Overspending on Groceries (Whole Foods is my Kryptonite)

So yesterday I decided to look at my historical spending trends in YNAB (my budgeting software) in order to see where I am doing well and where I could do better, and what I came away with was this: I am spending way too much on groceries.

I think this has been sort of a blind area for me. That is, I think I tend to think, “Well, I need to eat, so I’ll just spend whatever I feel like on groceries, because it’s a necessary expense.” At the same time, as you may or may not know, I moved back in with my parents to pay down my student loans. They buy the groceries for the most part, and so I really don’t allocate much money at all toward groceries in my budget.   The result has been a constant (and somewhat frustrating) cycle where I budget very little for groceries and am constantly spending over that limit and then having to siphon money from other categories to cover my overspending in that one. The thing is, if you just keep inputting the same numbers from your planned budget into your working budget every time you get paid, then you never really learn from your mistakes. I have been having a growing awareness that I needed to look at my past expenditures, but I never did it until after I was listening to an old episode of the Because Money podcast where they were talking about budgeting. One of the speakers on the podcast was talking about how when you initially set up your budget, you are basically just guessing, and choosing nice round numbers. For this reason, she explained, the numbers in that initial budget are sort of just make-believe. The podcasters then explained that until you actually track what you are spending over time, the numbers in your budget just keep on being make-believe, because they are really just guestimates and have not yet been adjusted to reflect your actual reality.  I suspected that I had a bit of this going on generally in my budget, but when I took the time to look at my numbers, I was pretty surprised that the area I was overspending on was groceries! Really though, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, and when I think back, I had hints that I might have this tendency. I have said (and written) before that the health food store is my kryptonite.

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Put me into a nice health food store or a whole foods, and I am capable of spending money like it’s going out of style. Admittedly, I love fancy granola and cool tofu/quinoa/etc dishes that I don’t feel capable of dreaming up on my own.  I love trying out all the new health food store products and foods, and the thing is, that stuff is expensive! I said a little bit earlier that I have always thought of groceries as sort of a magic category, where I could just spend freely because I have to eat to survive. With this kind of attitude, paired with today’s health food market, you can do a lot of damage to your finances and fast.  One thing that should have tipped me off that I might have had this issue was a conversation I had with one of my very best friends a couple years ago.  This girl is a natural frugalista, and generally just a whiz at personal finance. #Goals.  She was talking to me back then about her boyfriend (now husband), and how they really differed on their ideas about how to buy groceries.  She was expressing confusion because he and his family would be financially responsible in most areas of their life, but when they went to the grocery store, it was like all bets were off.  She explained that they would just buy whatever they wanted at the grocery store, no matter how much it cost, and would always have a full refrigerator of high-priced goods. I remember her saying this, because I remember thinking, “Hmm….that sounds pretty familiar…actually, that sounds a lot like me and my family!”  I made a mental note of it at the time, intended to practice it.  In fact, I had many opportunities to practice it, I used to grocery shop with this girlfriend quite frequently, and I would watch her carefully choose the things she would buy, look at others, and put them back if they were too expensive.  I would sometimes think about practicing the same types of behaviors, but it never really stuck.  So why is that?

Honestly, I think it was mostly that I just plain didn’t want to.  This was at the time when I first started budgeting, and having any control whatsoever over my expenditures was new and shaky territory.  I felt that my food was my health, and so I wasn’t going to skimp in this area.  I even thought, at times, about how much I spent on food, but I always came back to this idea; This is where I splurge, I’m responsible everywhere else.  I remember reading the book You’re So Money: Live Rich, Even When You’re Not by Farnoosh Torabi, where she talks about it being okay to spend money on certain things that are important to you, as long as you are being financially responsible overall, and thinking, “Groceries are my splurge!” So how do I feel now? Honestly, I feel sort of the same in terms of the value placed on wellness, but I think that my situation is different now.  For starters, I am living with my parents, yet according to my history on YNAB, I am still spending 300$/month on groceries! That’s 150$ per pay! Considering that most of what I need to survive is already bought for me, that seems like a shocking amount.  I also think I buy too many impulse items, and that there are a lot of things I could do without, or find a cheaper alternative for.  One example of this is that I have a bad habit of buying those “Kind” bars for quick snacks after work / before a run, but they average over 2$ a pop!  That is definitely an expenditure that I could easily avoid with a little better planning.  I already do a good job of meal prepping for the work week, but I tend to only prep my way through my work day, even though most days I go running/hiking/skiing in the provincial park after work, so I don’t get home for hours after the work day is over.  This means on those days, I am sometimes away from home from 6am until 930pm.  This has been a planning failure that has led to erratic impulse purchasing at the end of the work day when I am already hungry.  Due to the fact that I am both tired and hungry when this happens, my spending tends to be fairly unregulated.  So that is definitely to be avoided, but what else can I do?

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  1. I should be realistic in my meal planning & prepping.
    • If I know I’m likely to be out of the house from 6am until 930pm, I need to meal prep accordingly, and not just through the work day.
    • I probably eat a lot more throughout the day than I realize, especially when I am exercising a lot, so I should be factoring this into my planning.
  2. I should dedicate more time to meal planning.
    • I’m going to be honest: I hate meal planning & prepping.  I would just rather be doing something else because this feels like more time I am dedicating to my job.  I generally create the most basic, healthy meal that I know will keep me going, and I just make the same thing every day for months on end.  It’s not that I’m super regimented in that way, I’m just lazy.  If I spent more time on planning, I would benefit all week long, and I would likely not end up erratically spending at the grocery store throughout the week because I didn’t provide myself enough food, or because I got a craving for something different.
  3. I will spend some time thinking about what I really need, and what I don’t.
    • This is a hard one for me, because I really want all the fancy foods and snacks prepared by the health food stores & the companies they distribute.  I really want the chocolate covered goji berries and the curried mock-chicken tofu, but realistically, those things are super expensive.  Ali Wong just gets me in her standup called Baby Cobra where she talks about wanting to get to a place financially where she can afford to buy mango sliced by a white kid named Noah.
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    • I totally understand this struggle, but realistically, I don’t need those things.  For this reason, I think it would be helpful for me to approach the grocery store with this in mind: what is a want and what is a need.  What can I live without?  Realistically, the answer to that question is likely to encompass a lot of what I have been buying.
  4. I will allow for the occasional indulgence.
    • Okay, so I’m not always going to need everything, but there are some things that I am probably going to choose because they help me to feel satisfied and happy.  One of those things for me is high quality chocolate.  I love to have a treat of a really nice dark chocolate bar every now and again, and this is not something I am willing to forgo forever!  I generally find that with the budget, and with most things, too much restriction leads to failure.  I find that I am most successful in staying the course and accomplishing my goals when I allow for the occasional exception or treat to myself.
  5. I will repeatedly revisit my reasons and motivation for making these changes.  
    • This comes back to a previous post where I talked a little bit about enhancing your motivation.  In order to be able to accomplish any goal, it is important to remember why you want to do it in the first place.
    • You can do this in the following way.
      • First, write down a list of the things that will happen if you do not make these changes.  What effect will that have?  What will be the outcomes? What will that future look like?  
      • Next, write down what will happen if you do make these changes.  What effect will that have? What will be the outcomes? What will that future look like?
      • Lastly, do what I have done above: write down some concrete, specific, and realistic changes you can make, or things you can actually do to accomplish your goal.  I have highlighted the words “concrete, specific, and realistic” because these are the most important elements to ensure success in your plan.  Actions must be concrete, so that they are thing you can actually act on.  They must be specific so that you know exactly what to do, and they must be realistic so that they are things you are actually capable of doing.  These 3 elements will help to ensure your success.

Overall, this is definitely an area for continued improvement.  I don’t think I will be able to figure this one out overnight.  Instead, I anticipate that I will slowly notice and learn more about my habits, wants, needs, and thinking in this area, and that learning about those things will help me to get this type of spending under control.  This slow change is completely normal and acceptable, and expecting that change will be slow and include setbacks helps us to not give up at the first “relapse” or sign of trouble.

Well, wish me luck on this journey, and I will report back with updates as I make progress.

As always, thank you for reading.

Debt Dummy.

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