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!











Why it’s Important that Your Money makes Money

One of the most important financial lessons I’ve learned thus far is that allowing your money to sit idle is the absolute worst mistake you can make. The reason for this can be summed up in one single word: inflation.

Inflation is the inevitable process where prices continue to rise, while the value of the dollar becomes less.

According to, the average price of a new car in 1970 was just over $3,500.00. A gallon of gas was 36 cents. (Shocking, right!)

While your dollar is shrinking almost across the board, it’s important to fight against inflation by keeping your money in accounts that actually earn interest.

I learned this the hard way when I realized that a good chunk of my own money—money I’d saved for years— was stuck in a CD that had a horrible interest rate. I’d kept this money in the CD, allowing it to continually reinvest. Each year I’d get a reminder letter —-something I should have read and paid attention to, and each year I missed the deadline to take it out and put it into something decent. I even had my kid’s money invested in them!

And then, one day, I WOKE UP.

I’ll be honest, it was really as if I’d just woken up—like Sleeping Beauty but Older and Less Beautiful. Definitely more tired and a little bit pissed, because I was making a 1/4 of a percent on my CD!

The amount was so low that when I walked into the bank and asked to take all of our CD’s out and put them into my checking account, the teller didn’t bat an eye, other than to say, ”well, when you take your money out early there is a fee, although the rate is so low, it’s not going to add up to much.”

You got that right.

The truth was, that I just didn’t really know that I was doing myself a grave disservice. I also did not realize how many years of this procrastination had accrued. My son was 12 by the time I figured out I’d been operating on autopilot for those years—12 years of missed opportunities to make money just by choosing wisely. I know, it’s embarrassing, but I finally did the math and I realized I was making about $50.00 a year on a CD with what I viewed as my life savings—$20,000!

(Just to give you an idea, I make almost $250.00 a year by just using a credit card that gives me points!)

The bummer was that I’d comforted myself with excuses like:

–”at least I can’t touch the money.” OR

—“I think a just saving in a bank is best anyway!”

On hindsight, I can see that those were excuses for my own laziness.

But there was something more behind this lethargy. If I really dig deep there was always a sense that trying to get a better rate seemed kind of greedy. I felt that I had enough and I felt unconsciously obligated to just take what I was getting without asking for more.

Demanding more, and even paying attention to what I was saving, seemed ungrateful on some level.

While I still have a long way to go, I now understand the foolishness of my ways. I can see now that just one major loss, one health problem, or an accident, could drive us into debt. While we are not currently in debt, we are not so far removed from the possibility.

When I finally decided to look at our finances, I realized we were coping month to month, living paycheck to paycheck, and doing this year after year. There was a tension in our home that I had ignored—a slow, energy-sucking tension that was caused by that feeling that if you stop, you’ll drown. When it dawned on me that we were allowing ourselves to accept this panicky way of living, I realized that something needed to change.

Next time I’ll talk about what my first steps were towards financial stability.

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