So for those of you who are joining me in the September Shopping Challenge for the first time, here are a few tips for getting started.
The key to success in this challenge is prep prep prep. It's essential that you plan ahead, budget and keep track of your spending.
When it comes to meals, menu planning is a must. We have in our kitchen four planning boards - meals, kids' schedules, parents' schedules ... and a fourth that has yet to find a real use but was needed to make the space look right. Chore schedules would probably make sense, if I'd just get around to it. This month, though, I've made the fourth board a shopping challenge record board.
Usually I only plan meals for the two weeks of the pay period, but this month I went ahead and planned for all month. I included eat-out days, so they could be budgeted as well. Using my scheduling board, I made sure that the meals I planned corresponded with our schedules. For instance, Lolly has soccer practice two days a week; those days, the dinners I've planned are quick and simple, so she can eat and be back out the door in time for practice. I have book club on the 3rd, so I planned out an extra dish to bring along to that. Don't forget to plan for Labor Day weekend too - will you be going out? Barbecuing? Menu planning around your schedules is important.
Then you need to plan your grocery list around your menu. I made my shopping list in the kitchen, going through each day and writing down what was on the menu and what ingredients I'd need for each thing. I also made sure I checked the fridge and the pantry in case I already had some of the ingredients or in case I thought I had some but didn't. I also checked my household lists for "other" items I needed to buy.
Finally, it's useful, if you have the time, to make sure everything on your list will fit into your grocery budget. For our family of five, our budget is $300 a fortnight for groceries. I know from experience that my grocery list is almost always going to fit into that budget, so I no longer write down the numbers, but I still write down the actual costs as I'm shopping so I can tally up before check-out, and if I've overspent, I can put some things back. For those of you new to budgeting though, I recommend playing your own version of the supermarket game, if you have the time. I did all of this on Saturday while the kids played on their iPads and computers, so I could have enough time to really plan all this out. However, I know we don't all have tons of spare time to be super meticulous. If you have the time, though, the supermarket game is a great way to keep yourself from overspending or buying extra items while at the store. Follow the link to read in detail, but a quick summary of the game is this:
1. Next to each item on the list, write down what you suspect each item will cost. (I round up to the nearest $0.50 or $1.)
2. Total it up so you know what you think you will end up spending. (If that total is over your budget limit, go back through and see what you can cut out.)
3. While at the store, write down how much the item actually cost. You can even grade yourself on how well you guessed by giving yourself a point for each item you either got exactly right and two points for each you spent less on. Take away a point for each item you spent more than your estimate. Take away another point for each item you buy that wasn't on your list. Give yourself no points but do not take away if that unplanned for item was a true necessity. (We all forget sometimes that we need butter or have run out of baking soda.) Each item on your list started out as a single point, so at the end of the game, how close to your original list did you get, point-wise?
(I also write down each extra item I buy with its cost, so I can keep track of what I'm buying and where the extra expenses came from.)
4. When you check out, if you stayed under your budget, you win! If you went over, you didn't "lose" you just know how to estimate better next time. Tally up your points too and see how well you did. Did you estimate everything well? Did you underspend more often than you overspent?
This is how I keep myself on budget with meals and groceries. This month, I'm also keeping a record of what I've spent in groceries and in my personal spending allowance. Seeing it in black and white (rather than in a bank account) somehow makes the money seem more real to me. I know using a checkbook transaction log is good, and I should really start doing that again, but I tend to use that only for my checks. If you are already using a log, that is great! If you aren't logging anything at all, I'd suggest you find an easy way to do it. My log is just a sticky pad I keep in my car with a pen. As soon as I get in the car, I record what's on the receipt (or a rounded-up estimate if I've already managed to lose the receipt.) Whatever works for you. But I highly recommend logging your spending somewhere, somehow.
Get planning, folks! September starts Thursday!