It's tax season, and time for our annual "Where the Hell Did All Our Money Go?" review of personal finances. This year, while comparing our dollars in to our dollars out, we noticed something a little depressing. A huge portion of our income was spent this year on food: groceries, dining out, and the errant gas station snack. Put another way, we converted a staggering portion of our yearly income into turds. Also, lovehandles. Neither of these has a very good return on investment.
In order to funnel more dollars into savings rather than into our food fund, we've implemented a grocery budget. Tom and I on a grocery budget is about as laughable as Lamb on a Cheerio budget. We are huge impulse buyers when it comes to tasty food, but we are also stubborn to the point of ridiculousness when it comes to keeping to proving to each other that we can have our cake and eat it too. Take last week, for example. We set our budget for the two-week pay period at $125, including eating out. It sounded really reasonable at the time; we would have to limit our aged gouda intake to one wedge per pay period, but we would feel so victorious-- noble, even-- when we arrived at the end of the month with money to spare. As it happened, we blew nearly $60 in two days on lunches at a local diner and were left with $4 to make it the remaining seven days in the period. Of course, we could go to the store at any time and buy some freaking groceries. We have the money, we just don't don't want to lose by adjusting our budget; instead, we will eat beans and rice and defend our $4 reserve at any cost.
"Any cost" has come to mean a bunch of ho-hum, labor intensive meals made from what I can dig up from the back of the pantry: whole wheat apple pancakes, baked beans and cornbread, Shepherd's pie, bread pudding. The ironic part is that all this cheap, wholesome food is also very high in fiber, tipping the scales unfavorably in the aforementioned dollar-to-turd equation.
It struck me this week that as my humble meals bore me and I'm counting down to fresh fruit and good cheese at the start of the month, I have never been hungry. Not really. There were times in college when my larder consisted of a bin of flour and a jar of pickles and I was far too proud to call my parents for help. Tortuously, my neighbors were always simmering curry or frying chicken; I could almost fill up on the greasy wafts from across the hall. Almost. Tom snuck boxed meals out of the cafeteria for me and I borrowed ID's from friends to gain entry into that endless paradise of food. Eventually the card swiper noticed that my name was not Scott Edwards, and I wasn't 6'2" and mustachioed; I wasn't even a man! Dammit. Back to tuna and the free pizza the Anime Club offered to lure in unsuspecting potential members.
Eventually, summer came around and I could academically afford to work more hours and financially afford some real meals. Macaroni AND cheese! Spaghetti, with sauce! We could even afford a fancy night on the town: Taco Tuesday, baby. We ate like kings. Those days, we were never preoccupied with the question, "What's for dinner?" There was dinner, and though we would occasionally dream of something bigger and better, dinner was enough.
By our college standards, our $4 food budget is no news. But as our paychecks have grown, our reverence for food has diminished. We barely blink at a $30 lunch ticket, or an $50 grocery bill when we only went in for bacon and milk. We've become a little snooty about food: Tom's burger wasn't hand-pattied, or my salad was a little limp. We do it at home, too, criticizing our own cooking when our meals don't merit all of five stars. (Last night's baked beans really could have used a little more mustard.) Food has become about something more than just nourishment: entertainment, maybe, instant pleasure, even social status.
This week's budget game has jerked my thoughts back to a time when enough really was enough. I'm embarrassed at the thought of teaching Lamb to be irreverent to the wealth that is a full belly; I'm even more embarrassed that I've forgotten how wealthy I am. I plan to persist with spending less and appreciating more, even if it means more nights of Shepherd's pie and more mornings of humble oatmeal. And at dinner, instead of saying, "The dill cream sauce on the meatballs seems a little thin, doesn't it?" I'll say, "How's the goulash?" And I'll be content when Tom replies, "Well, it'll make a turd."