Long story short: no it is not possible to spend just $400 per month on groceries. Not for a family of four. Not in Northern Ontario, in the winter. Not while eating a healthy diet. And certainly not while working full time.
I feel a bit bad about leaving you on that cliffhanger, as it became evident very quickly that my ambitious grocery savings goals were a bit over-the-top.
I think I can account for my bills being super low that month by the fact that the kids went away to camp for 4 days, and we also probably ate a lot out of our pantry. It was definitely not a “normal” month, and that record low grocery spending did not continue past September of last year.
One major thing that changed was that I started a full-time contract in November which goes till mid-May. Working full-time means having less time at home–especially less solo time–which means much less time for cooking and baking, especially time-consuming things like tortillas and crackers. Because of this, I’ve been buying a few more convenience foods, and the kids have been eating more cereal!
The up-side is that our overall income has gone up significantly for these few months! Because of our awesome financial skills, we’ve been able to save a good chunk of cash, and we are just days away from paying off our car in full! This will leave us debt-free apart from our mortgage, and we can start saving for a summer vacation, and for some upcoming house repairs.
This is a real dream come true, to pay off our car. Now we are looking at saving up an emergency fund, investing more in the kids’ education plans, and putting some money aside for a future car.
It is a complicated shift in mindset for me, to move from the urgent sense of paying off debt, into a perspective of saving for the future. I have never been very good at this side of things, and have relied in many ways, on the shame and stress of being in debt to kick me in the butt and provide me with the energy to meet my goals. It isn’t being very kind to myself, but it has worked!
Part of me is worried that switching the stick for a carrot will leave me short on motivation. I worry about my ability to keep reaching toward these more positive goals that are more than many people are within reach of.
I also realize–in terms of this blog–that the narrative of “I am saving up for a comfortable future” is much less appealing than “I am working hard to get out of debt”. I see the privilege that is behind that narrative and I wonder if the next part of this story really needs to be told.
I remember back when I lived in Ottawa, I had a very frugal friend. We shared many tips on frugal and eco-conscious living, trading cultures and shopping strategies. I felt a lot of kinship with her — until I visited her home. She not only owned her own home in an expensive part of town; she also owned a rental property! I felt my feelings of kinship diminish, and a sense of resentment creep in. Here I was busting my butt just to afford to feed my family, and she was using these frugal skills to build her investments?? What a betrayal! I soon got over my reaction to her apparent wealth (and reminded myself that one never knows what’s going on behind the surface) and our friendship continued for several years. She did have good frugal tips to share!
But I don’t want to do that to you, my readers! Lure you in with perceived struggling kinship only to reveal that I’m actually out of debt and slowly building my own wealth.
And yet, I do want to give anyone reading who is in that difficult place, that place of scraping by, a concrete sense of hope. Hope that if you keep going, if you keep saving and getting smarter and paying off debt, you have a good chance of reaching a place of stability. There are no guarantees in this life: health problems can drop in out of nowhere, moving to another city can erase years of progress, job losses and babies and investing in education, these can all set us back.
But the frugal skills we learn are a kind of insurance because they can help keep us stable through crises, changes and stages of life. And once we have weathered those storms, we will have the luxury of a bit of choice around what to reach for next.