Friday, August 13, 2010

Feeling deprived isn’t part of our budget plan

I’m surprised by my naiveté. When I declared that we were taking a serious look at our food budget and attempting to cut it in half, I thought the decision was largely a dollars-and-cents issue. We reasoned that we’re spending more than we wanted, so we just needed to cut back.
The situation is far more complicated than I first thought. In the last few days before I went shopping again, breakfast was utter chaos. Our three oldest children were so frustrated that we had run out of our customary breakfast fare that they were all crying. Honestly, I felt out of sorts too, grumbling to myself when I was out of coffee and half and half, and feeling crabby when I had to field questions about what we were having for dinner.
I didn’t realize how much we depend on the familiarity and convenience of certain foods. When we ran out of yogurt and didn’t have the kind of cheese we like, for example, we felt deprived. Those feelings of deprivation mean that the pendulum of our food budget adjustments has swung too far the other way.
While we don’t want to spend thoughtlessly on food, we don’t want to be slaves to our budget, either. We want to be as intentional with our food dollars as we are with other parts of our budget. We still want to shop and eat in ways that leave us feeling happy and nourished.
As my husband and I discussed our budget for the coming month, we talked about the parts of our plan we need to revise. But our cost-cutting food plan also has benefits that we like. First, we both agreed that we were glad we raised our budget consciousness and learned that it’s possible to scale back what we spend. Now, we can adjust our food budget so we have more freedom to buy what we enjoy, but not so much flexibility that we return to our old ways. For now, we’re increasing our bi-weekly budget from $150 to $200.
Second, we want to continue using the cash-only approach to eating out. Having a specific parameter in place makes meals out an event we can look forward to, not just a budget-gobbling habit. Though we blew our eating out budget the first week, we stuck to our plan and spent only what we had set aside. When we went out to eat at the start of another two weeks, the opportunity excited us.
Third, we both appreciated how some upfront meal preparation paid off over the following two weeks. I bought hamburger in bulk (at a phenomenal price) and made spaghetti sauce, meatballs, sloppy joes, and taco meat all at the same time. I froze the meals in family-size portions, so we could pull out what we needed the night before and spend just a few minutes boiling noodles, grating cheese, or making a quick side dish to get dinner on the table.
Finally, we want to revisit our list of goals – such as buying a woodstove – that prompted us to trim our food budget, and we’ll create a more specific plan to accomplish them. If we’re going to continue making changes in the way we spend our food dollars, we need to see tangible benefits. Right now, we’ll take the money we’re saving and transfer it into an account we’ve earmarked for our goals.
Even with a few bumps along the way, budgeting can work. We’ll keep adjusting our budget until we find a balance that lets us save money while shopping wisely and eating well.

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