Do You Compare Your Finances to Others?

I belong to several Facebook groups, and recently, a woman in one group asked the seemingly innocent question, “What do you pay for cell phones and car insurance?”  She added, “We pay $180 a month for our cell phones and $345 a month for our car insurance.”

Say what?

When you read that number, you automatically think one of two things–“Wow, she’s paying a fortune for cell phones and car insurance!” (that was my initial thought), or, you think, “Sounds about right.”

Comparing FinancesA few of you may even think she’s getting a good deal.

My husband and I each carry a cheap cell phone from Tracfone that is for emergencies or occasionally checking in with one another.  We don’t spend any more than $10 to $20 a month on them.  Our car insurance is about $55 per month.  (We only have one vehicle.)

After reading how much this woman spent, I was feeling pretty good about myself.  But why?  I really don’t know her situation.  Her cell phone plan might include cell phones for the whole family.  Her car insurance is likely for multiple cars.  Maybe she has teenage drivers, or maybe she or her spouse has gotten a ticket recently.

Besides, I have no idea how much money she makes.  These bills might not be that extravagant in relationship to her income.

There’s really no point comparing my situation to hers.  To do so would invite complacency toward my own budget at best, and a loosening of the purse strings at worst because, hey, other people are spending a lot more than me.

The Only Time You Should Compare Your Spending to Others

Generally, I try not to compare my spending or budget to others.  Circumstances vary widely, and knowing another person’s exact financial situation is difficult.  Too often, especially online, we get a snapshot of someone’s finances and think we see the whole picture when we don’t.

We make assumptions of our own financial situations based on others.

Ultimately, we need to strive to do the best we can do with our own budgets.  To beat ourselves by spending less and/or saving more than we did the month before or the year before.

The only time it makes sense to look at someone else’s finances and spending is when they are doing considerably better than you, and you want to learn from and emulate them.  For instance, I knew my husband and I were spending too much for groceries.  One blogger I read has grown a large garden and planted fruit trees so that she can feed her family of 9 for less than $300 per month.  (Yes, you read that right.)

I know I won’t  ever have a grocery budget of $300 per month, but reading her techniques and strategies has encouraged me to cut my grocery budget and try to spend less.  It’s even inspired me to try out once a month shopping to reduce costs.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t compare our finances to others, but if we’re going to, we should only compare to those we wish to emulate.

Do you look at other people’s spending to make you feel better about your own or to motivate you to improve your finances?

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?