I’m a big fan of the envelope method of budgeting, and I’ve written about it in the past. Essentially, whenever money comes into our household, it immediately gets divided up into specific “envelopes” that denote what it’s for. We call this giving every dollar a job, and it makes managing expenses and saving extremely efficient. Once you’ve become good at it, a lot of the usual stress that comes with trying to stick with a budget goes away. Part of the reason I think this philosophy works so well for my family is that it lifts the mental load of spending and worrying that you can’t afford something. Rather than guessing how much you can spend on a given category, you just check its designated “envelope.” If there is enough money in there to buy what you need, you’re good to go! It might sound like a minor difference, but in practice, it revolutionizes budgeting. This method is amazing for nearly every type of spending, save one: groceries!
WHY AM I SPENDING SO MUCH ON GROCERIES?
I’ve always struggled to figure out what a reasonable grocery bill looks like for two people. Reading articles about others who manage their money in similar ways, and I’ve found that people tend to be all over the map. Some spend less than $250 and others well over $1,000, even on similar incomes and in similar parts of the United States! No matter what I do to estimate our grocery bill, I always seem to get it wrong, and my grocery “envelope” typically doesn’t have enough money in it at the end of the month to actually cover what we’ve spent on food. This means I have to redistribute or somehow compensate for this discrepancy and my elegant method of budgeting goes right out the window.
In the office, I am widely regarded as a bit obsessive when it comes to budgeting. I live and die by my budget. More often than not, I check it multiple times a day and reconcile my balances multiple times a week. So, when I asked my colleagues how they shop for groceries, a few were surprised that I was shooting in the dark most of the time when going to the grocery store! In-fact, six months ago, a trip to the grocery store would mostly involve a shortlist of wants and a hypothetical list of meals in my head that I knew how to cook. I don’t necessarily enjoy cooking, but I’m pretty good at turning almost any weird selection of food into a tasty dish
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HOW MEAL PLANNING HELPED ME SPEND LESS
One colleague, in particular, recommended I try meal planning. At first, this idea didn’t appeal to me at all. Meal planning is typically framed as a way to reduce food waste, but my wife and I haven’t really ever found ourselves throwing away food (scraps can almost always be turned into something good to eat). Not to mention, the freeform way that I like to cook usually means that I try to be inspired by what I see in the grocery store, and I don’t want to be beholden to some recipe I find online. But I figured that there was no reason not to try meal planning, at least for a week. If I didn’t like what I discovered, it would be easy to go back to my old habits. My goodness, I am so glad I tried it.
I started by finding a meal planning service that was cheap, had a nicely designed app, and fit into how I think about shopping. I stumbled across Mealime, a free service that provides and stores recipes is designed for meal planning, and conveniently orders your grocery list based on the layout of the store where you shop. Some bonus features, like an easy way to share your grocery list, print it or complete a delivery order with one tap, and I was sold. My wife and I spent a few minutes on a Sunday morning picking out four or five meals for the week, each with four servings to accommodate the next day’s lunch, and I headed down the hill to the grocery store.
Not only was my grocery bill cheaper than I had expected, but I spent way less time in the store, perfect for these COVID-19 times. It was honestly a bit of a surprise to me what a difference having an organized list made. I simply walked down each aisle, checking off items as I went from top to bottom of my list. Because there was no mental load of trying to figure out what I’d like to cook during the week, I also found myself not picking up those items that might typically rack up the bill! Another benefit? I’ve never spent so much time in the produce section of the store!
THE ADDED BENEFITS OF MEAL PLANNING
When I got home and started cooking, I was even more surprised! The variety of spices that I typically use had suddenly grown, and we found ourselves experiencing flavors that we weren’t used to conjuring in our kitchen. I consider myself a good cook, but I was amazed by the meals I was able to produce with meal planning. It isn’t as if they were complicated, some were far from it, but my mind was opened to different ways to utilize ingredients I’d eaten my whole life.
As for the budget, after a month of meal planning, I took a look back and noticed we’d significantly reduced our grocery bill. I won’t give specifics, but it was a shocking change. Had we really been throwing out food that we didn’t consume before? I don’t think that was it! Like my method of budget, meal planning is remarkably simple because it compartmentalizes the planning and the doing. With envelope budgeting, you fill up your “envelopes” before you receive funds, only spending at a later date. With meal planning, you write down what you’d like to eat before you shop for it. That distinction means less stress, less cost, and tastier meals. As someone who hesitated to try meal planning, I cannot recommend it enough.
Here’s how I plan our meals:
- Saturday morning, I browse recipes with my wife, prioritizing cheap ingredients and simple dishes that appeal to our tastes.
- We select four to six meals, each with roughly four servings so we can eat leftovers for lunch. Often the meals turn out larger than we anticipate, so we end up having plenty of food. When a meal requires something like potatoes, we tend to buy a whole bag, which we repurpose if a particular meal doesn’t use all of them.
- Once the initial list is complete, I go through our kitchen and check off stuff we already have. It is at this time we also add some basic breakfast foods and snacks that we love, like eggs and bread.
- The last step is the shopping trip! I usually go on Sunday, but as we are still adjusting to this method of cooking, I occasionally will go midweek.
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