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  1. #1
    Long Distance Cyclist Machka's Avatar
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    Touring Food Costs

    Which is less expensive .... buying all your food in grocery stores along the way and preparing it yourself, or buying your food in a restaurant/cafe/fast food place where it is prepared for you?

    Yes, I know the "obvious" answer would be buying all your food in grocery stores, but I really question that answer.

    I have often been the one paying for the food on my tours, while my cycling partners will pay for accommodations and other things. And I've watched how the numbers add up.

    For example, when touring Australia, we could stop at a cafe and get an Australian hamburger (a massive thing with heaps of meat and veggies) and fries and a drink for about $8 each. That's $16 for a meal that could keep a cyclist going for hours! But then the next day we would go grocery shopping for our day's meal, and I'd shell out $20 for groceries. Sometimes some of it (like our granola breakfast cereal) would last a few days, but we ate most of it all in one day.

    I've observed the same sort of thing while touring/travelling here in North America too. We can stop for a decent meal of Mexican food (my favorite!) for about $5 each, or we can spend $15 in the grocery store for a meal.

    This is something I'm going to have to keep track of on my tour(s) this year.


    What have your observations been?

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    I used to try to get $20 a day for touring--- back in the 80s. Sometimes I'd stealth camp and eat canned greenbeans (3 for a buck), wash up in stream, live for 3 days on less than $20. Then it would rain and I'd hole up at a Motel 6, eat a big Mexican dinner, drink a few beers....and I'd be back to my $20 a day limit!

    It seems like now I have more money than time, so i'm pretty fat moneywise, having $200 for a 3-4 tour. Not that I spend all of it. I'm still eating Progressive Soup on sale and splurging for pancacks at some little diner.

  3. #3
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    The cheapest way is to get a friend to liberate a couple of cases of MREs from the quartermaster and eat on Uncle Sucker's dime.
    Last edited by cruentus; 02-03-07 at 03:29 PM.

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    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    Too many variables to compare. Restaurant food prices vary widely as do peoples selections at the grocery. I think you *can* eat cheaper at the grocery, but that is entirely dependent on what you buy.

    On one hand, your $8 for the Austrailian hamburger could have bought a truck load of ramen noodles. On the other you can spend a fortune in the grocery store if you choose to.

    Another thing is that in your scenario you had control over what you bought at the restaurant, but were at the mercy of group dynamics (or someone else's choices) at the grocery. When it is a group decision or someone else's decision you will get screwed more often than not. They will be willing to splurge on items that they like. These may be things that you don't like much or even eat.

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    VWVagabonds.com Losligato's Avatar
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    It depends which costs you include in the equation.

    For me the most important element is the heathfulness of the food. If I cook it, I know what's in it.

    Today hydrogenated oils abound (ramen noodles). Sugars weasel their way into things that never had sugar in them (cheap pastas, secret sauce, salad dressings).

    It is possible to save money by eating out nearly every meal, but are you saving in the end? All we have to do is look around us at those who sit down to their breakfasts, lunches and dinners with inexpensive, convenient food on their plates to find the answer.

    And for us part of traveling is discovering a new culture. Food and culture are intertwined. Some discover this from their seat in a restaurant. Others, like us, find it from strolling through the open markets then trying our best to recreate the local speciality on our own.
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    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Losligato
    It depends which costs you include in the equation.

    For me the most important element is the heathfulness of the food. If I cook it, I know what's in it.

    Today hydrogenated oils abound (ramen noodles). Sugars weasel their way into things that never had sugar in them (cheap pastas, secret sauce, salad dressings).

    It is possible to save money by eating out nearly every meal, but are you saving in the end? All we have to do is look around us at those who sit down to their breakfasts, lunches and dinners with inexpensive, convenient food on their plates to find the answer.

    And for us part of traveling is discovering a new culture. Food and culture are intertwined. Some discover this from their seat in a restaurant. Others, like us, find it from strolling through the open markets then trying our best to recreate the local speciality on our own.
    How big of a deal the healthfulness of the food is depends on the length of the trip. If you are going for months it is a bigger deal than if you are on a shorter tour. I know that I will eat stuff on tour that I would probably avoid at home.

    BTW: I really enjoy your website. (Machka's site too)

  7. #7
    Older I get, Better I was velonomad's Avatar
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    I like to cook, so cooking on tour adds to the overall experience for me. Basic foods and seasonal produce are inexpensive in most areas of North America. As long as you are willing to spend 20mins to an hour preparing food you can eat very well on $5 a day. The cost goes up quickly for semi-prepared and processed foods ( convenience foods).

  8. #8
    Senior Member savage24's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by staehpj1
    Too many variables to compare. Restaurant food prices vary widely as do peoples selections at the grocery. I think you *can* eat cheaper at the grocery, but that is entirely dependent on what you buy.
    I agree. Two individuals could track their spending and arrive at opposing answers.
    The obvious answer at home is grocery stores because I shop the sale ads, buy larger quantities, etc.
    I might track my spending this summer as well, could be interesting.
    In my experience, breakfast seems to be the most expensive meal to eat in a restaurant/cafe if you compare the cost of the same food items in a grocery store.
    Intresting question, Machka.
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  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by savage24
    I agree. Two individuals could track their spending and arrive at opposing answers.
    The obvious answer at home is grocery stores because I shop the sale ads, buy larger quantities, etc.
    I might track my spending this summer as well, could be interesting.
    In my experience, breakfast seems to be the most expensive meal to eat in a restaurant/cafe if you compare the cost of the same food items in a grocery store.
    Intresting question, Machka.

    shopping ahead of time brings up another question. To save money (shopping in bulk, coupons etc) do any of you guys do food drops ahead of the tour. I guess it would take away form the excitment to travel the route by car and pre place some food along the way. Then you have to remember wher you put it and make sure it is in a safe place from dogs, raccons, people etc. I met 2 guys hiking the other day who were out for 7 days and they stopped at a point where the road was close by and retrived thier food. it was hung in a tree. Another method used by hikers is to mail food etc ahead. On a bike you might change plans on where you want to head the next day so it might not work as well.

  10. #10
    You know you want to. Eatadonut's Avatar
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    Sounds like you eat fancy when you grocery shop. $20 worth of tuna, apples, crackers, and peanut butter should last you a few days. Man, I love peanut butter and tuna applewiches.
    Weather today: Hot. Humid. Potholes.

  11. #11
    Long Distance Cyclist Machka's Avatar
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    If it were up to me on my tours, I would NOT go for Ramen noodles (I used to eat a lot of those, but have become very sick of them in the past few months), and I probably wouldn't eat as well as I have done on my tours. I'd be somewhere in the middle.

    However, I have been floored by how much a little bit of food adds up to. I've gone through a checkout with what I thought were just a few small, relatively inexpensive items, and it has run up over $20. And I can't help but think that if we'd stopped at the Taco Time down the street, it wouldn't have cost anywhere near that amount.

    One of the things about buying food from a grocery store on a tour that increases the food costs is the fact that we generally have to buy the smaller quantities of things. In today's society, people who buy items by the dozen, or buy the jumbo size of whatever it is, are rewarded by paying a reduced amount. But cycletourists who only want a small loaf of bread, or half a dozen eggs, or the smallest size of milk on the shelf end up paying almost what other consumers pay for twice that much.

    Plus we have to take our chances on sales. You could end up paying full price for things on your entire tour. Although, on mine, I usually had some luck once or twice along the way, and got stuff for a good price.

    Plus in some areas food costs more. If you go to a grocery store in a national park, you'll pay through the nose for food. But often fast food places still charge the same for their burgers whether they are in a national park or in the middle of a city (sometimes there is a slight variation, but the prices are usually fairly consistant).

  12. #12
    Senior Member NeezyDeezy's Avatar
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    Raw almonds are great on the road - high energy, small size, and healthy

    I buy mine on the internet to save.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Machka
    And I can't help but think that if we'd stopped at the Taco Time down the street, it wouldn't have cost anywhere near that amount.

    Plus in some areas food costs more. If you go to a grocery store in a national park, you'll pay through the nose for food. But often fast food places still charge the same for their burgers whether they are in a national park or in the middle of a city (sometimes there is a slight variation, but the prices are usually fairly consistant).
    You'll be hard pressed to pay less for groceries than fast food. But do you really want to put that $#%^ in your body? I'd rather save enough money before my tour knowing that I can spend more for REAL food. After all, enjoying nice meals after long hours on the saddle is a wonderful part of touring.

    Eating fast food is like using WD-40 to lube your drivetrain; yeah, it works but you really shouldn't do it.

  14. #14
    jon bon stovie
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    just to add...

    if you are planning on cooking for yourself, and are shopping in larger grocery stores along the way, then salad bars are a great way to get vegetables on the cheap. while i would definately prefer to support local farms by shopping at farmers markets, salad bars do have few advantages. not only are they pre-cut, but they usually end up cheaper than a whole vegetable (although this does vary). case in point: a few months ago, i needed some yellow bell peppers for a meal i was making. i didn't even need a whole one, and they were going for US 3.99 each. i checked out the salad bar (which sells by weight) and was able to get what i needed for less than a buck. could be a good way to get some fresh veggies for a nutritious camp dinner.

  15. #15
    Gone, but not forgotten Shiznaz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by niknak
    Eating fast food is like using WD-40 to lube your drivetrain; yeah, it works but you really shouldn't do it.
    I always use WD-40 on my chain after I clean it to force the water and oxidization out, then I wipe it and put my chain lube on top. Are you saying I should use fast food to clean out my digestive system?

    Because thats usually what fast food does to me!


    I should mention that just because food is cheap, or 'fast food' doesn't mean it is bad. A lot of the restaurants/take-outs I go to actually have better ingredients than I normally have access to. I can't affordably buy all organic, but a restaurant can quite easily. I'm probably more likely to get all my food groups at a restaurant than buying a whole bunch of items at the supermarket. You also don't have to carry restaurant food (but you can get it to go if you like, or if there is extra).

    I'd say a healthy mix of both is best.

  16. #16
    totally louche Bekologist's Avatar
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    Good luck finding a fast food restaurant in a rural Nebraska town, Machka! Taco Time??? sure its good stuff, but you aren't going to get that chance to eat in restaurants 3 times a day for food. And if you do, you're spending a LOT of time sitting on your heinie instead of pedalling. I prefer to keep my stops for food to be brief ones.

    I do admit I like 99 cent hamburgers from the MickeyD's on tour though. not that unhealthy, adequate protein source and cheap. it can be 2-3 days before passing a Mcdonalds though. Highway 50 in Nevade you won't see a fast food restaurant for over 300 miles. a couple of burger shacks, and sit down american food restaurants, but 'healthy fast food' like a Taco Time? HA!

    I for one am not stopping for a sit-down breakfast on tour unless its a down day or really, REALLY foul weather out. The best time to be riding is in the mornings before it gets uberhot out in the summer......and likely you will be camping NOWHERE near a suitable breakie shack.


    Food in bulk can be done cheap. maybe the lack of a stove or cooking skills skews your impressions of touring food costs, Machka......
    Last edited by Bekologist; 02-05-07 at 02:54 PM.
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  17. #17
    Long Distance Cyclist Machka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bekologist
    Good luck finding a fast food restaurant in a rural Nebraska town, Machka! Taco Time??? sure its good stuff, but you aren't going to get that chance to eat in restaurants 3 times a day for food. And if you do, you're spending a LOT of time sitting on your heinie instead of pedalling. I prefer to keep my stops for food to be brief ones.

    I do admit I like 99 cent hamburgers from the MickeyD's on tour though. not that unhealthy, adequate protein source and cheap. it can be 2-3 days before passing a Mcdonalds though. Highway 50 in Nevade you won't see a fast food restaurant for over 300 miles. a couple of burger shacks, and sit down american food restaurants, but 'healthy fast food' like a Taco Time? HA!

    I for one am not stopping for a sit-down breakfast on tour unless its a down day or really, REALLY foul weather out. The best time to be riding is in the mornings before it gets uberhot out in the summer......and likely you will be camping NOWHERE near a suitable breakie shack.


    Food in bulk can be done cheap. maybe the lack of a stove or cooking skills skews your impressions of touring food costs, Machka......
    1) Having driven through Nebraska, I can't say as I have any desire to ride my bicycle through it. In fact, unless some sort of insanity takes over my brain, I can't say as I have any desire to tour in any of the "prairie" states. Where I tend to tour is generally more populated.

    2) There's a Taco Time (or Subway or KFC or Taco Bell) in just about every town of any size here in Canada (i.e. population of 2000 or more). Surely the same is true in the US!! In Australia it was the fish and chips shops, and these places with the greatest hamburgers on earth.

    3) I'm not talking about eating in fast food places 3 times a day ... I can't even imagine doing that. I'm talking about once a day ... for the meal of the day. In Australia, in Queensland where it was hot, we'd have granola for breakfast, then a massive Australian burger for lunch ... and much later in the day if we were hungry again, we might have an ice cream for supper.

    4) Remind me not to tour with you ... you remind me too much of one of my cycling partners who rode like we were riding a brevet all the time. I'm all for lingering over a long lunch (and breakfast, and supper) on tours.

    5) No, my lack of cooking skills (which, BTW, I'm quite proud of!) have nothing to do with this question. In fact, I'm not sure why you think they would. On the tours I'm thinking of my cycling partners did the cooking, and I bought the food. Sometimes (especially in Queensland) we would have our main meal in some sort of restaurant ... but most of the time they wanted to cook, and so I was forced into the position of having to buy food for a meal. It seemed to me that I was spending a lot more on that cooked meal than I was when I bought food in a restaurant.

  18. #18
    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Machka
    It seemed to me that I was spending a lot more on that cooked meal than I was when I bought food in a restaurant.
    Good chance that you are right.

    I never really compared when riding, but on sailing trips I have taken notice and find that we can cook a good bit cheaper than we eat in restaurants. Folks who make different choices may find the opposite though. I probably tend to splurge a bit more when eating in a restaurant (i.e. no fast food) and don't buy a lot of convenience type foods from the grocery.

    We buy more at a time and buy heavier stuff since the weight is no handicap on the boat, so it may be a flawed comparison to touring.

  19. #19
    totally louche Bekologist's Avatar
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    naw,Machka, i just find wasting an hour or more of prime riding time lingering over a meal pretty wasteful time management. I'm also suprised you can eat only one big meal a day.

    If you wanted to ride across either Canada or the US, Machka, you can't avoid the prairies. should I have said Man-Sac and Eastern Alberta? Riding Trans Can, either thru the Soo and Sudbury or Thunder Bay to Quebec on 11 and 117, you will NOT find fast food convienent or readily available.....

    Not being able to cook is nothing to be proud of (REALLY!), and likely colors your perception of how store bought food couldn't be more affordable than eating out while on tour.

    'lingering' over food, particularily at a restaurant, waiting on slow service while the day heats up, no thanks.
    Last edited by Bekologist; 02-05-07 at 06:51 PM.
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  20. #20
    cyclopath vik's Avatar
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    On my Dec Baja tour we didn't cook much. Maybe 4 times in 3 weeks over campfires. There are little restaurants making home cooked meals - literally its pretty much someone's home - every 30kms max. That meant we could spend our time riding and didn't have to deal with cleaning pots & dishes. I didn't mind putting my money into the local economy at all and the food was delicious. It also saved me from carrying any weight for cooking gear or food.

    I don't mind cooking. I'll do it when it makes sense, but in many parts of the world cooked food is widely available, cheap and delicious.

    If you consider the time it takes to shop for ingredients, prepare them, cook, eat and clean up I don't think it is any quicker to cook than to eat at a restaurant - especially if you make smart choices about where & when you eat.
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  21. #21
    totally louche Bekologist's Avatar
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    cooking where you wind up at night is MUCH more conveinent that riding to find a restaurant and then back to camp. once you're done riding for the day and set up at camp, it doesn't matter how much time cooking takes, but riding 20 miles to a restaurant and back to camp is an incredible waste of a lot of extra effort.

    I doubt there's a lot of pragmatic thought going into this, just internet idealism about how inconveinent it is to cook, and how expensive cooking at camp is, by someone that doesn't know how. Really being on tour, it is terribly impractical not to cook if you are camping out.

    I wonder how much the OP has really spent out there on tour, riding all day, then looking for a camping spot, setting up, hightailing it to a town for dinner and then back to camp?

    It's not very realistic and much less probable in many desirable places to tour. I sometimes camp 8-10 miles or more from a town; Who would want to ride an extra 20 miles just so as to not cook, on top of an already full day of touring?

    pshaw.
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  22. #22
    Senior Member ken cummings's Avatar
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    I am not at all surprised that prices for restruant meals and shopping for and cooking your own meals price out in the same ballpark/hockey-rink. I am currently in the commercial food business and just one of our customers buys tons of just one product a week and does not have to pay sales tax. You might buy a dozen ounces a week (hummus) and you pay the extra tax. Economies of scale. Add in labor costs of the cooks and servers and you hit break-even. On tour I eat a lot of rice and pasta with tuna fish or cheap hamburger. I recover with good balanced nutrition after it is over.
    This space open

  23. #23
    Long Distance Cyclist Machka's Avatar
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    Bekologist, I'm not sure why you are so offended by my question. I'm not stating that eating in restaurants is definitely cheaper than buying your own food, I'm just stating how it seems to me. I haven't actually done specific calculations, I'm basing my comments on perception and I'm wondering how many others have the same perception.

    Remember my comments in my very first post ... I'm the one who buys the food. I'm the one handing the money over for the food. I have a pretty good eye on my budget and a pretty good idea where it is going.

    But a few comments on what you've said:

    1) I only ever eat one big meal a day, whether on a tour or at home ... sometimes not even that. I'm a grazer ... that's what works for me.

    2) I actually have no desire to ride across either Canada or the US. Maybe one day in the far, far distant future ... or preferably as a part of something like the RAAM , but it's not on the radar right now.

    3) I've spent nearly 40 years successfully avoiding learning how to cook. It has been a challenge!! I had a grandmother who was an excellent cook and tried to teach me ... a mother who hates cooking and wanted to teach me to do it ... and ex-husband who loved cooking but wasn't good at it and therefore nearly forced me into it for survival ... and I've lived on my own for a good portion of my life. Fortunately, however, I've avoided it, and have managed to live quite comfortably without cooking. That's not to say I don't buy my own food, and don't put my own food together. I just follow my rule about no more than one recepticle, one utensil, and three ingredients.

    But I have absolutely no desire to learn to cook ... and that probably goes along with my opinions on food. I wish there was a pill we could take that would provide us with enough nutrients to make it through a day. The act of eating is generally a painful, disgusting, and unpleasant experience. It's really too bad we need food for fuel.

    I have no problem with those who want to cook ... evidently some people enjoy it! I just don't want to, and I don't find it necessary.


    4) And your last post about me cycling 20 miles back into town to eat in a restaurant is hilarious!! That's not how a cycletourist who eats in a restaurant does it!! Obviously you've never eaten in a restaurant on a tour!!

    For a month in Queensland I ate the main meal of my day in a restaurant. It was blistering hot in Queensland so we would be up somewhere between 4 and 5 am. We'd cycle till about 11 am when the day heated up, then we'd find a promising-looking restaurant, and for several hours during the heat of the day, we would linger in the restaurant, eating and resting. Much later in the afternoon, we'd continue on to the campground and eat a small, uncooked, snack before going to bed. That worked very well.

    If we wanted to eat later in the day, when we went go through the town 20 miles from the campground, we'd stop to eat, and then continue on to the campground. It's quite simple. That's how you do your grocery shopping, right? You don't find a camping spot and then ride 20 miles back into town to get groceries, do you? Well, you would apply the same principles to eating in a restaurant on a tour.

    Eating in a restaurant is also much faster than bothering with all that cooking. When I get to a campground, I want to lie back and read ... not cook. Now I've mainly travelled with cyclists who have enjoyed cooking, so for them arriving at a campground and spending the next hour cooking is their way of relaxing. I suppose if that's your thing, then go for it!! But if I were on my own, that would be the worst part of the day.

    ------------------------

    Nevertheless, my question to everyone here can be summed up as this:

    Has anyone kept detailed financial records of their trips and recorded how much they spent in a restaurant on one day, and how much they spent in a grocery store on another day?

    My perception is that the two are comparable. On my next tour, I'll have to keep track!!

  24. #24
    Long Distance Cyclist Machka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ken cummings
    I am not at all surprised that prices for restruant meals and shopping for and cooking your own meals price out in the same ballpark/hockey-rink. I am currently in the commercial food business and just one of our customers buys tons of just one product a week and does not have to pay sales tax. You might buy a dozen ounces a week (hummus) and you pay the extra tax. Economies of scale. Add in labor costs of the cooks and servers and you hit break-even. On tour I eat a lot of rice and pasta with tuna fish or cheap hamburger. I recover with good balanced nutrition after it is over.

    Exactly!! And the thing is, as a cycle tourist, we can't be buying stuff in bulk because it weighs too much to cart around. As many of us of mentioned here, and elsewhere, we cyclists are restricted to "single serving" sizes because we generally don't want to carry more than a day or two worth of food around with us.

    Unfortunately for us, consumers are rewarded for buying massive quantities of food, etc., and penalized for buying small quantities.

    As an example, a packet of 48 slices of processed cheese might be $5, 24 slices might be $3 ... but since we've only got room for 12 slices, we might have to pay $2 for that packet. So by the time we have gone through 48 slices we will have paid $8.

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    On a purely economic basis, Machka, one thing about your arrangement on lodging and food is that it isn't designed to reduce cost. It's like an office lunch where everyone orders the most expensive thing on the menu in order not to get caught with a 30 dollar bill for a cheese sandwich. If you split all bills down the middle or didn't split things like food bills unless you are splitting with someone of equal appetite, then you would have a cheaper model.

    I'm sure you are right about the cost of food being cheaper, at times, in restaurants. A lot of the "grocery" stores around here sell about 1/3rd restaurant menu, 1/3rd prepared foods like President's Choice rack of lamb in a box, and 1/3rd staples. It is pretty easy to blow your brains out at one of those places, let alone the palaces in Quebec.

    If a person wants to cook porridge with oats from the Bulk Barn, think of it as the Scottish luxury equivalent to tortias, then economy is possible. However, a I find the grocery stores are an affordable luxury for me.

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