On a sunny August afternoon, 14 years ago, I married my friend and life partner. My wife and I have been able to accomplish many financial goals in a fortnight of years: buy a house, raise two children, and save for college. But, almost a decade and a half later, we have never been able to successfully establish a grocery budget.
Did you miss part one of the Grocery Budget Series? Go read it here.
One time, we tried to keep track of our grocery spending just to have some idea of what our monthly grocery outlay was. But even that ended in missing receipts and moderate vocal range arguments. It has always been a grocery free for all in our family.
Frequent trips to the store and poor meal planning have plagued our attempts at reigning in our grocery spending. For a period of 6 years, when our two sons were infants and toddlers, my wife quit her job to stay at home.
When my wife chose to be a stay at home mom, we eliminated the cost of childcare but cut our income in half. There is always a rub, right? Even in those lean years of living off of one income, we couldn’t make budgeting work.
Our failure points
Why did we fail all those years to establish a grocery budget?
- A lack of discipline
- Special diets
The friction of keeping track of a budget was too difficult. Let’s just say that my wife did not really think we needed a grocery budget. She did not want to be bothered with the added work of a spreadsheet or a cash envelope system.
We lacked discipline, to the extent that we failed to keep track of our spending. Even when we tried a cash envelope system, we would forget to bring the cash or misplacing the receipt. Frequently I would have the cash in my wallet and my wife would be at the store.
I was lazy. Like everyone in this digital age, our paycheck is direct deposited. On payday, I would have to go to the ATM and take out cash to fill budget envelopes. I kept this routine up for a month before it fell apart.
A food budget, like any other spending, can be subject to personal preference or dietary considerations. Special Diets like organic, vegan, paleo, gluten-free can drastically affect the price of food. The type of foods you want or need to eat affect what you spend on food.
My wife has been on a vegan diet for several months. While the cost of vegan food is not drastically more expensive, it does create situations where we have to cook two dinners because the children and I didn’t want to eat vegan food.
The Smart Fi Grocery Budget Plan
At the end of August, the stars aligned and I seized upon an opportunity to institute a grocery budget. My wife wanted to save money for a trip to run the Chicago Marathon.
I knew this would be my chance to cash flow her marathon trip by cutting expenses. We would need to cut down on expenses for a couple months to get close to covering the cost for her trip (we travel hacked her airplane tickets).
- For the second time this year, we had a 30 day Starbucks ban.
- A strict $150 per week grocery budget.
- 1 restaurant dinner per month
The big 3 budget categories are home/rent, auto, and food.
Our mortgage is a fixed monthly cost. Our cars have been paid in full. This leaves our food/eating out spending to bear the brunt of our expense cutting.
Where to Start?
All budgets need a beginning and for our food budget, the beginning was figuring out how much we should spend on food. I fired up the Google machine to see what a family of 4 should spend on food.
According to the USDA Food Plan Report of August 2018, there is a range of approximately $150 to $300 depending on food preferences. At $300 per week the liberal food plan would allow far more fruits and vegetable along with fish and meat. The thrifty plan, at $150, would be more beans and rice, scratch cooking type of food.
The Grocery Budget Begins
Armed with data from the USDA, I set a low bar, $150 weekly food budget. Well, honestly, I tried to shake my wife down to $125, but she held fast at $150. I thought this was a reasonable compromise, especially since at the time, I didn’t know if we were spending $50 or $500 per week on groceries.
We structured our grocery budget on a weekly basis. We have found that smaller periods of time are easier to control. Running out of money on Friday means you might need a couple of spending free days to get you to the next week.
Whereas if you set a plan to spend $600 per month and you run out of money in the middle of the month, you are in real trouble of busting your budget.
When we broke up $600 into $150 weekly amounts, we found controlling our spending became far easier.
Week 1 looked like this.
I went old-school to track our grocery expenses. No spreadsheets or computers, just the back of an empty junk mail envelope.
My wife purchases most of our groceries. She would bring the receipt(s) home and I would record the expenses, and calculate the remaining dollar amount left to be spent for that week. If she misplaced the receipt I would look at our online banking website to piece together what she had spent.
The Conclusion of the Grocery Budget
The system wasn’t perfect but it worked like it was intended. Shorter spending intervals and an awareness of grocery money helped us to stay under budget. We stuck to the plan and we spent less than $600 per month on food for 2 consecutive months. According to the USDA that meant we had a kick as grocery budget because we spent less than their most frugal meal plan.
The grocery budget, ledger routine, went on for 8 weeks before my wife asked if we could stop. I obliged and here’s why.
We abandoned our grocery budget because we had succeeded in our original goal. We had felt the pinch that only a strict budget can provide.
The mental exercise of mindful spending, lasted two months and I call that a success. On several occasions, I recall, our spending on food items being curtailed because we were out of money or running low. This was especially true of treats for our kids.
To the dismay of my temperamental 9-year-old, ice cream is a nonessential grocery item. We frequently substituted cheaper off brand food or postponed food purchases altogether, to stay under budget.
In the end, we survived. We didn’t starve. For that matter, we didn’t even lose weight, which I would have taken as a sure sign of success. We did, however, add one more tool to our arsenal of deliberate living.
With the conclusion of our official grocery budget, I believe our grocery spending will increase because you can’t keep track of what you don’t count. However, there were several key lessons that we plan to take forward even if we leave the strict budgeting behind.
3 key lessons learned from 60 days of strict grocery budgeting
- Use budgeting software to keep overwatch of you spending
- Meal prepping is a godsend
- Reducing food waste is good for your wallet and the planet.
I have started using (or at least paying attention to) my Mint account to keep track of weekly spending. Mint® budgeting software does a fair job of keeping track of spending categories. Occasionally fuel purchases will show up as groceries, but with a little human oversight, I can fix those minor errors. If we get too far off the grocery spending rails, I will know because of Mint.
Reducing food waste and meal prepping, were two skills we learned to love during our 60 days of the strict grocery budgeting. I will admit I have an unusual schedule as a nurse. I work 68 hours in one week and have the next week off.
I would focus on preparing 3-4 meals before I started my week of work. The relief of knowing I had a healthy home cooked meal for my work dinner was both stress relieving and money saving. Making meals in assembly-line fashion also cut down on food waste.
We still occasionally find a moldy block of cheese tucked away in the dark recesses of the refrigerator but using a fridge clean out meal was another trick
we I used to cut down on food waste. Fried rice and stew/soup were my go-to fridge clean out meals. You can literally put anything into these two meals. Pairing a fridge clean out meal with food preparation for the work week ahead was a double score.
Reducing food waste and meal prep will pay dividends in the future because this is a routine we both enjoyed and will continue to use even without a strict grocery budget.
There you have it all the lessons our family learned from 60 days of food budgeting, from a self-proclaimed budgeting flunkie. If you liked this article, do me a favor and share it on your favorite social media platform.
Do you have a grocery budget in your house? Is your system better than ours? Leave a comment and let me know how you make it work.