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Budgeting: Nothing Humbling About It

by anna on April 20, 2009

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My husband is a very smart man and he takes very good care of me and Mini. When we were engaged, we decided to merge our finances and had to hammer out a family budget. At first, my husband was extremely resistant to this idea, because he had always associated the word “budget” with deprivation, or with having less, having to scrimp and save just to get by. I think this is a common misconception, since at some point somebody started using the word “budget” to denote “cheap” and, by association, not as good. What I explained to him then, and what I maintain to this day, is that everyone, from every tax bracket, in every circumstance, needs a budget. The reason for this is that people tend to spend what they can, to the limit, when they don’t tell their money what to do and where to go. And it’s as true if you’re living in the Hamptons as it is if you’re living in South Central Los Angeles: the price tags change, but the portion of income going out the window doesn’t. Just ask all those people who worked in the finance business in New York–they were making millions of dollars a year and now have little to show for it, ultimately finding themselves in the same situation as people who have never made more than $50,000 a year.

There’s no question that a big salary can make your life easier, but the advantages of making money are lessened when you don’t pay attention to where your money is going. I was recently reading a non-financial blog and came across an interesting comment in response to a claim by the blogger that she was going to try to save money. The reader claimed that they didn’t like personal finance blogs because they talk about cutting back and “budgeting,” and that they wanted to hear from someone who allowed them to have some fun. This was the gist of what the commenter wrote, but the line that stuck out in my mind was this one: “It is humbling to look at grocery store prices.” And it’s this comment that inspired this post.

There’s something entitled about a comment like this one, but it’s not that element that I find most interesting as a personal finance blogger. What disturbs me about it is that it betrays that same attitude that once you get past a certain level of income, you will not have to budget (or look at price tags ever again). And this is just simply not true. Furthermore, it makes it seem as if there is something embarrassing or improper about being smart with money, and this is also not true. When did conserving money become declassé? What about all those WASPy old-money New Englanders with their threadbare carpets and trust funds? When did status become attached to irresponsibility and huge credit limits?

Try to contain your excitement, people, for today is the day I reveal the super secret and fantastic menu planning methodology I’ve been hinting at for a while, but never explained, and also that I filched off of Simple Mom. If you don’t know about Simple Mom already, I highly recommend her site for the home organizational stuff she has in her archives. She’s got a bunch of stuff that will help you run your house like Martha Stewart on crank. I digress.

Anyway, I read about how Simple Mom does her menu planning months and months ago, and though I thought it was a fantastic idea I was way too lazy to implement it for, like six months. Then, about a month ago I finally did it, and though it was kind of time consuming to do, I’m glad now that I did it because everything’s all organized for like the next year and all I have to do is look at the plan each week to see what I need to get at the store(s). I should note that Simple Mom shows you how to plan for every meal, but I only do dinner because everybody is in different places for the other meals, so it’s not worth it for me to cook.

OK, so here’s what you do:

  1. If you are not already a member, sign up for delicious and create an online cookbook. Delicious is a bookmarking site that you can use to keep track of recipes you find online, as well as tag them by ingredient. Why does this matter? Well, say you need to make dinner and you have only a few ingredients in your refrigerator–all you have to do is input those ingredients and delicious will find recipes that use them together (provided your recipe collection is extensive enough). Simple Mom talks about how she created her online cookbook here if you’d like to have more explanation.
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  3. If you don’t have a google account, reasess your life open one and get into Google Calendar. If you don’t already use Google Calendar, you should note that you can create as many calendars as you want: I’ve got one for me, one for Mini, and one labelled “Menu Plan.” A way to keep track of how many meals you have to plan is to look at your calendar for events and cross-check it for days you will be out (or whatever) and don’t need to make a menu plan.
  4. Open your delicious cookbook. Locate the recipes you want to use and click on the link to the recipe. Copy the URL.
  5. Open Google Calendar and in another tab and set it to monthly view. Now that you have a recipe you want to use, click on the day you want to make it. After clicking, you can enter the name of the meal, tell Google Calendar it’s for the “Menu Plan” calendar, and then go to “edit event View definition in a new window details.” Paste the URL to the recipe in the notes box, in case you need to refer to it later.
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  7. Under “repeats” on the “edit event details” window, choose “monthly.” Actually, you can choose whatever time increment you want, but I use monthly because I don’t want to repeat recipes more than once a month. You can do it every two weeks or whatever works for your family and your cooking expertise.
  8. Under “reminder” choose to have reminders sent as needed. Generally, I don’t have reminders sent to me unless there is something special I need to do ahead of time for a particular dish. For example, there is a dish that requires me to soak beans for 12 hours before I cook them, so I send a reminder to myself about this the day before cooking Italian White Beans With Pancetta.

And that, my friends, is basically it! I repeat once a month, so there’s no more planning involved unless we decide to rotate a recipe in or out of the plan, which can be done by hand. Also, if you want to change what you’re having one night, but not permanently, then you can “edit event” and choose “this instance only” so that the rest of the calendar is not affected. The best part, though, of this plan is that I sent the link to Mr. Right-Click, so he can look each day to see what’s on the menu. That way, if there’s an objection or he just doesn’t feel like eating whatever is on the menu that day, he can let me know ahead of time.

Grocery Budget Confessional

by anna on April 14, 2009

People, I have a dirty secret to share. I can only hope that you won’t look at me differently after this. So, here it is: my grocery budget, for a family of 3, is over $1000 a month.

I KNOW! I KNOW! Does it make it any better if I tell you that things like soap, shampoo, conditioner, baby stuff (diapers, etc.) are included in this figure?

I read that people on the Dave Ramsey forums advocate budgeting $100/month for each person in the family. Using this theory, I should be spending $300/month on groceries, which I find laughable. Laughable, I say. Now, it is possible that the cost of living is not the same, but one big grocery trip for me is over $300 sometimes. One trip! And I’ve already explained that I cannot get everything we need at one store. So obviously, I’m not only not meeting that goal, I’m going way, way over it. Even if we adjust for California/Los Angeles prices, I would guess they’d say no more than $500/month, right?

The truth is that I’ve gotten lazy, and this is a big part of why we spend so much. I did start menu planning, by the way, and this is cutting down on how much waste we have in our refrigerator, which makes me very proud. I feel like a grownup whenever I crack open a leftovers container for lunch. And I should say that Mr. Right-Click’s affection for red meat probably makes our grocery bill slightly higher–I don’t think this is something that is negotiable, so I’ve accepted it and moved on.

But what about the rest? Where is the money going? Well, I’ve noted a few things, and I thought we’d go through them and see where I can change and where I’m going to have to just accept things as they are.

Where Does My Grocery Budget Go?

  1. Bristol Farms trips on weekends. If you are not familiar with Bristol Farms, good. Don’t ever go there. Since we’ve had Mini, Mr. Right-Click and I don’t go out to eat as much as we used to. On Saturday nights, a lot of times we will go to Bristol Farms and get some kind of ready-made dinner that’s not quite restaurant quality, but probably better than you’d get through delivery. Bristol Farms is ridiculously expensive. With the exception of some spicy tuna salad bowls we get there, I could probably cut them out for everything except meat if I just menu planned for the weekend, but I never feel like cooking on the weekend. This is another one of my lazy issues.
  2. Mini’s food. I try to get Mini to eat whatever I’ve made for dinner each night. Most of the food I make is stuff that’s not totally out of the realm of reason for him to eat, but he rarely eats it. As a result, I end up making him a grilled cheese sandwich, or a mac and cheese dinner (frozen or otherwise ready-made), sometimes a quesadilla. Yes, I’m aware my son should eat more than bread products mixed with cheese. I invite you to suggest that to him next time you see him, and see how it goes over. Anyway, we have a bunch of ready made foods for Mini because he just doesn’t eat the stuff I make. He also gets stuff like goldfish and snack foods that probably frugality people and/or hardcore whole food people would be aghast at. We don’t give him cookies or sweets on a regular basis, but he’s a kid with a crazy metabolism, so I feel like (within reason) now is his time to enjoy the occasional treat. Unfortunately, treats are expensive. And if I make them myself, Mr. Right-Click and I will eat them, which is BAD NEWS.
  3. Juice and Milk. Mini loves juice. During the day, he drinks mostly water, but at night and in the morning he will have milk and juice. And he drinks a lot. I think the only way to cut down on this budget would be to switch to non-organic milk (not a great idea) and maybe mix frozen juice instead of buying big bottles and juice boxes?
  4. Drinks for Me and Mr. Right-Click. I am sad to say this is where a lot of our grocery money goes these days. I have a ridiculous diet coke habit, and it “has” to be diet coke. Mr. Right-Click drinks diet sprite and these new drinks by Sobe that are sweetened with Stevia, so perhaps slightly healthier, but also more expensive. If we would both drink water, I think we could cut out like $40 per trip to Pavillions. But the prospect of that depresses me beyond belief.
  5. Other processed foods. We also get things like Weight Watchers Ice Cream bars, which are not prohibitively expensive, but which definitely run up the bill quite a bit when you consider they are not a necessity. Other things include: South Beach Diet Bars, Slim Fast Shakes, Nutri-Grain bars, etc. These items fluctuate from week-to-week, but they always end up in the cart.

Now, what do you guys think? Where should I cut? To a certain degree, I do feel my hands are tied with some of these things, since it’s not just me who has to make changes. I’m not sure I can demand that Mr. Right-Click and Mini give up what they like just because I feel like we’re spending too much at the grocery store. On the other hand, we have a lot of things we buy that are more expensive than they need to be. What is a reasonable amount to spend on groceries, per person? Do you think it matters where in the country you live?

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