Friday, July 30, 2010

Part 2: Determination, imagination essential for sticking to a budget

Part 2: Determination, imagination essential for sticking to a budget

My plan to dramatically scale back my family’s food budget is in full swing. Last week, I withdrew $200 in cash from our bank account--$50 for eating out that I tucked into an envelope for later, and $150 to buy groceries for the next two weeks.

With cash in my wallet, I headed into the grocery store with four children, a calculator, and – unknown to me – a smuggled toy hammer. The scene played out like this: while I tried to concentrate on shopping, my 4-year-old used said toy hammer to pound on cereal boxes and ripe cantaloupe. Meanwhile, my 2-year-old attempted to hoist a $6 watermelon and topple pyramids of apples.

After I confiscated the hammer and contained the hoister of watermelons, I pulled out my tiny pocket calculator, so worn that half of the numbers and symbols were missing. The baby on my hip batted the calculator from my hand several times. I had to let my 5-year-old steer the cart so I could keep a running total of everything I was buying.

At the end of a stressful hour in the store, I rolled up to the register with $147.30 worth of groceries in my cart. Overwhelmed with relief to have stayed within my budget and to be leaving, I reached for my debit card and paid for my groceries. I was loading my car when I realized I’d forgotten to use the cash I pulled from my account. Nobody said this budget-conscious shopping was going to be easy or go smoothly on the first try.

When I got home, I finalized my menu and thought about lessons I’d learned already. First, I realized that if we are to stick to a new grocery plan, I’m going to have to retrain my brain and concentrate on what I’m doing. This means leaving the kids at home and making a more comprehensive list.

I’ve always paid attention to sales and compared price per ounce, but I now need to ratchet up my efforts. I weighed grapes and apples (which I’ve admittedly never done before) and thought about every item I picked up. I didn’t just toss our old standbys into the cart, but thought about more cost-effective ways to eat the foods we enjoy. Instead of pudding cups, for example, I bought prepackaged cook-and-serve pudding at a fraction of the cost. I plan to refine this even further and make homemade cooked pudding with the recipe my mother used every week when I was a child.

Second, I acknowledge I’ll face a few budget hiccups. I had to plan a meal for a group of 11 women, and for a family camping trip. These situations were both out of the ordinary, but still required me to stay within the limit I had set. A budget won’t help me if I break it every time something unusual comes up.

So, I got creative with my menus. For the camping trip, several families worked cooperatively to make meals. I agreed to make breakfast, which allowed me to use items I already had in my pantry and freezer to make two pans of pull-apart caramel rolls. They were a big hit with the crowd and kept my budget intact.

For dinner with my friends, I prepared an elegant meal of homemade miniature quiches, a garden salad with greens from my own patch, rhubarb soda, and apple crisp . I was able to pull it off by imaginatively using resources I had available to me – and that will be the key to living well on a budget.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lower food bills can move us closer to debt-free lifestyle

From Carey Denman's stressfreefinancial.blogspot.com.

"Lower food bills can move us closer to debt-free lifestyle

I wish I could say that after all these years of writing about money, I’ve reached some sort of financial nirvana, a place where our budget effortlessly hums along. In truth, we hit budget bumps and have starts and stops every month like everyone else. Nevertheless, even if it were possible to find perfection, that isn’t the point of a budget.

A budget isn’t a static template that we lay over our lives; it’s a spending guide that flexes with our family. For us, one of the most exciting things about a budget is that it constantly offers us opportunities to see our finances with fresh eyes. When we see where we’re spending, we can shift our priorities.

It turns out that we’re getting ready for a major shift in our family budget. When we recently calculated our total monthly food expenses, we faced a sobering truth. In June, we spent over a $1,000 on food for our family of six, and in the five months prior to that, we averaged over $800 on groceries and eating out. We know we can do better. We want to do better.

We’ve challenged ourselves to cut our food budget in half, not as a way to be stingy, but because we want to stretch our money. We’re looking for creative ways to get the things we want and need with the money we have. Ultimately, our goal is to be entirely debt free, so we plan to take half of what we save on food costs and apply it to the principle balance on our mortgage. We’ll devote the other half to projects for our family. We want some fun things, including a family trip and a playhouse for our children. Some practical items, such as a new vacuum and a woodstove, also are on our list.

Cutting our food budget in half may sound like a daunting task. How will this even be possible in a family of growing children who are voracious eaters? We’ll start with what we spend on eating out, which averages over $200 a month. By packing snacks and lunches instead of heading for the nearest fast food restaurant, we’ll whittle down what we spend on eating out to $100, which we plan to take out in cash and keep in an envelope. When the cash is gone, there’s no more eating out that month.

We’ll use the same all-cash approach with grocery shopping, because I know how easy it is to spend more than I’ve planned. Case in point, when I stopped at the grocery store with four items on my list for a camping trip, I walked out with 10 and spent three times as much as I had planned. With cash, that won’t happen.

We’ll also have to carve out more time for food preparation and change the way we do some of our shopping. This means rethinking items we mindlessly put in our cart, including pudding cups and granola bars. Juice won’t be a morning mainstay, but will become an occasional treat. Even pantry staples like egg noodles that seem inexpensive will be foods I buy the ingredients for and prepare at home - for a fraction of the grocery store price. We’ll keep trying different strategies until we find budget-stretching ideas that truly work for us.

I’ll be sharing my journey to reduce my food bill with you in future columns. And I encourage you to share your best cost-cutting ideas with me. E-mail me at cdenman@acce-online.com or leave comments on my blog, stressfreefinancial.blogspot.com. Adventures in frugal living are more fun when we experience them together."

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