I don’t have a lot of money. I used to when I was married and my husband was in the military and we didn't have to worry about things like healthcare or childcare or housing or travel costs or job security, but I’m a civilian now, and civilians have to worry about those things. I’m also a single parent now (3 years this November) and while my ex does pay child support, it’s not enough. My income is nowhere near what it used to be, certainly.
About a year ago, I began putting some time into figuring out what I could do on a regular basis to cut costs. I could shop at the dollar store, buy clothes at the DI or Savers, and I could drive as little as possible. Still, when it came down to it, I found out that one of my biggest expenses (besides rent) was food. My shopping experience consisted of going to the store with an empty cart (and sometimes an empty stomach) and saying to my kids, “Okay… what do we need?”
I made the grocery stores a lot of money that way.
My wallet, on the other hand, shrank exponentially as I made purchases based on the emotional response of my stomach in the moment, or in an attempt to remember what I didn't have in the pantry, since I hadn't made a list. I always, always, always came home with some sort of duplicate food item, as well as a bunch of stuff we never ate. My kitchen was full, but I felt poorer than ever.
Then my daughter started talking about school lunches at the dinner table. Tuesday was pizza, Friday was Chinese, and sometimes they had cinnamon rolls for dessert if they were lucky. My eyes went to the case of macaroni and cheese sitting in the kitchen pantry. Mom and Dad had just gotten it for me when they went to the caselot sale. An idea began to form in my mind:
What if I planned dinners like my kids’ school planned lunches?
The three of us (my two kids and I) sat down at the table and I asked them what their favorite foods were.
“Mac and Cheese!” said my 5 year-old son. Well, that’s taken care of.
“Tacos!” said my 8 year-old daughter.
“Good,” I said, thinking that the ingredients to these things were probably affordable. “What else?”
“Mac and cheese!!” my son said again.
Thus our weekly meal-plan was born.
Monday is Mac and Cheese Night
Tuesday is Taco/Nacho Night
Wednesday is Breakfast for Dinner Night
Thursday is Pasta Night
Friday is Fried Chicken (revised from Fish Night, which I am determined to bring back someday)
Saturday is Whatever I Want Night
and Sunday is Leftover night.
This new plan not only cut my grocery bill down at least 50%, it allowed me to gauge what my kids would actually eat, and therefore eliminate waste. And, as an added serendipitous bonus, it rendered obsolete the “What’s for dinner, Mom?” question my kids always used to ask. I hadn't realized how high my anxiety level would raise when I started stressing about what to make. A simple list relaxed me considerably.
I had wondered if I would miss the variety of foods. The answer is no, because with the money I saved, I was actually able to purchase select impulse items (always changing) and keep my snacks at whatever I wanted at the time. This strategy has also allowed me to maximize my state food assistance and plan for the entire month.
I had no idea a list would cut so much worry out of my life. My kids have really gotten into the planning process, recently suggesting that Wednesday’s Breakfast for Dinner Night be changed to Pigs in a Blanket Night. Dinner is fun and focused. The grocery stores are probably crying, but I tell you what…
My wallet is happy.