Grocery budgeting

When we first got into budgeting, my job was to look at our grocery budget and determine where costs were the greatest. I started by creating a spreadsheet with different grocery categories (e.g., meat/protein, produce, canned goods, cereal, frozen, snack foods, etc.). I categorized all purchases using grocery store receipts and entered total costs (minus coupons and store savings) into the spreadsheet after every shopping trip. It was pretty tedious, but within a month I got a pretty clear picture of what types of groceries were, percentage-wise, costing us the most, and the results were pretty surprising – even to me, the primary household shopper.
I used a spreadsheet function to display a graph of our total purchases by category. The first month I noted that nearly 20 percent of our purchases were going into the “beverage” category – that was almost $100 per month for juices and water! I could also see that we were buying far too many convenience and snack foods. These types of foods are often attractive purchases because they’re frequently on sale and coupons for these items are plentiful, making them appear less expensive compared to other groceries, and I often “stocked up” on these grain-based products.
When we took a good close look at our spending patterns, we admitted to ourselves that it wasn’t really necessary for us to have five types of cereal in the cupboard (no matter how cheap they were) or juice with our breakfast every morning. In fact, we noticed that it was much cheaper – and more nutritious and satiating – to have real fruits or vegetables with our meals instead of fruit or vegetable juice. One gallon of orange juice costs nearly $5 and can be slurped down in two or three days at our house, but a bag of oranges is only about $2.50 at our local vegetable store or on special, and can last us for more than a week, in addition to cutting out a lot of unnecessary sugars in our diets. By carrying re-useable water bottles, we could save another $10-20 per month.
Those weren’t the only surprises on our spreadsheet. I had always thought meat and produce accounted for the largest portion of our monthly budgets – we base our meals around the main dish, after all, so aren’t they the costliest? No! Our main-dish costs were actually lower, percentage-wise, than our snack-food costs! Something’s wrong with a budget (and a diet!) that allocates more resources to snack foods than healthy, filling meat-and-veggie meals. We had to make a change.
So, with a little help from some budgeting blogs we were starting to follow, we noted that we could save a lot of money by doing a few simple things:
• cutting out snack/convenience foods
• cutting out beverages (except milk)
• buying and freezing meat in bulk when on sale
• upping our veggie consumption – vegetables are cheaper than you think

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Keeping It Simple

We just finished remodeling the bathroom of our 70 year old home. We replaced everything but the tub. All-in-all, we spent about $2300 (+ a lot of sweat) which included hiring a tile guy to replace the subfloor and lay tile over it.

One thing that struck me during the project was how it temporarily interrupted the heck out of our lives. We spent about 4 weeks working on it and pretty much neglected everything else in our life. The boys got to play a ton of video games and watch hours of TV while we toiled away for a few weekends and a several week nights. When we weren’t working, we were exhausted. We started going to bed later and later. I stopped walking in the morning. I stopped walking at work! I started reading the Internet more. The bathroom was slowly stealing my life.

I grew to despise this bathroom initiative of ours. I wished many times along the way that we had hired someone to do the entire thing.

Now, I kind of feel like a newborn trying to find my way back into a simple, peaceful, and chaos-free routine.

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Getting Ahead Is Tiring

We have debt, and we are whittling it down at a nice pace.  I write that and it’s true, all things considered.  But sometimes I just want it to go faster.  And I am tired of thinking that way.

A guy down the street from me just passed away.  He was 91 years old.  I didn’t really know him.

I have put a lot of energy lately into thinking about our future.  Trying to get us on track for retirement and reduce our debt.

But, you know what?  Sometimes I think I’ve tipped the scale too much.  We went from being ultra-spenders to ultra-savers.  Although we are taking a $1000+ vacation this year and we did go out to see a movie yesterday.

But then I think about my neighbor and the possibility of having 60 years left.

I tell myself: be patient, John.  Be patient.  Enjoy life.

And get off the computer! :)

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401k Match

Does your company have 401k?

Do you know if the company matches contributions?

If so, do you know what the match is?

Or more specifically, what the terms of the match are?

Where I work, the majority of the six folks I talked to did not know what our company match was, or what is required to maximize the match.

And you know what?  That’s a shame.  Because those folks have been “leaving money on the table” as they say.

Although the way in which 401k terms are spelled out are not always straightforward, the idea is quite simple.  And you might be missing out if you have not taken the time to understand exactly how your company’s 401k program works.

401k programs with a match generally work like this:

The company will contribute a certain dollar amount for every dollar you contribute.

For example, the last company I worked at contributed 25 cents for every $1 I contributed, up to a maximum of 1.5% of my gross salary for the entire year.

My current employer contribute $1 for every $1 I contribute, up to a maximum of 4% of my gross salary for the entire year.

And while my current employer’s plan is significantly better (more than twice as good — 4% vs. 1.5%) the point is that in both scenarios, the company is giving away free money.  The catch is that in order to take advantage of the free money, you need to know how your company’s program works.

So if you like free money and you aren’t exactly sure how your company’s 401k program works, then I advise you to contact your HR department to find out how you learn more about it.

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Stop Using Your Credit Card

We’ve see this advice before, haven’t we?

The first step to getting out of credit card debt: stop using your card(s).

About.com offers 7 tricks to stop using credit cards.  But I wonder if anyone actually ever took action after reading this article?

The thing is, the advice to stop using your credit cards is so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning, really.  It’s the equivalent of saying someone needs to stop smoking cigarettes in order to quit the habit.

Unfortunately correcting your habits it’s a bit more complex than that.  And while “trick 7″ in the About.com article alludes to what is required, it is certainly not a trick.  It’s takes a serious attitude adjustment and includes some growing pains.

The thing is, your financial habits are so ingrained within you that they are on the same wavelength as how you sleep and eat.

Overall, I am sorry to report that this advice is so obvious that it’s useless.  And unfortunately it likely in most cases makes people who want to help themselves feel bad.  Because it makes it sound easy.  And well, as any of us who have climbed out of credit card debt know, it’s just not that easy.

 

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$20 Money Makeover (Debit card with > $20 Balance Required)

Let’s assume that you

  1. are frustrated with the way you are currently handling your money.
  2. have a debit card with > $20 balance.
  3. have an inkling that you’d like to change your ways.

You might fit assumption (1) if you feel like you:

  • spend too much money on x
  • don’t save enough
  • don’t invest enough
  • blow money
  • etc.

Ok, you’ve matched assumption (3) which likely means that you’d like to straighten up and follow a different financial path.

Excellent news!  Congratulations!

As a reward, here is an awesomely powerful motivational exercise that may help guide you along this path.

Just follow the following steps.

  1. Find the closest ATM that does not charge a fee.  Plan a walk to the ATM.  If walking is not possible, try public transportation and/or driving.
  2. Transport yourself there using whichever way you decide to.  During your trip, think about what you’re doing.  Think about the $20 you’re about to retrieve and put away in your wallet/pocket.  Think about all of the ways you spent $20 in the past.  The good ways, the bad ways.
  3. Arrive at the ATM and withdraw $20.
  4. Carefully look at the bill.
  5. Secure the bill in your pocket, wallet, purse, sock.
  6. Keep the bill in this location for as long as possible. Ask yourself?  What would it take to keep this bill for 7 days?  How about 30 days?  Or a year even?  Set a personal goal for how long you think you can hold onto this bill without spending it.  Don’t hide it away.  Keep it in plain view as a reminder of your journey.
  7. Test yourself.  Hold the bill for as long as you can.  When you have an urge to spend it, think about how you felt when you withdrew it.  Think about how you’ll feel if you spend it.

 

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How To Save Money On Food Step 2: Examine What You Buy

When it comes to food, what do you buy?

The answer might not be so simple at first.  But many of us actually buy the same items over and over.

In order to get some quick wins, I suggest listing what you consider the top ten items you buy on a recurring basis.  You might cross-reference this with the list you made up in Step 1 of how to save money on food.

So you have this list of food items you commonly buy in front of you.  Next to each item, write down the amount you spent on it last month.

As an example, in doing this exercise an almond lover might go from generally thinking I eat a lot of almonds to a more specific I spend $40 month on almonds.

The point of this exercise to transform the way in which you view your food acquisitions.  The goal is to go from looking at these acquisitions from a microscopic view to a macroscopic view.

This is advantageous because now you are armed with a “number to beat” for key items you buy.  Now, shop them around.

  • Check the Internet (coffee on amazon, nuts on ebay) for non-perishable goods
  • Check each local grocery and/or megagrocery.  Walmart might have the best price on half and half.  But there price on tomato juice might be much higher than Safeway.  Ultimately you should know with absolute certainty how much each of these top tenners cost at each local store.  Don’t forget about Costco, to which you can often find a trial membership if you are not already a member.
  • Google for “cheapest place to buy groceryx” for other ideas

At the end of this exercise, the goal is to know where to find the best price on your most common top ten items.  We saved at least $50/month by doing this.  Plus the psychological win of knowing you are a savvy food consumer is immense.

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The Secret To Spending Wisely

I’ve recently taken a different approach to writing about my experiences with finance recently.  With my recent posts how to payoff your credit card debt and how to save money on food I wrote down what I consider to be the bare bones framework that I used.

Although there are a number of comparison sites, such as Love Money or Go Compare, I cannot stress enough the importance of practise. The more you practise at saving money, the better you will become. You may find this hard to believe, but saving money still means you can have fun; so why not look for some promotional vouchers for local attractions, or take advantage of the Early-Bird meal deals which some diners offer?

And as the thoughts materialized for those posts, I was happy with the fact that the tips were generic enough that they could relate to anyone reading.

Upon thinking about this technique, I began to realize that there is going to be a common ingredient that will likely exist across all of these tips: time.

Practice.

You cannot become a great cook without spending a lot of time thinking about cooking, experimenting with cooking.

You cannot become a great baseball player without spending a lot of time thinking about baseball, practicing baseball.

You cannot become a great reader without reading a lot.

You cannot become a great personal money manager without thinking about and/or scrutinizing the way you spend money a lot.

You’ve got to put in the time.  There’s no way around it.  And that’s the so-called secret to spending wisely.

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How To Save Money On Food Step 1: Track Your Spending

So you want to save money on food?  Not a bad idea, especially since you will likely be paying for food for the rest of your life.

The first step is to ensure that you have an accurate baseline of what you spend now on food.  This is probably the hardest part and the least fun, but it is also the most critical.  Because if you are serious about saving money you need to know what you spend right now, so you can compare it at a later date to test whether or not you’ve saved money.

For one month, track every food purchase you make.  Include money spent on food eating out, coffee, vending machine, grocery, convenience stores, and beyond.  Every single cent spent on food?  Record it.  I recommend including alcohol/beer/wine in there too, but this is optional.

Use excel, a notepad, a calendar, or some reliable and convenient medium to record all of your data.  Warning: there will be a lot of data, so be warned.

After a month, add everything up.  And, if possible, separate into two categories: eating out and eating in.

Since chances are you likely spend more than you think you do, I recommend reading this discussion for therapeutic purposes.

If you are not ready to embark on this record keeping mission, fear not!  Bookmark this page an revisit when you are ready and willing.  In the meantime, happy eating!

Posted in Budget, Food | 2 Comments

How To Pay Off Your Credit Card Debt

The idea of paying off your credit card debt might seem like a monstrous undertaking.

But like all things financial, it helps to simplify the problem in order to come up with a solution.

If you can get through the following questions without feeling discouraged, then you might be ready to begin paying off your credit card debt.  If you cannot get through the list without feeling confident, then bookmark this page, and revisit once you are ready to give it another shot.

  1. At present, does your credit card balance(s) increase each month?  If so, can you stop this?  If you cannot, stop here and revisit this question at a later time.
  2. If you’ve made it to this question, that means you are currently paying down your credit card debt!  Congratulations!  Now, it’s simply a question of what the best method is.  You can choose from debt snowball or debt avalanche, or some hybrid of the two.  I invite you to use our credit card calculator to find out which method works best for you.
Posted in Credit Cards | 2 Comments