Kathryn and her family live in Ontario where she and her husband work for a non-profit charity and have a combined household variable income of approximately $32,000. She has a passion for personal finance and helping others live well on less. She volunteers her time as a financial coach, meeting regularly with ordinary Canadians whose goal it is to reduce their debt, increase their savings and learn to live within their means with simple, easy tweaks to their spending and savings.

My husband and I are strong believers in the theory that says do what you love and the money will come later. We do what we love, but working in non-profit isn’t exactly lucrative. We had some choices to make once the kids came along. Should one of us move into the profit sector to make more money? Can we stretch our money even further so we can save for the future, provide for our family, and live well on less? Our biggest expense was our housing which was a fixed price. Our second biggest expense was our food budget. If we could dramatically reduce our grocery bill, we could afford to keep doing what we love. This is how we feed our family our family of two adults and two school age kids on $100 a week.

  1. Make a menu. At the end of the day, we always know what we’ll be having for dinner that night. Most of the time, a few minutes in the morning to throw a bunch of ingredients in the crock-pot or set something out to thaw is all it takes. When we get home, there is no temptation to eat out or order in. We keep the menu posted on the fridge so if one person gets home before the other, they know what to make.
  2. Do the math. Look at the unit prices and consider convenience food with an open mind. Sometimes it is less expensive to buy convenience food. Sometimes it isn’t. I’ll buy President’s Choice lasagna or Chicken Pot Pie (which is way better than I could ever make) and know I couldn’t make it from scratch for that price.
  3. Eat the good stuff. We eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. The fridge and fruit bowl are well stocked with high quality fresh foods. We rarely buy chips or pop. If we’ve only got $100 to spend on food, I don’t want to waste it on nutritionally empty food. When we do buy junk, we buy the good stuff. Our budget includes dark chocolate and the occasional bottle of Merlot. If we buy juice, we buy 100% juice.
  4. Shop once or twice a week. I do my main shopping once a week and aim to spend about $80. One other time in the week I spend the remaining budgeted money on anything we need before the next big shopping, usually a few missing ingredients and a re-stock of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  5. Make a list and stick to it. I have met with more people during my volunteer work as a financial coach, that confess to grocery shopping by wandering up and down the aisles to see what catches their attention. Companies hire people with PhDs in psychology to format the store in such a way to optimize temptation. The number one way we keep our grocery budget down is to make a list and stick to it.
  6. Use a calculator. Our budget is $100 a week. I have no way of knowing how close I am to the goal unless I keep track along the way. The easiest way to do this is with a calculator or a good old-fashioned ‘clicker’ counter. Then when we reach our set amount, we stop or begin ‘reverse shopping’ (putting back the things we don’t really need).
  7. If you bring the kids, put them to work. This clearly works better with school age kids. My kids know all about unit prices and how stores market to children. I try to go alone when possible but when the kids come with me, I put them to work. One of them is in charge of calculating how much we’ve spent so far. The other one is in charge of unit prices. When they are working with us in meeting our family goals, it’s a lot less likely they’ll ask for something that’s not on the list. It also makes the whole ‘grocery shopping with kids’ thing a much more pleasant experience when they have a valuable contributing role.
  8. Consider generic. I confess, when it comes to peanut butter, Kraft is the only one for me. However, with many items, there is very little difference in taste between the name brand and the generic. In many cases, the name brand company is producing the generic and it’s the same product with a different label. If you don’t like it, go back to what you like. Food should be about quality healthy ingredients that taste good. It’s not worth sacrificing flavor to save a bit of money. You might be genuinely surprised to find you like the generic brand better than the original!
  9. We don’t buy in bulk. (Gasp!) In fact, we quit going to Costco. When we bought in bulk, frankly we ate in bulk and wasted in bulk. Now that we’re buying reasonable portions, our grocery bill is manageable and we’re wasting very little food. When I sat down and did the math I realized that for us, we simply spent more money on food when we shopped at Costco.
  10. Pay cash or track it. I know, I know, we all love our cash back and our points. We’re addicted to credit card rewards. I collect PC points and have had almost $1000 in free groceries since switching to PC Financial in 1998. It works for us because we stick to our goal. I have found for most people, paying for their groceries with cold hard cash is the only way they can stick to a food budget, at least in the beginning. It takes some getting use to and yes, you’ll sacrifice the points. Even if you did it for a month, you could reduce your food budget considerably. I track everything we spend at wesabe. When the money is spent, it’s spent.

Eating well on less isn’t about making huge sacrifices or giving up your favourite things. It’s about making a plan, buying just enough, using what you have and choosing quality over quantity every time.

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