budgeting, calculations, food, good ideas, October Challenge

October Challenge: Complete!

October Challenge_ Complete-4

If my sources are correct, it is now November, which means that my October Challenge to purchase zero restaurant food or takeout is officially over.

Rather than going through each day individually (since it occurred to me that maybe it is a bit of a leap to assume that just because you are reading my blog, you care what I had for dinner last Wednesday?), I will just offer a few brief highlights:

  • The overall summary is that I successfully upheld the ban (yay!)
  • I made Golden Red Lentil Dal from Oh She Glows on Monday night and took it in my lunches for the rest of the week, and it was delicious.
  • A couple of afternoons this week, I had the realization that I hadn’t packed enough food to make it through the rest of the workday (I tend to need a lot of snacks)…but it also happened to be a week where there was a lot of random communal food lying around my lab/department, so luckily I was saved from having to go out and buy anything. I will admit that some of this “food” was Halloween candy. I don’t think I’d had a fun size Snickers bar since I was eight years old.
  • I managed to mooch one of my dinners from a free lecture reception at a university across town.
  • I didn’t have to buy many groceries this week, since I had stocked up so much during the first half of the month. (This point is key for the tallies below.)
  • And thanks to my CSA, I have more squash and potatoes in my house than I know what to do with.

And now that all the numbers are in, it’s time for…final calculations!! I’m just going to compare* October’s numbers to September’s numbers, since I think September was fairly representative of my food-spending habits before the challenge.


Just-me Groceries: $284.11
Social Groceries: $13.41
Just-me Restaurants/Takeout: $97.78
Social Restaurants/Takeout: $169.79

Just-me Groceries: $227.24
Social Groceries: $95.37
Just-me Restaurants/Takeout: $1.25 (an apple from a convenience store)
Social Restaurants/Takeout: $0.00

I saved $241.23.

O. M. G. That means I went from spending $18.83 per day on food to spending only $10.44 per day.

Before I get too excited, I should remember that I was at a conference earlier this month which included free food, and so I probably saved a bit of money during that time. So let’s adjust the daily average based on 27 days rather than 31 days: $11.99 per day. Still pretty good!

Now, $323.86 is still kind of a lot of money for groceries for one person. If I were living on SNAP benefits, I’d need to shave another $200 off of that total. But, baby steps, right? I still feel really good about this.

To sum up my thoughts on the October Challenge, I have created this oh-so-witty reverse MasterCard ad using my extremely limited graphic design skills. Behold:


I really don’t understand what Pinterest is, but I’m told that if you make graphics like this you can “pin” them. So if you are into “pinning” stuff, please feel very free to “pin” my cheesy celebratory graphic and/or follow me on Pinterest. Alternatively (or in addition), if you feel you may be able to explain Pinterest to me, you can go ahead and do so in the comments section below! As of this posting I have exactly one Pin and exactly zero followers. 🙂

So, what am I going to do with my $241.23? Well, I think there’s a sale at Ann Taylor, so….JUST KIDDING! It’s going straight into my Roth IRA. Inspired in part by this post by Cait at Blonde on a Budget.

So, what’s my plan regarding food for this month, and beyond? Well, I’m not extending the official challenge per se: if I have a specific reason to eat out on a specific day, then, well, I may just do that. But I think it’s safe to say that the weeks where I buy a burrito every evening on my walk home from work are behind me. This experience has allowed me to shift my baseline – to reset what “normal” feels like – and to create some shopping and cooking habits that I’m excited to continue going forward.

Now, getting my monthly food bill under $300—that would be a whole new challenge. Perhaps for an upcoming month…stay tuned!

*The scientist in me is screaming “No! Subtraction is not a valid measure of
significant difference! You need multiple samples, standard deviations,
and p-values! But the blogger in me is saying, yeah, ok…but subtraction
is, like, way easier. And since this is a blog post, guess who wins out?

Have you ever tried making a small change in your behavior and find that it really paid off?
Tell me about it in the comments section—I’m on the lookout for future challenges!

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  • Reply Hannah November 2, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    Congrats!!! Pinterest is like an online bulletin board. I use it to pin recipes mostly, but find a lot of other ideas on there, too.

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 2, 2015 at 10:47 PM

      Thanks! I don’t know why Pinterest is such a mystery to me; everyone else seems to have been able to figure it out. I think it seems odd to me because you’re apparently never pinning actual content, but rather *links* to content (?). So it strikes me as being one step removed from everything. But I’ll get the hang of it! 🙂

      • Reply Claudia @ Two Cup House November 3, 2015 at 10:01 PM

        I don’t get Pinterest, either. I’m glad I have the other half to figure it out for us. Cutting restaurants helped us save literally thousands this year, so kudos to you for such great progress! Assuming you have central HVAC or some mechanism for controlling temperature in your home? Another fun challenge we’re trying this month!

        • Reply Sarah Noelle November 3, 2015 at 10:17 PM

          Oh wow, I just had to google HVAC. 🙂
          Yeah, I can control the heat to some extent, but I also have to share these decisions with two housemates, so I can’t do a completely controlled experiment. I do want to track it this year though, at the very least, as I have no idea how much energy we used last year, or how much we paid for it.
          Yay for fun challenges!

  • Reply Sofia @ Currentlylovingsimplicity November 2, 2015 at 12:09 PM

    Congrats! Not eating out makes such a difference. I now pack about 90% of my lunches and both financially and health wise, it was one of the best ideas ever…

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 2, 2015 at 10:49 PM

      I can totally second that statement, Sofia. My main motivation was the money, but somehow my lunches and dinners do end up being a lot healthier if I make them myself! Funny how that happens. 🙂

  • Reply Amy November 2, 2015 at 2:12 PM

    You did a great job cutting down your food spending! I am working on reducing our food spending this month. I looked at the numbers for the previous year late last week and it was a crazy amount how much we spent, not just on food either. We weren’t going further into debt and were even able to save some so we didn’t pay attention to what we were spending.

    If you were on SNAP though you wouldn’t have to cut your food spending down by that much. It’s the supplemental nutrition assistance program. When I was a single Mom in graduate school I signed up for SNAP. The case worker kept stressing the point that it wasn’t meant to be the only money I spent on food just to help. For us though the amount of money that was given was more than we needed.

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 2, 2015 at 10:53 PM

      Ah, you know, I’ve heard this about SNAP and have always wondered about it. On the one hand, there’s the SNAP Challenge, where people who are not on SNAP benefits try limiting their food bill to $140 per month, so that they can better understand what it would be like to be on SNAP…but on the other hand, as you point out, the “S” stands for “supplemental”, so it doesn’t sound like it’s intended as a sole source of food. It’s interesting to hear your perspective since you’ve used SNAP in the past — thanks for sharing a little about your experience with it.

      • Reply Priswell November 16, 2015 at 10:24 AM

        SNAP possibly should be supplemental, but I’ve known lots of people where it is pretty much a household’s entire food budget. It can be done, but you make everything from scratch and you become very good with beans, rice, and and bulk foods. It’s likely that you even learn how to make bread from scratch, because even the few cents you save there can make a huge difference.

        • Reply Sarah November 18, 2015 at 11:18 PM

          Hm, it sounds like it was created as a supplemental program but in actuality whether or not it is truly supplemental depends on the situation. I just remembered that there’s actually a great pdf/ebook out there by Leanne Brown,that’s specifically meant as a resource for people who are trying to make a SNAP budget work (or whose food budget is very limited for any reason). It’s great — she focuses on trying to cut costs while still eating vegetables and other healthy foods. The title is Good and Cheap.

  • Reply Our Next Life November 3, 2015 at 11:12 PM

    Hooray — that progress is huge! What I’m most impressed by is that your grocery bill went down even though you cut out the restaurants! Was September’s bill an outlier in terms of grocery spending? Regardless, that is great progress, and eye-opening, I’m sure.

    For us, we’ve struggled with our grocery bill a lot, in part because we care deeply about the quality of our food and don’t want to eat the cheap processed crap that just happens to cost the least, and husband seems to be allergic to eating rice and beans too often! For me, eating mostly organic is a non-negotiable, and I have celiac, which means I have to pay through the nose for anything resembling a baked good, but still — we were overdoing it. Our June bill, for two of us, was $750. Now we’re hovering a little under $600 a month, which though still high, is much less! And the only real change we’ve made is shopping less often, so that we have to eat down our pantry stores more of the time, and just generally being more aware and trying to sub cheaper things for more expensive ones.

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 3, 2015 at 11:52 PM

      Oh, that’s a great question about the grocery bill for September. Something I didn’t mention in the post — but should have — is that I made a couple of trips to a cheaper grocery store in October, rather than shopping exclusively at Whole Foods in September. So that would probably explain it. I am totally with you on the organic, healthy food thing, so it’s always a bit of a balance trying to save money yet still make good choices in terms of health, food ethics, etc. I am definitely a huge consumer of all possible variations on the rice and beans meal!

      That’s awesome that you’re down around $600 for the two of you — I really would love to get under $300. Really it’s crazy how much food a person consumes in a month and how much that food can cost — before I started tracking my spending I had assumed that a normal food bill was probably around $100/month. 🙂

  • Reply Holly@ClubThrifty November 4, 2015 at 9:46 AM

    We are on a no-restaurant challenge for November and December. We went on vacation in October, and I feel like I ate enough restaurant food to last a lifetime!

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 4, 2015 at 8:04 PM

      Ah, yes, vacations can do that! Good luck with your challenge — wow, two months, and during the holidays too! 🙂

  • Reply Taylor @ Freedom From Money November 4, 2015 at 8:56 PM

    Congratulations, Sarah! You KILLED IT on the challenge 🙂 Is there a Costco where you live? I started shopping there almost exclusively a few months ago and it has made a world of difference. I’ve already saved a few hundred. If you have one near you, check it out! Pretty sure the amount I’ve saved on toilet paper alone has already paid for the yearly membership fee, haha. Congrats again!

    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 4, 2015 at 11:52 PM

      Thanks, Taylor! I’ve heard great things about Costco, but I think it’s tough without a car. Although, wait a second, you don’t have a car either! Do you carry huge boxes of toilet paper home on your bike? Maybe there’s an option here for me after all!

  • Reply Michael @ Financially Alert November 5, 2015 at 4:30 AM

    Congrats Sarah! $241.23 is a huge win and a nice chunk of change for a ROTH IRA. Keep up good habits and great things will follow. 🙂

  • Reply Sarah Noelle November 5, 2015 at 7:02 AM

    Thanks, Michael! I definitely made some good habits this month. Example: we’re four days into November, and it hasn’t even occurred to me to get takeout yet!

  • Reply Freedom 40 November 15, 2015 at 4:47 PM

    Great post and website Sarah! Congrats on successfully meeting your goal! I’m a bit of a goal setter myself, but often find that they’re not so easy to achieve. Still – the pursuit is what helps us get a little better over time….


    • Reply Sarah Noelle November 15, 2015 at 5:23 PM

      Thanks! Yes, I do find goals really motivating, even if it’s just a sort of arbitrary personal goal like the October Challenge. I was really surprised by how much fun it ended up being — honestly it felt like a game most of the time. Having the blog helped a lot too; I’m not sure I would have managed to stick with it if I hadn’t known I would need to report back each week. 🙂

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  • Reply Laura November 16, 2015 at 9:41 AM

    We recently started budgeting groceries after I signed up for Personal Capital and saw the obscene amount of money we were spending! I have been exclusively low carb for the last five years, so many of the foods I eat tend to be expensive! Ingredients are costly as well, since I cannot eat anything made with wheat flour or sugar. I’ve found several great work arounds, though. I buy meat, cheese, eggs and dairy at Costco and break everything down as soon as I get home. I pick up everything Costco doesn’t have at Walmart now, because they have an app that lets you scan your receipts. If something you bought goes on sale, you get the savings credited! Saves me from going store to store. I make a lot of soups and stews and baked goods, typically freezing half. We no longer go to restaurants at all, and rarely hit fast food (other than the Costco $1.50 hot dog and drink deal). No more expensive coffee places, I make bulletproof coffee at home now. I use the Keurig tea pods twice (very little degradation if any). If I need to buy ingredients or baked goods I don’t want to make (such as low carb bagels), I get them in bulk in order to obtain free shipping and freeze them. And we eat leftovers! I used to throw them away 😨, but no more. I also rarely buy fresh produce unless I have a specific need (soup, salad), in which case I prep it the minute we get home. Saves on slimy green stuff in the crisper drawer, and I find frozen fruits and veggies to be of excellent quality. Our maximum monthly food budget for everything we eat (at home, ordered online or out) is $600 for two people, but my goal is to shave that back to $500 next year. Compared to more than double that amount in the past, we’re eating better, going grocery shopping less often, throwing much less away and making real progress on getting a handle on what once was an out of control budget item.

    • Reply Sarah November 16, 2015 at 5:02 PM

      Wow, Laura, it really sounds like you have a system down! I have to admit that I’ve never been to Costco — I think there is one on the outskirts of Boston, but since I don’t have a car it seems like it might be difficult for me to take advantage of. I’ve heard great things though. I’m impressed by your $600 for 2 people number. I think my next challenge may be to get under $300 in a month — I’m totally sure it’s doable, but it would definitely require extra planning. I don’t know if you’re already familiar with Budget Bytes, but if not, I would definitely check it out. Beth has been doing a challenge for a while now where she spends only $30/week on groceries!
      Thanks for your comment, and congrats on all the positive changes. 🙂

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  • Reply Kurt November 16, 2015 at 12:22 PM

    I suggest to people that, rather than resolving to eat out less, they resolve to eat a truly healthy diet. After you spend some time researching what a genuinely healthy diet looks like (hint: you won’t find it on the FDA’s website) and commit to eating one, you’ll find very little–almost none–restaurant food that conforms. Voila–you’ll be eating out much less! And even more important you’ll save big money in health care over the long term, and enjoy a much better quality of life.

    • Reply Sarah November 16, 2015 at 4:59 PM

      Yes, Kurt, so true! I am a major health food enthusiast, so this definitely resonates with me. I will say that there are some seriously amazing health food restaurants here in Boston, which means that this general rule of thumb does not always apply…but yes, definitely, I think it does apply 99% of the time. In any case, if you’re making your own food then you have total control over what goes into it, and that is something you’ll never have in a restaurant. Very good point; thanks for the comment. 🙂

  • Reply Steve @ Think Save Retire November 16, 2015 at 2:08 PM

    Well done! I used to be a HUGE restaurant eater in a previous life, but now I’m pretty much the opposite. I still enjoy going out to eat, but it’s definitely the exception rather than the rules these days. The nice thing about a challenge like this is you’re training your mind not to EXPECT restaurant food as much, which means you don’t feel like you’re depriving yourself of something that you want nearly as much.

    And, each time that you do go out, it’s that much sweeter because it’s so rare that you do! 🙂

    • Reply Sarah November 16, 2015 at 4:56 PM

      Thanks for your comment, Steve. 🙂 Man, isn’t going out to eat great? But you’re totally right: I actually have retrained myself into feeling like cooking and packing my own food is normal, so now going out to eat feels totally decadent. I did go out to eat once about a week after the challenge was over, and it really was an amazing experience! I definitely appreciated it more than I would have if it had felt normal. So my goal is to hang onto that! Luckily I did learn some good cooking habits that are serving me well.

  • Reply Derek Olsen November 16, 2015 at 2:25 PM

    The first time my wife and I tracked our spending I guessed we had spent $100 eating out.

    It was $450!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I was both shocked and mad.

    We haven’t spent over $200 eating out in any one month since (5 years) and most months we spend under $100. We’ve saved thousands.

    Great post.


    • Reply Sarah November 16, 2015 at 2:54 PM

      Hey Derek, thanks for stopping by! Funnily enough, I had a very similar experience, with similar numbers ($100 expected vs. $450 actual). Mine was for all food (groceries + eating out), but same idea; I wrote about it in my very first post here, in case you’re interested in reading: http://theyachtless.com/2015/08/22/origin-story/
      Wow, you and your wife certainly made a huge change — that’s amazing. I bet you have saved thousands!

  • Reply DP @ Someday Extraordinary November 16, 2015 at 9:04 PM

    This challenge is awesome. I constantly find myself buying some snacks at Walgreens or a Coke at the gas station – and it really does add up. $10 per week on that junk is $40 per month. I think there’s a happy medium as well, though. Eating out is relaxing and enjoyable – just not every night! Great write up!


    • Reply Sarah November 16, 2015 at 9:16 PM

      Thanks, DP. I totally know what you mean — those snacks were honestly half of my problem. There aren’t any supermarkets near where I work, just vending machines and a convenience store across the street, and I was constantly buying energy bars and bottles of seltzer and overpriced sandwiches, and who knows what else. For me, a big part of not eating out involved packing not only a lunch but also a lot of snacks so that I could avoid the convenience store during the day.
      Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. 🙂

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  • Reply Cheryl November 18, 2015 at 8:43 AM

    I ate out yesterday for lunch with my husband. We went out to Subday morning breakfasts a few months back. I am always horrified when the check comes and I automatically start calculating what I could have bought at the grocery store. I’m lucky my husband takes care of food completely in my house.

    • Reply Sarah November 18, 2015 at 9:00 AM

      I can definitely relate to this, Cheryl: the cost of eating out is astonishingly high. I don’t think I fully appreciated this until I did the October Challenge, but now that I’ve gotten in the habit of eating at home, eating out just seems so expensive. It’s true: in most cases you could buy supermarket ingredients for many, many meals for the same price that you could buy one meal in a restaurant.
      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. 🙂

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  • Reply Jaymee (@SmartWomanCan) December 13, 2015 at 7:55 PM

    Omg great job Sarah!! I’m so proud of you and you’ve totally inspired me to be more mindful of how much money I’m throwing away by eating out!!

    • Reply Sarah Noelle December 14, 2015 at 9:56 AM

      Thanks, Jaymee! 🙂 It was definitely an experience. I also can’t believe how much it really ended up making a difference in my habits: the challenge is technically over, but I’m still cooking probably 95% of my own food and rarely going out to eat. So for me it was a really valuable exercise.

  • Reply Jef February 29, 2016 at 9:28 PM

    Great effort Sarah; impressive how much you were able to save here and you’re also doing well by eating at home for the most part, except for the fun-sized mars bar haha..

    You’re traffic and engagement is amazing here as well :), good on you!

    • Reply Sarah Noelle March 1, 2016 at 7:11 AM

      Thanks, Jef! I feel really good that I’ve also been able to keep up these habits over the past several months since the challenge: I still rarely eat out and mostly cook at home.

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