Sunday, January 5, 2014

The $100 Weekly Grocery Challenge

I'm trying something new with our groceries - spend only $100 a week.

Given all of my diet restrictions, I know we will never have a food budget that is the envy of others. You can find plenty of articles about families of four who spend a mere $250 a month on groceries. Insane! But none of their strategies work for me and my list of allergies.

What could I use as a benchmark, particularly with a non-standard diet? The USDA gives this guide for food costs broken down by family sizes, with just under $800 the average for a family of four and $550 for two people.

$550 for a couple? That's over $6,600 a year on food!

It made me cringe to think of spending that much for just the two of us, so I settled on $100 a week. I know we won't always make it, but I figure we're doing a good job if we keep the monthly total under $500 and as close to $400 as we can.

Make a Plan and Stick to It

To stay within budget, meal planning is essential. You don't know what to buy if you don't know what you're cooking! We're big on leftovers, so every supper is made with four servings. I do smoothies for breakfast and Mike has cereal or oatmeal. Hot apple cider and homemade hot chocolate serve as snacks, as does whole fruits and chocolate bars.

Yes, I eat copious amounts of chocolate, and of course it's expensive because the only safe brands are the organic ones out of the health food section (sigh). But it's built into the budget, and everyone is kept happy because it's one of the few carb-like things I can have. It's a necessity, and Mike will agree. Plus antioxidants and stuff ... 

Meals for this week (eating out is a separate budget).
If you're curious about the double meal on Monday, I teach from 5:30-10pm on Tuesdays (for the next two months at least). Mike also works an evening shift until 9pm, so there is no one at home to prepare food for Tuesday dinner or Wednesday lunch leftovers. Hence why I make two meals on Monday and divide everything up between containers.

These meals are relatively set, though the sides are usually interchangeable. Sticking to the plan means food isn't wasted, particularly if it's highly perishable or can't be stashed away in the freezer near its spoil date. 

I craft our grocery list from this menu. I don't do coupons (I rarely find them for safe food in the first place), but I do look at the weekly flyers to see if I can save some pennies on a pound of meat, a gallon of milk, or a good produce deal. 10 cents here and there can really add up when you're only working with $100.

It also helps to have a good idea of costs. We eat the same things over and over again (just in different combinations) and I know who has the better deal between Aldi's and HyVee. I have a good memory for numbers, so I know I can get 1.5lb of hamburger for roughly $5, milk is around $3, cereal is about $2, and frozen berries will run $2.20. I know that three green peppers at Aldi's are $1.40, but if they're out that week, I will spend $1 for each one at HyVee.

How We Did This Week 

The first full week of 2014 is off to a good start - we came in $2 under budget!

Omission - last week we were $30 over budget. We had a bunch of pantry items (mostly spices) that we were completely out of. On top of that, we had some serious schedule fubars so there were whole meals that we'd bought ingredients for but never made.

Those hiccups ended up being a bonus this week because we already had these items on hand: split chicken breasts (value $5.50), regular chicken breasts ($2), two acorn squashes ($2.50), green beans ($2), one sweet potato (70 cents), one cucumber (40 cents), mushrooms ($2), cheddar cheese ($1.50 from a block I bought on sale over Christmas), half a block of spicy gouda cheese (leftover from last week, estimated $1.50), half of a red onion (30 cents?), and fresh cranberries (Aldi's had them on sale two weeks ago for 25 cents!). So right away I knew I had around $18 extra to play with, which is helpful for sales, seasonal items, and anything we can stock up on (see below).

Notice that those leftover ingredients are largely accounted for in our meals this week. That's deliberate so nothing is at risk of spoiling or being forgotten about.

That left us with these supplies that had to be purchased: milk, pasta and sauce (for Mike as backup lunch options), one box of cereal, 5lb bag of russet potatoes, salad, fresh blackberries (on sale), frozen berries, apples, parmesan cheese block (have to grate my own), carrots, sweet potatoes, roma tomatoes, peppers, grapefruit, zucchini, plain yogurt, garlic, chocolate bars, hamburger, one beef roast, and pork chops.

I need a bigger fruit stand!
Because I knew we had a little extra wiggle room, I cautiously grabbed some off-list items that were good deals (blurry cat not included).

Steel Cut Oats - $2.29
Seasonal item at Aldi's (and they really mean seasonal there). Good shelf life and Mike will eat these eventually.

Red Velvet Milk - $1.69 ($1 off)
Holiday seasonal item at HyVee. I can't have it (corn syrup), but Mike deserves treats.

Al Fresco Chicken Meatballs - $5.59
Processed food is almost always unsafe for me, even organic versions, but not so with these! When you make EVERYTHING from scratch, you have no idea how amazing it is to find something like this. HyVee doesn't have these in stock regularly, so we always grab a package whenever they're in. These are freezer-friendly too, so I've got a jump on a meal for next week.

Aldi's Chicken Sausage - $2.99
New item to try as the ingredient list is safe. Would be nice if these are tasty and reaction-free; it would be lovely some evening to have such a simple dinner with some scrambled eggs and fruit. 

POM Juice  - $2.99
I love this stuff but I never buy it because it's $1-2 more everywhere else. $5 for 12 oz of juice - no way! But I can stretch this small container out between several smoothies and a beautiful glazed apple recipe!

Pomegranates - $1.98
Truly seasonal item given the harvest window. These babies are only available in the winter and will disappear soon. One to eat today, one for the freezer.

Apple Cider - $2.99
I use juice in smoothies every morning, but due to added vitamins (corn source), the only other brand I can have is Simply Apple. It's half the amount for the same price as this gallon! Aldi's says this is a seasonal item so I bought an extra gallon and will freeze it in premeasured 1/2 cups so it won't spoil before I can use it.

Cocoa Powder - $2.19
I wish this wasn't a seasonal item at Aldi's - it's a full 80 cents cheaper than the HyVee or Hershey's brands. Trying to stock up on this before it disappears. We go through a healthy amount between flavoring smoothies, Mike's oatmeal, homemade hot chocolate, and some desserts I make.

Blood Orange - 70 cents
This little guy was expensive, but I got it for Mike as a treat. At $1.99 a pound (and I think that was even on sale), this will not be a repeat purchase!

Fruit Bar - $1.69
Ok, I got suckered in because it was 30 cents off, I was hungry, and it's one of those few processed foods that's safe for me to eat. I don't typically brand endorse, but they're called That's It and I normally buy these only when I'm traveling to tide me over in airports and convention centers.

So these purchases are a perfect example of why sticking to the list is important. I spent $25 - a fourth of my budget - on these unexpected finds. Some of these I was confident I could buy because I knew we had that extra $18 to play with. On a different week though, any or all of those items could have made us go over budget.

Our crop of groceries this week will also help next week. The chicken meatballs are definitely a meal unto themselves (when paired with some veggies), and the chicken sausages will be taste tested for breakfast next weekend. My pot roast was also three pounds, even though that's the smallest one I could find. That's huge for two people, so half is currently in the crockpot and the other half is waiting in the freezer. Even though I spent $14 this week on roast, $7 of it is being saved for a future meal.

With prices like these, we don't have beef roast often. But it is nice to shake up the menu once in a while.
The Cash Trick

The last thing to impart about my $100 grocery challenge is that I pay with cash. We're not cash people (though I know it's a huge component of the Dave Ramsey program), so this is a new tactic for us. 

The idea came about because I wanted to make our savings more tangible. If I save $2 when swiping a debit card, it's going to get lost in checking. But if I have two dollar bills in my hand, I can physically see and feel my savings. And that could lead me to think more carefully about how I will spend it than if the same money is hanging out in checking with other "unclaimed" funds. 

Conversely, I will know the "pain" of going over budget because I will have to break out my debit card. I don't hold so tight to this budget that it's inflexible (which makes no sense at all as food prices do fluctuate). So if there's a week I have to draw a small amount from checking, like $5, I'm not going to beat myself up. But if it's more than that, it's a good cue to revisit the menu planning, ingredient prices, or see if any non-essential items fouled up the budget.

Any savings we reap goes into a cookie jar of sorts. The goal is to put it right back into the grocery budget, particularly for sale items we want to stock up on (I'm looking at you, HyVee, when chicken is $1.99 instead of $3.49 a pound). 

In December, for example, we managed to save $40 over four weeks (even though there was one week we went over). We used the moolah as part of the regular grocery fund last week (weird pay days, were short in checking, sigh). Not savings really, but we avoided putting groceries on a credit card and that's important. A budget, after all, is to keep your expenses in check.

No system is perfect and I don't know how easy or hard it would be for others to try, but we're seeing promising results so far. It's become a game every week to see if I can hit our goal. You can really cheer for yourself when you have those savings in hand, even if it's 2 bucks and some change.

How do you manage your food expenses?