Grocery Shopping Once a Month – Can You Do It?

My husband and I recently bought a house, and we’d like to plump up our emergency fund just in case we have a large house expense.  (Because, of course, when you have little savings, expensive things start to break.  It’s the law of nature, right?)

To inspire myself, I reread America’s Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money by Steve and Annette Economides.  One strategy of theirs that I latched onto is once a month shopping.  The Economides shop once a month for their family of seven and right after shopping day, they make 15 to 17 freezer meals to help them on nights when they’re too busy to cook.

Alright, I already regularly cook freezer meals, so how hard could it be to shop once a month for my family of five?

As it turns out, very tough, at least the first month.

Grocery Shopping once a monthBreaking Bad Habits

I have a bad habit of making a big shopping trip on the weekend and then running to the store for this or that several times a week.

Do you do this, too?  From all of the harried shoppers I see at the store at 5 p.m., I’m guessing I’m not alone.

The problem is that each time I run to the store, I buy more items than I initially went to the store to buy.  The Economides recommend once a month shopping to avoid this kind of impulse buying that blows up the grocery budget.

Making the Big Shopping Trip

This month, eager to change my bad shopping habit, I scouted the deals and made my big, once a month shopping trip.  I spent two days afterward cooking up meals to put in the freezer.  I was set, or so I thought.

Turns out, limiting the impulse to stop by the store is more difficult than I thought.

There are a number of reasons why we’re struggling:

  • My husband likes fresh fruit and veggies.  Our family wiped these out after a week, so back I went to the store to pick up some more.
  • I’m an impulse eater.  If something sounds good to me, I want to make the recipe and have it for dinner.  I don’t want to wait until my next monthly shopping trip to get the ingredients to make it.  (The whim would have passed by then, which is the point, I guess.)
  • Eating up odds and ends at the end of the month is not fun.  Sure, trying to make meals out of what food is left is fun, but the last few days, most of it doesn’t taste good.

Taking Baby Steps Moving Forward

While it would be easy to give up on the idea of once a month shopping, I haven’t yet because I know it can be a big money saver.  Instead, I’m going to back up and move to twice a month shopping.  This will allow me time to plan out our meals for two weeks, making sure we have all the ingredients we need.  Many fruits and veggies stay good for nearly two weeks, so my husband will have the fresh fruits and veggies that he wants.

I don’t know if I’ll ever fully implement once a month shopping, but if I am successful with twice a month shopping, I will still significantly reduce my impulse shopping trips and improve my grocery budget.

How often do you grocery shop?  Are you a multiple trip, impulse buyer like I am (was?), or are you a grocery store ninja?

Spend a Fixed Amount at the Grocery Store Every Week or Stock Up During Sales?

A few months ago, I went grocery shopping in the morning on the first of the month, and I couldn’t believe how crowded it was.  After all, it wasn’t a Saturday morning when the usual grocery shopping rush occurs, but a Wednesday morning.

I waited in line to pay for over 20 minutes.  When I asked the cashier what was going on, she said that it was the first of the month, so many people’s SNAP benefits had just replenished.  These people were stocking up after possibly having had very little to eat at the end of the month when they were out of funds.

This phenomenon is not unusual.  Many people who are living on a tight budget (with or without receiving SNAP), after scrimping and doing without for the last 10 to 14 days of the month, are happy to go shopping and stock up.  The problem is that this stock up can consume most of their food budget, and the cycle starts all over again.

I mentioned in my last post that my family is experiencing a period of low income and a tight budget.  Luckily, I don’t foresee this situation remaining stagnant for years.  Within another year or two, my husband will be eligible to apply for a much better job, and as my kids grow up and become more self-sufficient, I should have more time to grow my freelance business.

However, for now, we sometimes run into this feast or famine pattern.  In our high cost of living area, we budget $700 a month for groceries for our family of 5.   (We have food intolerances including beans, gluten, dairy, and eggs, so we have to eat a special diet.)  The last week of the month, we’re eating an odd mix of foods, and we don’t have as many fruits and vegetables as we’d like.

Spend the Same Amount Every Day to Avoid Feast and Famine

I’ve been researching different strategies to help with our grocery budget.  One that I found is rather basic–determine how much you can spend per day on groceries.  For instance, in February, we can spend $25 a day on groceries ($700 divided by 28 days), while in May, we can only spend $22.58 per day.

If I’ve not been to the grocery store for 6 days, I’ll theoretically have $135.48 to spend on that trip, based on a 31 day month.

Using this pattern, I can avoid the feast or famine food cycle by making sure I have enough grocery money, even at the end of the month.

Drawbacks to Spending the Same Amount Every Day

The biggest drawback I see to spending the same amount every day is that there is not much flexibility to take advantage of sales.  For instance, if I normally buy ground turkey for $2.95 a pound, but it’s on sale for $2.45 a pound, I should stock up.  Maybe I’d buy 25 pounds at this discounted rate.  That right there would cost me $61.25, or almost half of my weekly budget.

However, it would save me $12.50 on ground turkey, and the stock would last us a few months.

While spending the same amount every day helps even out the feast or famine cycle, it may not be the best way to stretch your grocery dollars.  Instead, I prefer to buy on sale in bulk so I pay less and get more food, even if it means at the end of the month, each meal with meat has ground turkey in it.

How do you handle your grocery budget?  Do you set a fixed amount to spend each week, or do you set a fixed amount for the month so you can take advantage of sales?

Dirty Germy Cash; 6 Reasons I Love Using It Now

I used to put everything on the credit card and pay it off in full every month. Then I took Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course. Now I use cash envelopes. All of the benefits of cash envelopes did not become clear to us until my wife and I used them for about three months. My life has improved so significantly from this change, that I wrote this to share with you why I made the switch and to detail the six reasons I’m happy to continue using cash envelopes.

A Quicken Nerd’s Perfect Budget

I was the kind of person who kept receipts for everything. I entered them all into Quicken so I could make pretty line graphs and pie charts. I liked to look back at my spending habits, and I used actual annual spending averages to create my budget. Although I do things differently now, I am still that kind of nerd.

However, each month I would go about my usual (relatively frugal) spending habits, with no regard for this “perfect” budget until the end of the month. Then I would add up my receipts and see where I overspent and underspent. I would tell myself, “Okay, I need to go out to eat less” or “This was a big month for clothes (because I actually bought something), but annually I haven’t overspent.”

I was looking back at my spending, but looking back isn’t control. My budget wasn’t a plan. It was just a feedback tool for my habits. It was a reactive way of managing my money. First I would spend my money, then I would look back to see if I should have spent it differently. Does this sound familiar?

I Don’t Want to Touch Dirty Germy Cash

Cash is dirty, filthy, germy, and gross. I hated touching it. I preferred my cleaner credit card. I liked the rewards points, too. So what would make me want to use something I consider unsanitary?

I wanted me and my wife to take Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU) so we’d be on the same page financially, and so if something happened to me she would know where our money was and what bills needed to be paid. Taking the course accomplished this mission, but it also revolutionized the way I manage money.

Dirty Germy CashSwitching to cash envelopes was a leap of faith that I decided to take because of other benefits from the FPU class. My wife and I were working on our zero-based budget. Having taken care of the “four walls” (home, food, clothing, and transportation), we were deciding where we were going to spend the other part of our income. We made a list of all the things we wanted, which was, of course, longer than our money was.

We had to prioritize, so we compared categories like dining, gift giving, gym memberships, and “garage sale” money. My wife suggested to me that we cancel cable. I was astonished. I had asked her about cancelling cable in months prior, and she made it clear that having cable was a big deal for her. I wasn’t even going to bring it up, but now she was suggesting to me that we should cancel cable. Why did she change her mind?

My wife noticed we could use the money from cable to fund three other categories instead. The opportunity cost of cable was too high. Opportunity cost means that if you spend money on one thing, those dollars cannot be spent on something else. Plus we had Netflix and the Internet, so we weren’t doing anything crazy like giving up TV completely. Our zero-based budget helped my wife see the opportunity cost of cable, so she decided to cancel it. Since the practices taught in FPU could accomplished what seemed to me to be impossible, I was willing to try dirty, filthy, germy cash.

We Learned How to Use Cash

Many of our bills were automatic transfers and withdrawals. Everything else was put into cash envelopes, in the amounts my wife and I had decided to allocate in our FPU zero-based budget. It was like learning to ride a bike. We didn’t do everything perfectly the first couple of months. By the third month it became quick, easy, and natural to use cash envelopes.

Two years later, my wife and I are still using cash envelopes. We still make changes to our budget and envelope system, as our needs and wants continue to change. If you follow my example, expect some mistakes as you climb the learning curve. However, keep an open and flexible mind as you go through the process.

Benefit #1: I am the General of My Army

The first and greatest benefit of cash envelopes was that I, for the first time in my nerdy-budgeting life, truly felt like the captain of my ship. My money was like an army and I was the general, telling it where to go and what to do. The process of budgeting was no longer reactive. Instead, my wife and I decided what was important beforehand and allocated our resources (cash) to it. We were directly in control of our money, instead of indirectly controlling our spending by trying to exert discipline over our habits.

Instead of evaluating our spending decisions after they happened, we were pushing our money toward categories that were important to us in the amounts we deemed appropriate.

Benefit #2: No Overspending Worries

I don’t need to look back at our budget to figure out if we were overspending. It is right there in the envelopes. If we have cash in the envelope, then there is money to spend in that category. If we spent all the cash, then we’d have to consider other options (a topic worthy of its own article). This is the reality of living with finite financial resources.

There is no cheating or fudging with cash envelopes. If we want to be big spenders today and get appetizers and drinks and desserts, then we are choosing not to spend that money on something else, such as clothes, cars, or other dinners out. We can’t throw it on the credit card and hope it all smooths out in the long run. We cannot take “Option A” and use DEBT to get “Option B” as well.

Benefit #3: I Make Spending Decisions Like a Mature Adult

The opportunity cost of our spending speaks loud and clear when I am handing over Benjamin Franklin to a cashier. My wife and I may still decide to do some big spending, but we will do it knowing full well that we chose that as a priority over the other options we could have pursued with that money.

A mature adult does not hide from the consequence of his or her actions. He or she does not pretend consequences don’t exist. A mature adult does not ignore them and hope these monsters will go away. Choices are ours to make and to live with, as are the resulting consequences (good or bad).

Contrast adult maturity to how a child behaves. Spending is based on insistent “I want it,” and perhaps some pouty foot-stomping. The buying decisions of a child (or immature adult) are dictated by how he or she feels at the time. Priorities, financial goals, and opportunity costs don’t factor into immature spending decision. This kind of emotional spending, by the way, easily falls prey to savvy sales tactics.

Benefit #4: I can Relax and Enjoy My Spending

My emotional reaction to spending changed. Instead of wondering if a transaction was going to become part of another month of overspending, I knew that I could not go over budget. I don’t have to worry about overspending, because when the cash runs out the spending stops.

My budget is now a source of peace, confidence, and enjoyment instead of a straight-jacket of guilt or hand-slap of shame. The money I was spending was put in that envelope specifically for the purpose of being spent on this item. There is no guilt or worry. I can spend it joyfully and be confident that we are living within our means.

Benefit #5: We Spend Significantly Less.

Since we started using cash envelopes, I’ve noticed that the amount of cash I withdraw from our account to put in the envelopes is significantly less than any of our monthly credit card statements were. My wife and I don’t know what it is we are no longer buying, but whatever it is, we aren’t missing it. Our monthly cash requirements are 30% less than what we used to consider a small credit card statement, and 45% less than a “normal” month’s credit card bill.

I am amazed at how using a credit card was causing an unconscious increase in spending. In FPU, Dave Ramsey talks about how using plastic doesn’t have the same neurological response as spending cash. Plastic doesn’t trigger the pain centers like giving up cash does. For this reason, Dave reports that using plastic results in 12-18% more spending than if you use cash.

My wife and I have always considered ourselves frugal. I didn’t think we could reduce our spending by 12-18%. The change was so subtle, I didn’t realize we had reduced our spending so much until the third or fourth month’s cash withdrawal. Since I have experienced this first-hand, I’m a believer.

Benefit #6: My Son Is Rich – for a 1 ½ Year Old

Cash envelopes are contributing to my son’s financial education. Coins don’t fit well in envelopes, so the change from every transaction goes into my son’s piggy bank. About once a month we deposit this money into his savings account. He will someday use this money to pay for college or a house.

My son enjoys putting the coins into the slot of his piggy bank. He gets applauded for saving, even though I know he doesn’t understand money. He also gets to wash his hands right after handling the coins, which he also enjoys. I let him carry the coin container to the teller. He loves to lift stuff and show how strong he is.

I know he has no idea what a bank is, but he’s participating in the act of saving and handling money at an early age. He is learning and practicing habits that he will carry into his adult life.

Now Go Into The World… and Take Some Cash

I encourage you to stop looking back at your spending in an effort to control it. Put your discretionary funds into cash envelopes. Tell your money where to go proactively instead of wondering why you overspend. Be prepared to deal with the reality of finite resources. Don’t try to hide from the truth! As you spend out of those envelopes, do it joyfully and confidently. Enjoy yourself and have peace knowing that you are living within your means. Tell your inner nerd, “The budget is okay!”

May we all learn to be the best stewards we can of the resources (not just money) that God entrusts with us. As we learn and grow, know that He always has more to give. We will be presented with these gifts when we are ready and able to handle them.

I wish you all health and happiness,

Joseph K.

Contact me by email at joseph@beatingbroke.com