When I was 12 and grocery shopping with my mom, I had no clue that this simple errand would be a classroom for the basics of budgeting.
“Grocery shopping presents the opportunity to witness a microcosm of your budget,” explains Cherie Lowe, author of Slaying the Debt Dragon and personal finance blogger at QueenofFree.net. “Just like in budgeting for your household for the month (or the year), you have limits, needs, and can even afford an occasional splurge. But you have to balance it all. Strategic grocery shopping provides a glimpse of what your household finances can be.”
I’m thankful to have been raised by two frugal and money-wise parents. Now that I’m on my own and spending the money that my husband and I work hard for, I see how everything I needed to know about budgeting can be distilled into five lessons I learned from watching my mom at the grocery store.
01. Get the most bang for your buck
One of the first things my mom taught me was to look at the price-per-unit on the tags at the grocery store and compare similar items. As a child who enjoyed numbers, checking these prices became a fun game. It is still one of the first things I look at to get the most value for the price.
My mom also taught me that getting a good bang for your buck means choosing quality over quantity when it matters to you, and not snubbing generic brands. My mom loyally purchased a few name brands when buying peanut butter and Greek yogurt. On the other hand, when purchasing items like shredded cheese and black beans, she opted for the generic brand. To her, the quality was the same.
This lesson recently played out in my clothing purchases. As I’ve become a more informed shopper over the past year, I’m not afraid to shop at thrift stores and consignment shops for items like dresses, jeans, blouses and even shoes. However, if I’m interested in buying a specific item or something new, I opt to shop from brands that I know are ethical, even if they’re more expensive. Likewise, sometimes more expensive food brands have better ingredients or are more ethically sourced.
02. Cultivate a stockpile, but don’t go crazy.
My mom was never afraid to take advantage of a good deal and “stockpile” those items for later. When items she regularly cooked with were on sale, she purchased what she needed for a couple of months at a time. She also kept items she regularly used for cooking on hand, whether fresh greens or canned goods. This curtailed last-minute, frenzied purchases and ensured she could always make dinner for her family, even if she didn’t have a meal plan.
“I frequently get asked if people should stockpile—take advantage of a great deal—while paying off debt. The answer can be yes and no,” Lowe says. “More than anything you want to stay on track with your budget. So if the great deal exceeds the parameters you’ve set, you need to skip it. However, if you can reduce your spending in other categories, you can certainly balance the two.”
If I’m shopping and notice something that would make a great housewarming or hostess gift, whether a bottle of wine or a candle, I purchase a few of them to have on hand. When I make plans to visit family or have a last-minute dinner invitation, I don’t have one more thing to my to-do list nor do I fall prey to making an impulse purchase outside of my budget.
03. Planning is key.
I never remember my mom going to the grocery store without a list that correlated with her meal plan for the week and our household needs. I’ve started cultivating a similar list, and not just with items that I buy weekly for our meals.
On my phone, I keep a list of items I don’t need immediately but would use regularly if I owned them. When I pop into a thrift shop or when I find out about online sales, I look for these specific items instead of casually browsing. Right now, my list includes a rice cooker, new ballet flats, and rugs for our front porch.
By planning my purchases, I curb impulse buys while giving myself the freedom to take advantage of a good deal when I see one.
04. Outsource when it works for you.
My mom is a wonderful cook, but she wasn’t afraid to “outsource” when she needed to. When her schedule was busy and we needed a snack for an event, she bought cookies from the grocery’s bakery. She opted for frozen pizza over homemade.
Budgeting isn’t synonymous with being a cheapskate or penny pinching. It is about intentionally and wisely spending your financial resources in a way that works for you and your household. As every busy woman knows, there are seasons when our time is more valuable than our money, and it’s worth it to spend a little more to avoid stress and frustration.
“Sometimes forking over a little money and skipping the DIY path might be more cost effective,” Lowe says. “It’s difficult to make a blanket statement as every situation is a case-by-case scenario, [but] you may choose to spend more especially if you lack expertise in a certain area and are more likely to flub up the repair/dish/project.”
Lowe advises, “Don’t read this as an irresponsible mandate to overspend. You still need to get the best deal possible, use coupons, and think through what’s truly necessary. But knowing your limits can save you time, money, and worry in the long run.”
As my husband and I prepared for a big vacation last summer, I needed a dress hemmed so that I could take it with me. Although I had a sewing machine and had hemmed items before, I decided to take those items to a tailor. Not only did that decision save me stress, it also allowed me to finish my work so I could fully enjoy our trip.
05. Enjoy and be thankful.
As my family gathered around the dinner table every evening, my mom didn’t complain about grocery prices. Instead, we would offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the food. I’ve learned that this practice is key when it comes to thinking about budgets and possessions.
Lowe shared that, while her family paid off their debt, they opted to eat beans and rice on a weekly basis to cultivate thankfulness for simple meals that those in poverty would be grateful to have. She shares that when she’s tempted to complain about her “own lot in life,” she tries to ask herself how she can play a part in relieving someone else’s suffering.
“If we’re only focused on what we lack, we can’t be grateful and, in effect, we can’t change the world,” she notes. I’m learning that when I receive my budget with thankfulness, my heart is opened to joy and wholehearted living. Just because I can’t buy wine and steak every week doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy what my budget can buy.
Walking through the grocery aisles with my mom taught me more about budgeting and money than I realized as a kid. I now know that it isn’t just about counting every nickle and dime and spending as little money as possible. Budgeting is about carefully stewarding our resources and spending the money we have with thoughtfulness and thankfulness. In many ways, it enables us to give more generously.
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