How to Cut Your Food Spending – What’s Your Personality?

This is the start of a short series on spending less money on food (here are part 2 and part 3).  In considering various strategies I realized that people will likely fall into two camps in terms of how they like to incorporate change: some people prefer abrupt, drastic change and others prefer gradual change.


While I tend to shy away from comparisons between financial management and diet/weight management, this is one area where I can’t help myself.  Often people receive wake-up calls that alert them to an area of unhealthiness in their lives – it could be as major as defaulting on a credit card or a stern talk from your doctor or as minor as overdrafting your checking account or realizing that your favorite jeans give you a muffin top.  Generally people know the steps to take that will alleviate some of their troubles (they don’t have to be sophisticated at the beginning) – spend less/save more, eat less/move more – but how will they implement those steps?


One school of thought is that gradual change is best or perhaps the only sustainable way to change – if you try to change too much at once, you’re likely to get frustrated from the deprivation and give up.  In a weight loss effort, these are the people who will stop eating desserts, and then switch their regular soda for diet, and the next month start taking an after-dinner powerwalk three nights a week, and so on.  Perhaps they cut their calories down from 2600/day to 1400/day in 50/day increments, one increment per week.  In a financial improvement effort, at first they might cut out the multi-weekly fast food trips, then curb their online shopping, then eliminate the subscriptions they don’t use.  Eventually these people do achieve a pretty healthy lifestyle if they stick with it, and they haven’t had to challenge themselves too intensely at any one point.


The opposite end of the spectrum is going what Dave Ramsey would call “gazelle intense” from day one.  These people start Atkins induction or cut calories to 1200/day or go vegan.  They cut up their credit cards, slash discretionary spending to the bone, and start selling their possessions.  They change as fast as they can and may make some mistakes as their strategy knowledge could lag behind their enthusiasm.


My personality is inclined toward the “abrupt change” camp.  I’ve never experienced a financial wake-up call, but I’ve seen evidence of this in the way I changed my diet.  Once I got the notion in my head that sugar made me fat, I went from eating 60 grams of sugar per day (while calorie-counting – the average American consumes 180 grams of sugar per day!) to 15 grams of sugar per day literally overnight and stuck with it.  But I also have some sympathies with the gradual change route.  Once I did more research and decided I wanted to cut back on my overall carbohydrate intake, I wasn’t able to slash it the way I had sugar.  I needed to slowly substitute foods out of my diet to lower my carbohydrate level while maintaining an adequate fiber intake, and it took time to figure out which foods would accomplish those goals and how to prepare them.


If I realized that my food spending was way out of line (the subject covered by this series), I’m likely to go on an (almost-complete-)grocery-spending fast while we eat down our pantry/fridge/freezer and use that time to figure out how to meal plan.  I would totally change my shopping habits to the best extent I knew how and refine them over time as I learned more.  I would not consider eating out again until I had my spending in line in that area.  In my estimation, the abrupt change approach is the least painful way to go about breaking an addiction (sugar is a physical one, shopping habits or certain products may be more psychological or just deeply ingrained habits).  But I know other people definitely would give up on their lifestyle changes if they tried to do too much for them at once.


What’s your preference when a big change is needed – abrupt or gradual?  Have you experienced both?  Which was more effective or pleasant?


photo by rexboggs5


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17 Responses to "How to Cut Your Food Spending – What’s Your Personality?"

  1. bogofdebt says:

    I’m a fan of gradual change for the most part. When I was cutting back on soda, I went from numerous sodas a day to one and then diet. But after that, I still decided none was better for me in the end. I’m not very good with being told “NO” even when I’m the one telling myself that. I find that if I give myself a choice, I’ll typically end up choosing the wisest choices but I have to give myself that choice. It’s just a lot easier for me to phase out something over time rather than all at once. I’m more likely to stick with it.
    bogofdebt recently posted..Goals for August

    1. Emily says:

      I’m glad for your perspective! I am pretty good at telling myself “NO” when I know there’s a solid reason behind it (like the sugar theory). If it’s an arbitrary no, it won’t stick.

  2. Emily too says:

    Gradual change. I psych myself out with feelings of deprivation way too easily. This is such a personality thing though, I don’t think there’s a one size fits all strategy.

    Food is also a huge, huge part of my sense of well-being, though, so if I’m pushing pretty hard in other areas like work, running, and financial discipline (as I have been consistently for over a year and a half), I tend to give myself more leeway on the grocery spending/healthy eating front. I figure I can’t exercise serious restraint in *every* area of my life, and the negative effects of lightening up on work, spending, and working out are more severe than not losing the 7 lbs I’ve gained in that really stressful last year or not reducing our grocery budget as much as we could.

    1. Emily says:

      I recall there’s been one ore more studies demonstrating that exerting increased self-control in one area results in decreased self-control in others, so that seems to be what you’re experiencing. What I’ve found is that now that I’ve broken my addiction to sugar, it doesn’t take much self-control to continue in that vein (which is why I advocate at least trying the abrupt change for breaking addictions/habits) so my self-control is freed up for other areas like work and such. But I agree, you can’t go from zero to sixty in every area of your life all at once.

  3. We are more the abrupt changing type. We tend to make drastic changes overnight sometimes and havne’t had a problem sticking to them- yet. I think it just depends on your personality.
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..From Lazy and Stupid to Wise and Wealthy in 18 Months

    1. Emily says:

      Glad to hear from another person like me! I don’t know which Kyle’s preference is… I don’t think he’s had to make any huge changes.

  4. I read something about this regarding moderation verses exclusion. There’s a HUGE difference — some people can do moderation, and some can’t. Same with diet — some can do Paleo for 30 days or whatever, and some simply can’t, and will slip up, and slide back into whatever they were doing before. It’s really important to know yourself, and know whether you can, for example, cut out restaurants totally, or if you’re going to be more successful cutting it to five times a month.
    Kathleen @ Frugal Portland recently posted..Thought for the Day

    1. Emily says:

      I didn’t know those terms for it, but yes, exactly! I’m a total exclusion-er, though most other people I encounter in the weight-loss world (especially women) are moderation-ers. Which are you?

  5. I’m more of a gradual change person myself. Or, to use Kathleen’s approach, moderation. I don’t care if you tell me that ice cream will give me cancer tomorrow if I keep eating it; every once in a while, I’m going to want a scoop.

    My approaches to financial and physical health are quite opposite though. Financially, I’m all about frugality and can be down-right cheap. Cutting spending is a lot easier for me than increasing income.
    But health-wise, I prefer the approach being more physical than eating less. Given the choice between not having that scoop of ice cream or going for a 4 mile walk, I’ll take the walk. Besides, I enjoy walking so ice cream and walk is a lot more fun than no ice cream and no walk.
    Edward Antrobus recently posted..July 2012 Net Worth Update

    1. Emily says:

      Hm, so even within moderation you’re sort of anti-exclusion, if that makes sense… It’s not just that you want to make changes gradually but that you’re unwilling to reduce some frequencies to zero. I think Kathleen’s terms fit you better than mine do.

  6. Huge fan of gradual change-

    Most people didn’t end up in debt overnight. It’s more psychological than people think.

    Similar to the Atkins diet, when someone makes an explosive change in their diet, in a matter of weeks, they’ll gain it all back. I’m a firm believer in making small incremental changes in ones behavior to make lasting changes. But that’s just me 🙂
    Kevin @ SpringCoin recently posted..Buying vs Renting: Take a Step Back

    1. Emily says:

      Well, I never did Atkins but I can assure you that I’ve kept off the weight I lost by going off sugar in a snap! So that kind of change worked for me in that instance. I think what helps too is a quick feedback system – like with DR advocating going for smallest balance debt over highest interest rate to give people a ‘quick win,’ losing water weight by cutting carbs helps motivate people to stick with a low-carb program. Of course some will fall off and probably they need the gradual change route.

  7. […] and others are better-suited for those who prefer gradual change.  It will be helpful to know which you are going in to making major cuts in your grocery […]

  8. […] who prefer abrupt, drastic change should start at the beginning of the list and work toward the end and people who prefer slow, […]

  9. Heather says:

    Emily, what a fascinating post. I’m almost too deep in self-reflection to comment! This is something I’ve thought about in the past, but the art of knowing one-self is an ongoing process, isn’t it?

    1. Emily says:

      I’m glad the post made you think! I made this observation after a lot of time on 3FC. There really are different strokes for different folks. I’ve only determined that my extreme approach is “okay” within the last few months.

  10. […] Implement your plan in a temporally appropriate fashion. Although I prefer overnight change to gradual change (though others disagree), not every type of change is possible overnight – you may need to wait out your lease or […]

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