Back in May, I signed us up for Mint.com, which is an incredibly valuable website where you can track your spending, set budgets, and get a better handle on your own personal finances. If you are not already a Minter, I do recommend it. It is free and easy to use. (Update 2017: I don’t use Mint anymore. They’re still all right, but I had troubles with importing my bank feeds and gave up).
We spent about 3 months getting a good baseline. There weren’t too many surprises in terms of our spending, but I was disappointed to see just how much we spent on groceries, restaurants, and alcohol. For a family of three, we were eating $800-$900 worth of groceries alone in a month, not to mention the dollars spent at restaurants and pubs.
It was at that point we decided we needed to find a way to get that spending down. We’re not strapped for cash by any means, but one of the things I learned when I started living in a cash world is that it is totally addictive to try and hold on to all of your money because when you have money that is all yours, you can occasionally let yourself splurge and that feels about four hundred times better than anything. I did some research and found that most families with one child in North America report spending in between $300 and $700 a month on groceries. We chose $500. I felt shaving $300-$400 off our grocery bill was going to be a challenge, but do-able.
First, I identified why we were spending so much.
Most importantly, we lacked planning. More than once a week I would phone Ross at work and I would admit I had forgotten to take something out to defrost. We don’t own a microwave and I think people use a microwave an awful lot to defrost things for dinner. He would pick something up, based on our whims, and we wouldn’t consider the cost. “I want cod, get cod. And some strawberries,” I’d say to him. “And grab one of those salads they make at the deli.” $28 later, we’d have dinner. Ouch. Something had to change.
First, we started meal planning. I bought a small month-at-a-glance dry erase board ($7 at London Drugs) that magnets right to our fridge. A week at a time, we decide what we are going to eat. We aim for at least two or three vegetarian meals, and we often allow for a day of “leftovers” to eat up the contents on the fridge. We also consider days where I might have to leave quickly for a meeting, or days we’ve invited friends to join us. We try and mix things up and I aim to try one meal a week I’ve never cooked before (I get a lot of my meal ideas from Canadian Living – I was given a subscription as a gift a few years ago and find their recipes really great for fast and cheap). When I sit down to plan the meals, I also consider the contents of my pantry and deep freeze, and I write the grocery list at the same time. Meal planning has decreased my 4pm stress level so much, I feel naked without it.
Other ways we save is that I make double and triple batches of soups, stews, shepherd’s pie, and other goodies that freeze well. We buy a lot of something when it’s on sale (sausages, for example, go on sale with some regularity, and freeze well). You can also see that we have a few favourites – like pesto pasta and sausages and rice that are total buck stretchers.
I also inventoried my deep freeze. It’s a totally geeky thing to have done, but now I have an actual list of what is in that giant white cold box downstairs. So instead of staring into a mish mash of portioned frozen bricks I can’t wrap my head around, I keep a list next to the meal planner board with an inventory of what’s in there so when I get up, I check the calendar, and pop downstairs to grab exactly what I need without freezing my face off.
According to Mint.com’s nice “trends” feature, which visually breaks down how and what we have spent on, and how that compares to other months (you can pick different categories or overall spending), our average amount is now $450 a month. I’m seeing it creep up a bit lately as we’ve had to replenish a number of staples in preparation for the holidays, but I’m okay with that. I see where the money is going and it makes me feel better just knowing I have a handle on stuff.
Also, cooking is kind of fun again.