In 2012, I determined that we were spending over $900 a month on food. ON FOOD. I can’t… I don’t even…. WHAT?! How was that even possible?! To be honest, I still don’t know, other than the fact that we were ordering out quite a bit. (Pizza delivery is still our downfall.) So we fixed that. In January 2013, we budgeted down to $700. (I know better than to try to make a drastic change immediately!) Now we’re down to a budget of $450 a month (though we do go over that, depending on the month). I know other people can feed a 1,974,723 people on $2.50 a month, but I’m just proud that we cut it down to basically half of what we WERE spending. No wonder we were spending more than we were taking in.
Some people use that time-honored method of cash in envelopes. I personally am a proponent of trying different methods until you find one that works for you (well, if they don’t work, I think it would be pretty pointless to punish yourself trying to make it happen, so I guess I’m not a novel thinker in this area). I’m not an envelope girl, because I simply don’t care to handle paper money. It’s a lot less convenient to me to have to go to the ATM and withdraw cash. So we didn’t even try that method. Here’s what we did, do, though.
Methods We Tried:
Someone I worked with a few years ago uses a method wherein you establish how much a family can afford to spend monthly on food and other necessities. Then they add in a small amount for “fun” things. That total is then divided by the number of days in the month. I think this particular friend told me that their amount was something like $8.50 a day per person, or $17 a day for the family. (That comes to $527 a month, for the mathematically-challenged.) They used a Google calendar to keep track of it. If one person used $100 at the grocery store, that would take up that day’s allotment of funds, as well as almost 5 other days. Or you could save up your days (some people call them “no-spend days”) and use the funds you had saved up, or a combination thereof, of course.
I love me some Google apps. However, this was too nit-picky to keep up with. I had trouble tracking receipts, knowing what H was spending, and it felt like micro-managing. It was more energy than I cared to spend, and I knew that it would be impossible for us to maintain.
One big grocery trip a month
Some online personalities and blogs have demonstrated success with this (I might be thinking of younghouselove.com?), citing positive factors like 1) one is less likely to make impulse purchases when doing a large shopping trip with a long list, 2) one saves gas because there is only one trip to the store a month, and 3) I’m sure there are other benefits, I just can’t remember them.
We have a membership to Sam’s Club (wish we had a Costco nearby), and while you can’t get everything there, it’s certainly a draw for The Big Grocery Shopping Outing, if we’re actually doing a big one. On the other hand, blowing our food budget on one trip is incredibly daunting to me, and it feels very restrictive. In order to do a trip like that properly, you really need to be the kind of person who is planning out weeks of meals in advance. I am not one of those people. (Surprise!) I feel anxious when I have to sit down and plan a week’s worth of meals (“What if H is staying out at work late one night and won’t even be home?” “What if the lettuce goes bad before I can use it?” “Is Book Club this week? Am I even going to be here Thursday?” “How many days can we force ourselves to eat chili leftovers?” “Is there anything in the freezer we can thaw?”). Planning for a whole month was too much. And I would forget what we had purchased. And if we went to Sam’s, we were spending a lot more money than I wanted to, because nothing seems to be under $15 because you’re buying in bulk.
Now we go to Sam’s once every couple of months to replace any paper goods and get a few specific things that are worth it to us to buy there rather than somewhere else.
(Honestly, we were considering switching to using Amazon Prime to purchase household items, but I haven’t yet taken the time to do price comparisons, which would have to include the cost of our membership and our savings on gas. I don’t enjoy supporting Sam’s Club/Walmart – in fact, we never shop at Walmart if we can help it – but I just haven’t determined yet whether it’s worth it to us to make the switch.)
Coupons / Grocery Circulars
You know. For people who have time.
Okay, so obviously we don’t do this. HOWEVER, I am a member of SavingStar (the app) and I do like that. You tie your grocery store account to the program, and the app tells you about current coupons available on certain products. You determine which coupons you want to activate (as many as you want), and then you just shop as usual and swipe your grocery card at checkout. The app keeps track of the savings, and when you reach $5 you can cash out in PayPal or Amazon or …. whatever. It’s not a bad little thing, especially if the items are something you’d buy anyway. Sure beats clipping coupons.
I mean, c’mon. Who really has time for that?
Okay, obviously I could make time for that, but I don’t. I want to spend time doing other things.
The Method that Currently Works For Us:
Honestly, once I realized that we were spending an astronomical amount of money on eating, our food bill immediately lowered. I stopped buying the extra things that weren’t on the list, and I started experimenting with store brand products instead of the name brands I was used to using. I can’t give you a concrete number on this, but I would guess that this one difference (awareness) lowered our grocery bills by at least 15%. We also became more aware of how often we were eating out; we had always eaten out pretty regularly before we had a baby and we had kept on feeling like eating out was just something that normal people did, so we had never really considered not doing so. After having our epiphany about our food bill, we just cut down on the number of times we went out to eat. (Dining out with a young child wasn’t all that convenient for us, anyway.) For a while, just making those two changes did make a difference, but then I decided we needed to do more.
$100 grocery trips once a week
Once we took a hatchet to our grocery spending and cut it in half by setting a budget of $450, we knew we needed to make some adjustments to our eating habits. What we did:
1) We planned more meals
2) We planned meals with less meat
3) We bought fewer “treats”
4) We started buying frozen burritos for lunch (Stop laughing.)
But it wasn’t until Trader Joe’s opened up in our neighborhood that I was able to really get down to business. I know some people don’t like grocery shopping – and neither did I. I knew I loved Trader Joe’s, though. I ENJOY going there and spending time in the store. I love discovering new things, even if I don’t buy anything. Taking 4 grocery trips a month would probably not work for many people, because it’s time-consuming and probably a pretty unpleasant way to spend an hour.
But, again, I love Trader Joe’s. The first week it was open, I was there on Saturday morning (not opening day) at 8 am to beat the traffic and crowds. I got a great parking spot and was able to walk right in, without fighting through the throngs who are normally there in the afternoons and evenings (weekdays and weekends, no difference!). Then I get my shopping done and put away by 9:30 am, and I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
The tempeh is a great price (cheap wine), they have great frozen vegetarian burritos for less than half the price of other supermarkets (cheap wine), there’s great organic yogurt (cheap wine), I love their almond butter (cheap wine), and their organic milk is a good price (cheap wine). I wish they had dried beans, but you can’t have everything you want (have you heard about their cheap wine?).
Okay, honestly, I think a huge part of our food spending was on wine. We’re not big hard-alcohol drinkers, but I do love a glass of wine before/during/after dinner, and buying wine at the grocery store was our MO. Now that TJ’s is here, I don’t feel bad about picking up three bottles of wine at $3 each. Yes, I drink the 3 Buck Chuck. Go ahead and judge.
Knowing that I have only $100 to spend also makes my life easy. I have gotten much better at estimating the cost of things in my shopping cart. No, I don’t add it up on the calculator (I do know people who do that, by the way). The main reason I don’t: I already feel silly looking at my smartphone as I walk around the store. (It’s where I keep my shopping list, of course!) I don’t want to spend even more time looking at the tiny screen. TJ’s is kind of tiny – I’m bound to bump into someone some day anyway.
The first two weeks I was a little over $100. The second two weeks I was a little under. It all evens out.
If you’re a noticing kind of person (and I bet you are), you probably noticed that our budget for food is now $450 a month, but there are usually around 4 weeks in a month. I padded the budget with that $50 because I knew sometimes we’d go over and sometimes we’d need to give ourselves a treat. Either going out once a month, or, more likely, ordering in pizza. We always feel guilty ordering in pizza (man, there are so many things wrong with it – Papa John’s supports causes that we don’t support, pizza is bad for you, and it usually isn’t a good value), but then we keep racking up “pizza points” or whatever they are, and then we get a FREE PIZZA and we’re all like FREE PIZZA YOU CAN’T TURN THAT DOWN.
In any case, we usually manage to stay right around $450-$500 a month, as long as we’re not hosting Thanksgiving (uh, November 2013) or Christmas (uh, December 2013). Oops. The other times when we go over are when H goes on work-related trips and eats out. When he does, he always tries to eat as cheaply as possible, because we’re never sure if he’ll be reimbursed for that trip’s costs. Sometimes he is, sometimes he isn’t. (Either way, I see the transactions on Mint.com and it drives me nuts when we’re over-budget, although I know we really can’t help it).
So far, the $100/week food budget seems to work for us. However, I do have an open mind, and I know if our situation changes (like, we move to a place without a Trader Joe’s and I can’t stand grocery shopping anymore), we might need to change our methods.
Apply sometime soon for that AmEx card that would give us 6% back at grocery stores….
What other food budgeting methods did I miss? What works for you?