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Published May 03, 2012, 11:30 PM

Richards: Spending challenge an eye-opener

I watched the cash register total creep upward as I fingered through the dollar bills in my envelope. The coupons I clutched in my hand brought the bill down enough that my cash covered the final total.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

I watched the cash register total creep upward as I fingered through the dollar bills in my envelope. The coupons I clutched in my hand brought the bill down enough that my cash covered the final total.

It was a different experience than I’m used to at the grocery store, usually swiping my plastic and not being overly concerned at the amount, knowing I’d been frugal in my choices. With cash, I was forced to stick to a limit and pass on impulse purchases.

It was also a bit of a victory. While I’d planned to replenish my cash envelope each week, we’d purchased three weeks of groceries on one week’s budget, plus a $20 bill.

Last month I wrote about my self-imposed spending challenge, to eat less expensively during the month of April.

I gave myself a weekly limit of $103.20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s thrifty plan cost of food at home for a man, woman and 4-year-old. Baby Owen didn’t get a food allowance, though I did buy a box of single-grain cereal and two whole sweet potatoes for him.

In total, our family spent $188.38 at the grocery store in April, about 46 percent of my maximum allotment. We also ate more meals at home than we typically do.

One reason is the challenge morphed into a pantry-clearing exercise, a head start on my spring cleaning.

The food reserves in my cupboards and deep freezer made up many of our meals’ main courses and side dishes during the month. I was truly surprised at how much money, in the form of food, was at my fingertips.

Our weekly cash outlay, then, went largely to fresh fruit, vegetables and milk, though I also restocked some staples like flour and oil, and bought several pounds of meat.

I cooked thrifty recipes suggested by the USDA, such as pizza meatloaf, cheese-stuffed baked potatoes and tuna macaroni salad. I also really used the ingredient search at allrecipes.com to find dishes that called for what I already had on hand, including lasagna roll-ups and a breakfast skillet.

I’m confident the total amount of food we consumed, even with the pantry additions, stayed below the $103.20 weekly guideline.

Throughout April, I blogged about the challenge and lessons learned.

I realized in week one that it’s important to limit grocery store visits to one a week, if possible. That cuts down on temptation. Also, don’t forget your shopping list. That was a “duh” moment.

Plan out your meals, building menus around what you have on hand and what’s on sale. Group together recipes that use the same perishable ingredients. Avoid buying single-use ingredients that may expire before consumed.

Find a middle ground between cost and convenience. Money and time are both finite resources. Sometimes it makes sense to use more of one to gain the other. I’ve found frozen juice concentrate is a less pricey, though slightly more time intensive, option to cartons or jugs of juice. But packaged, seasoned rice and beans made more sense for our family than preparing them from scratch.

I think there’s also a middle ground between Mother Hubbard and having enough food hoarded to survive nuclear winter. How much money withers in your cupboard when it could have been used to pay down debt or cover other expenses?

Compare, compare, compare. In week three, my husband volunteered to do the shopping. One of the items I asked him to buy was fish fillets. I assumed frozen would be cheapest, but he found some fresh fish on sale that was less expensive per pound than its frozen counterpart. (In the end, he chose a 2-pound bag of frozen cod fillets that priced out just under $4 per pound.)

I am hopeful some habits will stick from the month-long trial. I planned out meals for the whole first week of May that still purged older items from the pantry and freezer. And though my May Day shopping list was long, the total was $45.94 – 45 percent of that thrifty budget.

Perhaps I’ll extend Eat Less Expensively April into Economizing Meals May.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two.

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