Sunday, April 26, 2009

The $40 Shopping Trip

I began a personal experiment several weeks ago--attempting to do my grocery shopping on $80 a week. (We are a family of two adults and one 7 year-old.)

I learned a number of things, some of which surprised me and led me to realize it was a grand experiment, even on the "organizing level" which I had not intended.

It began as a way to curb our budget–we're all trying to tighten the purse strings these days and I know that while we do not go overboard in the food department, I knew we could reign things in a little. Sometimes produce goes to waste in our fridge or leftovers don't get eaten in time.

My original thought was to try to spend only $100 a week at the grocery store, but I wanted that amount to include the lunches my DH buys during the workweek. So I have him $20 of that (telling him I would make his lunch twice a week.)

That left me with $80. I was afraid that if I spent that all at once, I would have forgotten something important, and then blow my budget. So, I cut it down to $40, knowing that, even though I abhor grocery shopping more than once a week (once a month would be super if the produce would only stay fresh!), I would go twice.

Of course the first and best tool in this project is a planned week of menus (I had already been doing that–mostly) and a grocery list. I didn't think $40 was going to leave me any room for impulse purchases, and I was right. I also planned to take $40 in cash with me, not write a check as I usually do. This meant even more organization on my part, having to go the the bank and withdraw cash for the week.

Here's what I thought would happen and did:
1. The very first time I tried this (taking a calculator with me and adding as I shopped), I spent $40 exactly. Exactly! Forty dollars and no cents. $40.00 Even including the tax on one or two items, and having produce which of course could vary a lot. I saw it as a sign from the gods that I was meant to continue doing this. (Even the cashier was pretty astounded, even more so when I told him I had intended to spend only that amount.)

2. I made no frivolous purchases. I picked up two chocolate bars at the end (I consider those staples) and even put back another snack food to afford the second bar.

3. I only bought what I thought we would need in the next few days, not the whole week or for the next week.

If we had one block of tofu already in the fridge, I didn't buy another, knowing that was enough protein for a couple days. I bought just a few yogurts for DD and just one or two for me, since I only use a half of one each morning.

It made me more aware of what I had in the pantry or fridge already, and not overbuy. Which in turn kept some of that fresh produce from spoiling because I knew I needed to use it up. I stopped preparing only our favorite foods and used up the other stuff (perfectly fine and tasty) we already had. I even discovered that my DD will eat what we call "Beanie Weanies" and loves them. (Baked beans with cut up Smart Dogs.) And I can make cornbread in a flash if I have at least 20 minutes.

4. By limiting myself to the cash in my wallet, and to the $40 limit, I really did stick close to $40. When I know I have that "open checkbook" I tend to spend three times that amount.

What I hadn't expected:
1. Shopping was a whole lot quicker! You have your list, you fill it (and you know that $40 goes fast!) and you get out! Time and aggravation saved!

2. Healthier foods. Again, since $40 isn't much, there's no room for a lot of processed or prepared foods. You've got to buy the "cheap" stuff that you are going to process yourself at home. Of course this translates into a healthier diet. I found my cart loaded with fresh fruits and veggies, a couple veggie proteins, a few cans of beans or tomato sauce, soy milk, yogurt and a loaf of bread. I also found that I saved time since I wasn't stopping to inspect labels of any new items. The few processed things I did get were familiar and I'd inspected them in the past.

3. Easier. Forty dollars generally only gets you two bags of groceries. (At Whole Foods, anyway.) Two bags of groceries means: Only one trip up the stairs in the garage into the kitchen instead of three or four. Only a couple minutes putting groceries away in the kitchen instead of 15 or 20. (Or letting them sit on the floor for days because I was too tired after trudging up the stairs three times.)

4. Less wasted. We often don't even eat all the food I planned for the 3 days, and it is still in the fridge. I had learned this a few years ago when I started doing weekly menu planning. I would rarely use up all the groceries I had bought for the week and much was there (and some of it going bad) the next week. But this held true for menu planning/shopping for just a few days at a time. (I do plan the whole week's menus, but just shop for a few days.) So, we eat even less than I thought we did.

What didn't quite work on $40 a trip:
Once you start running out of non-food items, your bill goes up dramatically. I needed to readjust the budget to include the reality of the expenses of toilet paper, tissues (we have hay fever), paper towels (even though we use these sparingly), shampoo/conditioner (long hair takes a lot of shampoo), deodorant, razor blades, dishwasher detergent, dishwashing liquid, clothes washing detergent, feminine hygiene products, etc. We did our best to root out these things that might be hiding somewhere in the house–using up all those tiny little hair products from previous hotel stays, for instance. That would stretch the budget a week or so.

My take-aways:
1. Coaching metaphor. A very surprising take-away came in the form of a coaching metaphor, which I will explain in a future blog post. But it has to do with the idea of having only $40 worth of time vs. that open checkbook.

2. Food waste. I am much more careful about using up leftovers and not letting food rot in the fridge. I'm not perfect and it still happens, but I feel I am much more aware of what I am putting in my cart and the likelihood of it getting eaten.

3. I tend to "hoard" less. Similar to #2 above. I let go of the feeling that I need to buy several of each item (maybe it's on sale), when in reality, it's like borrowing money from myself. Why let my money sit on my shelf as a tenth can of beans when it could have gone to pay down a real debt? (I'll be blogging this summer about a project my local organizers' group is doing around disaster preparedness. That may also alleviate my hoarding tendency by knowing I have my "disaster hoard" already completed.)

4. High cost of non-food items. I'm more careful about non-food products since I now realize just how expensive they are--or rather, what a large percentage of our "grocery" budget they are. I've switched to a cheaper shampoo/conditioner that still meets my "natural" requirements. I've toyed with the idea of cutting my hair short again, but since short cuts need to be kept up more often I think the savings is in having fewer hair cuts. (And, no I won't switch to a $15 cut!) I have begun to just not wash my hair now and then, if I can get away with it. That's probably even better for my hair and certainly saves me time. And, no, I'm not ready to give up deodorant!

5. Shopping at two stores. Since I like two stores in town, and each carries a few things the other doesn't, I know I'll be getting to each of them in the week.

I'm still trying to shop with only $40 at a time. I've fallen off the wagon a few times, hard. Trader Joe's is a third store I like to shop at, but ours are in the next town, about 30-45 minutes away. The hoarding tendency takes over knowing I might not get back there for awhile and I'll easily spend $150. My stomach turns when I do that. So, I'm still working that out.

Costco is another issue. I don't really buy much food there, although on the last few trips I have found some good deals on fruit, which my daughter loves, and I try to eat more of. Other than fruit and juice boxes, I find myself buying non-food items like TP, tissues, batteries, printer paper and printing ink.

I think this experiment is a lot like diets I've been on. Over the last 20 years, I've tried different "diets" and come away with a new knowledge base, and I think I'm healthier for it. On McDougall I learned where the fats are in my food, on the Atkin's diet I learned where all the carbs were and where the protein was, on the Fiber diet, I learned, you guessed it, where all the fiber is. And lately, with the "UltraMind Diet" I am much more aware of wheat and sugar in my diet and how it affects me.

In other words, I have become more aware. I don't try to stick with just one of those diets--but it was like a decades long nutrition course that has helped me form choices about what I put into my mouth, and be very aware of when I stray from my good choices.

This budget experiment has made me very aware of the foods (and non-foods) I put in my cart, and how much they cost me financially as well as in time, potential aggravation and waste.

I think I'll keep to the $40/trip, knowing that there may be one or two extra trips each month when I have to stock up on items that last more than a few days but are essential to our lives.

When I see a $5 magazine at the check out (or any other frivolous item), I tend to think of it now in terms of how many cartons of blueberries it would buy. (When I was a kid, and bubble gum was a penny, I often looked at things as "How many pieces of bubble gum would that buy?)

Blueberries are expensive, but nutritionally very valuable and my DD loves them. That helps me make the choice.