Sunday, January 16, 2011

How Much is that Leek in the Window?

As a child, I often accompanied my father to the grocery store. It was fun, but I dreaded the checkout process. Everything would be bagged and we would be ready to go, but my father would stand at the end of the line reading the receipt like it was a legal contract; often he stopped to ask the cashier questions even though she was already trying to ring up the next customer.

I used to cringe and wish I could just disappear.

Oh, if only I had paid more attention to dad. Case in point - I recently planned to make a potato and leek soup with a recipe from an ancient New England soup cookbook my mother has. I went to the store, but did not realize that leeks are, apparently, very expensive these days. (Who worries about buying loose green vegetables? Organic chickens, yes, but greens!!!!???)

Before I knew it, I'd spent over $15 on leeks, which is clearly preposterous.

While I have been known to clip articles about financial budgeting, and own several books on financial matters (like this one, and my new favorite, this one) I cannot tell you honestly that I have a household budget. I tell myself that even though I don't have one, I have managed pretty well. But things need to change.

Except for a one-year period, I have handled the books here at home central for more than 10 years. While I may complain about it, the reality is -- I like having the power over the checkbook(s). Even though my husband is better with money.

After all, he is the one who made me face up to my credit card situation before we had a baby - and that means my credit score is better today (and I don't have a huge card with massive interest and balances on it, either). The benefits of having the power are that 1) he doesn't know when I buy something ridiculous (like $6 dollar window gel clings for Valentine's Day for my daughter) or expensive vitamins and REALLY expensive organic chickens and 2) I can always get out of bedtime battles with the kid by saying to him: "Honey, I have to go to the office and pay the bills." Then I check Facebook. (But then I do pay the bills. Seriously. Mostly on time.)

Now, you can tell from the above references that out of control spending is not really my problem - I don't splurge on things -- there just isn't enough cash flow to do that. Splurging for me is buying silly holiday decorations that will get thrown away, or buying the organic kale instead of regular, or sometimes getting a pedicure. But things add up -- especially when I go to places like Target.

But I don't have a flat screen television or an iPod or an iPad. Left to my own devices I will spend money on organic food, overpriced gluten-free snacks and plane tickets, before anything else. And maybe a massage. (And would a salon haircut be too much to ask?)

Still, despite careful spending, I don't have a budget. I tried doing it the old fashioned way more than once; you know, save all your receipts for a month and add everything up and you will know where your money is going.

Forget it.

I ended up with carefully calculated lists with which I essentially did nothing. We looked at how much we were spending at the grocery store and vowed to do better.

If anything, it has gotten worse. I shop where I go, so that means I shop where ever I have to take my kid (to school, to piano lessons, etc.) and these are not at the cheapest supermarkets in town although I try to stay away from here. (Gorgeous, but the prices are incredible, in my opinion.)

My husband is also better at shopping with an eye for bargains; for example -- on the rare occasions that he goes shopping for clothes, he only ever goes when there are sales and he brings coupons with him. (He is also a better cook, but due to his work hours he doesn't cook much and doesn't do much of the shopping, either.)

So, since it is January - I am making a few vows here -

1) I am going to buy Quicken and actually start tracking what we spend so we can pay off the one credit card hanging over our heads (before the zero percent interest deal runs out). I am good at spending, good at saving (a bit) and bad about paying down debt. I mean, we paid for our own wedding with over 200 guests! We should be able to get this under control, right?!

2) I am going to start looking at the grocery receipts BEFORE I leave the store. The leeks I bought at A & P were $2.99 a pound. Later that week my husband stopped at the local Korean grocer near our home and picked up a few more leeks for my mom for a different soup (can a family have an obsession with leeks? Apparently, we do) and they were $1.89 a pound there!

In late 2010, CNBC reported that food prices are expected to rise two to three percent in 2011, which is double the levels of 2010. They also said: "Meat prices are expected to rise up to 3.5 percent and dairy 5.5 percent." The pressure is on.

While researching for this post, I also found out that my constant treks to the supermarket are part of the problem and I am not alone in this -- which made me feel a lot better. This quote from an article on WalletPop sounds EXACTLY like what is happening to me:

"Did you know that half of all shoppers go to the grocery store three or four times a week and that more than half of all supermarket purchases are unplanned? It adds up: shoppers making a 'quick trip' to a store usually purchase 54 % more than they planned..."

It goes on to say that if you only go once a week you save something like $960 a year on things you would have bought as impulse buys!

So, I know I am not alone. Even my younger brother (who helps with cooking once a week since my mother is sick with cancer and we have a lot of communal dinners here) is constantly bemoaning the fact that one of us is always running to the store. I should say that part of the problem, I believe, is that none of us wants to eat the same thing each week. We are constantly trying new things out, which often requires exotic ingredients. Before she was sick, my mother was known within the family as a fabulous cook and she has four shoe boxes in her kitchen cupboard FILLED with spices (broken down by major categories, such as Sweet and Spicy, etc.).

But even she will run out of cardamom pods and her favorite homemade curry spice collection, eventually. We raid her supplies to cook for her, but we have to go to the store too.

(As a side note, I'd like to recommend watching the documentary Food Inc., only don't do what I did and watch it -- and then the next day go to the supermarket because you will find yourself paralyzed with indecision and end up spending your life savings on organic, gluten-free chicken nuggets and then you will have to peel the stickers off before your husband sees them. In the process you may damage the manicure you splurged on.)

Well - regardless - my last two fiscal vows for 2011 are:

3) I will try to do a better job of remembering to put my reusable shopping bags BACK into the car so I have them for the next trip.

4) I am not giving up the power I have over the household budgets; my husband doesn't want it anyway. But I am going to show him the Quicken sheets when they are done, so we can try to do a better job, together. Right after I update my status on Facebook.

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