14 Days on a Cash Diet: Week 1

Can a money management technique improve your diet?

After watching Adam Carroll’s Ted Talk, When money isn’t real: the $10,000 experiment, I was motivated me to take a closer look at my spending habits.

He doesn’t so much talk about the Cash Diet so much as the concept of financial abstraction, which he describes as:

The notion that when money becomes more and more of an idea, less tangible, and therefore more abstract, it changes the way we interact with it on a regular basis.

He then expresses the following ominous opinion:

I believe that kids today are being raised in a world where money is no longer real. It’s actually an illusion but has very real consequences.

Personally, I’ve experienced these consequences, having played with credit card’s. I know first hand how dangerous they can be and how ‘real’ the abstraction is.

I carried out some research, hoping to find a practical strategy that brought my spending habits back to earth. It lead me to Kathleen Elkins article, I spent two weeks using cash only — here’s how 14 days changed the way I’ll spend forever. She discovered the following three benefits:

  1. Knowing exactly how much she spends
  2. Promotes conservative spending habits: buying needs over wants
  3. Builds money management habits: keeping receipts

After reading about it, I decided that the best way to test the strategy and experience those benefits, was to run my own Cash Diet experiment.

Experiment

My approach to this is slightly less liberal and a little more literal. Instead of buying everything with cash, I’ve decided to purely focus on buying food with it, the purpose of which is to provide more value by creating an improved diet.

Goal: spend $110/fortnight, while maintaining a healthy diet.

The spending limit is about 63% less than what I currently spend (usually $180) and the figure has been chosen because it directly translates to a 10% saving on my current income. It’s going to be hard, but hard isn’t impossible.

The interesting thing about living life through micro experiments is that it gives you a framework for measuring, researching and implementing improvements to your life. The financial reward of this experiment is very small, but at this level, the principle is more important.

Note: All figures are in AUD.

Day 1: Subtle Savings

In typical fashion, I arrived at the supermarket without a note of cash on me before realising what I had actually planned to do. I could have just taken it out at the supermarket, but the psychology of taking money out and putting it back in the same place didn’t make sense to me. It had to feel real, so I had to then walk five minutes up the street to withdraw it.

I ended up withdrawing $200 because November was that rare month in which my debit card was expiring, and I didn’t trust the bank to send out a replacement on time.

Notable Observations:

  • I bought $10/kg loose mushrooms instead of $17/kg packaged ones
  • I decided to forgo a rather expensive ‘first meal’ of avocado/feta/almonds which I had created and now have to figure out a cheaper alternative without sacrificing nutrients
  • I fed the money into the self-service machine which took longer than my tap-n-go card

The main point is I was shopping consciously. I knew exactly how much money I had to spend and I could physically see it and felt the pain that letting go of it caused.

I spent $27.57. If the food can last me four days then ‘$30 every four days equates to about $120/fortnight’, which is only slightly above my goal. The way I see it, if I can start with a solid action plan, then all that’s left is execution (which is never easy, no matter the task).

Einstein is famous for saying:

“You can’t solve your problems by using the same thinking that got you into those problems in the first place.”

Therefore, the first thing that has to change is how I think about food. I’m not planning to reach my goal by buying the cheapest thing I can see, instead, I’ll have to alter my perspective on what food actually is.

Over the past year the way I see food has already changed quite a bit. A couple of years ago I would have seen food for what it is; now I find myself looking beyond the food directly into its nutrient makeup.

In order to create the most economically efficient diet, I’ll need to know which foods contain which nutrients and then reverse engineer to create the diet. As I’m neither a dietitian or nutritionist I’ll just have to work with my instincts and hope I don’t die.

Total: $110-$27.57 = $82.43

Day 2: Diet and Nutrition

Today I went out for lunch, however, it was more of a business lunch than recreational, so I’m not going to include it in the overall costs. And I also read somewhere on Quora that spending 5% of your income taking people out to lunch is a good investment, so let’s categorise it as that.

To give you an idea of impacts, this outing cost me $17 or 15% of my overall budget. As outlined in Day-1, I’ve decided to break my fortnight down into four-day sprints, allocating $30 per sprint.

I’ve found that storing food for longer periods leads to waste, and considering Australia wastes 3.1 billion tones of food each year, or 20 billion dollars worth – I think it’s a good move.

Another thing worth considering is what I’m actually spending the $30 on, and although it’s not fast food, it’s not a great diet. I’m hoping that a side-effect of this cash diet is an increased knowledge about foods and which are high in nutrient/low in cost. Hopefully leading to an improvement in my cooking skills.

Disclaimer: I am not a dietitian or nutritionist.

The following diet is one I’ve developed over the past year, or more accurately, one that has evolved within financial and time constraints. Outlined below are the food staples that make up my diet along with nutrient content.

Regarding the nutrients, the ones mentioned below are those that account for 15% of daily intake with a serving size of 100g. Obviously, you’re not always going to eat 100g of everything, so take it with a grain of salt.

The following table is an example, and, as you can see, the nutrients noted below are above 15%; Cholesterol, Protein, Vitamin A, B-12, B-6, Magnesium.

*the accuracy of Wikipedia should also be taken with seasoning of salt.

Tuna Nutrition Facts

Food Staples:

  • John West Tuna (Cholesterol, Protein, Vitamin A, V-B12, V-B6, Magnesium)
  • Black Rice (Magnesium, Antioxidant Anthocyanin)
  • Spinach (Potassium, V-A, V-C, Iron, Mag)
  • Broccoli (V-C)
  • Avocado (Fat, Fiber, V-C, V-B6)
  • Sweet Potato (V-A)
  • Pumpkin (V-A, V-C)
  • Black Beans (Potassium, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Protein, Calcium, Iron, V-B6, Mag)
  • Lentils (Fiber, Protein, Iron)
  • Chick Peas (Potassium, Carb, Fiber, Protein, Iron, V-B6, Mag)
  • Almonds (Fat, Fiber, V-C, V-B6)
  • Brazil Nuts (Fat, Sat-Fat, Potassium, Calcium, Mag, Selenium)
  • Feta-cheese (Fat, Sat-Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Protein, Calcium, V-B12, V-B6)
  • Mushrooms (Antioxidants, Selenium, V-B2 (Riboflavin) and B3 (Niacin), V-D)
  • English Breakfast Tea (Low dose of Caffeine, Antioxidants, Flavanoids)
  • Dark Chocolate 70% (Iron, Mag, Copper, Manganese, Antioxidants; Polyphenols, Flavanols, Catechins)
  • Lemon (V-C)
  • Fruits: Banana (V-C), Mango (V-A), Orange (V-C), Cherry (V-A, V-C)

Although it may look like I’m pretty much Vegetarian, or at least Pescetarian (includes fish), I haven’t actively chosen to be either, but just find I have more energy when consuming a high plant-based diet. I still occasionally eat chicken but plan to switch to a Pescetarian diet in time.

The above foods are mixed and matched in a variety of ways in a freestyle cooking method. The diet has evolved to include anything I think I’m lacking in regards to nutrition and within the aforementioned restrictions; Time & Money.

In addition, I supplement this diet with a multivitamin that contains all the essential vitamins and minerals, and I’m planning to also start taking a magnesium supplement.

My morning breakfast consists of the following:

  • 375ml of water + a black tea
  • followed by another black tea (with lemon) and four pieces of 70% dark chocolate eaten over the course of the morning + another 375ml of water
  • finally, another 375ml of water mixed with one multivitamin

I don’t start eating solid foods until 2 p.m. which is the result of an earlier experimentation with intermittent fasting, which you can read about here. I’ve been doing this for about two months now with great benefits.

And my day wouldn’t be complete without my Tim Ferris Bedtime Tea; 2 tbs of Apple Cider Vinegar + 1 tbs of Raw Organic Honey.

Anyway, let’s see what changes or improvements can be made over the next two weeks.

Total: $83

Day 3: Water

Today I spent $8.95 on a raw organic honey for my tea. It’s terribly expensive but the value that I get out of the tea it’s used in, far outweighs its cost.

Also, the fact that this expense has come so early in the experiment is a good thing because it provides a true representation of my normal diet. Another thing to consider is that this purchase will last me for the full two weeks, so its cost is balanced over time.

Moving on, let’s get into the topic of day three: water.

Water is among the top of my lifestyle priorities and I would feel remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend you take it seriously. The effects of water are so subtle that unless you’re actively studying them, it’s likely they’ll be missed.

I grew up on a farm, and had access to a fresh water spring, so my ability to notice differences in water quality is extra sensitive. I could taste that the tap water to my house wasn’t of great quality so decided to look up the water report and found that the supply contained Chlorine, Sodium, Fluoride and other additives.

Of course, there’s a pretty well-known debate about the benefits of Fluoride for humans, and I don’t know enough about it to have a strong opinion — save to say that I think the reason for adding Fluoride to water supplies is pretty lol.

On top of this, I drink about 4–5 Teas per day and boiling water actually increases the concentration of Fluoride. Adding this to the amount water I consume, I decided to at least try and test any possible effects it was having on me.

Several months ago I began buying 10L boxes of water (@ $8.95) three times a week. It was an outrageous expense, and one that I have discontinued even though I experienced positive effects.

After three days of drinking only this water, I felt that my cognitive function increased and I felt physically healthier. I’m not about to start a campaign about this, as I think if people are interested, they’ll do their own research and spend their own money on it, which I recommend.

My personal interest in water was at an all-time high six months ago and even resulted in the creation of a podcast: The Waterlogue, which you can have a listen to it if you’re interested. There are only five episodes at this point, with more planned once I get my money right.

The cost of water (upwards of $25/week) is very difficult to justify and it’s the reason why I’ve decided to stop with buying it. As an alternative, I’m planning on buying a 20L water container to ship water from my parent’s farm to my house.

Total: $83-$8.95 = $73.48

Update: at day 7 I noticed my health deteriorating and I attribute this to my water consumption, as it’s the only major change in my diet, and have decided to start buying it again.

Day 4: Discipline and Master Decisions

I didn’t actually spend any money today, and I also went to a cafe and didn’t order or eat anything #discipline.

The strange thing about discipline is that it’s not something that you can build directly, rather, you have to take tests, and pass them, consistently. Buying a $4.50 coffee, or spending it on a jar of coffee which lasts two weeks, is a decision which could be used to grow discipline.

Life is full of choices.

Do I want to sit here and have a nice coffee in the sun, or do I want to employ some discipline and stick to a spending plan?

I’ve talked about decisions before, in this article, and the following thoughts are likely a progression of what I learned through that experience. There I talked about what I call Master Decisions; those decisions that turn off the need to make a whole serious of smaller decisions.

I also thought that in order to make these Master Decisions you first had to find them, however, this recent cafe experience has shown me otherwise, and it’s slightly counter-intuitive. You don’t actually find these decisions, you create them.

The decision to follow a Cash Diet, with a specific spending limit, was a choice that affected the outcome of any decisions which jeopardises its achievement. Building decision frameworks like this in your own life promotes simplicity and ultimately saves the precious resource of time.

Speaking of time, my replacement debit card has still not arrived, so the choice to switch to a cash diet has proven quite serendipitous.

Total: $73.48

Day 5: Run Forrest, Run!

I re-stocked my foodstuffs today, spending $22. One of the more unusual purchase decisions was to buy two Beetroots. As you can see, at first there’s no real stand out nutritional value in them:

Beetroot Nutrition Facts

So, why did I buy them?

Because I recently started running again and after reading this and similar articles, wanted to increase my Nitrate intake. In hindsight it would probably have been better value to buy the concentrated juice instead of the whole food product, however I wasn’t willing to spend the extra $3.

As a result, I’ve set myself the challenge to cook them. Part of the reason why my diet is so simple is that I’m a terrible cook. I’ve tried to cook Beetroots before by roasting them, along with Potatoes, and they just dried out and turned to charcoal…

I also bought a chicken today, which was the single most expensive thing I’ve bought, save for my honey. I’m not sure of its nutritional value, and there’s also evidence that it could cause inflammation, but the main reason for buying it was to change up the fish based protein. The thing about a high fish diet is that you have to be careful not to poison yourself with Mercury.

Another alternative is to take a protein supplement like Spirulina.

Total: $73.48-$22 = $51.48

Day 6: Bon Appétit

Today I spent $9.35 on glue, or rather food to mix meals with, including; black beans, chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans. I also bought another six cans of Tuna to give myself time in Week 2 to research protein alternatives.

The temptations of the coffee shop again presented themselves, but I made the decision in advance that I wasn’t going buy something and therefore went along purely to spend time with someone.

Today was the day of reckoning and also time to cook my Beetroots. Jumping onto YouTube, I found a video of a French chef who taught me how to roast them. Even though it’s not a full meal, one of my goals was to improve my cooking skills, so we’ll tick that off the list.

Trying to do too much can get overwhelming and usually ends in failure, which is why I’ve opted for a consistent, small improvements, approach.

Total: $51.48-$9.35 = $42.13

Day 7: Re-assessment and Initial Observations

It’s the halfway point, and I have less than half of the money to spend in order to hit my target.

Admittedly, other than a few minor changes, I haven’t drastically changed my food buying habits.

It’s time to think differently, and I’ll start by posing some questions:

  • Should I buy in bulk to save extra dollars? and,
  • Should I change where I’m buying my food?

If you review my diet, there’s nothing in particular that I can actually buy in bulk, as most of it is fresh food. The only thing I can see at this point is rice, which I’ll keep an eye out for, but it’s not like I’ll save a huge amount on it.

Where I live there are three main options where you can buy your food:

  1. Woolworth's
  2. Coles
  3. Aldi

I’m fairly sure they’re most to least expensive in that order as well. As I shop at Woolworth's, this is the most obvious area I could save some money. I’ve heard that switching to Aldi can save you 50% on your groceries, but also that the products are of a lower quality.

This is an untested, however, so I’m willing to give them a go. I suppose I could also source local food markets, but I’m not willing to commit to the time that would take.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve started to feel myself getting sick (common cold). The only thing I’ve really changed in my diet is my water source, and I have no problem directly attributing it to this negative turn of health.

Why am I so confident about this?

The reason is because it’s happened before. Six months ago I switched to Pure AU water after getting sick while drinking my tap water, and three weeks ago I stopped buying my Pure AU and switched back — primarily because it’s not something I can afford.

Water isn’t the first thing you think about when you start to get sick. It’s such a basic necessity that you just drink it without thinking and if it’s clear there’s no reason to think it’s unhealthy. However, as I’m not in the game of trusting such an automatic thought process, I plan to simply change my water back to bought and observe the results.

So what the hell does this all have to do with a Cash Diet? Well, I’m in the business of Prevention over Prescription, so this precaution outweighs the cost of buying medication if I actually do get sick.

If you yourself happen to get sick, this is the highest recommendation I can give, which costs $27. Therefore you can see that spending $8.95 on water is a better value decision when you also take into account the productivity loss while sick. Keep in mind that the $8.95 will not be an ongoing cost as I plan to buy my water container next week.

First Week Observations

So far, I would have to say that this experiment has been a success. I set out to maintain my diet (which I consider healthy-ish) and save money through conscious purchases.

Some of the positive psychological effects are as follows:

  • I’m consciously aware of exactly how much I’ve spent on food
  • My attention to value buying opportunities has increased
  • My awareness of what I need vs what I want has also increased

The most important part of a Cash-Diet is by far the spending limit you set for yourself. Everything else is then determined with that in mind and whether subsequent choices have a negative or positive effect.

Interestingly, I didn’t really consciously try to enforce the ‘spend $30 every four days’ rule. The rule itself was more-so borne out of an observation of spending habits and then just slapped on top of the technique as an additional restriction measure.

It was useless really, and created unnecessary complexity, when, in hindsight, I naturally continued spending to this limit (minus the honey).

Going into the second week, I feel comfortable but under pressure. I’ve stored up enough food to last me until Sunday I predict, although I’ll need to buy water/vitamins and some green vegetables in the next day or two.

Nothing spent today, remaining funds: $42.13

Perhaps the greatest gift that we can give to each other is a greater understanding of ourselves.

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