Thursday, October 13, 2011

October's Goal: Re-taming the Beast

Some might remember that I was planning to work through a goal each month this year. I summarized them here. The last goal I wrote about was our garden, way back in May. That project was going fairly well until our little patch was discovered by a bunny with a large appetite. But that's another story. So where have my goals gone?

As usual, life has gotten busy. These past 1-2 months have been especially difficult with one illness after another. In between the stomach flu, the regular flu, and Caleb getting a Staph infection we've been schlepping to a pain clinic in Baltimore to try and deal with this pain I've had for over a year and David's been putting in lots of (required) overtime at work.

Amazingly, in all this, we've managed to draw closer to God and one another. Both David and I have noted that despite all the challenges we feel more connected and invested in our marriage than we have in a while. Not that it was dying or anything dramatic like that, we were just in a "care for Caleb and the house" rut. It's amazing how small gestures can go such a long way in making both of us feel loved. I've been trading my sweat pants for jeans and a cute top more often and David delighted me with a letter in the mail. We've also been taking time to read scripture and pray together each night before bed again. It's quickly become my favorite part of the day.

However, there is one aspect of our lives that has gotten totally out of control. It always seems to get worse the busier life gets. I bet some other home managers out there know what I'm about to say...

Our grocery bill is ridiculous.

I haven't so much been tiptoeing past our budgeted amount so much as sailing over it. To the tune of $150-$200/month (extra) for the past 5 months. That's a lot of overage. As I've talked about before, our budget is set to a number that challenges me, but is completely do-able. So how on earth did I end up going so far over so many months in a row? It's a question that has forced me look at food management habits honestly as I searched for the answer.

It's not like I totally gave up. Even in all the chaos, I was still clipping coupons, planning my meals based on the weekly sale paper, etc. I think that's why this went on so long. I reasoned that I was already doing the best I could. Maybe food prices had gone up? However when I was really really honest with myself, I could pretty clearly see the "leaks" in our food budget.

Leak #1- Waste

I'm ashamed to admit that I'm pretty sure I threw away around $50 worth of food each month just because it had gone bad. Left overs we hadn't eaten, produce that had withered away, things that migrated to the back of the fridge and got lost. Typically, I look through the fridge several times each week and adapt the meal plan as necessary to include left over night or use up an ingredient about to go bad. When I stopped doing that, the inevitable happened.

Leak #2- Lack of Organization

I always think I can skip this step and I am always wrong. Although I was still meal planning, often when I reached the store I discovered I'd forgotten my (insert one: grocery list, coupons, or cash envelope). This led to me purchasing things we didn't need, forgetting things we did need, paying more for the things I bought than I had planned and not knowing how I was doing in relation to the budget because all I did was swipe a card.

Leak #3- No freezer meals

Doubling meals and freezing the excess is such a sanity saver. They're a great for helping resist the call of pizza delivery on a busy night. However, until recently, I hardly ever remembered to double my recipe and keep the freezer stocked accordingly. This lack of foresight led to the following situation:

The scene: both David and I have the flu and have been lying on the couch 90% of the day, except to meet Caleb's basic needs. I haven't been grocery shopping this week. Now it's dinner time.

David: So what's for dinner tonight
Me: I don't have anything planned. There's nothing in the freezer or the pantry. We're too sick to go out to eat and Caleb needs to go to bed soon anyway. I'll have to go to the grocery store, but I'm so sick I wish I didn't have to cook!
David: Maybe we could get something from the Deli?
Me (whining): I just wish someone would show up at our house with food. Preferably my mom. I don't want to leave the house. I'm sick (in case he hadn't noticed).
David: So what do you want to do?
Me: Insert more whining, grumbling and other extremely unattractive behavior.

We ended up going to the store and getting a rotisserie chicken, which I turned into soup and loading up with some other (expensive) pre-packaged meals. This entire ugly situation could have been prevented had a I merely had a meal or two tucked away in the freezer.

This month, I am determined to come in under budget. In addition to correcting the 3 things I wrote about above, I've found a few other things quite helpful:

-Check out the bulk foods section. I've discovered even our very small one contains oats and nestle chocolate chips at about half the price of the bags on the shelf. Score!
- Sometimes organic is a better deal. I've started price checking the organic option before automatically assuming the conventional version is cheaper. I recently paid 1/4 the price for a spice shaker of curry powder this way.
-Keep a running grocery list on the fridge. So simple, but I'd never done it before! It's helped me forget fewer items, make fewer trips into town and stopped the "I have to go to the store and I haven't even made a list yet" scramble.
-Avoid the opportunity to spend. I wait to make a grocery trip until we're running low on a critical staple like bread. This means I often end up substituting ingredients or rearranging the menu plan to use up the things we do have. We have much less waste and I find myself crossing off things from my grocery list before I even had a chance to buy them.
-DIY. For now, all our sweets are home made. I have plenty of baking ingredients here and until I'm sure I can stay under budget, convenience treats like ice cream are off the list. I also started making yogurt from scratch again.

So far we are just under half way through the month and I am just over halfway through my allotted funds. Sadly, that's still a lot better than I've been doing. It may take some creativity, but I feel really confident I can come in at or under budget this month. October has a goal.

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