We are on a very tight budget with food being the second greatest expense, preceded only by our mortgage. My husband and I have spent most of our family years raising our kids and figured we would have plenty of time to save for retirement. Retirement has arrived for my husband and is staring me in the face and we are trying to get our financial house in order. Our kids are the joy of our lives but raising 4 of them has proven to be costlier than we would ever have imagined. This is our story about how we are beginning to climb out of debt and onto the road towards financial freedom. It is never too late to take control of your financial future.
My family is a single income family of 5 (two parents and three grown kids at home). Last summer, I sat bemoaning my situation (out of control debt and never enough money at the end of the month) and wondering where my money, which in theory should be sufficient to meet our needs, went. I am a professional person and make a modestly decent income, but through the wonder of the internet, I saw families with smaller incomes seeming to be not only debt free, but to be prospering. Something had to give.
How Digging Our Family Out Of Debt Began
During the course of my research, I stumbled upon a blog post about someone who had managed to unload $35,000 of debt. I was intrigued and inspired. He referred to a guy named Dave Ramsey and Financial Freedom University. This was right up my alley.
I borrowed the book from the library and shared his strategy with my husband. Together, we made a plan and informed the family that things were about to change.
In September, we tracked our spending in an effort to understand where we spent our money. We simply recorded the total of all spending. We have always been quite frugal shoppers and discretionary spending on non-essentials has been minimal. This was borne out by what I saw on paper. What to do? What to do?
The one area where I believed we could trim our spending was on groceries. In September, we spent $997.86 on groceries and $112.39 on take-out food = $1110.25. Although, I knew we could not stop eating, there was no bill stating we were obliged to pay so much for food. This was the one area I felt I could affect some significant change. The question was how? My sons are very resistant to rice and beans, in general and a meat based diet, for 5 adults, is very expensive. I challenged myself to get that specific category of spending under control.
Enter Mr. CBB and the Grocery Game Challenge -The Grocery Budget
I began to track all my spending on groceries and played with fine tuning menu planning and watched what other people were doing to see what I could learn from them. While I couldn’t reduce my spending at that time by growing my food, I could analyse what I did right and wrong and make improvements there.
Grocery shopping now became a game to play where I competed against myself. The key was to create a strategy where I could maximize the buying power of my dollar, all while minimizing the number of dollars I spent. Nothing motivates a competitive person like seeing your progress in print and the feedback one gets from Mr. CBB is like getting stickers for a job well done. I have always created a menu plan and shopped from a grocery list but I needed to figure out how to maximize my spending power even more.
Enter Cassie Howard at Mrs.January.com
Cassie has made an art form of extreme shopping Canadian style. She talks in-depth about how to shop for groceries and save money by purchasing items when they are on sale at rock bottom prices (not all sales are equal), buying sufficient quantities to last from one sale to the next, and where possible, using coupons to reduce costs even further.
In January, I recorded the regular price of all items I purchased along with the sale price I actually paid and all savings from coupon purchases. I found that by shopping the flyers and purchasing only items on sale, forgetting about brand loyalty, I saved approximately 35% on average (over purchasing all items on my list at one store and receiving the benefit of sales only incidentally).
In addition, coupons netted me an 8-10% savings above the 35%. I recorded every item I purchased and was thrilled to see that I had cut my spending down to $951.97. It doesn’t sound like much of a reduction at this point, but my house was overflowing with food which I had been able to purchase for the same amount of money simply by changing my shopping habits.
February’s challenge was to reduce my spending to $700.00 for the month. In conjunction with that, I decided to try cooking ahead to fill my freezer. My work schedule involves working 7 nights in a row followed by 7 nights off. By night 5 of my schedule, I usually am too tired, don’t want to cook and end up buying take out because I don’t have a plan. You know what they say “Fail to Plan = Plan to Fail”. Well now I was a woman with a plan and I planned to succeed.
Enter Once a Month Cooking
This time, I happened upon a site called “Good Cheap Eats“. This blogger spoke about her practise of doing a semi-annual “clean your pantry challenge”. Her goals include 1) saving money 2) working through her pantry inventory (to prevent waste as food usefulness expires) and 3) encouraging independence in her kids. I was stoked!
I committed right there and then to cleaning out my pantry /freezer. First, I inventoried my pantry and freezer. Then, I organized the contents and made a menu plan which incorporated the ingredients I had on hand. I am a very busy person and this took me part of a morning, but once I was done, I had all the information I needed to create a plan (plus I was able to clean out useless items taking up valuable real estate in my cupboard). All inventory lists were fastened to the refrigerator door so that they would be easily referred to and I was in business.
Menu plans were based primarily upon what was in stock already and the grocery list included only filler items needed to complete a meal (milk, fresh produce, etc.). Of course, the decision about what to buy was made referring to flyers. I don’t purchase newspapers so I refer to Cassie Howard’s site. The coupon match-up section not only has items on sale with corresponding coupons, she has links available to see current flyers of major grocery retailers.
I spent most of one day cooking and ended up with 30 meals either ready to go into the slow cooker/oven or cooked and ready for reheating. Although, it is a tiresome process when you do it, freedom from cooking and major clean-up for many days of the month, more than compensates. I also decided, 1 week into the month, to cut another $100 from my budget and challenged myself to spend $600 or less. The official amount spent for the month of February was an incredible $605.95.
What have I learned?
The most important lesson was that reducing my grocery budget, in the face of a lot of resistance from my kids, was possible. By learning the best possible prices for meat and other grocery items in my area and refusing to pay more than that price, I was able to slash my spending.
By using coupons, I was able to push my savings even further. To date, in the first two months of 2013, I have saved $180.03 by using coupons. Over the course of the year, that could reach more than $1000.00 in savings. If I won $1000, I would dance a jig around my living room.
By having a plan of attack and taking the time to prepare things ahead of time, I avoided the temptation to blow my budget with expensive take-out meals of convenience. I also managed to find a rice and bean dish which my boys will eat and have begun to serve that dish once every 2 weeks. I will continue to search for budget friendly menu items to reduce my budget even further. Further, because they see that I am so excited about my successes, they have realized that “resistance is futile”, to quote the Borg, and have come on board with my program.
This process has been a lot of work but I have effectively trimmed $500 from my monthly grocery budget. That is equivalent to working an extra 20 hours per month (net after taxes) for me and since this project has not taken an extra 20 hours per month, I am ahead of the game.
Where will I go from here?
I plan to maintain my grocery budget at $600 per month. Now that I have a sustainable budget, I think the next phase of the plan will be to roll all grocery savings directly into debt repayment. Ultimately, my husband and I plan to be completely debt free by December 2015. We will have trimmed our budget to what we will be able to live on in our retirement years (hopefully our kids will be independent and feeding themselves by then) and all extra income will be directed to fattening up the nest egg until I can retire in 2021. Lowering the grocery budget and digging my family out of debt first then focusing on saving will be well worth it in the end. You never know, we might even be able to squeeze in a few trips before then.
Post Contribution By: Donna R. Hi, I live and work in Hamilton, Ontario. My family consists of 4 mostly grown kids in post-secondary school (three of whom still live at home), my husband who is retired, our pampered pussy-cat, Sarah, and me.
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