Cutting out our meal plan and grocery budget may seem counter intuitive for a family trying to get out of debt. Especially for a family that consistently goes over budget in both grocery shopping and eating out spending categories.
But, that’s why personal finance is called personal finance. It is never going to be a “one size fits all” plan, and sometimes right in the middle of a well thought out plan, you will suddenly realize the plan isn’t working at all.
I am 3 days in to the New Year and I didn’t anticipate this change to become a permanent part of our financial plan. It all happened rather organically. Please read more to find out the reasoning behind my unusual new strategy.
2017 – The Year of the $50/week Grocery Budget
I started 2017 committed to spending only $50 at the grocery store for our dinners all week. At the beginning of the year, I would only take $50 cash in to the grocery store, and if I didn’t have enough cash for the total I would have to put items back or exchange them for a more affordable alternative.
We stuck with a strict meal plan that looked like this:
- Sunday – Hot Dogs or Cheeseburgers with French Fries (my “easy” meal for grocery shopping day)
- Monday – Beef Stroganoff with Mushrooms over Egg Noodles or Chicken Alfredo with Broccoli over Penne
- Tuesday – Tacos or Enchiladas with Refried Beans and Spanish Rice
- Wednesday – BBQ Chicken Tenderloins or Steak with Mac and Cheese and Veggies
- Thursday – Spaghetti or Tortellini with Garlic Bread
- Friday – Favorites (this honestly hardly ever happened)
The problem is we got tired of having the same things over and over again so we would eat out quite often. I also didn’t meal plan for Saturday, that was a designated day to have whatever meal I didn’t prepare during the week because we ate out that day, or we would just eat out on Saturday.
We ate out a lot.
Eating Out and Groceries
I use Tiller to automatically import my bank transactions and to set up my budget for the month. I started doing this in August 2017.
I attempted categorizing my transactions in the past but I found that I had many sub-categories which made the job really hard, so when I started again in August 2017 I decided all restaurant food is “Eating Out” and all snacks from the gas station as well as dish soap and laundry detergent and other household items we needed were “Groceries”.
Before, I had categories called Takeout – Lunch, Takeout, Date Night, and Groceries, Snacks, Pets, and Household. This made it really hard to categorize a Walmart purchase from a week previous, and the Takeout – Lunch categories were also subdivided for myself, husband, and kids. Can you see how the task of categorizing became daunting?
I stopped making lunches for my husband around the same time I stopped making them for my kids. I got tired of my children coming home with soggy untouched sandwiches and crushed bags of chips and cookies. I thought that I wouldn’t make the effort anymore since it was unappreciated and that made me pretty happy.
I now stock up on lunch items for my daughter that she will eat for lunch at school: Campbell’s soup bowls, Easy Mac, Beefaroni cups, Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches, etc. My son has moved out.
My daughter is not the issue here (usually) except when she asks for McDonald’s on a particularly challenging or particularly rewarding day at school.
Here’s how the totals look for our “catch all” Takeout and Groceries since I started categorizing and budgeting with Tiller. I budgeted $175 a month for Takeout and about $300 for Groceries ($50 per week plus extra for gas station goodies being added in throughout the month).
- August 2017
- Takeout – $179 (This was a good month!)
- Groceries – $343
- September 2017
- Takeout – $172 (Under budget, what?)
- Groceries – $343
- October 2017
- Takeout – $394 (WTF?!)
- Groceries – $399 (Really how much can a family of 3 eat?)
- November 2017
- Takeout – $269
- Groceries – $578 (How even??)
- December 2017
- Takeout – $287
- Groceries – $453
Well, that was ugly. But I have a plan in place!
Lessons From a Slumlord
That’s a harsh term, and I’m not even sure if this person was in fact a slumlord. But I did learn something from him.
If you are a regular reader and/or a follower on Instagram you know that my mom recently bought her first home. When she closed, she met the seller and he expressed his gratitude to be rid of his rental property. He told my mom that the tenants would leave the water running and the bill would be $600!
My mom was dreaming of her first hot bath in years after trudging through the snow for hours on moving day. She had only had access to a shower when living with my uncle. When she went to take her long awaited bath, she found the water only lukewarm! Strange, because the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink got hot water, just not the tub.
I suspected there might be a safety mechanism in place to prevent scalding of the tenants and potential lawsuits. But to hear my mom tell it, the water was much too cold to even bathe in. Having grown up in apartments in similar conditions I can tell you from experience how a tenant would remedy that. They would boil a bunch of water on the stove, carry it to the tub, dump it in, and repeat the process until they got their bath to a comfortable temperature.
I have a sneaking suspicion I found the reason for the seller’s excessive water bills. He put a plan in place that was meant to save him money but ended up costing him instead!
That is exactly what I was doing wrong. By only allowing the same boring meals, and only $50 a week in groceries, we found our pleasures buying goodies from gas stations, vending machines, and drive-thrus.
A New Strategy
My husband and I went grocery shopping together without a list (egad!) and spent $110. I didn’t complain about what he added to the cart, and I added what I wanted, too: A couple 4 packs of yogurt, some fruit cups, chocolate milk, and most importantly lunch items for the hubby! He has agreed to start taking packed lunches to work again.
I used to get upset with him when he would request extra food because of my strict grocery budget, but now he has asked me to also pack a bagel for breakfast and an extra sandwich. Fine by me. That surely beats the alternative of $14/day on takeout and gas station food!
I only got to eat one bowl of diced pineapples I threw in the cart, and none of the peach yogurt at all. Apparently my daughter is a fan.
The idea here is that if we all have easy access to foods we enjoy at home we will stop looking for fulfillment in more expensive substitutions.
I’ve also been testing out new recipes that make it exciting and fun to cook again. A number of them are slow cooker meals so that I can throw things in the Crock Pot in the morning and have a hot meal when I get home from work.
All is good in the home right now. I hope this is a change we can maintain for the long term. Time will tell if this saves us any money, but at the very least it’s making us all happier and that is something I can’t assign a dollar amount to or categorize in my budget.