In which I cry over groceries

Perhaps this is commensurate with raising five children on pretty much one income, but my husband and I are constantly revamping our budget, which is akin to squeezing water from a rock.  We’ve been married for 16 years and we took this attitude, gratefully, into our marriage.  Both of us observed, pre-marriage, our parents getting into trouble with debt, and we had independently decided, “That will not be me.”  So, we’ve always been responsible, living debt-free and at or below our means.  However, there is always room for improvement.

But… a sore spot for me is the money we have allotted for groceries.  In other words, DON’T TOUCH MY GROCERY BUDGET, BUSTER!!

Part of me thinks we spend exorbitantly on groceries;  outside our mortgage, it is our single biggest expense.  But, I shop absolutely as responsibly as possible:  I keep an ongoing shopping list, and make my final list the day I go out, combining what we need with what is on sale, and what I have a coupon for.  I typically go to 3-5 stores each week, buying items at the spot where it’s available, and at the best price.  I am always looking for ways for us to eat CLEANER, as well.  On top that, most readers know that our family has multiple special diet needs:  Three of we seven have celiac disease, plus a smattering of food allergies, while my youngest has SEVERE food-related allergies and is on a highly restrictive diet (among other things, the only meat she can eat is lamb, and “cheap lamb” is an oxymoron).

No, I'm not paid by them. I just think it's a fabulous magazine.

I do all of that on $200 a week.  To me, and perhaps to you, that sounds like a lot of money.  But, look at it this way:  That’s $1.36 per meal, per person.  My favorite food magazine, Clean Eating, often runs sections on budget family eating, touting recipes that equate to $2 per person.  If I did that, I’d be spending $294/week.

My husband, who is the Budget Master (using Mvelopes), kept mentioning here and there that I have been going way over budget on the food, that it was constantly “in the red.”  This was a matter of consternation and confusion for me, as I knew, deep in my heart, that with very rare exception, I was sticking to $200/week.

So, about six weeks ago, I got extremely specific about it — using a calculator, keeping a running total on the back of receipts, carefully noting if anything I spent was non-food, etc.  I proudly deposited my receipts on to his desk with a comment or a note, “ONE DOLLAR over budget.”  “FIVE DOLLARS UNDER budget.”  Etc.  After a month of this, for which he was genuinely thankful, he approached me, gently dropping this bomb, “You know that our grocery budget is $800 a month, right?  Not $200 a week?”

Why, NO.  No, I didn’t realize that at all.  I’d been operating for more than a year with confidence that my budget was $200, weekly.  With a sinking heart, I quickly did a little math.  $800 a month equates to $184.61 weekly ($1.26 per person, per meal).  That’s a full FIFTEEN DOLLARS less than I have consistently been spending.  Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much, but that does amount to an extra $800, yearly, over what I was supposed to be spending.  No wonder I was in the red!!

Then, I panicked.  How in the world was I going to purchase everything I needed to with even less money??  Lower-quality food?  Less meat?  Less of our already virtually non-existent luxuries??  I already don’t purchase prepared foods.  No boxed or frozen ready-made foods for this family (partly due to cost, and partly due to health)!  We don’t even buy juice, let alone soda!  The “junkiest” we get is tortilla chips!  There really wasn’t a clear spot where I could trim.

I went out shopping a couple of weeks ago on my “new” budget of $185.  After the first store, I looked at my list of remaining items, and looked at what I had already spent.  I started to cry.  Perhaps that sounds ridiculous, but I felt the weight of responsibility for providing good food for my family, submitting to a budget (and my husband), feeling already over-stretched, and now saddled with an even smaller allotment.  I just didn’t know how I was going to do it, and I felt entirely overwhelmed.

Then… into my mind — likely from the Holy Spirit — popped the numerous missionary stories I’ve been reading to my children in the past month or two:  And the Word Came with Power, In Search of the Source, Catching Their Talk in a Box…  All of those books (while not being singular examples of fabulous writing and literature; my internal editor cringes too many times while reading all of them!) are simultaneously convicting and compelling:  True stories of deeply trusting in God’s provision and timing, and even rejoicing at the opportunity to see Him show up in seemingly impossible situations.

I stopped crying.

You must read this book.

I decided to pray over my grocery-shopping expedition.  There, out loud, in my car, in the parking lot of Costco, I prayed.  I poured out my heart to my God, in sincerity and need, tears again streaking down my cheeks, asking for His help:  for wisdom in what I choose to purchase, that I would find better-than-expected deals, that I would discover ways to trim excess from my list, that I could present my receipts to my husband and that he’d be pleased (as I had, in my tears, considered just going over-budget and telling my husband, “Oh, well.  It just can’t be done.”)…  Then, though it sounded a tad stilted, contrived, and even a wee bit Pentecostal, I continued in a true act of my will and in faith and obedience, as I certainly didn’t feel it, “And, Father, I absolutely rejoice now, beforehand, in this opportunity to see You provide, to see You show up, to see You enable me to do what I feel, right now, is impossible.”

Writing this out, it sounds so stupid, that I would cry over groceries, like don’t I have something better — more serious, deeper — over which to weep, especially in light of recent, world-wide catastrophes??  But really, I felt that what was being required from me was absolutely impossible, and I felt completely stuck, and I needed His help.

No more $6.49 jumbo bottles of Cholula for us. 😦

I am now happy to report that God has come through.  Other than me not getting my weekly 6-pack of Diet Hansen’s Tangerine Lime soda, $2.49 at Trader Joe’s (which really feels like a sacrifice — foregoing my much-looked-forward-to daily treat), and not buying our family’s favorite, really expensive hot sauce, I haven’t really cut back on anything.  I’m ultra-careful, shopping with the calculator on my phone, and delaying for a week or two a purchase that might not be at the best price on that particular shopping expedition…  But, in spite of me not changing much of anything, I have come in under-budget, both times:  About four dollars that first week, and almost ten dollars the next.


So, now, I’m about to sit down with my food ads, coupon file, and list of needed items, and come up with a plan of action for shopping tonight.  Part of me is yet tempted to panic, but I shut that down as soon as it rears its ugly head, and know that God cares about me and my family, even down to the “very hairs on [our heads]“: the grocery budget.

(Perhaps I could have avoided this whole scene by whipping out my Bible and reading Matthew 6:25-34, but sometimes you really have to LIVE something before God’s revelation sinks in…)


About Karen Joy

I'm a partially-homeschooling mother of six -- 3 boys ages 19, 17 and 15 years old, and three girls: 11, 8, and 3. I like birding, reading, writing, organic gardening, singing, playing guitar, hiking, the outdoors, and books. I very casually lead a very large group of homeschooling families in the Phoenix area. I have a dear hubby who designs homes for a local home builder and who is the worship pastor of our church. I live in the desert, which I used to hate, but now appreciate.

Posted on March 23, 2011, in Books for children, Books I'm Reading, Budget, Celiac Disease, Character Development, Christian Living, Encouragement, Homeschooling, Magazines, Missions and ministry, Shopping, The Dear Hubby. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I try to stick to about $300 every paycheck but it seems so hard to do. Now I am convinced and CONFICTED to try again and lower our bill. It is our biggest expense (even over our mortgage). my grandma likes the pre-packaged stuff and that kills our grocery bill. I think i need to have a budget just for her! hehe

    Thanks for this!

  2. Sweet Karen. It is soooo hard and I am absolutely amazed you can feed a family of 7 on that!!! When I do my shopping just for the 4 of us it is around 200 but that is including household stuff (but not very much) and none of us have any diet issues. You are the ROCK STAR of groceries. I should make you a plaque. He sees, He knows, He meets our every need. It may seem ridiculous but He loves meeting us in the little things as much as the big. I love you tons sweety!!!!

  3. Karen, I love this post, truly a topic near and dear to my heart! I am the keeper of the budget in my house, so at times I allow myself to go over budget in the grocery area, but since I quit my job I have been trying for a $300-$350/month grocery budget for 4 of us. We don’t have the food allergies and needs that you guys have, BUT I am dedicated to buying a lot of organic foods, and the healthy versions of foods, like you I’m sure, which always cost more, sometimes a lot more.

    It’s so hard when I stand there in the store and look at the price of organic versus non-organic and I feel my heart playing tug-of-war. I want the deal! I want to be under budget, I get a sense of pride when I can say, “look at all the deals I got and all the groceries I got and only spent this much!” But, then I think, what will I be putting in my kids’ bodies, my husband’s body, my body? Is it worth it to save a little? There are some things that I buy ONLY organic, and there are some things that I would like to buy only organic, but I settle for every other. One week organic, one week regular.

    I have cried over forgetting to get to a certain store for a certain item on special before the special ended. It felt almost like I could not get over it, how could I miss this fantastic deal on this item that we use, that I need to get, and now the next time I go buy it I will have to pay twice as much!! One such item was the 3 pound bag of Cuties (those little oranges). I LOVE those, they are perfect for our family because they are a ready to go healthy snack that I can throw in my purse. Also they last for a while in the fridge, so I like to have them there in case we run out of other fruit, we can always pull out a Cutie! They cost $3.88 for a bag at Walmart, which I think is kind of expensive. When I eneded up missing the deal on those I cried! I did! And then I prayed and asked God to redeem it for me, please let there be another ad with a better deal! About 6 or so weeks ago, I found them on sale at Walmart for $1 a bag! No joke, ONE dollar for 3 pounds of Cuties. That was way better than the original deal I lost. AND, not only that, that sale lasted probably about 6 weeks. Every time I went, still $1, I kept getting a new bag for $1 evey time I went! The deal just ended I noticed last time I was there, but we still have a bag and a half in the fridge. That was a great deal.

    Anyway, sorry for such a long comment, but just love reading about someone else having some of the same emotions as me over grocery shopping! I didn’t think the prayer was cheesy at all or the crying, you are responsible for 7 people, including yourself and you want to do what is best for them. I know! I think that I am going to start praying more over groceries. God does care about it!

    Recently I have wanted to add some more organic food to my list of usuals. And now that Jason’s income has gone up, I have a little bit of extra money to play with each month. I feel okay to up my grocery budget a little to about $400/month. In weighing the pros and cons, I would rather spend the extra money there, and less somewhere else.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and letting me share mine! Blessings!

    • I do the same thing, Jill, with organic. There are a few things I always buy organic, and other things I go halvsies on, back and forth.

      A dollar a bag for Cuties is amazing! That almost makes me want to go to Walmart. 😉 IDK what it is about that store (I mean the Neighborhood Market near our homes), but it gives me the willies, it’s colder than a freezer there, and I can never find what I need. 😦

      Jason told me at small group about his income increasing. That is SO AWESOME.

      p.s. I really think you would love all the books I linked to, above. I’ll let you borrow them, if you want. (No pressure!)

  4. Food budget is an area I completely struggle with. It is also an area in which we could save a lot of money if I can figure out how to revamp. I am thankful you took the time to detail your own experience in this area. It is encouraging for me to realize it can be done and the reminder of God’s provision is appreciated too.

  5. One comment my friend. Groceries have gone up. Alot. Even shopping at Walmart. While you may have control over “extras”, you have no control over 25 cent increases on a bunch of basics that add up. If the budget does not change, you have to adjust. Stephen shops with me, for me sometimes and he really has noticed the uptick. Kuddos to you as you try to stick to your budget.

  6. I used to struggle mightily with our grocery budget. My failing is Trader Joe’s. There are some items there that I just love getting..their yogurt, for one, and their dried fruit selection is amazing. Their frozen foods are very enticing. For a while I was spending 100 dollars a WEEK there, and that was on top of our “regular” grocery run!

    Finally I just narrowed my list down, and we still go there, but now it is 40-50 dollars.

    For our regular grocery run, we quickly figured out that my husband is quicker and better at finding deals on the nonperishables–cereal, sugar, that sort of thing. He also has no idea what I mean when I put ‘brussels sprouts” on the list. Produce is beyond him.

    So I divide the list into two categories–the perimeter (produce, dairy, meats, frozen) and the inner aisles (soups, cereals, baking supplies). We go together in the early morning, divide the kids and the list between us. I shop the perimeter (with a few forays into the middle for things like tea, which only I drink), and he does the inner aisles. We get done in half an hour, and our bills have stayed steady thanks to this.

    Even so, as somebody pointed out, food prices have gone up, mostly because of the price of oil. I try to remember that when our bill is a little higher that week than I’d like!

  7. I definitely feel the organic-or-not pain some people mentioned… usually I buy non-organic and then scrub everything with a tiny bit of soap. We are trying hard to eliminate extra grocery side trips, which is the biggest budget killer for us. A few times a month, my husband will decide that he wants to eat or make something, discover that we don’t have the ingredients, and run out for a bag or two of groceries. Better communication seems to be helping on that front. I’m also trying to delay our shopping trips to once every 10 days, with produce purchases every 5 days. I can’t tell if that is helping or not. It seems that if I buy in higher volume, we eat in higher volume as well.

  8. I so needed to read this!! A large family trying to eat ‘clean’ when 1/2 of us have dietary concerns is expensive, and I have been letting the grocery expenses get me down. So silly when you put it in perspective like that! God provides, and does such an amazing job. Why do I worry about groceries?? Thanks for the post!!

  9. Karen,
    I hate the work it takes to cut coupons and look for deals. It’s like looking forward to going to the dentist for me. I’ve always been too busy to actually spend the hours it takes to prepare to shop. All I could do before was just make it to the store and cook the food. My sister spends 3 – 4 hours cutting coupons. The thought of that makes me feel a bit overwhelmed. Now I need to do that but I will have to re-train myself to be frugal. I am frugal to a point…just not ultra frugal. It just seems we rarely buy boxed stuff that can be shopped for with a coupon due to our diet concerns. But all in all this was an encouragement to put my frugal hat on and do more than I have done in the past since I have no excuse now that I am without a job. A sincere thanks for sharing your private moments of working through your feelings with God and your budget. My family will benefit.

  10. Karen, Would you consider posting some of your families favorite budget friendly meals?

    • Cristi, I’m glad you got something out of this post! However, I so don’t want to overwhelm you. Everyone has their strengths… God wants to stretch us and teach us in our weaknesses, to be sure, but… don’t be overwhelmed, my dear friend! I spend about 30 minutes a week on coupons, that’s it. I will be thinking of a new post on eating frugally, even on a special diet. 🙂 It may take me a few days, though!!

  11. I too struggle with our grocery budget. I love your idea to pray and ask God for help with it. I think that may be my key that I have been missing. Though I could certainly be much better about using coupons. We only have 3 kids and I spend about $600 a month. No soda, chips, ice cream or anything extra like that. You are doing tons better than me!

  12. It’s not dumb to cry over groceries. 🙂 Anything connected with nurturing our sweet families is an emotional topic for us mamas, especially considering the extra stress of multiple food restrictions.

  13. Sheesh~ Great post. I have felt that weight before. In fact I was just worried about how hungry I am (nursing) and whether that will ruin our budget. But it IS one more mouth to feed. What to do? I love your ultimate conclusion, Pentecostal or not.

    Also, I always appreciate your book recommendations.

  14. We are meant to pray in agreement with God’s word. Whether doing so is considered Pentacostal or not, I don’t know, but you did the RIGHT thing and it will work every time because doing so is both Agreeing with God’s Word AND praying Thanks for the gift you know you will receive… BOTH are acts of pure Faith and THAT is ALWAYS rewarded!!! 🙂

    Also, I agree with previous posters that it is NOT silly to weep over responsibility… and your great desire to be a Biblical Woman and submit to your husband’s leading is DEFINITELY something worthy of tears – especially since you were trying to convince yourself to not even try to do what you DID succed in doing in the Lord! ^_^

    • Thanks for the comment and the encouragement, Tori. Welcome to my blog!

      What I meant by “Pentecostal” is this: I was raised VERY Pentecostal, and I remember a lot of people talking the talk: Lots of speech about rejoicing and faith and “hallelujah!”s and “praise the Lord!”s. LOTS of it. Absolutely, I believe we are to be people of faith, and in general, I think at least I don’t really LIVE on the edge of faith, truly relying, minute-by-minute on the fact that my God and Savior is the Creator and sustainer of the Universe and beyond, and that He cares intimately for my life and needs… However, I think that sort of speech can get really… slogan-y, and can easily become simply the Words One is Supposed to Say, instead of the truth that is deep in the conviction of our hearts. Similar to how Catholicism can become The Words One is Supposed to Say, rather than true faith — though I have some Catholics of true, deep, convicted faith in my own family, so I’m not saying all Catholics are so; I’m saying that, no matter what one’s particular variety of faith is, it can devolve into slogans and words and expressions.

      And, me acting out of faith and speaking of rejoicing which I didn’t, at the time, truly feel, had shades of my childhood Pentecostalism in it, which made me a wee bit uncomfortable. But, for the time… that’s what I felt like God was calling me to do, and I did it, and He showed up. 😀

      • Amen to this! I grew up pretty old school Pentecostal, and I have an extremely hard time with The Words One is Supposed to Say, because I think that if you say them all the time in every circumstance, they do inevitably just become rote words that mean nothing. But if you can be all Pentecostal about something sincerely, that is awesome. I wish I could do it more often. Reading your blog makes me feel so convicted about my struggles with faith and doubt, and really believing that God does care about all things, even groceries… Speaking of which, we live in a very small town of about 1100 people and the the closest larger town (approx. 6000) is 130 km away. We have only one grocery store and only get out to really big places with Costcos (thank goodness for parents with Costco cards!) and stuff like that 3 or 4 times a year. So even though my shopping choices are ridiculously limited, your post reminded me that I really should put more time and effort into meal planning so that we could actually stay within budget ($150 Canadian/week for 4 people with no dietary concerns, except homo milk for the baby). So thanks for the post!

  15. You’re so transparent, Karen. I just love you!

  16. God is good, all the time, and all the time God is good! Your story is so real-life. So many of us struggle with trusting God with big things, let alone “small things” like a grocery budget. BUT! God never lets us down when we rely on Him for help. Your testimony is also inspiring and compelling. Thank you for taking the time to share.

  17. WOW! Truely a rockstar when it comes to shopping. I’ve never been one for new years resolutions, but I have one for 2012 and its sticking precisely to a budget. Since buying our house this year things have been so up and down trying to figure out the bills and what not. Very inspiring!

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