I spent my 20s living in various Brooklyn apartments, first with multiple roommates and later with my boyfriend-turned-husband. We all had decent jobs and were able to live fairly comfortably, never worrying too much about how much we were spending on grocery shopping or eating (and drinking) out.
When my husband and I started thinking about moving out of the city and buying a house, though, we realized we might have to rein in some of our food and beverage spending. Not that we were overdoing it; we already cooked at home most nights and took lunch to work with us more often than not. But once we set a target number for a down payment, saving a few more dollars each week suddenly became much more important.
Over the next couple of years, we kept our goal of homeownership in mind as we perused the supermarket aisles and debated over dining options. Here are the choices we made that I think made the biggest difference in our bank account, and helped make our dream a reality.
1. We started eating breakfast at home.
One nice thing about New York City is that it’s really easy to grab breakfast on your way into work. Of course, it’s not great for your wallet. I had found myself becoming more and more dependent on this habit, and — while I was already packing lunch most days — I realized I was spending $25 a week or more my morning meal, picking up items like oatmeal, breakfast wraps, bagels, or smoothies from various shops between the subway and my office building.
We remedied that problem by making a commitment to eat breakfast together most mornings. Of course, that required some planning: About once a week we’d make a big pot of oatmeal that we could eat for several days, or we’d make sure we always had ingredients on hand to whip up a quick avocado or peanut butter toast. Those ingredients weren’t free, but they certainly cost less than the pastries and sandwiches I’d been buying every morning.
We also moved a couple of stools into our tiny kitchen and created a little breakfast nook, because it was easier and more convenient to eat there than in our dining room down the hall. Not only did that change save us money, but it also gave us a nice start to the day and a chance to spend a few quiet minutes together before we went our separate ways.
2. We invested in some coffee gear.
Because we’re only a household of two, and we’ve always lived within walking distance to no fewer than seven amazing coffee shops, we’d never owned a coffee maker. We’d rarely have use for a full pot, and I’ve never been a fan of the waste produced by machines that use single-cup pods. Instead, we’d pick up a $2 cup whenever we were out and about, or a $4 cold brew during the hot summer months.
That all changed when we bought our first Chemex — a fancy glass pour-over device that makes exactly as much coffee as we need, which was usually two cups at a time, made fresh each morning. In the summers, we also began making our own 24-hour cold brew coffee (and our own simple syrup, as I take mine light and sweet), which was super easy and refreshing. We still visited our favorite coffee shop to buy our favorite beans, so we got to save money and still support a local business at the same time.
3. We swapped restaurants for dinner parties.
When friends used to invite us out for dinner, we would jump at the opportunity to try a new restaurant and have a meal prepared for us. But once we started saving for a house, we were less excited about the idea. After all, when catching up with friends, the food should be secondary to the company — so why pay so much for it?
Instead, we found ourselves offering an alternative: Come to our apartment, bring a side dish or a bottle of wine, and we’ll cook the entrée. We could usually feed several guests for the same or less than we’d spend on just our share of the meal at a restaurant, and our guests would often return the favor at a later date with a home-cooked meal at their place. (Plus, we almost always had leftovers we could eat the next day.)
4. We started going shopping together.
Grocery shopping used to be something we crammed in whenever my husband or I had a free hour, and it usually involved a lot of texting back and forth trying to remember exactly what we needed. And, all too often, running back out to the overpriced corner market later on because we’d inevitably forgotten something.
We learned, though, that when we actually planned out our grocery trips and made a point to go together, we were much better at sticking to our shopping list, remembering everything on it, and checking each others’ impulses to buy things we didn’t need or probably wouldn’t end up using in time. And, of course, we made sure never to go when we were hungry!
5. We started eating more beans.
We’ve tried to cut back on red meat over the years, and even went vegetarian for a short time while we were saving for a house. Those choices had more to do with health and ethical reasons, but I’ll admit that eating fewer animal-based foods saved us money, too.
One thing we found to be a wonderful (and cheap!) substitute for meat-heavy meals was beans. While beans used to be something I ate mainly with Mexican food or in chili, now we eat them several times a week — Mediterranean-style pasta with chickpeas, white bean stews made with whatever veggies we have on hand, and corn and black bean salads are some of our favorite go-to recipes.
As for what kind of beans we buy — it really depends what we’re in the mood for, and of course, what’s on sale. We also tend to buy a combination of canned and dried beans: The canned varieties require zero prep and are super convenient for a quick meal, but when we have the time, we plan ahead and soak dried beans (which are even less expensive) overnight before cooking them.
6. We started making our own seltzer.
I tend to drink a lot more water when I have something bubbly or flavored in the fridge, rather than just plain H2O. I used to buy cans of diet soda and bottles of iced tea to sip on throughout the day, which I was pretty dependent on during the years I worked from home as a freelancer.
Then we were gifted a Sodastream, and started making our own sparkling water by the bottle. Even if we had bought it ourselves, it would have paid for itself and then some: The model we have cost less than $100 and we’re still using it five years later. All we pay for now is a new gas cartridge (about $15 when you turn in the empty one) every couple of months, and whatever flavorings (usually just a squeeze of lemon) we want to add.
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