Friday, November 30, 2012
Food Budget Challenges
One thing I have still found challenging, however, is budgeting food. The constant change in the price of food, the variety that I like to cook, examining the various purchasing options (local food store vs. Costco wholesale), perishability (is that a word?), etc. There are so many variables, plus the fact that I just haven't gotten this meal planning thing down because either I plan too much or I don't plan enough or something comes up like getting invited over for dinner last-minute and then what do you do with what you planned to make....
Food was also the hardest to budget because of my fear of depriving my family of nutrition. Weighing the value based on NUTRITIONAL VALUE instead of weight or volume is very complex. While refined food is cheaper, it is also less nutritional. While I want to buy nutritional food, I also have to stay within a certain budget that is reasonable for our overall budget. Then there is that thing that I'm a foodie. I love deli olives and fancy cheeses. I love to try new recipes with obscure ingredients like that $6 bottle of gluten-free soy sauce that I will use only once a month that I really cannot justify in the budget any more.
Two months ago it occurred to me that what worked for our overall budget could work for our food budget. Namely itemization and prioritization of items. Like Dave Ramsey's irregular income budget (which you can print for free off his website) you make a list of all the things you buy and their average cost, then you prioritize the most important and then the next most important, until you get to the end. Because of the varying cost of food, I must buy proteins and vegetables, dairy and eggs before I buy gluten-free bread or convenience snacks for my toddler. If the price of meat goes up, things at the bottom of the list just don't get purchased that month. It makes so much sense to me I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner.
Yes, it is tedious at first to write down everything we buy and the cost. I grouped items on a spreadsheet by type (meats, vegetables, dairy, frozen (veg and fruit), non-perishable, convenience-packaged food (string cheese, individual yogurt, etc.), and other. The first month I just tried to stay on budget and bought things like I normally did. The second month I put the items in order of priority. Tried to buy the things we needed before the lower-priority items. I found that just doing this helped me stay on budget better. This is the third month and I am refining my list.
Not only do I have a better idea of what things cost, I also have a better idea of our monthly consumption of each group of items. That is very useful when budgeting because then you can see if it is worthwhile to buy in bulk. I was hesitating to buy some more perishable items (dairy and deli meats) at Costco for fear that they would spoil before we ate them, but it turns out we can save about 30% by buying certain items now because I know we will go through them.
For now I am still keeping track of each item and how much I am buying in each category to see if I can refine the system more, but it really seems to be helping me plan meals better. I know I am kind of a perfectionist but making the most of our food budget is my job. I take it seriously.