The first few months after we started operating on a single income was tough. We carefully settled on a budget. We even tried to incorporate spending on some major home repairs (we had a significant foundation issue to fix). But, we failed. And not just the first month. We failed the second and third months. The grocery budget and eating out budget were the two areas that we overspent. But, it was the jolt we needed to figure out how to get our spending in check. We might have been knocked down, but we didn’t give up. I used it as a learning experience and modified our plan until we got it right. Here are our lessons learned from going over budget.
Create a Meal Plan
Planning out all our meals has completely changed the way I grocery shop and the way we eat. It is much easier to stick to a budget when you have all your meals planned. You can do this in a very specific, rigid way (like me, I plan every single meal for all 7 days) or you can use something more flexible. Start by writing down 5-7 dinner ideas, lunch ideas and breakfasts. If you like to snack, include snacks too! Then, create your shopping list based on the plan.
Budget more than enough
One reason we failed, especially in the early stages, was that our budget was unrealistically low. For example, I budgeted $600 for groceries when we had been spending nearly twice that much before I became a stay at home mom. I read this great post from the Busy Budgeter about tricking yourself into under spending. The idea is that you set the budget over what you have available to spend. That will make you feel empowered to work harder to skrimp and save, and come in under budget. Rather than budgeting too low and being stressed out that you can’t meet the goal.
Consider all factors
While I thought I had identified some areas of major spending, I missed some smaller ones. For example, I didn’t create a complete meal plan that included all our meals, like breakfast and lunch, especially on the weekends. I had carefully set my menu plan for the week, but not the weekend. And then we ended up eating out for breakfast and lunch on Saturday. I modified my menu plan worksheet, but also started to incorporate meals that we already had all the ingredients for in my plan.
Be flexible when plans change
That leads me to my next discovery. The second week we started trying to follow a grocery budget, my husband had a work party that he needed to take a dish to, and my in-laws came to visit. I didn’t (or at least I thought I didn’t) have all the ingredients needed to cover these two events even after I had gone to the store. Instead of just using what we had on hand, I went to the store again. The reality is, I wasn’t flexible. I didn’t try to evaluate what we had on hand to solve the problem.
Resist the urge to buy other things
Because I shop at Walmart and Target, other purchases tempted me. While grocery shopping, I still bought a new cute outfit (or 5) for my girls. I bought new kitchen towels or adorable baskets for organizing the playroom. That made it especially hard to track grocery specific spending. Instead, I should have made special trips for those items with the money I budgeted for home purchases.
Plan eating out
I was trying to be a good, responsible budgeter and minimize the amount of times we ate out. But, I didn’t plan all our meals AND I didn’t factor in eating out in the menu plan. We ended up eating out more often than we had the money for. I finally learned to plan eating out. Then we didn’t feel deprived of those treats, but also factored it into our grocery shopping list so I bought less food and wasted less.
If you’re new to budgeting, you may struggle in the beginning like we did. It can make you feel like a failure or that you’ll never get it right, but don’t give up. Keep modifying your plan, including some of the strategies above. Spending with in a budget is a challenge if you’re not used to it. Use it as a learning experience. You can do it.