Monday, October 11, 2010

Mission Impossible: Eating good food on a budget

Is it me or does it seem like the cost of food has gone up - way up - lately? It seems that I'm getting fewer items with a higher price tag every time I walk into the supermarket. Granted, I've been making more frequent shopping trips and planning less than I used to, but I still can't fathom how two bags of groceries can cost $60.

Though I've looked at our food costs per month in the past, it's been a while. Like everyone else, I noticed money's been tighter these days though between the economy, a recent job change, and a move, I accepted it and moved on. But you can only ignore the facts so long - and the fact is our spending seems to have gotten out of control.

So I decided to look at our food purchases over the last 8 months. Fortunately, I purchase everything on my Costco American Express card* which a) results in a nice, fat cash rebate at the end of the year and b) automatically itemizes your spending into categories, like "groceries" and "restaurants" and puts into a nice graph and spreadsheet in their on-line account management site. (*Note: this is only smart if you pay your credit card off in full each month.) While the numbers aren't totally accurate - I had to add a percentage of "wholesale" purchases into my "groceries" amount since we buy a lot of bulk food at Costco - it gave me a rough idea of how much money we're spending per month and saved me a ton of time.

I was shocked when I realized that we have more than doubled our spending on food since spring to nearly $1000 per month for a family of three (one of whom eats more pretend food than real food). I am not proud of this number but I know I am not alone.

Amongst my friends, some report spending upwards of $1200/month on food on a family of 3 or 4! My budget-conscious friends have told me they are able to keep grocery bills to around $400/month, which is where we were just 8 months ago. So I set out to create a 4 week menu on a monthly budget of $500/month.

The challenge here is eating good, wholesome, nutritious food on a budget. In truth, I feel like I can keep this under $500/month but I don’t want to be so unrealistic that I fail miserably - and at this point any reduction in spending is good. I’ve allowed some room for increased food costs (both wheat and soy costs are expected to continue rising, among others) and I’m not prepared to compromise too much on quality. There are some more expensive items that just taste better and it’s important to me to provide a variety foods my family likes because, well, we live to eat.

So here’s the plan: each week I’ll post my menu, selected recipes, grocery receipts and notes on sticking to a budget. I’ll test the waters first and you can jump in when you’re ready!

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