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Grocery tracking 101, Part I

content ballWhen I started tracking our grocery spending, it wasn’t enough to simply write down “groceries” and the amount because I inevitably went over budget.  I tried putting money into envelopes and only spending what I had in the envelope.  I also gave some to my husband in case he had to stop for milk on the way home from work, but as much as I loved the envelope system concept, it just didn’t work for us.  I was always taking money out of another envelope to pad our grocery spending.  I knew I had to come up with something else and I didn’t even realize that the resource I needed was already in my hands.

I continued pouring over various resources from the library and the Internet, but it yielded nothing helpful.  I love to hear people’s success stories, of course.  I’m excited when a family can say they reduced their grocery budget by 60% or more, but what does that mean?  I could not figure out what on earth they must have been buying to be able to reduce their grocery spending by 60%!

One day as I sat down to write out my monthly allocations of the bills, I had an idea.  What if I wrote down everything I actually purchased at the store and how much I spent on it?  Not just “groceries=$34.59,” but “milk=$1.99,” “yogurt=$2.50,” “chicken breasts=$7.99,” etc.  For this much detail, I didn’t rely on my office supply store accounting ledger.  This time I went to the computer and opened up a blank spreadsheet, and I filled in each column much the way I did with the paper ledger.  (Note:  if computerized spreadsheets aren’t your “thing,” this can still be done–it might just take a little more time and possibly a calculator.)

At the top of the columns were the categories of items I bought, in detail.  Instead of a column for “dairy,” I listed everything separately:  yogurt had its own column, milk had its own column and so forth.  After creating the categories, starting at the far left, I entered the store name and date and worked my way across the row entering the amount I spent under each heading.  Once I had entered all the items this way, starting at the left-most entry, I would drag the cursor across the entire row until I came to an empty box at the end of all the categories and called this column “Total Spent.”  Then I hit the “sum” button and, hopefully, the amount matched what I paid at the store.  If it didn’t, I knew I left something out of my spreadsheet or the store may have charged me incorrectly. I actually have found errors on my receipts upon entering them into the spreadsheet so it’s a great way to both track detailed spending and double-check your charges, too.

I continued to enter my receipts this way for about a month or so.  After I had a good number of entries to work with, I added another page to my spreadsheet for spending limits in the categories I had been tracking.  For example, if I had been consistently spending $40 per month on milk, I set a limit on milk of $40 per month.  I went through all the categories this way until I had covered everything I was buying.  As before, starting at the far left, I dragged the cursor across to the end of the row and hit “sum.”  This gave me my monthly spending estimate.  This also helped me to rein things in.  If I dragged the cursor across the rows and the sum was $800, but I only had $500 available to spend, I knew I had to go back and change some things.  I was able to quickly identify the areas that were high and bring them down to a more reasonable amount, which kept my spending in check–something the envelopes didn’t do because I hadn’t put an amount on how much I could spend on “milk” using the envelope system.

Using detailed tracking like this helped me make more realistic decisions about what was a good buy and what we could afford.

“The blessing of God makes haste to reward the just and quickly his blessing bears fruit.”  Sirach 11:24

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