First of all, where have I been? Don’t worry. I took a much needed break from writing to focus on my life for a while. Things happened and I got through it.
I’m writing this today with some fantastic ideas running through my head. This is one I’ve been pondering for a bit; and, I’ve put together what I think will be a fantastical experiment if you want to join me.
Here are the details:
Lately, I’ve been a little disappointed in myself at the end of each month when I look at my spending habits. You see, my budgeting app, Mint, sends me a report of spending by category. Obviously things like living expenses (rent, insurance, gas, etc) are the majority of my income going out, but there’s this category of food that I’ve been virtually unchecked on lately.
For the last 3 months, these are the totals of what I’ve spent on food, from all sources (groceries, eating out, pretentious coffee shops, etc):
Now, there’s some small margin of error for classification of purchases, as the app is what labels transactions; so, if the merchant’s category is mislabeled, it will show up under that label. I went back through and skimmed to see if anything stuck out as grossly mislabeled, and there wasn’t anything major.
So we can assume there may be a few dollars here or there that aren’t included or are categorized improperly, but I’m going to say these numbers are pretty accurate.
Also, the month of July was a bit of an anomaly, as there were a few meals I paid for that were much more expensive than normal. So the average of June and August would probably be more accurate.
The first thing that comes to mind is: WTF Sarah?? What are you doing? This is ridiculous. You’re clearly a failure at budgeting.
In full disclosure, the budget I set for groceries within the app each month is $450 for groceries and $300 for restaurants.
The groceries are probably spot on, with some give or take. Sometimes my son is with me for longer periods of time than others, so I’ll buy more food when he’s over compared to when he’s not. Probably 80% of the grocery expenditure is me and the other 20% is him.
But why do I need to spend $300/month on restaurants, though? I don’t. That’s the honest answer. And coffee shops, gas station candy bars and whatever else I’m buying is just plain superfluous. I’m just one person. I’m a normal-sized woman, at that. Why am I consuming so much?
I’m using some general assumptions knowing myself but, if I were to reduce the spending from things other than Groceries, by say, 75%, that’s an average of $257 saved each month. Maybe that sounds like a lot to you, or maybe it doesn’t sound like a lot. But $257 is still $257. And I’m bothered by the fact that I’m spending it unnecessarily.
It’s time to do something about this, frankly.
This brings me to what this has to do with calories. I know, you probably aren’t that interested in me talking about my out-of-control food spending habits.
What Does This Have to do With Calories?
I had a really interesting conversation with my client Kevin this week. We were following up on his nutrition plan and we got to discussing habits and postulating about the concept of having a ‘calorie budget’ in the same way that we budget financially.
When you overspend and overdraw your checking account, you’re exceeding your income and end up with a negative balance, or money owed.
When you overeat and theoretically consume more calories than you have burned, you’ve exceeded your budget in the sense that you’re left with excess calories you don’t need, which will typically be stored as extra body fat.
Both scenarios require awareness to this delicate balance.
I made the remark that lately, I haven’t even been regularly checking my transactions, looking at my balance or tracking spending. I operate with a vague idea of what I think I have in my account, and then spend it.
Horrible idea, really.
When it comes to calories, I pretty much know what I’m eating, as I eat similar things most days. I’m mostly aware of what my calorie budget is and I spend within it. But there are definitely times that I’m completely unaware of where I am in relation to intake and output, and I certainly exceed that budget. These almost invariably happen when I eat food away from home.
But, many people are eating the same way they spend: without awareness and kind of recklessly. And they end up with a gradual accumulation of body fat over time.
One study showed that individuals that cook most of their meals at home (6-7 nights a week) consumed an average of 137 calories per day less than those who ate most of their meals away from home (0-1 nights a week eating at home). 137 calories per day is only an average, and it’s probably much more for some, and much less for others.
But, let’s say that you consume 137 more calories than you need every day for a month. That’s an extra 4,110 calories that month, which theoretically equals 1.17 lbs of excess fat stored if we use the “3500 calories = 1 lb of fat” theory. Over the course of a year, that’s 14 lbs gained.
And, that’s only 137 calories extra per day. What if you’re exceeding your calorie budget much more than that?
I would estimate that I eat about 70% of my meals and food at home where I cook it, but the other 30% of those meals can potentially add up to 40-50% of my calories on some days.
If I were to cut back on food and snacks I eat away from home, I would decrease this stupid amount of spending I’m doing, and indirectly, decrease my calorie intake several days a week. Which can have a huge impact on total calorie intake over time.
That’s my theory anyway.
But I need some volunteers that want to test this along with me.
Now, to be perfectly clear, I’m not really that interested in losing weight. I’m pretty happy with where I am, but I am interested in saving money.
My questions I want answered are these:
Why does cutting calories alone not motivate some?
Why would financial gain be a motivator instead?
You see, if someone told me to eat fewer calories to lose weight, and that was my only advice and direction, I would find it unappealing. Eat less food? To lose weight? Is that all I get?
But if you tell me instead that I will save $257 every month, which is $3084 over 12 months; and, if I were to invest that in stock market indexes which get an annual average return of 10%, in 10 years I would have $60,993.68…from just saving that money from eating out each month, I’ll eat out less in order to do that.
If I reduce the amount I eat away from home, I’ll save that money and indirectly reduce my calorie intake in the process. Because I can see the tangible rewards of saving money each day, week and month in my savings account much better than I can see weight loss happen slowly over time on a scale.
Plus, who doesn’t want money?
Don’t get me wrong. Money isn’t everything. But, I try to practice as much of a minimalist approach to my life as I can most of the time. Although, my food habits clearly don’t reflect that. If I’m not spending the money on food, I’d rather it be saved to use for vacations, emergencies or anything else more important that $4 coffee (yeah, go ahead and judge me. I bet you drink $7 beers).
For some reason, giving up these things appeals to me in the sense that I’ll be saving money, but it doesn’t appeal to me if I were to frame it in the scope of reducing calories to lose weight.
And that is what I am so interested in. I want to look at the problem of overweight and obesity from a different angle and apply a behavior change that is unfocused directly on caloric reduction, but on something that we, humans, would not equate directly to how much we consume: money.
Anyone else on this wavelength?
If you’re picking up what I’m putting down and want to join me for an interesting informal social experiment, here’s my plan:
For 30 days (and possibly much longer), I will track my spending on the aforementioned categories, but reduce that spending by 75% on the non-essential stuff (non-groceries). I’ll report at the end of the month how I did, as well as any difference in my body weight (even though I’m really not that interested in if I personally lose weight).
To keep it legit, I’ll also track my average weekly calories during this time and compare to average weekly calories I’ve tracked during the times when my food spending was unregulated.
If you want to join me in this project, here’s what you’ll need to be tracking:
- Figure out average food spending in at least a couple of the categories listed above
- Decide on an amount you have targeted to save (I’m going with 75% of non-essential food spending, but you can use your own number)
- Determine your starting weight; body fat % would be even better if you can get that
- Report weekly spending habits on food
- Report weekly averages for calorie intake prior to experiment
- Report weekly averages for calorie intake during experiment
- End of month totals for weight and money saved/spent on food
You don’t need to disclose your total income or any other sensitive financial data, and frankly, you can really keep it all to yourself. I’m planning to create a closed Facebook group for anyone who wants in on this, mainly for the purpose of accountability and for anyone who wants to share resources like apps, financial planning, recipes, etc.
I recommend using Mint. It’s a free app and its beyond useful for budgeting and tracking spending. You can get most of this information needed from the smart phone or tablet app, but your historical data will need to come from the web version. Any other similar app or online banking software that lets you categorize this way will work too.
All data you keep on yourself is up to you whether you want to share it. I plan to share mine because I need to be accountable.
I won’t be providing meal plans, or any other diet advice. I won’t be providing really any advice. This social experiment is simply looking at how reducing non-essential food spending with a goal of financial betterment may or may not lead to a reduction in calories consumed. It’s up to you what you do with your meals.
Comment on this post, the accompanying Facebook post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to be included. The experiment will officially start on Monday Sept 5th. Yes, Labor Day. I don’t care.