How Having Debt Helped Me Learn To Love Cooking

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cookingsavingmoneyPersonal finance, like all disciplines, has certain adages that get tossed around pretty much all the time. You know the ones I’m talking about:

  • Spend less than you earn
  • Pay yourself first
  • Don’t pay for convenience – do it yourself!


That last one, “don’t pay for convenience,” is probably, well, the least convenient of all the personal finance advice out there. Especially when it comes to cooking.

When I was fresh out of college, on my own for the first time, I had a couple of pretty typical new-adult problems: I was deep in debt (student loans, credit cards, etc.) and almost never cooked for myself.

At first, I refused to make the connection between these two issues. I had begun dealing with the debt problem by curbing my spending in a lot of ways: I colored my own hair, got rid of cable, and cut my bar visits in half. I was feeling pretty good about my new thriftiness and the dent it was making in my credit card balance.

But I couldn’t let go of take-out food

It was just so easy to stop by one of my favorite grub hubs on the way home from work, plunk down eight or ten dollars, and enjoy a tasty meal, all without having to fire up the stove. And the cleanup was a breeze, too! So I just plodded along, cutting my spending elsewhere down to the bone, all while insisting that cooking my own meals couldn’t possibly save that much money.

Eventually, though, I just couldn’t pare back my bills or miscellaneous spending any further. I had to free up more money for debt reduction but just couldn’t find any other holes to plug in my budget. Except, of course, for my food spending. Gulp.

So, forced to confront my take-out addiction, I started reading up on budget cooking and shopping for some basic cooking implements. At first, I tried to use this stumbling block as a justification to keep up my take-out junkie ways. “Ten dollars for a Pyrex dish?!” I complained. “I could just use that to buy chicken fried rice and save myself the time and energy!” But deep down I knew that that Pyrex dish was an investment, an investment in future frugal, self-prepared meals. I bought the Pyrex dish, but grumbled about it the whole time.

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The grumbling continued as I stumbled through what to make in that Pyrex dish – and my first experiments in the kitchen did not end well at all. Honey mustard chicken? Burnt to a crisp. Pasta with marinara? More like mushy noodles in tomato soup. Rice pilaf? Yeah, that turned out more like rice Jell-O. Needless to say, I was not born a chef. And I admit, several of these failed attempts ended in tearful phone calls to my local pizza joint.

Discouraged but not deterred – I had already purchased all that cookware! – I persevered, and eventually I experienced a major culinary (and fiscal) breakthrough. It came in the form of baked ziti, the ingredients for which cost me about ten dollars. I followed the recipe almost exactly, but when it came time to dig in, I was skeptical. After all, my history with pasta cooking was fraught to say the least. I took my first bite nervously.

It was amazing

Like, really, really good. I alternated between grinning and chewing for the rest of the meal.

But I really grinned when I realized how much I had paid per serving of this deliciousness: $2.50! That was a small fraction of even the cheapest take-out meal, and twice as tasty. I decided that even if I had to eat baked ziti for the rest of my life, I was kicking take-out to the curb. The savings was just too good to pass up!

Of course, I haven’t been living on baked ziti for the past five years, but that small success was what I needed to inspire me to keep cooking. The more I cooked, the more I enjoyed it. Now I can confidently say that I love to cook, but if I’m really being honest, that love stems more from all the money I’ve saved than the love of cooking itself.

What can I say? I guess I still aspire to be more Warren Buffet than Rachel Ray – but I’m not giving up on cooking any time soon!