This is a question I had from a reader (we’ll get to the double cheeseburger in a minute):
My question is about budgeting for food. I’ll be starting my first real job soon so I’m setting up a list of monthly expenses. I haven’t yet lived on my own, so I don’t have a good basis for estimating monthly food expenses. Could you shed some light on the matter?
My rule of thumb is this: for one month, save the receipts on every food item that you buy, whether it’s at the grocery store, eating out, or anywhere else. Then add 10% to that. That should be your food budget for a month.
Why add 10%? I find that almost every budget works better with a bit of breathing room in it. Most months, you’re better off coming in under budget so that you can put the excess away for debt repayment or savings. Also, this allows you to easily handle small emergencies within your monthly budget – you already have the slack in place to handle a blown tire, for instance.
On that note, I’ve read many of your articles about the advantages of preparing food at home. I’ve always been told that this option is less expensive than eating out, but intuitively it seems like the cheapest fast food options might be less expensive. For example, is there any way I can prepare an item – even assuming I buy ingredients on sale or in bulk – and have it cost less per serving than a $1 cheeseburger from McDonald’s? Negative externalities notwithstanding, is it a better option financially? Can you provide a cost-per-serving analysis for some of your recipes to better answer this question?
Okay, let’s break it down. I can get a double cheeseburger from my local McDonalds for $1.07. It weighs 5.8 ounces, has 440 calories, and has 23 grams of fat (here’s more nutrition facts on the item), which is 35% of the daily recommended allowance of fat (three McDonalds dollar menu double cheeseburgers add up to more than 100% of your daily fat intake). I will say that in terms of caloric content, it is a pretty good deal, but the calories you get are pretty unhealthy – I can certainly see why people with limited budgets and growing children might go for such things, even though it’s far from the best choice.
Anyway, there’s roughly three ounces of meat on the burger, cheese, ketchup, and a bun, meaning you can make 16 burgers of equivalent size from 3 pounds of hamburger meat.
Using the global grocery list and other online sources, I obtained some prices for the materials you would need to construct 16 such cheeseburgers.
3 pounds hamburger @ $1.99 lb. = $5.97
16 slices cheese, store brand = $1.99
16 hamburger buns, actually 2 packs of 8 = $3.98
1 small bottle ketchup = $1.50
… for a total of $13.44. One doesn’t have to pay sales tax on these products as they’re staple foods. 16 McDonalds double cheeseburgers, on the other hand, cost $17.12.
If you want to do this in bulk, just grill all of the burgers, then freeze them, separating them with pieces of wax paper. Pull out however many you want per meal, warm them up, then assemble them with the bun and whatever items you want on it.
Isn’t that meat price a bit cheap? For making burgers, especially if grilling them, you don’t want the cheapest meat unless you want a very dry burger. Part of the cooking process cooks out the fats, leaving water behind as the fats denature and come out of the meat.
There are other benefits here as well. If you make your own burgers, you can grill them yourself, making them taste fantastic and allowing a lot of the fat to drip out of the meat, making for a leaner, healthier burger. You can also choose the exact condiments you want on it – I myself like just a hint of mayonnaise on mine. You can also choose to include other elements which make it healthier or tastier – lettuce, tomato, etc. – at your discretion.
In other words, you can make a healthier, tastier version of the McDonalds $1 double cheeseburger at home for less than $1 per sandwich. And if you can beat the lowest common denominator in fast food, you can easily beat the price point of most anything else you would eat out.