. There are things I’m forgoing because I’m working towards Financial Independence; I’m not going to say there aren’t choices I’ve made. But for many things, I’ve found that if I just do them myself I can make them just the way I like without too much heartache and sometimes I save money. This series will be about how doing it yourself can save you money (and when it doesn’t) All these posts will be based on my personal experiences with trying to do stuff myself and seeing how much it saves me. This time, we’ll talk about how cooking most of my food saves me money.

My diet

For breakfast during the week, I eat a smoothie consisting of; a handful of frozen spinach, four handfuls of mixed frozen fruit, a handful of frozen dragon fruit, a banana, a spoonful of yogurt, and a mix of oat milk and coconut or almond milk. On the weekends I usually just skip breakfast.

For lunch during the week it is; a sandwich or leftovers, about a half cup of nuts (although recently I’ve been making a trail mix instead), a piece of fresh fruit, and a Nutri-Grain bar. On the weekends it’s leftovers.

For dinner, it’s leftovers during the week. On Saturdays, I cook the meal for the next week and eat that for dinner and on Sundays, I make homemade pizza for dinner.

For dessert, it’s been a handful or two of the aforementioned trail mix.

Cooking

The easiest thing I’ve started making for myself is my own bread. While this is something I started doing before I got going with FIRE, I’ve stepped it up with my current living situation. Not only can I enjoy fresh bread all the time, but I also can make it the way I want. Recently I’ve been making bread with cheese mixed into the dough. To all of my bread, I add a bit of green chili too. I don’t know if I’ll continue with this cheese bread recipe or experiment with some other kinds of bread.

One of the aforementioned loaves I’ve made

I think next I will try and adapt some of the recipes to sourdough. I already have a good sourdough starter. I just don’t use it much. This transition to sourdough would benefit me in two ways. First I have the starter and need to maintain it and second I prefer sourdough to other kinds of bread, it’s just a bit more work than some of the other recipes I use.

Overall in price, I don’t have the hard data, it’d be another interesting experiment to see how much it costs to make my loaves of sourdough. But according to this Spruce Eats post making your own bread costs about 63% of what buying it would cost. The sourdough probably raises the overall cost to make it a bit as you have to feed the starter more consistently, but sourdough also costs more at the store. I’d say being able to save 37% on any expense category, especially one where there’s only so much room to cut back, would be a huge win.

Building off of baking, I also cook a lot rather than buying processed food or eating out. Overall, this allows me to more easily eat healthier as I can choose to eat less greasy food or with more greens compared to what I would get from either of the two above sources.

It also helps me eat less, according to this Lifehacker article, humans suck at portion control. As a reformed snacker, I can confirm that it’s easy to just keep going when you’ve got something easy to snack on. By cooking my own food, I can control how large each portion is to make sure I’m eating enough to be satisfied but not too much.

Not eating out as much also helps me save money as I can make what I want for a far lower price, excluding the time commitment. For instance, as mentioned above, I make myself a homemade pizza every week. Not only do these have much less grease than the ones I’d get from a local pizza place, but I’m guessing they also only cost at most a couple of bucks. Looking at the prices for a local pizza place, it’s about $10-$15 per pizza but I don’t have an exact comparison on how much their dough weighs, the number of pepperonis they use, and so on.  Furthermore, I don’t know the number of meals I’d get for that pizza from the local place, so it’s not a great comparison. I’m going to try and get hard numbers for my cooking on a per-meal basis over the next few months which should allow me to further refine how much I’m saving.

While pizza is low-hanging fruit, I also make other meals. My meal for the first week of March was carne adovada (sometimes spelled carne adobada) which I usually make into burritos, one of my favorite meals. Most of the places I used to go to eat carne adovada burritos pre-pandemic are closed. So I’m going to use a place I would occasionally get food from, as my scapegoat. Their carne adovada burrito costs $9.75 a burrito.

My burritos are a little different from theirs, only carne adovada in a tortilla. Beyond the meat, I also added two cups (dry) of slow-cooked beans. To the beans, I add an onion and some spices. So it’s not a completely fair comparison, it’ll be even harder since the beans won’t be finished at the same time as the meal, meaning I could bring the price per meal down a bit, but I’ll just treat the price like I used up all of the beans. But overall, the materials for the burrito cost me about $1.89 a meal, or in other words, I’m saving about 81% just on that meal. If I could get that kind of saving on every expense I’d be doing fantastic.

Based on this article from Forbes it’s about 4 dollars a meal for home cooking compared to buying. This article is a little out of date though, but I couldn’t find anything better in my short Google search. Looking at my data I’m coming in below that for my meals so far, we’ll see as I get more long-term data.

Other Considerations

Now I do understand not everyone has the time to cook, I don’t either. While I probably have the time to cook every night. Most of the time I don’t want to. Plus it’s hard to find ingredients in amounts to feed just one person, I guess I could cook every other day or however many meals it would end up being. To get around this, I just cook a lot of food in advance every weekend. By making these meals in bulk, I can set aside enough to eat for the rest of the week, sometimes longer. For instance, the dumplings I made a few weeks ago lasted for about 9 to 11 meals and I was just eating the dumplings. This type of cooking also takes about the same amount of time as making an individual meal. For instance, the stew I made for this coming week took about 2 hours to make and will take about 20 minutes to heat up for dinner every night. Making one or two servings of stew still would have taken around 2 hours since the bulk of that was cook time.

Of course, I can’t always eat the same thing for dinner every night, sometimes I need to mix it up. Usually, I avoid this by trying to make something different every week. But sometimes that’s not enough. For that, I have a few different things I keep in my back pocket. Namely; fried egg sandwiches, roasted potatoes, fried rice, and quesadillas. Usually, I can make these without too much hassle or time commitment, so they make for good ways to break up the monotony of the same meal night after night.

Another thing I’ve seen as to why people don’t cook at home is that a lot of people don’t know what they want or how to cook it. I’ve built up a modest collection of recipes over the past 12 months or so. All I did to do this was go to my local library and check out a cookbook. I usually went with regional books like say Chilean cooking or Turkish cooking. With the books in hand I would thumb through until I found a recipe I thought I’d like and then I’d give it a try. If I liked the recipe, I’d save it, if not it was only a handful of meals I was out on. When I started this I was still living with my folks and I’d cook once a week using this method. It was a lot of fun to try new things that I’d be unlikely to try otherwise. While I still need to visit my new local library, I plan to start doing this again soon to continue collecting more recipes.

The internet is also a great tool for obtaining some of these recipes. Some places offer recipes for free, and others you can use to learn the methods (I highly suggest America’s Test Kitchen’s YouTube channel).

My mom also cooks quite a bit. So if I have some questions on how she cooks something that I haven’t already learned, say beans, I can shoot her a text and ask for the recipe. Cooking with my parents over the years has been the bulk of how I’ve learned how to cook.

Another option to learn how to cook is taking classes. I have very little in-class training on how to cook. As far as I can remember I took a baking class in high school and a class on traditional New Mexican cooking from a local cooking store about a week before I left for Illinois. I don’t remember much about the baking class other than that we made calzones that I ate after cross-country practice for a few days and a few other stand-out things we cooked. But for the other, I didn’t learn much in the way of new ways to cook things, some better recipes (we mostly wanted to learn how to make sopapillas, which we did learn), my mom and I’s new bean recipe is based on one we learned in this class however. I think it would have been more useful if I was more of a beginner. I’ll probably stick to regional cooking for classes if I take any more, they would mostly be for getting good starting recipes on how to cook things I like from these regions (I.E. I’m still looking for a good lo mein recipe).

Using all of these types of sources I’ve been able to amass a fairly decent amount of recipes, according to the app I use to track them I’ve collected approximately 95 that I’ve taken the time to write down.

I also saw some posts during my research for this post about how you shouldn’t cook at home to save money and instead you should use that time to focus on other priorities (read that as making more money through other means) and that instead eating out can spice things up or that cooking is a pain to do. Maybe it’s just that I’ve only lived in rural areas, but for the former, I’ve found that I’ve tried things I didn’t even know existed or would have been able to find in a restaurant because I’ve cooked at home (Bialys, Halva, etc). As for the latter objection, I don’t find it to be too much of a pain. This could be because I make large meals in bulk or because I’ve found ways to make it more fun for me, but it’s not too much of a pain for my cooking.

Conclusion

While I don’t really eat out, I regularly go get tea at a local shop. It’s just the warm leaf water with no food. I go every week when I make these posts since I currently don’t have access to the internet at home. The tea costs about $3 a week which is cheaper than getting internet at home. The last time I ate out was when I was moving to Illinois* because it was fairly hard to find a place to keep food with all the other items I was moving.

Overall, I think I’ve been able to save money by cooking from home instead of eating out. Is it a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, probably not. But as groceries make up one of the largest costs in my budget (3rd out of the 4 categories I track), saving 30+% on it is a pretty good boost to my savings rate compared to if I eat out.

*My current job does occasionally treat us to food from local places. I don’t count that as eating out but I could see how others disagree.

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