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When my wife and I got serious about finishing our debt repayment once and for good, we knew that we had to come up with some big savings. Like Ramit Sethi says, there is no point trying to nickel and dime yourself to savings by picking Dunkin Donuts over Starbucks; you are better off focusing on big things like saving money on cars and groceries.

We were already paying off our cars, so we chose the food budget. Rather than analyze what types of food we were eating, and whether this brand or this combination of choices would save you 25 cents, my wife started simple – she made a meal plan, not a grocery list.

Get out of the grocery list mindset.

A grocery list is simply you sitting down with a piece of paper and trying to think of the foods and ingredients you need and want.

Do you see the problem with this?

When you sit down and just try to think about what foods and ingredients you need, your mind starts to wander and your brain starts to get crazy. You add weird things like pomegranate and exotic cooking oils. Spices. These are the type of shopping trips that result in $200 and $300 grocery bills.

If you instead make a list of the meals you want for the week, you can then see what you have and don’t have, and base your shopping off of that.

So how did we put this into action?

First, my wife made a list of three weeks worth of dinners, 21 for anyone counting. She then chose 7 for the upcoming week, checked the pantry and refrigerator to see what we had and what was missing. She then made a note of what we needed on her meal plan, took it with her to the store, and shopped for only one week.

Aha, you say! She did make a shopping list.

Well, Einstein, maybe she did, but she made a meal plan first, so that’s what I’m going with.

Seriously, though. This works.

Together, we decided that the maximum we could spend in a week at the grocery store was $200 (note: my brother was living with us at the time, and he has a healthy appetite). I was so eager for us to meet the number that I told my wife any money under the $200 she doesn’t spend, she gets to spend the next week on whatever she wants.

I was skeptical at first that she would make it, but in her first time trying it, she only spent $150. Since then, the average has been closer to $150/week.

And you know what?

She got into saving money and was so proud of herself that she stopped taking the incentive money. She wanted it to go towards debt repayment.

This was the point when we truly got on the same page as a married couple.

Now you may be thinking that this would lead to a lack of meal variety, but in fact, the opposite has happened. Since we stopped eating red meat and ground beef, the variety of our meals, anchored around chicken and pork, has improved.

So there you have it. If you want to free up some real money to get out of debt, give yourself a big win and throw out your grocery list and trade it for a meal plan.


Some Tips on Making This Work
  • Try to plan 3 weeks of meals at once to ensure variety, but only shop for them weekly
  • Make one meal a soup early in the week. Cook extra, freeze, and have again at the end of the week.
  • Consider making one dinner a week without meat, like Cheese Tortelini. Meatless Monday! Meat is expensive and bad for the environment.
  • Instead of worrying about finding the best deal on soda, just stop drinking soda. It's bad for you and beverages like that are a budget killer.
  • If on the last day of the week you are running low on food, get creative. There’s no shame in hot dogs wrapped in tortillas with cheese.

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