How Can I Stay in Budget? A Reader Asks for Help

My peep Denise posted about her budget dilemma on one of the Real Food Frugal Food posts.  Let’s see if we can help her work the budget!

Denise wrote:

What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t have a budget, and fails every time she tries to make one and stick to it? I really need help in this area.

I asked a few questions, and Denise narrowed down her problem.

…over the years as our income grew, I pretty much just stopped, and now when I try to put a figure on what my grocery shopping for the month should be…it goes out the door with my first shopping trip. I generally try to do a big trip, every 2 weeks. I usually end up in the store several times a week, and I’m always surprised when I get to check out to see the total. I think back, and I realize that I very rarely look at the price stickers, so I suppose that may have something to do with it. I am very impulsive, and if I see a new recipe, etc. that I would like to try, I do. I totally change what my menu plan is, go to the store if I don’t have the ingredients needed, etc. I do buy our meat, eggs, and a lot of our produce from a local farm and farmer’s market…and I get our milk from a Creamery that delivers to a local grocery store, so that does add up the amount I spent, but besides the food being much better for us, I am glad that I’m able to help out the local farmers, so I would hate to stop that. I do not that I could probably get grass fed beef, pastured chicken for less at The Fresh Market, but then it wouldn’t be going local.

So, she isn’t in a financial bind, but definitely wants to get more control over her food spending.  Being creative in the kitchen and buying local are very important to her – she doesn’t want to eat as cheaply as possible, but she does want to get more value for her money and not have a runaway food budget.  I think we can all relate to that!

Denise currently spends $1200-1400 a month for herself and her two teenagers (her husband is deployed).  They rarely eat out, and she likes to cook and especially to try new recipes.  (And her recipes look delicious!)

Eating minimally processed real food is important to her, and she likes to support local farmers.  Her goal is cut her spending in half so that she can sock away more money for her children’s college fund.

That’s definitely doable!  But my advice to her was not to try to cut her spending – yet.

What?  Am I nuts? No.  Food is very, very personal and not all approaches are right for every person.

I don’t know many people who could suddenly cut their food spending in half overnight, without a drastic motivator such as a job loss.  And if Denise can uncover and recognize her spending habits, she’ll have a solid foundation for her budget in the future.  Her motivation won’t just be to get to next month, but instead will be a deliberate plan.

Denise’s obstacles are not financial; that’s just a symptom.  Her actual problem is that she doesn’t have a working plan of what to buy or what to do with the ingredients she purchases, so she ends up back at the store buying more for a different recipe.  Because it’s not primarily a money issue, my advice is to seize control of her planning; we’ll work on the actual dollars later.

Let’s look more deeply into her purchasing habits.  Here are a few road blocks that might explain why none of her budgets seem to work for her.

Denise says: (emphasis mine)

my husband grew up really really poor (his words, not mine. I’m not attacking him. I love him very much and am very proud of him and all he does), and so having a lot of food in the house now is a safety net for him, so that plays into my overspending

I usually go big shopping for staples, etc. about every 2 weeks, usually on the weeks that are not military payday…as I can’t stand the crowd and lines. I would aim for about $150 a shopping trip, and I’d start out with a list and try adding things up…but along the way, I’d just blow it. It might start with one thing that we didn’t really need, but looked like someone would like it, and go from there. Before I knew it, I’d be checking out and it would be hovering around the $300 mark or so. and that wasn’t including our milk and dairy, meat, or the majority of our produce. I just don’t know where it all goes.

…if someone gives me assistance, if I have a question about an item, I feel really guilty if I don’t buy it, so I generally buy it and then anything else they show

I find new recipes and want to try them constantly, so I go buy the ingredients and then I mess up my whole menu plan and have all this extra food. That is a huge thing for me. Recipes and cook books just make me crazy…I even read them before bed. That is what happens to a lot of my grocery funds. I can’t believe that slipped my mind….today even after commenting on your blog, I found a new recipe and went out in a yucky storm to get the ingredients needed on the off chance I have time to cook it this weekend. Plus I like to bake to relax…which gets costly.

She’s had some success addressing her spending, trying out a variety of things:

I did my shopping at Farm Fresh or Harris Teeter through the internet, so that it would save me money by me not going up and down the aisles.

I am trying to use coupons a little more. The first couple of times I worked at using them, I saved a lot of money…but then I just couldn’t find the time to do it, so it fell to the side

I do try to use a list most of the time, and if I tell myself I’m only going to go by the list, when I see (or think) of something else, while I’m in the store, I write it down on the list before I take it off the shelf

So, let’s take her issues one by one.  This my opinion and my advice, so if you have a different perspective to add please leave a comment!  Both Denise and I will be reading.

First, I think she should absolutely respect her husband.  A full pantry is security, and just because you have a more mindful spending plan doesn’t mean the cupboards have to be bare.  If having food around makes her husband happy and helps her family be prepared to weather the little ups and downs in life, and if it’s not taking away from some other, more important need, then by all means keep those shelves full.  Just make sure you are mindful when you stock up, so you have food your family likes to eat.

Next, I think she definitely needs to come up with a list method that will work for her.  Lists (and menu plans) are absolutely fundamental when it comes to saving money.  Not only will she only buy food that she already has a plan for, it will keep her out of the store.

Marketing companies spend a fortune determining the best psychological tricks to get us to spend money.  They have specialists in all kinds of areas whose work is solely based on manipulating shoppers to buy more.  That’s hard to resist; staying out of the store entirely is an easy defense.  Denise already gets her meat, dairy, and produce from alternate sources including a CSA so she’s halfway there!

The real budget breakers here are unplanned purchases.  The stockman shows her a product, and she feels obligated to purchase it.  She is creative and loves to cook and bake, and new recipes inspire her.  She definitely wants to keep trying out new dishes.

Therefore, my non-negotiable is to get a list and stick with it.  But how?  By carrying next week’s list with her at the store. Right now, she’s seeing something she wants and adding it to her current shopping list, which quickly spirals out of control.

I advise her to add it to next week’s list.  Then she can accomodate those fun dishes into her meal plan, and she won’t end up with a ton of food she doesn’t know what to do with.  She can review those impulse items in a neutral environment, at her leisure.  Buy only what is on the list.

Notice I have a weekly list?  The other plan of attack is to stay out of the stores.  Go shopping once a week; if she forgets something, she’ll have to make do until the next shopping trip.

This applies to when she seeks the help of a store employee.  She can buy what they show her – but if it’s not on this week’s list, she’ll add it to next week’s list and buy it then (assuming she still wants it.)

Be inspired by cookbooks and magazines.  Be impulsive.  But be impulsive when you are at home with a pen and paper, not when you are in the cereal aisle.

Denise plans to try my list method for two weeks, and report back.

What would you say to Denise?

I love comments. Tell me what you think!

  • Kristin October 31, 2010, 2:47 am

    Maybe if you staple your receipts to your lists? It might give you another form of accountability.

  • susan credeur October 31, 2010, 8:34 am

    And an inventory for freezer/pantry–not as hard as you think. Once it’s set up all you need is a quick glance to see what’s coming up in the next few days and one quick swipe through the freezer to put things in the fridge to thaw.

    I’ve come a long way in the last 10 months. Was actually in store the other day with just 2 or 3 things in cart and all I could think of is “how do I get outta here?”. Not that long ago I would have trolled every aisle looking for deals…for hours! No mas. Freedom! I will admit the first 2 weeks were the hardest, but once I challenged myself to give it up already, it got easier each day, week, month. My next challenge is to pantry cook the two weeks before Thanksgiving and then shop ONLY 1 day for the big meal, and only spending $50. Plan, plan, plan. :-)

  • Robyn November 1, 2010, 12:11 pm

    Spices and spice blends! These are an economical way to cook delicious, creative dishes. How to do it best?

    * Find a place where you can buy them in bulk, which is an order of magnitude less expensive than buying the little jars on the shelf of the baking section. My H-E-B carries bulk spices, and when I lived in Colorado I used to buy them from a specialty store called Savory Spice Shop.

    * Invest in a cheap $10 coffee grinder and dedicate it to spices. There’s nothing like fresh-ground cinnamon (certainly not anything available on the bakery aisle!). And this way you can lightly toast whole spices before grinding.

    * If you want to make another spice-related investment, get a microplane grater for nutmeg, citrus zest, and ginger. Keep fresh ginger in a plastic bag in the freezer and grate fresh as needed. It’s cheapest at Asian supermarkets.

    * Grow a culinary herb garden. Most grow like weeds in full sun. With the exception of parsley and cilantro, fresh herbs in packages in the produce section are insanely expensive.

    This is a great way to jazz up inexpensive ingredients like chicken and rice! I got my boys to devour plain ol’ lentils and brown rice by cooking it with chicken stock and adding “poultry seasoning” (a sage-based spice blend). There are an infinite number of curries (more properly called “masalas”) that can be purchased or blended at home. Mixed herbs on whole chicken, inside whole fish, or on roasted potatoes are to die for. Etc…

  • Peggy Brister November 3, 2010, 8:14 am

    I had mentioned this blog post to my husband to show him how much some others spend on groceries compared to me, and he said she probably spends so much because she has TEENAGERS. He said he was a teenager once and he could eat 4 or 5 whole meals every day and if you mulitply that by 2 plus add another adult then you have alot of groceries to buy. If you are buying expensive local grain fed meat I can see that jacking up your bill. $15 is a lot to pay for one chicken. But organic and whole foods do cost more money. I am glad to watch your progress as Mama tries to help you cut back on the amount of money you spend. She has helpful tips I don’t always follow but know they make good sense. I am not much into meal planning so I spend more money than someone who meal plans. I have 2 young kids who like to eat 2 different things for almost every meal, so for me to try to make one thing, one meal that they will both eat is almost impossible. I keep a lot of frozen convenience food in my house so when I need a quick meal I can pop some nuggets and fries into the oven and have a meal 20 minutes later. Another quick go to meal I pop in the oven for the kids is chicken taquitos with canned refired beans. We have that about twice a month. I don’t buy very much organic and I don’t go to local farmer’s markets or meat markets. My shopping is all at Walmart and Kroger. But at first my husband would make me think that me spending $200 a week was a lot. I don’t think it is. I remember my best friend’s mom back when I was 14 (30 years ago) spending $200 a week BACK THEN ona family of 4. I can’t imagine what she spends nowadays. But I have been trying to cut back and for the last 6 weeks or so I have been only letting myself go once every 2 weeks and spend no more than $250 each trip. SO it cut my budget back to $500 per month. But last month I found I still had to go to Kroger once and it was $70.00. So it was $570.00 for October. I haven’t gone to the store yet for November. I am going Thursday afternoon. But I am going to try to keep a $500 budget for the month of November and see how well it works out.

  • Printable Coupons November 5, 2010, 11:42 pm

    making a list always works. but you have to try really hard to stick to it. i know coupons doesn’t work for others but they do on me. helps me to save…

  • Joy December 30, 2011, 10:47 pm

    I am a late reader here! Denise, I just wanted to let you know that I am SO proud of you! It’s hard to “go public” and ask for help! :) I was once a dedicated coupon shopper and did great…but 2 things have changed in that department…I have no time for the planning that goes into it AND the new TV show (that I have watched once for 10 minutes) is so absolutely ridiculous that I don’t want to be associated with those hoarders. Anyway!

    With that being said, I have gotten on a buy local kick since the end of Spring. I also joined a CSA and help my sister in her garden in exchange for some of the veggies. GREAT trade! Not to mention, I picked SO SO many buckets of grapes from her vines this summer! I got into canning/preserving again too!

    Due to some unexpected costs (one being a $2500 knee surgery for my furrybaby girl, Lisa-Marie), I must cut all parts of our budget that are humanly possible! Hence why I am surfing the money saving blogs again!

    Good luck, Denise! I would LOVE to hear an update from you!

  • Jennifer June 18, 2012, 10:20 pm

    I love the idea of adding impulse “purchases” to next week’s grocery list so I can evaluate whether I really want/need the items (and what I’m going to do with them) when I’m not in a hurry/stressed whatever.

  • Karen B April 15, 2014, 4:54 pm

    Great tips, mama. And, very thoughtful questions and lifestyle, by Denise.

    My thoughts go toward inspiration ~ if you want to make an impulsive change in the meal plan, go ahead ~ just eliminate a meal from the original plan list, if you can do that, in store. (Tough ~ which is why its being suggested to go for it next week instead.)

    And, toward health/ waste. Are you running out of room? If you can’t eat all of the stuff you are buying, it will need to be composted, thrown out or given away. If you have that much stuff in the cabinets do you feel obligated, then, to eat it all? Is that safe/ healthy/ wise? While your health is good and your body is problem free it might not seem a big deal, but, eventually it catches up with you or a loved one. (I’m feeling it.) And, habits usually form at home, so thinking of the future, there’s the possibility of planning for the long term as well. These ideas could serve as motivation to stick to a plan, that will speak to and satisfy your many layers of commitment to a happy family.


About Milehimama

Desperately thrifty mom of 10, sharing my frugal tips, easy shortcuts, recipes, and thoughts on natural living and real food.

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