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08.26.09

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Beans and Budgets

By Stett Holbrook


A FEW MONTHS AGO, I wrote in this column about how my family and I were struggling with sky-high grocery bills. Unlike rent, utilities and car payments, my food bill swings wildly, and I wanted to get our spending under control. As someone who likes to eat—and often—it hasn't been easy.

I promised that I would report back on my progress, but I've been putting it off because things haven't gone very well. We're still spending too much, but we have had some successes. Planning out a week's worth of meals really helps keep costs down and avoids expensive and numerous trips to the store to pick up "just a few things"—a few things that add up to hundreds of dollars by the end of the month. But even though I had generally stuck to my shopping list, that discipline had failed to keep costs down, because I wasn't sticking to a budget.

Eating mainly vegetarian has been great way to hold expenditures down, too, while also keeping my carbon footprint to a minimum. But that's another story.

I've also learned to love beans. Black beans. White beans. Garbanzo beans. Cranberry beans. Pinto beans. Beans (dried, of course) are cheap, full of protein and really versatile. Plus, I love the sight and smell of a pot of beans simmering on the stove all afternoon. By the way, there's no need to soak beans overnight. That used to really slow me down. Before cooking, boil them for three minutes and then let them soak in the hot water covered for an hour. Then they're ready to go.

But without sticking to a budget, eating beans and vegetables only got my family so far. My monthly grocery budget goal is $750. That sounds like a lot to me, but it's so easy to blow through it, especially when I pass through the wine and beer aisle. So my new strategy is to pull cash out of the bank and put it into an envelope marked "grocery." I generally shop four times a month, so maybe I'll divide it into fourths. But when it's gone, it's gone. There's no going over budget when you run out of money. The cash limit will probably require some recalculations to ensure we stay under budget. I'm also going to keep a better eye out for deals at my local grocery store and farmers market. And I'm going to dive deeper into the world of beans. I'll let you know how it goes.

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