Do you have a money nemesis? You know. Like one line item on your budget that glares at you every month and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to wrangle it in.
Maybe it’s your power bill or the amount you spend on gasoline for your car. Maybe you can’t resist new shoes.
Me? It’s food.
Food is the bane of my existence, I swear to you.
I love it, of course. I love to cook it. I love to eat it. I love to go to a restaurant and have it served to me.
But I really, really love to have a lot of it in my house.
Once upon a time, I hardly spent anything on food. I fed myself and two kids on about $150 a month for years. Sometimes I earned the money. Sometimes the state of Nevada gave it to me. Depended on my immediate circumstances.
Even in the 1990s, $150 a month wasn’t really a comfortable amount of money to spend on food. There was always this underlying fear that it wouldn’t be enough.
And when I was in a position of sliding between paying for our food out of a paycheck and receiving food assistance, there was often really not enough.
And before that, in the 1980s, there was even less. My step-mother didn’t handle my dad going to prison very well and I was often left alone with six of my younger brothers and sisters for days at a time.
Pretty often, I’d find myself trying to figure out how to make four frozen burritos and a can of corn feed all seven of us.
(To this day, I can’t eat frozen burritos or canned corn. I have an almost PTSD — or possibly, I guess, an actually PTSD — reaction to both of them. I don’t allow them in my house.)
Those early days of food insecurity contributed to a budding eating disorder that I still struggle with today.
Like I said. Food is my nemesis.
So here’s what happened.
I got married again in 2003. And suddenly there was enough money and enough food. And my food budget expanded.
As I write this, my husband and I buy groceries for ourselves, our daughter, our son, his parents, and a friend who lives with us. Seven people — six adults and one teenager.
*Deep breath* Last year, I made myself really look at what we were spending on food and I was floored to realize it was more than $2000 a month. (That’s for groceries, eating out, household and personal care items we buy at the grocery store, and pet food. But still. Still!)
We’re not even talking about spending that much money because we were buying lobster and organic kale and crazy-expensive hand-polished organic eggs, either.
No. This was regular food, mostly bought at Winco and Costco.
It is perfectly okay with me if you feel a little bit better about yourself right now because you don’t spend nearly $2000 on food to feed your family.
Food is my budget nemesis.
It’s the thing that constantly derails me.
I haven’t paid full price for a piece of clothing in my entire adult life. I’m a thrift store wizard. I can cut a utility bill to the bone. I moved my family across country to cut our rent in half.
But food. If there’s not enough of it in the house, I can’t relax. And it doesn’t even have to be food we want to eat. In the moment, buying cases of the weirdest shit seems like a fantastic idea.
Which means that a year ago we were wasting a lot of food.
And no matter how many times I tried to limit shopping to once a week, there was always some reason to run into the store for something, which turned into another fifty bucks.
It all left me feeling out of control and kind of miserable.
So obviously something had to give. Spending $2000 a month on food is ridiculous. I made a plan to gain control of my nemesis. It’s still a work in progress, but we’ve cut our spending nearly in half.
I made it someone else’s job to shop.
I know you can’t always do this. Maybe you don’t have another adult in your household. Or maybe that’s just not how the division of labor works in your family.
But there are ways you can shift some of the responsibility for your nemesis to another party.
My husband does all of our grocery shopping. Since I do the cooking, I make the list. He’s fantastic at going in and just buying what I’ve told him to buy. He’s not compelled, like I am, to roam the aisles looking for deals. He doesn’t get an irresistible urge to stock up on Zombie Apocalypse foods that we’ll likely never eat.
You might try online shopping — ordering groceries so that all you have to do is pull up and pick them up. Keeping myself out of the store helps me to spend less money. It might work for you, too.
I have such a strong tendency to overspend at the grocery store, though, that even if I had to hire someone to do my shopping for me, I’d save a lot of money.
We started to use cash.
Handing over actual money makes spending real in a way that inserting a debit card might not.
It’s also a hard stop. If I go to the grocery store with a hundred dollars and no debit card, I have to manage my spending. It’s impossible for me to give in to my nemesis when it whispers in my ear that we really do need a dozen cans of peaches or whatever.
To be fair, we don’t do this all the time. Mostly because I don’t do the grocery shopping and my husband doesn’t have the same problems with it that I do. But it’s a good strategy if you’re struggling.
We started using a meal plan.
This has been such a big thing for me.
Instead of just walking into a store with the vague plan of shopping for the week, then wandering the aisles and filling my cart, I have a plan for the week going in.
There are seven people in our house, so I’ll often just ask everyone to pick a meal. Sometimes I’ll take a look at what’s on sale that week at the stores in my area and build a meal plan around that.
I’m not on a mission to cut my grocery bill as close to the bone as I can. At least not right now. My focus right now is just on getting back to the realm of reasonable.
If I was, I might work harder on choosing inexpensive meals instead of letting my father-in-law, who has Alzheimer’s, tell me he wants steak every time I ask him.
I list the dinners for the week and then write down what I need to make each one. Then add in breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
I have a white board hanging in my kitchen where I write down the dinners I have all the ingredients for. I erase them as I make them and add to them when we shop again.
As I’m writing this, I’m so aware of how basic it is. But it’s helped me to cut our grocery bill in half.
Try a no-spend month (Or even week.)
Here’s another very basic fact for you. You can cut your annual grocery spending by a little more than 8 percent, just by eating what you already have on hand for one month every year.
If food is your nemesis, too, you might have a very full pantry. All of those Zombie Apocalypse stockpiles. If you spend a month actually eating them, you’ll do a couple of things.
- You’ll clean our your pantry and fridge and freezer.
- You’ll give yourself a greater awareness of just what kind of food you’re choosing to fill your house with.
Seriously. Maybe if you actually have to eat all that dried soup mix and Hamburger Helper, you’ll stop loading up on it “just in case.”
(Notice how, when shit gets real, I switch from me to you. I mean me. I’ll stop buying that crap, if I actually have to eat it. Hopefully.)
We haven’t actually done a no-spend month, but we’ve had a couple of no-spend weeks.
Give yourself some grace.
If something is a real sticking point for you, like food is for me, it’s likely that there’s something behind it. Some reason why you struggle.
Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, try to understand why you’re struggling and forgive yourself. Build in supports for yourself (like letting someone else do your shopping, for instance.) And celebrate every little victory.
Envy Writer is a Nevada girl in Pennsylvania. She used to be poor. She’s not anymore. She wants to make sure she never is again. Let’s do this together.