How to manage your food budget

There are lots of things which have helped us enormously with our budgeting – not least keeping a track of what we spend on the kids (more blogs to follow!) but in the past few years, we’ve adjusted how we approach the dreaded food shop and this has had huge benefits – not least financially.

In the past, the “big shop” was haphazard – if we seemed low on stuff, I’d book a slot and stock up on what I thought was missing. Our trolley typically looked the same most of the time as we were stuck in a rut with food. Like most people, we’d eat the same 10-12 meals over and over again with little variation. It was boring and there was no excitement around dinnertime each evening. My lack of planning often resulted in either buying stuff we already had or forgetting to buy the stuff we needed. As a result, in addition to our main shop, l’d need to go on errands two or three times a week and buy what was missing, sometimes spending an extra £20 needlessly.

We were wasting money. We were bored with food. Something needed to change.

We decided to start planning our meals properly and by properly, I mean putting some real thought into it. We had been here before, we needed to do something different this time.

Planning meals

We started by building up a pool of recipes – things which we hadn’t tried before and recipes which didn’t take forever to prepare and of course, our favourites. We were only a couple of weeks into the new experiment when we realised that we were cooking almost every meal from scratch, we were barely relying on any frozen or pre-prepared ingredients.

Planning meals might sound boring and monotonous but if you have a pool of 50-60 recipes to choose from, you can go well over a month before you need to repeat anything.

We are eating a much larger variety of meals than at anytime either of us can remember, we are eating more healthily and we waste almost nothing. We’re enjoying the preparation and cooking each night. The evening meal has become a lovely time each evening, quality family time. The kids and I can’t help giving my husband feedback on how well the meal was prepared, what could have been improved it and of course the score out of ten!

The Big Shop

Before we do the “big shop”, which we now dread for a different reason (temptation) we choose 10-12 recipes and then go through each one, ordering exactly what we need minus anything we might have left from the last time. Meals occasionally stretch to multiple nights, however, when you make everything from scratch it is easy to create the leftovers for those nights when the kids might prefer something different to us. (Though we make a point of not cooking separate meals – leftovers is not extra work!)

It seems really simple and it is, yet by planning our meals and hence being more targeted with our shopping, it’s much easier to Budget and we know when a shop is required, three recipes left, book a slot.

As far as costs go, our shopping bills are within the same ballpark each time and though we still need to top-up on the fresh items, I’m not spending £20 extra several times a week

You might find this approach doesn’t work for you but we thought we’d share this as it’s really made a difference to our budget.

How it evolved

How it evolved

So in my first blog, I explained how Costs to Expect all began – as an all-consuming social experiment to track how much it costs to raise children to the age of 18.

As I said, in the beginning hubby kept a very crude excel spreadsheet which literally recorded what the expense was and its value. I soon got used to the question, “So what did you spend today?!”  At first, it was pretty straightforward as everything we brought for Jack was directly attributable to him – for example nappies, milk and clothes. If I brought any of these things in our monthly shop, I simply pulled them out as his expenses.

Things became a little more complex as Jack grew older and began eating and using the general household shopping. We periodically reviewed our shopping and allocated a percentage to him. For example, when he was two and eating the same us, we allocated 10% of our shopping to him. Now, at the age of eight, his percentage has increased to 23% – I dread to imagine our shopping bill as he hits the teenage years and we have another hungry lad coming up behind him!

We’ve had many discussions / debates about what we should include and what should be discounted.  For example, we haven’t included a share of our utility bills as we figured these would be more or less the same without the children. However, we have included an allocation for our summer holidays when it has been somewhere we might not have gone if it wasn’t for the boys – typically for us a week at Center Parcs which is family focused. We’ve sometimes disagreed over what to include and/or the percentage and the question we always ask ourselves and each other is, “Would we have brought this / done this if we didn’t have the boys?” Most of the time, this solves it one way or another.

What I should say is that we absolutely recognise that every family and their budget is different and that’s why when we built the first version of the app, we decided to categorise the expenses into “Essential” and “Non-Essential” costs. We define essential costs as “The costs that we see as absolutely necessary in raising a child and in essence, keeping them healthy and alive” – pretty obvious I’d say.  The non-essential costs are explained as, “The optional costs of raising a child and those which spark lively debate between Mummy and Daddy”.(!) And boy, have there been plenty of those!  So in truth, the essential costs are the minimal amount needed to raise a child, with the optional costs varying between families and combined, they offer a rough guide to the overall cost of raising a child. 

An interesting debate that we had was around the cost of childcare and how we catagorised it. For many families with two working parents, we recognise that this would be regarded as an essential costs. However, we decided to allocate it as a non-essential cost, mainly because I wasn’t working but having some childcare support helped me in managing my condition (read more here), particularly when Dean was in demanding contracts which kept him away from home.

Another interesting point in the experiment came along with the arrival of our second little boy, Niall. We pondered the question, did it really cost £250K to raise each child? Surely the second should be slightly cheaper because of all the things you brought the first time round which could be reused? This led us to build in what we call “Partial Transfers” – where we transfer 50% of the cost for anything that has been used again from Jack to Niall. As Niall is only two, we’re yet to see the impact of this but it is on my list of upcoming blogs.

I hope this gives an insight into the project and how it has developed; there will be more to come as well as blogs about how the project has grown and our vision for the Costs to Expect service.

How it all started

When I first met hubby, I was blissfully unaware of just how his mind worked.  As I got to know him, I realised that his career in web development was the perfect fit for how his brain worked. He questions absolutely everything; likes to find a solution to every problem and refuses to accept things at face value. There aren’t many hours in the day when I can’t see the clogs in his brain turning!

When our thoughts turned towards starting a family, my instinct was to start choosing names, cooing over scan photos and eventually, telling our happy news to friends and family; hubby’s instinct was to set those brain clogs spinning.

He’d heard about the research which suggested that it costs almost £250k to raise a child to the age of 21. Hubby being hubby, he couldn’t accept that could be true. Who had that kind of money? Who had it once, let alone twice, three or even more times over? How did they come up with that figure? I wonder if you can guess where I’m going with this?!

Yep, you guessed it. Hubby wanted to disprove this figure and decided we were going to embark on an 18 year social experiment to do so – yes, we were going to record every single expense for our son Jack, who was born in June 2013.

At first, I thought it was a flash-in-the-pan idea and that he’d get bored pretty quickly. How wrong was I?! Initially everything we spent got rather crudely recorded on a spreadsheet which hubby edited after each shopping trip. I soon got used to holding on to my receipts!

But then things got serious. In between his day job of contracting, hubby began building Version 1 of the app to record the expenses. This first version was very simple and just replaced the spreadsheet that we’d been keeping. However, as time went on, more detail was added and I soon found I had a part-time job in recording  everything we were spending.

However, as time rolled on and hubby developed the app, adding more features, I began to realise this wasn’t just about recording our expenses for our, by now, two boys. Hubby had a vision for a data management system and our social experiment was providing him with a vast amount of data which he could use to test and develop  what he’d already mapped out in his head.

Though I have very little understanding of the development side of things, I began to understand the vision hubby had as I watched the app develop. It suddenly dawned on me what it was capable of and indeed, I’ve been able to contribute a few ideas of my own, much to hubby’s annoyance!

Now I’ve explained how it began, I’ll be sharing more information about the project and the app’s features in coming blogs.  In the meantime, please follow us @coststoexpect and let us know if you’d like access to our beta app!