Walter and I decided to come up with a monthly challenge. For January: spend no more than $50 on groceries. That’s $1.62 per day. Who thinks that’s crazy?! We didn’t at first. In fact, I thought that sounded totally reasonable. With the holidays just past, our refrigerator, freezer, and pantry seemed full of leftovers. We always have giant bags of rice, quinoa, and flour on hand. The $50 would be buoyed by the perennial cupboard cans and dried goods that rarely get considered in the process of making meals. In essence we were going to eat our pantry as part of the process of our self-imposed challenge.
We made a comprehensive list of these items and hung it on the fridge with our weekly meal planning list. And then we started! I felt a little breathless in the first few days – it was a slow burn of a wait to see what we would run out of first, what I might need or think I needed. Part of the challenge became just going to the grocery store less – our MO used to be to run to Food Kitty or Trader Joe’s at least twice a week; W and I have unknowingly made independent trips to the grocery store on the same day for the same thing – c’mon, we can be more intentional than that! We clearly saved time and money on gas and impulse purchases by more thoughtfully using what we already had.
By January 14th we’d spent only about $30 during ONE trip to the grocery store and a night out at Pub Quiz, where W had one beer and I wasn’t charged for my DD drink, cranberry juice and seltzer!
Buuut, the problem is we started making exceptions to our rules. These included/sounded like: Seeing a great sale and buying meat to freeze for later consumption (happened on that one grocery trip). “Toilet paper doesn’t count, right? Riiiiight???” What about all non-food, but still grocery store purchases, actually?- trash bags, soap, kitty litter? This grey zone hadn’t been discussed beforehand and was hard to voluntarily define, mid-challenge, mostly because while we knew it would be easier to make such exceptions, we also knew we were only kidding/cheating ourselves. “If I made extra money today then I can spend it on food without it counting, right?” And I know I started getting a little cranky that even one beer was being purchased on our self-imposed, now seeming ridiculous budget. I mean that beer was, like, 6% of our $50! Also, I started glaring at “expensive” things I craved like cheese and grapes. I googled WIC. We didn’t qualify.
Then W found out he needed to go to Florida for a business trip. Me and WV decided to go with him, engendering the next exception question – does his making per diem negate the money we spend on food? Our “exceptionating” was getting out of hand and causing too much needless anxiety. Also, I was starting to feel weird from eating too little protein, which was worrying me since I’m exclusively breast feeding WV. Wet cat food started to smell delicious again (an odd pregnancy craving that I thought I’d gotten rid of post-WV). I wanted to dive into fruit and vegetable displays ravenously chomping like a 400-pound-rabbit in a carrot dream land. I started to take a daily multi-vitamin + fish oil + vitamin D cocktail, which ended a few days later when I looked up a suspicious ingredient – titanium dioxide – which is, you guessed it, toxic. But that’s a subject of an ongoing research project and later post.
Back to our budget. At the laundromat frantically washing and drying clothes for the FL trip we realized we just didn’t have time to make lunch. We decided to split a chicken parmigiana sub from our favorite local restaurant, Tony and Milena’s. That darn sandwich cost $9.80!!! What the what!?! A full third of what we’d spent in 15 days blown on one lunch! I was flabbergasted. They say it only takes a few weeks to form or un-form a habit – well, this not spending money on food challenge had really gotten to me – I felt so wasteful.
Then we went to Florida. The $50 self-imposed limit flew out the window (unless you count per diem as an exception, which we decided not to do; buying food is buying food), although I did make the most out of squirreling away fruit, yogurt and tea from the hotel’s free breakfasts.
So, we failed, utterly failed. I had no idea how much we spent by the end of January (W’s the receipt tracker), but I knew for dang sure it was more than a few hundred dollars – and we iced the proverbial cake of failure by making a Costco run on the 31st. Grr, I’m mad at myself. However, there’s a silver lining to our botched budget breakdown: we learned some important things about what and how we eat. Firstly, in the past we haven’t been nearly as mindful of our grocery purchases. I now abhor spending a restaurant’s price on a meal I could make more healthfully at a fraction of the cost. However/secondly, it’s hard (very hard) to, day after day, come up with healthy, home made meals on the fly when you are sleep-deprived and running on back up brain cells. Inevitably, at the end of the day with a Mt. Everest of dishes to do (from last night), a crying child (no! WV never cries!), a variety of chores glaring at you with beady eyes, three papers to write and publish and a job search, and, oh yea, maybe a shower, it’s hard to start cooking – even though we meal-plan. We often eat diner at around 10pm, actually, because of this. With a little more planning, like instituting a cooking Sunday where we make a crockpot meal for leftovers, freeze some home made pizzas or soup servings for later, and prep others so they are halfway to done for the rest of the week, we could be less wasteful of time, more frugal with money and therefore more successful. Maybe the dishes will get done before WV takes a bath in the sink. We also need to be more mindful about protein – it’s not something we can readily just cut out entirely; however, it’s expensive and there are creative ways to get it. For instance, we made tuna fish nachos two different nights for dinners, which was great, easy and something we’d never tried. I’m grumpy that there are never coupons for produce (although there are coupons for hot pockets galore); produce is essential and probably makes up at least half of our grocery costs. I can’t wait for our garden this year. I will be canning more of our harvest – last year beans and squash went to waste. Also, for some odd reason we ate way fewer eggs overall this month (10) – I think I was subliminally rationing them in case I wanted to bake, later down the line.
So, February? I’m not so naive and disillusioned about grocery costs. Especially after reading W’s take, below. But we can do better! I just know it! Minus Valentine’s Day – we already have reservations at the restaurant where W proposed to me – and of course my birthday, lol! Uh-oh, that’s two exceptions and it’s only February 2nd!
I tracked (almost) every penny we spent in 2012. Call me crazy, but I wanted to know how much we spent and on what. I had good intentions to file receipts daily at the beginning of the year, but that progressed into weekly, then monthly, then it turned into “there’s a huge pile of receipts on my desk, I don’t have the time/energy to do this right now.” As the new year started and I was trying to stay on top of current receipts, I was filing receipts from August. I even found a gas receipt from April!
Well, we’re one month into 2013 and I think I’ve got everything filed from 2012. Since we tried the whole $50 for food for the month of January, I decided to run a little report on our food expenditures. My jaw hit the floor when the following chart was displayed on my screen:
We averaged $764.98 per month on food for both of us – including groceries and dining out. And yes, this also included buying beer and wine both in the grocery stores and in restaurants/bars (not including taxes or tips). That’s $278.19* per month going out to eat and $486.78* per month in groceries. Holy cow! But check the bars from June through September – those were the months our garden was in full bloom!
I started to do some research, and found some numbers that made me feel a little bit better. The 2011 per capita food expenditure for the United States was $352.42 per month (2012 data hasn’t been released). But that’s per capita. So multiply that number by 2 and you get $704.84. And that doesn’t include alcohol. Our average monthly food expense for the two of us not including alcohol comes out to $605.62. Whew, we’re below the national average! But that’s still a lot of money to spend on food – over $20 per day? We thought we could get away with spending less than 1/10 of that!
For January 2013, I can report that we have spent $560.32 on grocery store and restaurant food and drinks. This number includes the money we spent on seeds for our garden, the “let’s buy this and freeze it since it’s a good price” exception, and a Costco run we did on the 31st when we were staying with my parents – we’ll be EATING this food in February, but since we PURCHASED it in January, I felt obligated to include it in the report. An improvement over our monthly average last year, but we still think we can get it lower… If you remove the exceptions, it’s down closer to $350.
And we won’t be spending as much money on buying beer this year. Yesterday I opened my first bottle of a nut brown ale that I bottled on 1/1/13, I have a Pilsner ready to be bottled, honey ale ready to be transferred to the secondary, and since the brown ale turned out so delicious I think I’m gonna brew another batch soon to get the fermentation on it started. Why buy it when I can make it for about half the price?
Here’s to being more thoughtful about food purchases in 2013 and less wasteful with money, fuel, and food!
*I know, these numbers add to $764.97. I rounded.
$50 for the whole month was quite a hefty goal!! Have y’all checked out emeals.com? That’s what we do… There are about 7 different diet styles (classic, clean eating, paleo, etc). Before I started this program I was easily spending a $800 a month on food and impulse grocery purchases. Ever since starting emeals I’m able to cover 3 meals a day all week for under $80 a week for our family of 3. We’ve cut out over half of what we’re spending. I understand what you mean Lila when you now realize how wasteful you feel you were spending on groceries and eating out before deciding to stick to a food budget. Best of luck to y’all for 2013! I’m looking forward to our garden, too, to save on those insane produce expenses!!! 🙂
Thanks Stephanie! No, I hadn’t heard of emeals.com – I checked it out, but it looks like it costs money – do you know if there is a free version? Sounds like you find the upfront cost of their plan is worth the savings? I’m not sure we’re ready to sign up, but thanks for the tip…one of my challenges is just coming up with new recipes…I love to cook, but we generally don’t buy (or cook!) too frequently much outside of our “comfort zone” (except maybe veggies). Yes, I think this really opened our eyes to food costs – and how to move away from spending so much!
Kudos for giving that a go! We spend way more on food than I would like us to, but struggle to find a way to really cut it down. We have to keep our home gluten free, though, and so that adds an additional challenge. Even if we wanted to save by using coupons and getting only junk, we couldn’t, because just about every freaking thing has gluten in it. If I want cookies, I either buy five types of VERY expensive flours and gums and take part in an all day cooking experiment that will probably end in disaster, or I spend ten dollars (no joke) on a dozen less than delicious cookies from a box. If I can manage to make a garden live this year, it will be a lot better.
There’s a challenge for you, though! One month with no barley, wheat, or rye. That’ll be eye opening, believe me! You’ll learn to read labels like never before! 🙂
Ugh, no I hear you – as W said below, we (well, I cheated, but W didn’t) did try to to go gluten free – to the tune of forking out major bucks for all the flours. I think we quit partially because it IS SO HARD TO BAKE GLUTEN FREE!!! I kept making the most disgusting, deflated cookies and gummy breads! Really awful! I admire someone who can bake gluten-free!!! W had a stomach issue and going gluten free just clued us into the fact that what was bothering him was preservatives – pretty much anything pre-made – breads, even some crackers and granola (it’s not like it was even bad per se, just pre-made), etc. Before that, for the longest time he thought he was lactose intolerant – we figured out he wasn’t when I was pregnant and he discovered icecream! ;D It must be quite a challenge to be so grain free. I’m curious – does that include beer, too?
I have a friend who runs a website about her radical gluten free-ness that might interest you!: http://thegfreediary.blogspot.com/2012/12/gluten-in-cosmetics-cleansers-and.html
Anyway, would you like my mostly unused bag of xanthum gum? I know it’s expensive, and we are not going to be using it! I can bring it to our next babywearing meeting…
Thanks for this interesting post! I don’t track my expenses like you do (but I think it’s a good idea!) but I used to do the accounts for my 14 person vegetarian co-op, and in general we were spending about $7 per person per day on food (and this doesn’t count any eating out or alcohol).. So seems like you are doing pretty well 🙂
Josephine, glad you enjoyed it! $7 a day sounds a lot better than $20 that we figured we were spending at some points last year – I can’t even believe that! A friend was telling me that she tried to maintain a $4.50/day for food practice, which is what she was given for Americorp, which I thought was interesting. Needless to say, we will be buying food and eating a lot more thoughtfully from now on. I’m not against splurging on tasty things – especially at farmer’s markets, but it’s nice to have a baseline now and be more cognizant of our purchases. 😀 Glad to hear from you and hope you are doing well!!!
Nice post y’all 🙂 I was a little astonished by the graph, but I’m sure we probably spend just as much if not more. And it doesn’t surprise me that our husbands get along so well…Eddie would be all over keeping track of every grocery receipt and plotting it up if I’d go along w/ it! Our big goal is to just only go out to eat once a week and do home cooked meals every other night. I’m sure I spend a ton on groceries, but it has to be cheaper than going out or getting delivery! Maybe try setting a goal for yourself to not go to bed with dishes in the sink. That is something we got into the habit of when our house was on the market and it makes me so much happier to wake up to an empty sink and far more likely to actually want to cook. Keep ’em coming! xoxo
Oh do I know it – it astonished me too…in fact, I kinda was wondering if we should even post it! But it’s eye opening for a purpose, and kinda drove home the point to us. It seemed silly to leave it out. Haha, W can show Eddie his system – he got a free program online and tracks more than just groceries! I can tell you how much my dissertation cost in coffees from Aromas thanks to him, ha!
Wow, waking up with a clean sink must feel really nice – I hate seeing it in the morning like that. Having a sous chef is also a way I think I would cook more often; that’s what husbands are for, right?!? 😀
I did the dishes a few hours ago (the 3rd time today between the two of us) and now there are more in the sink…but only a few! Time for WV’s bath!!! xo
Thanks for the comments! I tried the whole gluten free thing for a few months because I was having stomach issues and wanted to isolate the cause – turned out to be too much of a hassle and too much money, so I decided instead of trying to go GF I’d try to only eat what we make ourselves. I feel 100x better now, and thank goodness I can still eat gluten! My heart goes out to those who can’t, it’s tough. We’ll definitely check out emeals, and try to make our next goal to not leave dishes in the sink before bed!
$50.00 is a very lofty goal! The three of us here have a hard time getting below $400.00, which includes fresh produce and some beer. In the summer we can get much lower because of our garden and the orchards in our town. As for the receipt collecting, I’m admiring the effort; I’ve never been able to track the receipts when we did cash only. We’ve resorted to using a joint credit card and then using excel twice a month to enter most of the purchases, with a few places where we pay cash and record as we go (the farmer’s market, local orchards). Tracking receipts definitely cut down on our purchasing events, and we’ve definitely saved by canning the garden results. Are you planning to continue the challenge with a refined budget?
Hey, $400 is not too shabby – if we got that low, I would be a happy chickie. Does it astound you that you spend less on your groceries than most people in the country? I was shocked by that – thinking we have to spend more, but I guess we just spend more wisely! The garden is the key! I don’t buy tomatoes anymore at all…they just taste like, erhm, red blobs. Our plan is to really grow to eat AND preserve for further down the road.
I agree, I get lost when it comes to cash purchases and have to write them down or tell them to W before I forget. But we can cross-check for missing receipts with our credit card statements. I’m pretty good at just putting the receipts in one or two places for W to handle at this point.
Yes, this month we are going to continue to eat down the pantry and chip away at the food budget. My two-pronged attack is going to include: utilizing sales and coupons more and creative meal planning to use ingredients up. 😀
You guys are awesome! This reminds me a lot of what I was trying to do when we lived in Bermuda and food was ridiculously expensive (especially produce, bread, convenience foods – it’s all shipped in). Here are some tips I came up with: I started baking bread, bagels (they are YUMMY), and we stopped eating packaged snacks. Snacks for the kids were fruit, yogurt, and homemade treats like granola, muffins, etc. Fresh fruit and yogurt were expensive too, though. I would use those big bags of frozen unsweetened fruit you get in the freezer/pie section, and use them to make purees for Tristan when he was a baby and smoothies for Ian/me, and for baking. I even tried making our own yogurt in the crockpot (it worked, but you have to get the temperature perfect), which meant I could use evaporated milk instead of buying expensive yogurt. You can also use evaporated milk in baking and soups rather than fresh milk (1 can milk + 1 can water). It’s more processed which you may not like, but fresh milk was crazy $$ in BDA. Nowadays I just don’t have the time to do all this, especially since food is so much cheaper in the US. But I have already noticed that our younger son Tristan doesn’t eat as healthily as Ian, because he has had his preschool years in the US where we go ahead and buy granola bars, they give treats at school, etc. Ian is still very content with an orange or an apple as a snack because that’s what he got every day in his lunch in BDA.
Dinnertime: #1 tip is to intentionally make leftovers for EVERYTHING. Cook your more elaborate meals on the weekend. For everything, make 2x what you need for your family and freeze the rest if you’re not eating it tomorrow. On the weekend you can also make up a big batch of salad (keep cucumbers separate from lettuce), and use it through the week.
Thanks for the reminders on watching our food $$! ANd the bread recipe – we will definitely have to try that one.
Thanks for the comment and tips! I can imagine how expensive island living is when it comes to produce! We went to PR in the fall and noticed a lack of vegetables and when I did research in NZ, I always thought most everything in the grocery store was slightly more expensive, except local meats. To feed a family healthfully, being mindful of a budget, on an island sounds is a creative challenge! I’ve considered making yogurt – my best friend has done it with lots of success, but says it tastes rather different. Hey, now I have a use for the evaporated milk in my pantry – thanks! I’ll use it to bake with this month (I was dreading having to make chocolate cherry cookies, which are delish but take a while and use up a can of evap milk!). 😀
Yes, we love cooking to make leftovers. On Monday I made 8 pizza doughs and we cooked 4 of them, freezing 3 for quick dinners and the remainder 4 doughs for making pizza another time. 😀 Do you guys have a chest freezer…we don’t but I often think that would help! Any favorite recipes for leftovers that you can share?!
Hope you and your family are well!!!
I’ve been thinking about this post since I first read it, and it’s been at the back of my head to write something since then.
First off, when I first read $50 at the beginning of the post, I immediately thought, “They’re crazy, there’s no way! But wait, were they able to do it?”
Second, I’m a bit sad that someone beat me to the “living on a small expensive island” reply.
Anyhoo… I usually track my spending in detail, at least long enough to figure out what my general spending is in my current place of living, and whether I need to be careful given my income, or not. So typically in a new country, I’ll track my spending for the first 3 or 4 months, then I’ll often get relaxed about it if I know that I’m way under budget. I recently moved “back” to Barbados, and while I technically was living there, I’d spent over 12 months of the previous 18 away on field work, or in England working, or back in the States. On average, I’m at about US$280/month in total food and alcohol, which I guess is pretty good in the scheme of things. Plus, that includes some higher costs associated with the first two months as I had a new house and an EMPTY kitchen, minus a few things that I brought back from other countries (primarily condiments, coffee, and chocolate), thus had to buy all those expensive things like oils and spices and start a decent way into my stock of basics. The last month or so I’ve also started doing big cooks on Sundays, so that I have meals for the week and a stockpile of stuff in the freezer.
Oddly, I think that my living on an expensive island has brought my food budget down. I almost never eat out because the prices are outrageous, the service is terrible, and the quality of food is not worth the price they’re charging. I actually have gone hungry (and cranky) on campus on days when I’ve forgotten to bring food because I can’t bring myself to eat the limited options of heavy, greasy, fried, or starchy foods available. And forget about finding a decent coffee anywhere near campus! Alcohol tends to be a rum here and there, which is sad because I *LOVE* beer. I love good beer. I love beer with flavor and color and depth. But again, there’s none to be had, which I guess helps both my budget and my belly, but it still makes me sad. When it comes to the grocery store, I pretty much don’t by anything that’s prepackaged or pre-prepared, it’s limited, overpriced, and generally not that tasty. But then we start getting into the other things I don’t buy [or buy much less], like fruit, or decent cheese, or ice cream, again, things that make me sad.
I find myself in this weird balancing act. I’ve lived in many situations where I had no control over my food and/or the food was very limited, so I try to not worry too much about food spending, I try to buy nice stuff for myself now that I’m in control of my own food purchases. But there’s always balancing that desire with what is practical in the places I’m living. That said, when they recently had strawberries on sale for $8/quart [? bigger than a pint, but not sure on the size], down from the regular $10-12, and they mostly looked good and not rotted. Sold!
Living in this strange food desert makes it so that I go overboard when I get back to the States. I often wonder if when I get back for good I’ll be able to balance some of the good eating and cooking habits I’ve developed out of necessity with the access to cheap[er] and tasty convenience items. I can’t wait though for things like CSAs, proper farmers markets, quality meats, and some nice home/micro-brews!
But don’t mind me when I put away several bags of mango this coming mango season, a girl’s got to have some perks!