The $350 Budget

Every month, we allocate $350 to spend on food and household items for our family of five. Some folks might consider this a luxury. Others might find it unrealistically low. For us, it’s challenging, but manageable.

Each week, as I make my purchases at various stores, I keep track of all the expenses. For the blog, I’ll chronicle how the budget is spent. Sometimes, at the end of a month, there will be cash leftover. Other times the budget is completely blown and we make up the difference the next month. Overall, at the end of the year, we come in pretty close to our targeted amount.

The general list of items on our $350 list includes:

  • All food (except restaurant purchases—that is a separate budget category for us),
  • Plants and seeds for our small vegetable garden,
  • Household cleaners (I have a sizable collection of microfiber and make most of my own cleaning products, so this portion of the budget is pretty small.),
  • Costco membership (While we pay this in full once a year, we divide it into $11 chunks over five months for the purposes of our budget.),
  • CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership (When we belonged to a CSA previously, we took the membership fee out of our household budget.),
  • Personal care items and paper products (shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, trash bags, etc.),
  • Small items that are difficult to categorize in other budget areas (We recently replaced our can opener with a new one from IKEA, as an example.).

In order to make our budget work, we’ve had to incorporate several disciplined changes into our lifestyle during the last few years. You’ll see more detailed information about those techniques in future blog posts, but in general, we do the following:

Cook from scratch.

Some items, like spaghetti sauce and tortillas, are not difficult to make. They are cheaper to buy at the store, though, so we do. Other items, like most bread products, breakfast foods, soups, and casseroles, are easy to prepare and cheaper to do ourselves.

Birthday cakes are almost always homemade.
Birthday cakes are almost always homemade.

Utilize a menu.

Every year or two, our family creates a list of inexpensive and easy to prepare family favorites that we would like to regularly see on the table. Each week, this list is consulted in conjunction with the family calendar. Seven days of breakfasts, lunches, suppers, and snacks are planned at a time.

Garden.

I must confess, I am a horrible gardener, but I am trying to improve. This year, I actually stuck with watering and weeding for an entire summer. This was no small accomplishment, but we did not exactly end up with a bountiful crop. I will continue trying to improve, though. Maybe next year will be better.

Beans from our garden.
Beans from our garden.

Reduce the need for commercial cleaning products.

As the budget has allowed over the years, I have purchased a small stockpile of non-consumable microfiber cleaning tools. These products successfully, and sanitarily, clean most surfaces in the home. Our laundry soap is homemade, as is our toilet cleaner and the soap we use for handwashing. The only premade cleaning products that we purchase with any regularity relate to dishwashing.

Comparison shopping.

A while back, I did a very thorough price comparison spreadsheet on products we normally buy. It was through this activity that we were able to justify the purchase of a Costco membership. We knew that it would pay for itself through our consumption of dairy products alone.

Coupons and the drugstore game.

I am not an extreme couponer, and I don’t purchase the Sunday paper for coupons with much regularity. I utilize a lot of online coupons, though, and I pay attention to store sale cycles so I can stock up on our favorite items when they are at their lowest prices.

In addition, most of our personal care items come from CVS. Upon initial examination of retail prices on the shelves at CVS or other drugstore chains, things can appear more expensive than at big box retailers like Target or Wal-Mart. Through careful shopping, though, I pay much less than those sticker prices on the shelves. I play what avid couponers call “the drugstore game,” which essentially includes strategically utilizing couponing, the store rewards program, and sales cycles. By doing so, we get most of our personal care products for free (or next to nothing).

A recent $31.01 grocery trip.
A recent $31.01 grocery trip.

Check out the thrift stores.

With a little diligence and a discerning eye, most home decorating can be done successfully through the thrift store. Many household items can be purchased there as well for a fraction of the cost. For example, I had a piece of art on my “wants” list for several years, but it was hard to find at a reasonable cost, so I never purchased it. About a year ago, I discovered it at a very inexpensive price, buried at the bottom of a pile in one of our local thrift stores. That was a pretty exciting day for me.

Maintaining our $350 household budget is not simple, but it is a challenge I enjoy. We eat well. Our home is clean. We are not deprived. And by keeping this portion of our budget small, it allows us to free up funds for other things, like traveling or savings. In the next few days, you’ll begin seeing how I spend our $350: the deep discounts, frugal failures, exciting finds, and budget busters. Hopefully, by the end of the month, you’ll see that we successfully came in on target.