So you’re spending more than you earn and need to cut back, eh? Let me guess: the culprits are Eating Out and Buying Stuff, and the internet has solved your problem by telling you that buying less stuff and cooking at home to save money are the answers. Am I right?

As much as I hate to admit it, the internet is mostly right on this one. But the internet is also woefully naive. Let’s take cooking at home as our case study and examine why – while it’s the right choice for so many reasons – it’s also not as easy as saying “I’ll cook at home and fix all my problems”. As usual, I want to discourage you a little before encouraging you, because I want you to understand that the right choices aren’t always easy – and sometimes aren’t even right.

Cooking at home to save money with a baby and a full-time job

When I went back to work after my first daughter was born, a time that (not coincidentally) was also the first time my husband and I got serious about cutting back our spending so we could afford daycare (among other things), it was a time of enormous personal stress. I was too sleep-deprived to articulate it at the time, but learning to spend less than we earned was very difficult because we didn’t have the resources to do so.

For us, cooking at home (instead of picking something up in the rush of getting back from work, getting the baby from daycare before they started charging five dollars a minute, and trying to squeeze “real life” with our daughter into the hours of six to seven-thirty every night) was the “easy” solution that would save us untold riches every year. But cooking at home takes resources that eating out does not: it takes time. It takes a certain amount of skill. Most of all, it takes capacity – that is, the emotional resilience to stick with a difficult or stressful choice until it becomes less difficult and/or less stressful.

Now, keep in mind, we already knew how to cook. We already owned the pots and pans and whisks, the meat thermometer, the trays, bowls, measuring cups, and oven mitts. For those of you who didn’t grow up cooking or didn’t receive a ridiculous amount of kitchen gear when you got married, buying the basics is one of those “spending money to save money” paradoxes that can be hard to stomach if you’re already short on cash.

Yes, cooking at home saves money

Cooking (and packing up the leftovers for lunch at work the next day) reduced our spending on food to $110 per week for two adults and a toddler. That’s $2.33 per meal, and while I’d love to give you a triumphant comparison of the amount we spent on food before we committed to cooking at home, part of the reason we had to cut back was because we had no idea how we were spending our money in the first place, so the data is lost to history. I’d estimate that we ate out at least five times a week (including lunches), and the meals we did cook (or “cook”) weren’t planned, so our grocery shopping was haphazard, wasteful, and – because it included a lot of pre-made stuff – cost us a lot more money for a lot fewer meals. A conservative estimate might be something like $210 every week, which works out to $5,200 in unnecessary spending on food every year.

You’re still spending, you’re just not spending money

The amount of money you can save every year by cooking at home is significant, but saving that money means spending one of your other equally precious resources: time or capacity. It might even mean spending social capital if you’re in a competitive profession that implicitly (or explicitly) requires very long working days and frequent lunches or dinners out with colleagues or superiors or clients.

So what does that mean in practical terms? So far, it sounds like I’ve been advocating for you to learn to cook no matter what because it will save you money, and for some of you that might actually be the only solution. If you’ve already tried to find ways to increase your income, reduce your big expenses like housing and transportation, haven’t bought anything unnecessary in months, and are still having trouble making ends meet, cooking at home might be the last frontier that you have to conquer no matter how thinly your resources are spread.

In our case, cooking became a habit that stuck. We enjoy it, in fact, which makes it a (slightly) easier default than takeout on those nights that include badminton, client calls, and podcast episodes.

For others, those with more money and less time, maybe cooking at home – exclusively, anyway – isn’t the panacea the internet is telling you it is. Maybe you’ll need to compromise on other things – the kind of car you drive, or driving at all, vacations, rent, television, or Buying Stuff – so you can still feed yourself and work the long hours that are bringing in the money. If you live in a bigger city, you could sign up for one of the many meal-delivery companies that are more expensive than cooking from scratch but less expensive than eating out at nine o’clock at night because that’s when you’re finished work.

The easy hard answer

Cooking at home to save money will cost you in other ways, and you need to be prepared to sacrifice other resources. I’d love to tell you what to do, but easy answers aren’t my specialty. The hard answer is this: if you want to get your spending on food or any other category to line up with your income and goals, you’ll have to spend one of your other resources – your time, your capacity, even your social capital – until it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice anymore.

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