Grocery shopping with cash only helped me shave 25% off my monthly bill, but I'm not sticking to the strategy

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  • My grocery bill skyrocketed at the start of the pandemic and hasn't come back down.
  • To shave 25% off my bill every month, I decided to shop with cash only to force myself to budget and meal plan.
  • I successfully cut down my spending, but shopping became extremely stressful.
  • I'm now allowing myself to spend up to $25 over my cash allowance on my credit card if needed.
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One of the biggest money problems I'm always trying to solve is spending too much on food every month. I'm quite a picky eater, so when I know I like a certain meal or list of ingredients, I get stubborn about buying them regardless of the price.

My problem got worse at the start of the pandemic when I gave into pandemic spending and doubled my grocery bill to stock my freezer and pantry with essentials. Since then, I've noticed that my bill has stayed higher than normal because I'm cooking the majority of my meals at home and don't really have much of a plan. Instead, I buy a mix of everything I want, spend too much money, and have a lot of wasted food at the end of the week.

This needed to stop, and I realized the only way I could significantly control my spending was to lower the amount of money I brought with me to the store, which meant hiding the credit card and just bringing cash.

My goal was to shave 25% off my grocery bill by using cash only. To do that, I set a budget and put the cash for that week in an envelope and took only that (no other form of payment) to the store. Here's how I was able to stick to that and save 25% every month. 

Using cash helped me stick to my budget 

I have been a budget maker and breaker for many years, especially when it comes to grocery shopping. It's hard to stick to a budget when you know what you like to eat and want to buy it regardless of the price tag. 

But because I had to save money and I was forcing myself to pay with cash only, I had to spend around 30 minutes a week setting a budget for my groceries. This number was based on how many meals I would eat at home (versus at a restaurant or takeout) so that I could spend only what I needed. 

Setting a strict budget and putting aside the cash in an envelope to shop made the budgeting process more deliberate and easier to stick to.

Budgeting made me more aware of prices 

I always feel shocked when I check out at the grocery store and see how much money I spent on what feels like not a lot of groceries. The price of food isn't something I've paid much attention to in the past. I would load up my cart and then roll my eyes at the bill I had to pay with my credit card. But now that I had cash only in my pocket, I had to pay attention to the prices of items. I did research before I got to the store, clipped coupons, and walked up and down the aisle to find the best deals and the lowest prices. 

I also noticed that my grocery store ran the best sales deals on Wednesday and Thursday, and knowing this allowed me to change my usual shopping day (from Sunday, when my store had no sales offers) so that I could maximize my spending.

This also made me realize that some of the most expensive items I was buying were things I hardly finished at the end of the week (fruits that expired too early) or items that weren't worth their price tag (like premade smoothies I could make on my own for $2 to $3 less). 

Limiting my spending forced me to meal plan before leaving the house 

Because I was on a very strict budget, I had to spend around one hour every week detailing a meal plan for the next seven days. In order to stick to the budget, I did this backwards. 

I would look up the prices of items and weekly sales offered on my grocery store's website and then determine which items I could afford to buy. From that list, I made a meal plan that allowed me to maximize the items I bought, oftentimes relying on frozen foods that I could use for multiple purposes (frozen fruit for smoothies and desserts, or frozen dinners that I could use as leftovers to create a lunch option the next day). 

I often had to put items back on the shelf 

One of the most common parts of this cash-only shopping experience was that I often had to put items back on the shelf. When the cashier would ring me up, I'd notice that even with careful planning, I'd missed a few items (or didn't calculate my total bill with tax added in) and could only pay for around 85% of what I put in my cart. 

I usually held up the line behind me deciding what to put back on the shelf and what to purchase. Without having a credit card to fall back on, I had to make quick decisions about what was worth it and what was more of an impulse buy. 

Shopping with cash helped me save a lot of money on my monthly grocery bill, but it did make the experience stressful and tough. I was more aware of my purchases, prepped with a meal plan and a tight budget before entering the store, and oftentimes had to put back items I adored because I didn't have enough cash to pay for them. 

Will I stick with this method? In the months since, I've brought back the credit card and have allowed myself to only charge $25 on the card each time I grocery shop, paying the rest of the bill with the cash I set aside only.

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