The other day a friend of mine told me she and her husband were considering becoming a one-income family to make spending time with their kids a bigger priority. She also asked if we had any advice on feeding a family on a smaller budget. Initially, I had to laugh because there are so many months where I feel like I'm terrible at not going negative, or that for the whole last week of the month we're "getting creative" with whatever ingredients we have in the cupboards. It's not that we don't have the money and couldn't go buy something, but our goal is to stay in the budget and not dip below our allotted amount. When I asked JD how we do it, he said "have a naggy husband." :D He's our saver, I'm our spender. While he's a budget task master, I'm nothing but grateful - and also not in debt. With the exception of our home, we've been debt free since 2008. The day I walked across the stage to receive my college diploma, JD paid off my student loans and there we were - two incomes, a man who could manage a budget and reform his wife's atrocious spending habits, and a sizable savings cushion. And while we've added a home, 2 kids, and subtracted an income, we're still making it work. By no means do we consider ourselves experts, but after 9 years of marriage and three years of managing on a single income, we have finally developed a rhythm, a philosophy, and some rules to live by - especially when it comes to grocery shopping.
Here are some of the practical tips we use to make $300 feed our family for the month...
Also, food is important. The quality of your food is important. The idea is to feed your family cheaper and better. We're trying to get closer to the original ingredients and farther away from additives, preservatives, and fillers. We want real food. Quite a bit of it is organic. We know some who will sacrifice in other areas of their lives - like dining out, house improvements, etc. - so they can have as much possible to spend on the healthiest and all-organic food. The food they put in their bodies is that important to them. What are your priorities?
Here are some of the practical tips we use to make $300 feed our family for the month...
1. Determine what costs you the most, then find it cheaper. Is it meat? Find a cheaper/bulk option to save. Is it produce? Grow a garden. We eat a lot of eggs, so we found a farmer who sells them at the farmers market and only charges $2.50 for a dozen free range while their grocery store counterparts are $4.50+. Two dollars a week adds up over time! For ground beef, we buy the $9 price-to-sell 3 lb 85% lean chub from Target and then split it into 3 small pyrex containers and freeze them to pull out later when we need. Their expiration date is usually only 3 or 4 days away, but when you freeze them and use them as soon as you need them, the date is irrelevant and the meat is cheap.
As for the garden, ours is pretty extensive now and we love it. Whenever we want something, we can walk back for fresh cilantro, sage, basil, chives, raspberries, sugar snap peas, etc. Not to mention, it's a great lesson for the littles. Alice gets her very own plot of earth this year so she'll take care of it and actually see where food comes from. Bonus!
2. Price match. Aldi's at Walmart and use Cartwheel at Target. We save a lot on produce price matching.
3. Buy fresh and stop hoarding. Sometimes we go to the grocery store twice a week to get fresh produce, but it's usually a fun outing as a family (mostly because going to the grocery store by myself with 2 littles is draining). Then there are others who shop at Costco religiously (not that Costco is bad, but it can be detrimental to your budget if you're not careful). You know them. You might be one of them. They go every month to buy more stuff they don't really need. One family we know has 2 pantries, 2 refrigerators, and two deep freezers - all full of food and drinks. Yet somehow they get pulled back to the bulk warehouse. They say "if something happens we'll be set." Wellllllllll, maybe they will be, but the likelihood that "something will happen" is pretty slim, so JD and I just buy fresh and only what we need for the next few weeks. We do have some cans, but honestly only one slim cupboard for cans and baking goods, and a few shelves for our other foods. We don't stockpile so nothing goes uneaten. It's really easy when you have a hoard of stuff to forget about it, buy new, and then the old expires before you eat it. And I'm not saying you shouldn't buy more than 2 of anything, just be smart about not getting 12 when you only need 3. Save the money and the space. You're not saving money if you're spending it on quantities you won't use.
Also, please don't misunderstand me - I'm not saying don't stock up on the things you use most. We use chicken thighs a lot in cooking, so when there's a sale I usually get 4 packages. And when it comes to cheese (we eat a lot of cheese) I'll get 10 bricks at a time. Normally, a brick of cheese is at least $3, but on sale they're 2 for $3 so we get loads and save. But we use them all within 2 months. Nothing spoils in our fridge because we don't get a ton and we use it all. We still buy some things from Costco - flour, cheerios, sugar, syrup, oatmeal, dried fruits, frozen fruits, butter and nighttime diapers - but we use it all and only buy it if it's cheaper than elsewhere.
4. Eat/use what you have. Sometimes it's tempting to chuck a half eaten jar of something or never finish using an ingredient because you can't think of any more recipes for it (fresh ginger root, oyster sauce, or buttermilk anyone?), but we're pretty diligent about eating everything we buy - and hence only buying what we really eat. Like I mentioned before, there are a great many times where there are still 6-7 days at the end of the month and we're out of grocery money, so I get creative and just make meals with what we have. You'd be amazed at just how much food you really do have when you can't go buy more!
5. Don't buy what you don't eat. It seems pretty obvious, but there are so many people that get lured into buying things because they had a coupon, or again - got a dozen of something when they only needed one. You can save a lot of money by cutting out what you don't really use.
6. Make soup (and meals with leftovers). The cold months were great on our grocery budget because I could get a ton of meals out of one pot of soup - lunches, freeze some for another dinner, etc. I made a different soup once a week this past winter and it made things so simple and cheap! I'm really missing that. (On a side note, I read recently about a family who dedicated each night of the week to a meal, like Friday Pizza Night or Monday Pasta Night or Wednesday Grill out Night and it made their lives so much easier. The kids knew exactly what to look forward to and it took all the guesswork out for the parents. We haven't started that but I kind of want to try dedicating at least one night to a particular meal this summer.)
7. Nix snacks. Kids do not need snacks. I repeat: kids do not need snacks. Okay, some actually might, but if they "need" snacks while struggling to eat their meal, they do not in fact need a snack. Only occasionally if Alice is famished well before supper time will she get a little something to tide her over. And usually that is an apple. dried cherries, or a few slices of dried mangoes. We don't buy or give her snacks otherwise. For us, snacks are a luxury, not a necessity. Not to mention, oftentimes snacks do more damage than help. When kids - or anyone - have a semi-full belly, how likely are they to eat that wonderful dinner you just cooked for them? Not very. Stop snacks, serve them their vegetables first (they'll be way more likely to eat them when they're at their hungriest), and then you can stop the maddening cycle of "I'm not hungry enough to eat my food so I'll just push it around my plate til y'all are done."
Side note - Alice gets to eat her leftover supper for breakfast if she won't finish it. This morning's menu? Leftover eggs and black beans. I call that extra motivation. You might think we're mean parents, but gosh darn it, she's going to learn to eat her food.
I'm convinced that if America's parents stopped the snack frenzy that a lot of our problems would go away. I'll get off my box now ;)
p.s. How much money could your family save if you stopped buying fruit snacks and juice boxes and individually packaged crackers? Seriously, tally it up - I want to know!
8. Steer clear of processed food. Grocery stores charge way more for something in elaborate packaging or that has already had some amount of cooking involved (e.g. Bertolli pasta meals!). If you can buy flour instead of a loaf of bread or a giant bag of oats instead of pre-packaged slips of oats you can save a ton (not to mention reduce the waste of packaging - one of my biggest pet peeves). Things we make from scratch: bread, salad dressing, juice, pizza, pasta sauces (tomato, alfredo, pesto), etc. Plus you know where your food comes from when you make it yourself and it's just plain healthier. And cheaper! Honestly, it's not much more difficult than buying it pre-made. I'll share our bread recipe soon.
So, look at your grocery budget and track how much you have actually spent in the last few months. Is that realistic? Or could you pare down? Make your budget realistic but then do everything you can to stick to it.
Being a one income family is a challenge, but so amazingly rewarding (post on living fuller with less here). It's absolutely worth the sacrifices. I struggle to even call them sacrifices because this lifestyle is so much better than how we lived before and has given so much more back to us than we imagined. But even if you aren't a one-income family, these guidelines can help. Being conscious of your spending habits and knowing where your money goes can revolutionize your finances and encourage you to make better spending choices.
I hope this all helps. If it doesn't, just throw it out the window :D