Sticking to a Grocery Budget Even If You Feel Like You Might Die of Starvation

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been experimenting with a grocery budget—something I’ve never done. I know, gasp. It seems the first recommendation of any card carrying money-conscious person is to know where your money goes and establish a budget. Up until now, I’ve blithely ignored that advice.

That was until I received my American Express bill, which was, ahem, very high. When a cursory scan did not give me any insight, I broke out the calculator, paper, and pen. I involved a handful of Hershey’s Kisses and then I set up shop at the kitchen table.

After 15 minutes, the culprit, Groceries, rang in at over $1,000.00. Whoa. Really I could not remember buying anything with 14 carat gold on it, so I immediately rolled more chocolate munitions onto the table and contemplated a cup of coffee even though it was after 4pm. No matter how I tried to untangle the numbers they still sat there, like the lumps of curvy lines that they are, and stared blankly at me. Unmoving. Literally unmoving, because I now had to go online and pay that huge bill.

So, after walking out of Ralph’s a couple of days later, I decided that the trick may be in the credit card itself. Meaning, American Express pays 6% on groceries for up to $6,000.00 per year. This was the reason I applied for this card—I mean, what card can beat that? There is a caveat, however. Once you spend $6,000.00, you only get 1% back, not 6% anymore. I wondered if we could aim this low: $6,000 a year? This boils down to $500.00 per month. Or $16.44 cents per day for groceries.

I asked the kids if they thought we could stick to a budget of $15.00 per day (just to err on the safe side). Surprisingly, they were very agreeable, even calculating what they thought the daily amount would be in their heads.

It was a Full Send as my son calls it.

Since that day I’ve been operating on $15 a day and there are a couple of things I’ve learned since taking on this project.

You Will Get Sick of It

Of trust me, unless you are basically anorexic at heart, you will get very tired of the whole thing. The mental calculation, the fussbudgityness, the angst. You will get hungry while in the store and you may salivate when you run into your neighbor and she mentions donuts, or crackers, or split pea soup. You’ll wonder if you can subsist on $15.00 a day (or whatever amount you decide), you’ll think you will starve to death, and you’ll wonder if this is good for your kids, or husband, or pets. At 4:00 p.m., after a long day and a missed lunch, you will want to give up.

This is NOT the Time to Give Up

This is the moment when you must rally and come up with something healthy that is inexpensive. And it will be DIFFICULT. I couldn’t believe how long it took me to come up with tuna sandwiches as a lunch! Not to mention that I didn’t even need to buy tuna because we already had it—and everything else that a tuna sandwich requires.

In order to achieve this budget, you will need to get off of autopilot and really think about what you are doing. You’ll have to decide how to cook that head of broccoli and use it. Otherwise, it will go bad and now, on this low budget, you will kick yourself, and probably run in for a box of Marie Callendar’s pot pies and a whole load of things you don’t need and blow the whole experiment.

Make a Game of It

The best approach that I can see so far is to make a game of the whole endeavor. A game has special cards. In this game, they are called coupons. Coupons are interesting because even though they have dates on them and other things like specific foods, you can sometimes get a friendly cashier to credit you the $1.00 off anyway. Not unlike Poker, the savvy cashier can ”read” you. In fact, just last week I had the cashier change my coupons on two separate occasions—this has never happened to me before, but they must have Desperation Radar or hidden antennae or something. It was uncanny. Also, don’t forget online coupons and newspaper inserts. Most of all, don’t forget that like any game you will not be so good in the beginning, but you will get better.

Accept Free Food

Free food is free! If you are brave, you’ll dumpster dive. I’m too self-conscious for that, but I will take free food that is given at thrift stores and free piles (we have one at the end of our street that has a big shelf and the leftover Foodbank food is left there). I will also figure out a way to handle 11 cupcakes from my neighbor who only wanted to bake them and eat one. That’s no problem.

While You’re at it Don’t Sacrifice Nutrition

Okay, nothing to add to that except that this may be hard if you skip breakfast and have a tiny lunch like I did last Monday, you may find yourself in the candy aisle of the store and decide that you have to buy a pack of individually wrapped Recess Peanut Butter Cups for $1.99.  Yeah. Don’t do that. Or do. I still stuck to the Budget so it was fine.

Don’t Go Ahead

This is the most practical tip and essential. Do not use your next day’s money. You can’t borrow into the future. Now, for example, if I spend $10.00 today, then I save $5.00. In that case, I can use that $5.00 tomorrow or anytime after. But, I can’t spend $20.00 today in the hopes that I’ll only spend $10.00 tomorrow. Somehow that never works.

On a final note, I’d say that this experiment is only for one month for my family. So far, I can see that realistically, there are some real hurdles to spending so little for a family of four hungry people. Nevertheless, it is a handy discipline to spend as little as you can for one whole month. At the end of this month, I hope to have a better sense of where we fit in on a regular basis. Right now, I expect to forge on and challenge myself to get better at organizing our meals.

Let me know your thoughts!











Our Grand Budget Experiment

I’m more of a skinflint than a spendthrift when it comes to food, but I’ll pick organic over the regular fare and the expensive cheese has found its way into my cart more than once. The fact is that I’m pretty frugal naturally so I don’t usually think that I need to count every penny. Meaning: I don’t follow a budget nor do I track my spending.

My last American Express bill may have changed my mind. Let’s say the bill was high enough to be persuasive.

I could go off on a real tangent on how much I love my American Express card. I love the dark blue color of it. I love the sleek richness of it. Best of all, I love that it gives me 6% on groceries up until I spend $6,000.00 and thereafter it gives me 1%. The phenomenal grocery rewards are what prompted me to apply for the card in the first place. I know that nothing beats not spending, but that 6% sure seems close.

The problem with credit cards is that they are so great that you want to use them. The bottom line though is that while I get $6.00 for every hundred I spend on groceries, I would get $94.00 more if I didn’t spend that $100.00 in the first place—a fact that often alludes us when we’re at the grocery store and that $100.00 is only $1.00 or even $10.00.

When my December bill showed up I suspected that I’d been gaming more for points than reining in my spending. The bill was an exorbitant $2,300. Not all of the charges were grocery-related, in fact, there were a couple of big dollar amounts that fell under medical and home repairs.

Still, this was the highest bill I’ve had so far with American Express in the year and a half that I’ve had it. I decided on the spot to dissect the charges and saw that over $1,000.00 was spent on groceries—this included everything from toilet paper to dog food. Nevertheless, I was shocked.

Informing my opinion was an offhand comment that a coworker had said in passing a couple of months ago. She mentioned that she and her husband, along with two grown sons, kept to a strict grocery budget of $800.00 per month.

The details of that comment have stayed with me ever since.

Underneath I knew that I did not have control over my spending. Without some budget or defining amount, spending becomes a free-for-all. While I wasn’t driving us into the poorhouse, I didn’t have a real boundary for my spending.

Up until now I didn’t think it mattered.

But, then I thought, what if we could halve our spending? What if we could spend $500.00 per month—a reasonable sum—and stash that other $500.00 into our growing investment accounts?

I did the math and figured that I could spend around $15.00 per day on groceries. I ran the idea past my kids to see what they thought about that. While I knew we could switch gears and spend more, I didn’t want them to feel deprived. I wanted them to be in on the exercise so that they didn’t just hear a repetitive ‘no’ when they asked for something. Amazingly, they were on board. How weird is it that creating a boundary makes shopping into a game?

Just to be clear, my husband and I have separate checking accounts and so I did not include him because he will often purchase items for himself separately based on his work schedule—he is a commercial fisherman and he often has to take dinner with him or eat out when he is not home. Still, after a couple of days of hearing our excitement, he started to get on board.

The first day of our ‘experiment’ was Monday, just two days before Christmas. Ironically, we were able to grab free bread, apples, bagels, and even a whole, unopened cake from someone who regularly puts out leftover food from the Food Bank on a shelf underneath a set of mailboxes at the furthest end of our street. Let me repeat, this is all fully packaged food that no one took at the Food Bank. She was so eager to give it away that we felt we were doing her a favor!

My husband is still going on about how great that bread is—two long french bread loaves in an unopened package. According to him you just have to head the bread up a bit and it ”comes back to life.”

I’m considering our experiment a warmup for the real thing in January, but here are our expenditures so far this week:

Monday 12/23: $15.69 Ralphs: Where It All Began. We walked out while doing the math and simultaneously reading our receipt. This is when we settled on $15.00 per day.

Tuesday 2/24: $15.64 Annoyingly close but a good ‘beginner’s start.’

Wednesday 12/25: -0- Christmas Day

Thursday 12/26: Albertson’s Shocking Win— $15.00 on the nose.

Friday 12/27: $12.94 I forgot the tomato and laundry detergent—should I count laundry detergent? Beset by Indecision.

So far, it’s only been a week, but a few notable truths have emerged:

  • I feel like I have a lot more food to eat. Completely surprised at this, but if you have to eat what you have in your house, your focus becomes, ‘what’s in the back of the refrigerator?’ or ‘dang, there’s still potato and steak left in there!’ Sometimes, it’s a bit darker, like, ‘how old is that cottage cheese, how long does cottage cheese last, and how sick will I get if I go for it?’ Suddenly you stop thinking about the larger possibilities of going to buy a bunch of stuff that will last a week. You shift from, ‘oh, I need all of these items to make this recipe’ to ‘Yep, I’ll skip those two things and make it anyway.’ As a secondary bonus you don’t have to sift through rotten food that you couldn’t find because your refrigerator was too full or you ate that large bag of M & M’s instead of using up the sandwich meat.
  • Along those same lines, meals are so much easier. We eat to live and not the other way around. We still have treats—remember the cake? Plus, Tuesday was our day to get ice cream at Ralphs and I decided to get the Kroger Drumsticks (ice cream) instead of the other better brand because Kroger was cheaper. That night we all pretended that we were fine with it, but I had to be picky and say it—-they sucked. Rather than return them—because that’s just embarrassing—we gave a box to the neighbor kid who’s always hounding us for Drumsticks. We have not heard any complaints from next door.
  • I’ve done a reversal on the mentality that tells you to shop once a week—something that I could never get the hang of. I’ll call it more of a European style of shopping where you shop daily and make a meal out of what you have rather than plan a complicated meal that, in my case anyway, never really panned out. My kids are on Christmas break at the moment and we have free days so it’s pretty easy to maintain this schedule now, but if I’m honest, I was always finding an excuse to run to the store during the week—almost daily—anyway.
  • We are eating healthier. Less spending means I’ve cut out prepackaged foods and replaced that junk with filling, nutritious foods (except the ice cream which we eat for dessert each night). The basics, such as apples, bananas, tuna, salad, eggs, milk, and cereal weigh in heavily here. I was buying the kids Cliff bars for school and now I’m going to have to come up with an alternative because they are just not budget friendly. Overshadowing this is the more important point that they are not a good choice in many ways. Individually wrapped (not environmentally friendly), lots of sugar (17-22 grams per bar), and filling so that healthier lunch items are less appealing (oh, that’s why the rest of the lunch is not eaten!) Besides which, my 13-year-old son was eating 2-3 of them a day no matter how much I tried to keep him to one.
  • Probably the most obvious is that we have a lot more space—and a lot less food waste. Even our kitchen counters seem more clean and open. We’re going through boxed food like macaroni and cheese and finally, eating it. We may not always love each meal ( I made a horrendous first spaghetti dinner with tomato paste that was so bad we almost gave up our experiment on the spot).

Thanks for reading and let me know how and if you budget, how much you spend, and your tips and ideas!





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