Friday, July 30, 2010

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.

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