So you’ve graduated from college and you’re (hopefully) not living at your parents house anymore.  You have a job, and even though it’s not THE job that you eventually want, you’re on track to start making your way up the ladder and working towards the career you want to have.

Your days have changed a lot from college – you no longer wear sweatpants to class, you have to brush your hair and your teeth every morning, you have an alarm clock that goes off exceptionally early, and you don’t live off of ramen noodles and beer.  There aren’t any dining halls for you to eat lunch in the middle of the day, and your parents aren’t around to feed you dinner. When you get home, you have to cook yourself meals – and perhaps prepare a lunch for the next day.

New workers often anticipate that they’ll be able to do more with their paycheck than they really can – forgetting how many bills there are that add up each month (gas, electric, cable, water, heat, garbage, rent, renter’s insurance, car payments, fuel, and food, to name a few). Some things can’t be compromised – the gas you pay to get to and from work in your car, perhaps, are fixed costs that use up part of your income. Other parts of your paycheck are more flexible: you have choices in how you spend your money, and there are lots of ways to save money if you know how.

Food can be an unexpected cost – see tips for saving money grocery shopping. If you buy lunch for $10 a day every workday, you’re spending $200 a month – or $2400 a year – just on your lunch.  If you go out to eat for dinner for $20 – that includes the meal, drink, and tip (not including the driving and time to get to and from the restaurant), seven days a week, that’s $600 a month – just on dinners.  That’s $7200 a year.  Just for eating lunch and dinner, you’ve just spent $9600 on your meals.  That is quite a chunk of money.

On top of that, perhaps you go out to fancy dinners once a week – or dinners with friends.  And, you have to feed yourself breakfast in the mornings and meals on the weekends – so perhaps another $400 a month on groceries. What about that breakfast coffee and bagel you get every morning before work? $5 a day adds up to $100 a month – another $1200 out of your pocket.

Guess what: you’re easily spending $10,000 a year on food.

It’s easy to overlook the cost of food, because it adds up in small quantities on a daily basis.  Unless you’re superhuman and can get by without eating on many occasions, food will be an expense that you have to manage.  Here are some top tricks for the budget-savvy.

1. Make your own meals at home. Cooking meals at home can add up to a lot of savings by the year’s end.  Double your savings by cooking for two – and have the leftovers for lunch the next day.

2. Buy a coffeemaker. Don’t, don’t, don’t buy coffee from a coffee shop.  $4 a day can quickly turn into $6 a day or even $10 a day – and that’s just on breakfast, before work starts.  A coffee maker can be as cheap as $20 (although if you want to learn to make your own lattes, perhaps $60-80 might get you a nice machine). Think about buying one for work as well as one for home if you’re a coffee fiend.  Drink tea? Buy an electric kettle to plug in at work.

3.  Make your lunches. A loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly will set you back $12 — and make you at least a week’s worth of lunches.  That’s less than $2 per lunch.  Try to find a food shop that will sell you a sandwich for less than $7!  Not in the mood for PB&J? Frozen burritos, frozen lasagnas, turkey sandwiches, even salads will be less than half the price if made from home.

4. Buy snacks in advance. The same advice for lunches applies to snacks.  Never snack out of a vending machine (it’s unhealthy, for one) – the markups can be as much as 500% or more.  If you’re a twix lover, go to costco and stash a box at your desk. Unhealthy, yes. Also cheaper.

5. Cook mini-breakfasts on the weekend – and freeze them for later. A good friend of mine bought single-serve microwavable tupperware and makes a week’s worth of oatmeal with fresh fruit in individual serving cups.  Total cost? $5 for the large can of oatmeal and $5 for the bag of frozen fruit.  She can make a month’s worth of breakfast oatmeal from the two.  That’s $10 for breakfast for a month.

6. Make a budget for eating out. The first step to any budget is knowing what you’re up against – so take note of what you spend each day (save those receipts! And keep a notebook!) to know what your monthly expenditures are.  Can’t keep track? Use your debit or credit card for only food for two weeks and look at your statement to see what your expenses were.  You may be in for a food shock.

7. Try a  “cash envelope” for food for the week. A good way to start any budget is to limit your spending by using only cash.  If your weekly expenditures are $250, try taking $200 out each week and seeing if you can make it work.  Leave your credit cards at home and only use your “lunch money envelope” for food purchases.  Watch where your money goes and learn more about your spending habits – small steps are the best way to budget success.
The bottom line? Food is expensive – and necessary.  Keeping your options open and using your money wisely will lead to financial health and security.  You’re not made of money, so choose what you want to buy carefully. Happy eating!

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