I recently came across Mr. Money Mustache in my internet wanderings. If you haven’t already discovered his site, I highly recommend it. He reminds me a lot of myself – he’s like a guy version of me with a few more rants and some colorful words sprinkled here and there. Oh, and he’s retired too (we’re not there, but we’ve been working from home for a decade now, which is pretty awesome). He also has a wife and a child, which makes him seem much more realistic from my perspective (since we have two children) than some of the ultra-frugal bloggers who don’t have children and live on next to nothing.
Anyway, I was browsing around his site and it got me thinking about our spending. We already save about 40% of our after-tax income. We put more than a full mortgage payment into our mortgage payoff/emergency fund each month. We save for retirement. We have an HSA that would cover several years of having to meet our health insurance deductible. We’re saving for our boys’ education (not a lot, but we put $100/month into each 529 account). All of our “stuff” comes from thrift stores and Craigslist. We are frugal in just about every regard.
Ever regard except food.
Our food budget is very high. My rough estimate is that it was running about $1000/month for the past year or so. We don’t eat out (seriously – we’ve eaten out once since September, and that was to take a dear friend out to dinner for his 90th birthday), so there’s no dining-out expense at all. But still, $1000/month on food is a bit crazy.
I’ve written several times about what we eat. I refuse to compromise when it comes to what my family eats. I cook nearly everything from scratch. We don’t eat foods with long ingredient lists, preservatives, food coloring, artificial sweeteners (and avoid added sugar most of the time too – treats around here usually rely on the natural sweetness in fruit). And almost everything we eat is organic. That means that I almost never shop at the local grocery store here in town, because they carry very few organic items. Instead, I drive into the larger town nearby to shop. And for the past year or so, I’ve been pretty much making it a one-stop shop at the health food store. That – combined with Costco every few months – has resulted in some pretty large grocery bills. We’re squarely in the “liberal plan” on this USDA chart for a family of four. Although I have to assume that most families have a dining-out budget that is higher than zero dollars per month. So that helps me to justify our food bill a bit. But still. It could be much better.
While I’m extremely budget-conscious with pretty much every other aspect of our spending, I had let myself get lax when it came to groceries. Although I would snap up things that were on sale, I would also buy pretty much whatever I wanted to cook, regardless of whether it was on sale or not. I didn’t go online to look at the sale ads for the larger grocery stores in town (they have much larger organic selections than the small store here in our town, but obviously not as much as the health food store where I normally shop – but I should at least be looking to see what they have on sale each week). I basically told myself that it didn’t matter how much we spent on food. We’re very healthy, and I work very hard to keep it that way. I’m convinced that diet is a huge factor in health, which is why I won’t compromise when it comes to our diet.
But I could be much more frugal and still not compromise. I’ve known that for a while, but I’ve justified my lax grocery budget in lots of ways.
- We can afford it (true, but we could save even more if I put more effort into keeping the grocery budget down).
- We deserve to buy great food, since we eat all of our meals at home (also true, but why not focus on great meals that can be made without spending as much money?)
- I love to cook, so a high grocery budget is ok.
- I don’t have time to stop at multiple grocery stores with the boys in tow (I don’t want to drive all over town, but there’s a major grocery store about two blocks from the health food store where I normally shop. Is it really that hard to make one more stop in the same general area?)
- I love to browse food blogs and find new recipes to try, which often means adding new ingredients to the shopping list.
- We’re very frugal in every other area of our lives, so it’s ok to spend a lot on food, which is what matters most to us (true, but if we can eat just as well while being a bit more budget-minded with food, doesn’t it make sense to do so?)
I thought about all of this, and decided to make some changes. That was about three weeks ago, and so far, so great!
- I’m limiting my grocery trips to three times a month instead of once per week (in the summer, I always cut down to about every other week, because our garden gives us so much fresh produce. But in the winter, I’ve typically always shopped every week). To facilitate this, I’ve scheduled my grocery trips on the calendar. I have a visual reminder every day of when my next shopping trip is, and can plan our meals accordingly. I had found that even going every week, I was still spending a lot at each trip.
- I’ve unsubscribed from the food blogs that I used to read every day. I can still go to their sites when I want, but the emails aren’t in my in-box every day, tempting me to try new recipes. This is good in a few ways. First, it keeps me from always adding new ingredients to the shopping list. Second, it saves time in the kitchen because I’m mostly cooking meals that I’ve prepared before. And third, it cuts down on my computer time, which is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong – I love food blogs. But I was spending too much time on them. I already have a Google Docs file with several pages of recipes that the whole family loves – I could cook them every day for a month and not repeat myself at all. There comes a point when enough is enough. For now, I’ve reached that point. I’ll just continue to make the meals I’ve already perfected, and – mostly – avoid new recipes for a while.
- I’ve started preparing meals for the crock pot and freezing them. This has been a huge success. I just bought ingredients to make several more bags, which I’ll be prepping tomorrow or Saturday and stashing in the freezer. The soups and veggie concoctions I prepare are relatively inexpensive (even though all the ingredients are organic) because they mostly rely on root veggies, beans, and lentils. The bullion I had been using was relatively pricey, but I tried making my own and it worked perfectly – for about a quarter the price.
- No more exotic superfoods. (or at least a drastic reduction in how much we buy) Gogi berries are great. But do we really need them? Pecans are delicious, but almonds are a third the price and work just as well – we can save pecans for a rare treat instead of tossing them in the cart every time we shop. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds can be substituted for a portion of the nuts in many of the nut-based recipes I like, and they’re dramatically less expensive than nuts.
- The money we’re saving is already accounted for – automatically. We upped the contribution to our mortgage payoff/emergency fund by $300/month, because that’s what I’m estimating we can save on groceries. That means the money won’t be burning a hole in our pockets. If it’s not there, we won’t spend it.
- I’ve started looking at the sale flyer for the major grocery store in the area of town where I normally go shopping. It paid off in a big way this week – they had vitamin supplements on sale buy one, get one free. So I stocked up on all of the supplements we already use. For the rest of the year, we’ll be shopping in our pantry for supplements instead of adding them to the grocery list. The vast majority of the stuff in the sale flyer is never going to make it into my cart, since most of it is processed food. But I found a great deal on organic potatoes and apples in addition to the supplements. Definitely worth the extra trip (I spent $167 and the savings total on my receipt was $118 – not bad).
- I’m being much more selective with our produce. Although I only buy organic, I’m focusing on the items that are on sale, and basing our menus around those, rather than creating menus and then just buying the food that I need to make the meals I’ve planned.
- I’ve always shopped with a grocery list, and I’m good at sticking to it – no impulse buys. But I’m usually pretty lax about what I put on the list, and I don’t usually worry about what’s on sale when I’m making the list. I just add things to the list as we run out of them, and I also add things to the list when I come across a recipe that includes a new ingredient. These days, I’m being much more careful about what I put on the grocery list. I’m looking at sales and I’m also questioning whether we really need to replenish each thing we use up.
Basically, I’m getting back to basics a bit more. I will still only buy organic. And I’ll still have a grocery bill that is higher than average (which I think is fine, given that we never eat out). But I’m getting back on track with applying my frugal skills to the grocery budget – just like I do with every other aspect of our spending.
I’m feeling very good about all of this. An extra few hundred dollars a month that we can put towards our goal of paying off the mortgage, and we’ll still be just as healthy and well-fed. It takes a bit more planning and I can’t just throw whatever I want into the grocery cart, but that’s ok. I’ve always justified the higher food bill with the fact that all of our other bills are so low. We do all of our other shopping at thrift stores so that we can afford to buy our food at the health food store – but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I can still buy very high quality food without spending quite so much money.
Many thanks to Mr. Money Mustache for the reminder.
What’s your budget soft spot – if you have one? Do you justify high spending in one area by being frugal in other areas? Have you thought about ways you could still honor the importance of that aspect of your life but spend a little less money on it? And of course I’d love to hear your ideas for saving money on nutritious groceries.