Friday, July 23, 2010

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 (Here is the Cowgirl's Country Life blog where she has a great recipe for Chicken and (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 posts. And I encourage you to share your best cost-cutting ideas with me. E-mail me at or leave comments below. Adventures in frugal living are more fun when we experience them together.

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