Budget Smudget: Our First Grocery Budget

Hi, My name is Shawn and our family has a grocery problem.

In my head, that is how my introduction would go if I were at a self-help group for chronic grocery overspenders. You know, those meetings where the air is heavy with cigarette smoke and the guy in the back is telling himself he doesn’t need to be there because he doesn’t really have a problem.

The Realization

It has taken me years to get to this point, of admitting we overspend on groceries because we are lazy. No, not that kind of lazy. Not the kind where we binge watch Breaking Bad and eat pints of Ben and Jerry’s Carmel Core Ice Cream. I’m talking about the variety of lazy, where one takes the path of least resistance. For us, the easy path was poor meal planning and frequent trips to the grocery store that lead to a history of impulse purchases and busted budgets.

If I’m airing my dirty laundry, I might as well say,  we were overspending on groceries because we could afford to. It wasn’t a choice between food or electricity for our family. With the speed of a sloth in hot pursuit of his next meal, lifestyle inflation had crept into our lives.

Look How Far We’ve Come

She spends to forget the way we grew up and I save to prevent us from ever returning to the poverty that plagued our childhoods.

My wife and I grew up in the same socio-economic class. Poor as F***.  Don’t get me wrong. We were never homeless or starving but layaway and free school lunches were a way of life for us. Our basic personal needs were met (food, shelter, and clothing) if you include the shoes I wore in the 4th grade that made my toes visible to my teacher, Ms. Rhonde.

For my wife and I, a rural, blue-collar upbringing should have lead to similar personalities as adults, but it didn’t. She spends to forget the way we grew up and I save to prevent us from ever returning to the poverty that plagued our childhoods.

The Way We Are Were

My wife and I have never kept track of the money we spend on groceries. Well, prior to this point. If we were out of apples, we walked two blocks to our neighborhood grocery store and bought apples, andddd,  anything else that was cleverly presented on the isle endcaps.

It feels like we have tried everything. Everybody has heard of the envelope system. Right? You put cash into different envelopes representing spending categories and once the cash is gone you can’t spend any more money until the next month. It’s a hard stop. In a time of digital money and easy credit, it is a method for people to realize the well has run dry. You are out of money!

We have tried the envelope system twice in the past and failed both times. Each attempt lasted less than two weeks. We were the worst kind of budgeters.

We never seemed to have the cash (envelope) with us when we needed it. While at the store we would realize we left the cash at home or, I would be at the store and my wife would have the cash in her purse at work.

Snafu’s like these bedeviled our envelope system. With no cash on hand, we would use a debit or credit card. Days later we would remember we forgot to subtract the credit card purchase from the cash in the envelope. Ughh! I told you we were lazy.

The Budget Fix

In September my wife and I agreed to reign in our grocery budget. Not knowing how much money we had been spending on groceries prior to this point, we set a wild target $600 for the month. We would give ourselves a weekly allowance of $150. We could use a debit card, credit card or cash. Armed with lessons learned from our past failures, we knew we needed the payment flexibility to be able to succeed where we had failed with the envelope system. I kept an old-school ledger, subtracting every grocery purchase for the week. With a running tally, we knew how much we had to spend at all times. If we went over budget for the week, the money would need to be borrowed from the upcoming week.

Why Budget Groceries?

The top three most expensive budget categories for most US households.

  1. Home Mortgage
  2. Vehicles
  3. Food

Mortgage, vehicles, and food are the largest budget categories for most families in America. Our mortgage is on a 15-year fixed rate loan. Our vehicles are paid off. That leaves groceries as a prime target for our family to attack.

I have always been a pay-yourself-first kind of guy. At age 40, I have discovered most of my flaws and paying myself first, takes care of a couple of my major personality shortcomings.

Money flows from our paycheck on payday to the various savings and retirement accounts. After bills, the rest can be spent. It was my way of overcoming our lack of budget discipline.

Seizing on an opportunity to control our expenses, I jumped at the chance to create a budget for the first time in our married lives. So was born the September Food Budget.

It might be a baby step towards mindful spending, but baby financial steps are fine by me.  Big changes in your financial life are best done in small steps. Going too far to fast can cause frustration and reversion back to old ways. Stick with The Smart FI as we slowly migrate our family finances to a more deliberate spending style.

Stay tuned. In part 2 of this Grocery Budget Series, I will outline each week of grocery spending in September. I will detail the challenges we faced going from no budget to a full-on assault of our food spending. Finally,  I will announce if we were able to achieve our goal of a $600 grocery budget in September.

I am always fascinated by the dollar amount families choose to spend on their food budget. $200, $600, or $1000. Do you have a frugal kitchen budget or are you a big spender? Let me know what you spend on groceries each month in the comments.



3 thoughts on “Budget Smudget: Our First Grocery Budget

  1. We try to stay around 100 a month, but my love, nay, obsession, with food and cooking tends to get in the way. Writing about it on my blog has helped a lot, I will put things down because of the thought of admitting to it later… good luck on your challenge!

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