by Jeffrey Shain
This is a guest post by Todd Ryan who blogs at So Help Me Todd where he talks about faith, family, finances, and other quandaries.
When I first started trying to improve my financial situation, I went through a series of phases:
I didn’t think I had that much to learn. I mean, I was already balancing my checkbook and reviewing my statement each month, and I could tell you about what I was spending as I knew how
little much we had left over each month. We weren’t doing anything wrong, we just needed more money and then we’d be fine.
But, I didn’t think it could hurt to at least read a book and make sure.
Shock and awe
One of the first things any personal finance book will tell you is that you have to start recording every purchase you make and associating it with a category. Cash, check, credit card, everything gets recorded.
After a week or so of recording everything, you’re told to go back and add up what you spent in every category. So I complied and dutifully went about adding up each category, thinking that it shouldn’t take too long to find that you can’t get blood from a turnip…
Holy (insert family friendly expletive here)!
I spent how much on work lunches?
Why do groceries cost that much?
I could buy a coffee maker every month and STILL spend less on coffee!
“This is crazy!” I said and quickly set out to see how we could reduce our spending.
On a mission
Suddenly, I became Ima Schwartzasaver, the Terminator.
And every category suddenly read “Sara O’Connor” in big bold letters.
“Are you Sara O’Connor?” I said to the cable bill.
“Yes”, replied Ms. Sara Cable Bill O’Connor nervously.
Well, I’m fixin’ to terminate you.
(gratuituous violence scene)
Repeat. Lather. Rinse.
Closing in on total annihilation
After surveying the trail of “reckless spending” carcasses in my wake, my eye caught one of the behemoths of my budget.
(queue the suspenseful music, preferably something from “300“)
(Hopefully when you read that word, in your mind it sounded like the guy who does the movie trailers for the summer blockbusters)
That one should be easy to cut, especially after all the stories I heard about couponing. Heck, I’m such a bad dude I bet extreme couponing would be more my style.
And off I went.
I did the research.
Read the forums.
Got the book from the library (Did I mention I’m frugal?).
Watched the show.
And so, a couple of weeks later I was ready, having laid the foundation:
- Bought multiple copies of the newspapers for my area, and filed the coupons by coupon source and date
- Saved the coupons in the mail
- Scavenged coupons left behind by others at restaurants
- Set aside a storage area for my bounty
- Registered for all of the in store reward cards
- Used websites to figure out when my coupons would line up with store sales
- Compiled a list of which stores I would visit (4 in total), which coupons I would use, and how many different transactions it would take at each store.
Operation “Grocery Store Domination” is a GO!
And it really did work.
I came home that day, exhausted after several hours of shopping and driving between stores, but I had saved over 50% on my grocery bill.
So I gleefully set about unloading the car and marveling at my loot, feeling like the modern-day metro sexual version of a pirate.
The fact that I was the “wench” because I did all the shopping and cooking kind of ruined my fantasy, but I did have a pretty cool parrot.
Anyway, about an hour later I had everything stowed and had bragged about my success to my wife (who actually accompanied me on some of the trips).
Having worked up a big appetite, we were starving, so I casually remarked something about whipping up something that would probably cost us pennies on the dollar.
Off I went to the pantry to see what we had.
20 boxes of cereal.
Nah, not for dinner.
30 boxes of spaghetti.
Rats, the spaghetti sauce was on next week’s attack list so that won’t work.
3 blood sugar test kits.
What the? Oh yeah, that was so I could get that rebate thing that made them free and gave me cash back in the store so that I can……never mind. I can’t eat them anyway.
10 Air fresheners.
Well, that’s good. If I cook something that smells nasty I can overpower it with that fresh pine scent.
10 pounds of chicken breast, boneless / skinless.
NOW we’re talking! I’ve got a bunch of great recipes for those….
(rummage through the recipe box)
Well, I’ve got about a dozen great recipes, but we’re missing at least one ingredient for each of them, which means another trip to the store.
So we ordered pizza that night, and I quickly realized that couponing wasn’t going to work for me. It was hard enough (and I failed) coming up with something on a weekend after I had just went shopping, I couldn’t imaging trying to do that after working all day.
So back to the drawing board I went, and I stumbled across a site called emeals (at the time they were E-mealz).
The premise of emeals is that they provide a one week menu for you (they offer menus by store or food type, i.e. low carb, low fat gluten free, etc.) with the shopping list to go along with it.
And, their menus are designed to average (now) around $85 per week to feed a family of 4. For us, the “family of 4” has been very inaccurate in that we’re able to feed a family of 5 (including a teen that wears a size 14 shoe and his younger brother who eats more than he does) to satiety and we have had leftovers every single meal.
They have sample plans available under the “How it works” section on their website if you’d like to see the types of meals they offer. We have a couple of picky eaters and we’ve only found one or two dishes that we didn’t like.
How do I know what my grocery budget should be?
Even after implementing emeals, I still struggled with determining how I was doing in my grocery budget. Most of the personal finance books I’ve read speak in percentages, but those were always way off and didn’t seem to make much sense to me.
How can one percentage work for a retired couple, a house full of teenagers, and a single person?
What if there are special dietary needs that are required medically?
Doesn’t the cost of food change? If this book was written in 1999, are the percentages still accurate?
Get your slide rule out…
And then I discovered the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) website. On their site, they have a document (PDF) that is updated monthly. In that document, they list the average cost of food necessary to eat according to the food pyramid broken out by age, sex, and four different budget levels.
Even though I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the pyramid, that seemed like a reasonable model and the fact that they tied it to the consumer price index made it very factual to me.
So I pulled up the PDF and began to calculate what our average monthly cost should be:
- Let’s see, I’m a 42 year old male so, let’s start with “Thrifty” (jot that number down) from the “19-50” column.
- Next, my wife…find her age range….find thrifty….jot that number down
- (Repeat for the other 3 family members)
- Cool, here’s my total. Wait…..what’s the text at the bottom?
- Oh, I need to adjust the total by 5 percent because these figures are based on 4 family members. Makes sense, but a pain in the butt.
- So there’s my total. Oh. I should probably do the other 3 spending levels as well just so I know them.
Needless to say, this became a lengthy, tedious process that I wasn’t anxious to repeat.
Never fear though, dear reader. Not only is this the “Blogging Away Debt” blog, but you happen to be reading the “Blogging Away a Pain in the Butt” guest post.
Luckily for you, I designed and hired someone to code the math behind the table and present in a homely but very efficient and beneficial (not me, the calculator smarty pants) page where all the math is done for you.
All you have to do is select the sex and age range for each family member and press the “Calc” button to see what the average spend in each food category for your family should be.
The table supports up to 10 family members; if you have more than that you already have your own reality show on TLC, so what do you care how much groceries cost? Sheesh…celebrities are so needy.
Anywho, here’s the link to the calculator: Food Costs Calculator (don’t worry, it opens in a separate window)
For us, thanks to emeals, we fall just above the “Thrifty” average and just below the “Low” average for most normal months. If we have company or cook a holiday meal it creeps up to “Low”, but we average below that.
So how do you fare?
Are you at the “Thrifty”, “Low”, “Moderate” or “Liberal” level?
If you’re at the “Thrifty” level or below, how do you do it?
If you’re at the “Moderate” or “Liberal” level, can you think of ways to lower your bill besides becoming a Republican? (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Get it? Liberal? Republican?. Never mind.)
Have you had success at couponing, and if so, how did you overcome the challenge of finding meals easily based on what you have in hand?
We are always looking for interesing, motivational and real life personal debt stories. If you have a personal debt story that you’d like to share, feel free to contact us so that we can share it with all the readers.
Disclaimer: This post is sprinkled liberally with links to emeals, a site where I am both a customer and (like every customer) an affiliate, receiving a 25% commission when you sign up. However, I post these affiliate links with no shame as 100% of the profits I receive from emeals (and from my blog) go directly to a non-profit charitable corporation I’m launching this summer. Currently, the funds are going towards incorporating costs as I tapped out my “dream” budget balance pretty quickly working on developing the concept. If you’re interested, there is more information about the charity on the calculator page.