Like so many dieters and disordered eaters, I’ve had a long and twisted relationship with food. When I had a bad day, I’d comfort myself with eating. When I did something good, I’d reward myself with a treat. On my worst days, I’d plan a binge as a reward for surviving another week and drop $25 on food I’d gulp down in five minutes.
Now I recognize that the notion of “rewards” and “treats” was part of the illness and keeping me sick. It may provide a fleeting illusion of control, but in reality, it gives more power to food, and leaves you feeling powerless.
Since my six-month reset, I’ve been able to be so much more clear-headed about food, and my beloved budget has been an unexpected partner in my recovery. See, I love saving money. I love getting a good deal at the grocery store, stretching a budget, and challenging myself to save a little more this month than I did the last. And this trait has been amazingly useful in helping me redefine my relationship with food. I feel the difference in all the situations that used to feel so triggering and stressful to my food issues, like food shopping, ordering from a restaurant or standing alone in the kitchen trying not to binge. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
At the grocery
A treat is a non-necessity — something that you don’t *really* need. And in my disordered days, I defined that as pretty much anything beyond iceberg lettuce. Grocery shopping was agonizing because everything felt off limits and morally bad. Today, I no longer buy into diet culture’s message that food has moral goodness or badness, but I still debate whether or not to get myself “treats” at the grocery store. That’s because my definition of “treat” has totally changed from nutritional to financial. Let’s use a chocolate bar for an example. A $4 chocolate bar would qualify as a treat, not because I think it is a “bad” food, but because it is a non-necessity expense that makes my grocery spending add up in the long run. If I’m on the fence about whether to buy the chocolate bar or not, I’ll do a quick cost-benefit analysis in my head about how much it costs vs. how much I want it. But no matter where I end up, the decision has no bearing on my worthiness to take up space in this world.
Let’s say you buy the $4 chocolate bar. When you finish that bar of chocolate you bought, you have to buy more. Duh, right? But in my disordered days, I viewed a bar of chocolate as something to battle with. The sooner I ate it all, the sooner it would go away and I could stop obsessing about it! But now I view food and groceries in a totally different way. Whatever I don’t eat now is a gift to my future self. Even if there are only two squares of chocolate left, Future Me is going to be so excited to have them when she’s in the mood. And by extending the life of a $4 chocolate bar, I’ve made my grocery budget happier too. Instead of wishing that all the delicious foods in my kitchen would disappear, I feel motivated to truly, fully enjoy them, and sometimes that has the added benefit of making them last a little longer.
At a restaurant
I used to feel so stressed looking at a restaurant menu. Should I be “good”? Should I “indulge”? These days, I get whatever sounds good to me in the moment, and I often look at it from a budgeting perspective. In my diet days, I might fall for one of those completely ridiculous menu items clearly designed for anxious dieters — like a crappy fruit bowl for like $6. That probably wouldn’t be what I really wanted, and the price point is absurd for the food that you get.
Nowadays, I will pick something off the menu that sounds good, seems like a good value for the money, and might travel well if I have leftovers. For example, if there’s a mac and cheese entree, I know it is is going to be rich, which means it’ll be filling. My body will tell me when it’s satisfied, and the leftovers can come home with me. Present Me is happy, because I got exactly what I was in the mood for and ate until I was satisfied. Future Me is happy, because she gets to enjoy the flavors all over again for another meal and that wonderful little thrill of not having to cook. And my budget is happy too — that’s two meals for the price of one!
I think what it all boils down to isn’t about budgets, really, but about having something to believe in beyond diets. When diet culture defines your life, it seeps into every crevice of your existence — like those countless little inconsequential thoughts throughout the days and years that add up to a worldview. “Should I buy this?” “What should I order?” There are a zillion different possible meanings to any given “should,” and I need to be mindful about how my brain is filling in those blanks. For me, my love of budgeting was the life preserver I needed to escape a dangerous realm that I was drowning in. What will yours be?