The average Canadian household spends the most on shelter, taxes, transportation, and food, in that order. So what happens when the first three are eliminated, or at least significantly reduced?
Teaching in Korea means provided accommodation (with incredibly low utility costs–under $50 CAD a month for heat, water, gas, and electricity for my sizeable 2 bedroom apartment), short commutes–often involving only walking, and limited to no income tax.
Suddenly food becomes the most significant portion of a household budget. For me, food takes up anywhere between %30-50 of my budget each month, with travel (such as weekend trips) coming in at a close second. Reducing food costs can have a significant impact for anyone, but imagine the difference of cutting back your largest area of expenditure!
Learn to Love Local Food
I came to Korea already having a love for the food, so transitioning my diet to local cuisine was not difficult. That didn’t prevent my cravings for comfort foods from home though–pizza, mac and cheese, fruit, chocolate, etc. Unfortunately, many of these foods can be quite pricey in Korea. For one, dairy isn’t as popular here, and though I don’t know many details of it’s production, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not subsidized the way it is in Canada.
Over time, I’ve changed my eating habits significantly. As I started to view those comfort foods as once-in-a-blue moon treats, my wallet and my waistline thanked me. It also encouraged me to eat and cook more local foods, which has been a great learning experience. Moreover, it means I’m contributing more to the local economy.
There’s an entire chicken in this 7,000 won bowl of soup! (~$7 CAD)
The best part? Eating the local food rather than imported international food is so much cheaper, that it’s actually quite affordable to eat out a lot. A typical meal in a restaurant costs between $5 and $7 CAD and is enough to fill me up for lunch and dinner.
As local as it comes: famous Taebaek Tagkalbi made with local veggies and chicken.
Using these strategies, I’m able to keep my food budget down to about $300 CAD or less per month. That includes eating out a lot and cooking for 2 most of the time.
Write a List of Cheap Foods Available
One of the ways that I’ve managed to budget my food more effectively is to browse every aisle of the grocery store, write a comprehensive list of all the affordable healthy foods, and stick to that as much as possible. Where I live in Korea, these foods include things like cabbage, cucumber, carrots, greens, garlic, rice, flour, potatoes, rice cakes, soy sauce, and tofu. Unfortunately, fruit is quite pricey compared to back home, so I’ve learned to substitute vegetables and buy frozen or “damaged fruits” more often.
If you’ve made a list of the cheaper foods, it’s time to start brainstorming what you can make with them! Of course, Korean dishes are the most accessible based on these ingredients, but with a little substitution and creativity, it’s easy to expand your repertoire.
I look at my list of affordable foods, and think about which combinations will turn into delicious meals. If you don’t have a lot of experience cooking, it could be tricky to come up with your own combinations, but never fear, Foodgawker is here! Foodgawker is basically the foodie version of pinterest–a compilation of links to recipes all over the internet. By listing a couple ingredients (i.e. carrots, zucchini, cabbage) the website will come up with loads of recipes containing those. You can also exclude ingredients (i.e. cheese) to get a better list for your needs.
Take a List, and Don’t Shop Hungry
This applies to food budgeting anywhere in the world: never walk into a grocery store hungry! It’s amazing how much of a difference a full stomach will make on your wallet.
A few days ago I had brunch at an American-style diner in Seoul called Travel Maker. They have all sorts of treats from home that aren’t easily available in Korea you can buy to take home–chips, Kraft Dinner, pretzels, etc. When I first walked in, I made a ridiculous mental list of all the things I would buy on my way out, but by the time I had eaten my massive brunch, the list dropped down by more than half and I left having spent much less money!
It might seem counter-intuitive to shop often to save money, but when it comes to perishable food, this is key. Of course, hitting up the grocery store every other day might not be an option for everyone. But shopping often means less food spoilage and better meal planning. I often find myself shopping ahead and then find out I have a hwaeshik, or just crave something different from what I planned earlier in the week.
Food budgeting can seem boring or even daunting if you’ve never done it. Its not only a great way to save money, but also the perfect opportunity to expand your cooking repertoire and try new foods.
What are your strategies for saving money on food?