Sometimes saving money while eating a healthy diet is as simple as figuring out a budget and sticking to it. While I know it's not as simple as that — we all need very specific tips to make that happen — I don’t think it ever goes beyond that. With no budget, we are apt to spend more money than we should — or at least I know I do!

But once you have set a budget, how do you stay within it? Well, one of the most effective things I have ever done for our budget was to use cash. I wanted to share what has worked for me, specifically for a food budget that includes local meat and co-op items in addition to local grocery stores.

The funny thing to me is that using cash when grocery shopping seems like such an old-fashioned idea! But our little plastic cards are a really recent invention. Using cash does several things. First, if you only bring your budgeted amount of money to the store, you can’t spend more then that. Let me tell you, it has saved me from making so many extra purchases! Secondly, seeing your hard-earned cash in person (instead of just seeing a total on the register) helps put into perspective how much money you are spending.

This is how I use this method:

First, once we have a set amount for our budget, I figure out how much we spend on purchases directly from a farm (like raw milk), and from co-ops (like Azure Standard). I subtract that from our budget, and then divide what is left between the weeks left in the month. That's my weekly budget. I put the cash for my co-op and the cash for my milk in envelopes, and then create an envelope for each week. When I go grocery shopping for that week I simply take my envelope of cash and force myself to stay within it.

If you are on a tight budget, this can be harder then it seems. Here are some ways I make it work:

1. Have some flexibility with your grocery list. I figure out before I go what items can be deleted, if I max out my budget and have a few things left on my list. Non-essentials, basically. Staying in budget at times means sacrificing something delicious on our grocery list, but it's worth it to stay within our budget.

2. I also keep a somewhat flexible menu plan, so I can switch things around on my menu if I find better prices. For example, if I have a certain vegetable on the list, but when I get to the store, I discover another vegetable is on sale, I cam switch it around.

3. Start a notebook of store prices. Being able to keep track of prices at the store has allowed me to plan more easily on a frugal budget. At first it was hard for me to menu plan a whole weeks' worth of meals on a tight budget (especially trying to buy organic and whole foods), but over time it has become easier as I figured out the system.

4. It will get easier the longer you do it. Expect it to be a little confusing at first, but it will get easier as you figure out what works for you. I was flustered the first time I shopped this way, as I jotted down amounts in my price notebook, added grocery items in my cart together on a calculator, and tried to figure out what I could substitute, but it smoothed out over time.

5. Bring a calculator. I add up the items in my cart as I go. That way I knew exactly how much I'm spending. This is invaluable – especially when all you have in your wallet is cash. I have a real fear of getting to the checkout and not having enough money to purchase everything.

This has, hands-down, been the single most effective method our family has used to stay on budget. Why? It has forced me to come up with all sorts of menu items that are truly frugal. If I just buy what I “need” and then simply accept however much it costs, our food budget would be substantially higher.

While this is certainly the most effective way to stay within budget, it doesn't always happen. We have just gone through a challenging time with my health. Most of my problem stemmed from incredibly low iron stores, which I am almost finished getting treated for (and, though hampered with a cold, I think I am starting to feel better finally!). For us, that has meant that we haven’t stayed in our food budget as well recently. We all go through seasons when our “best practices” go to the wayside, and that has certainly been true for me! So if you are in a season like that right now, know you aren’t alone.

But in the long run, if you really want to cut back on your food budget, try the cash method. Oh, and just make sure you place all of your money in a safe place! That’s the one problem with cash: if you lose it, it is a sad, sad loss.

What about you? Have you ever tried cash for grocery shopping? Any tips or experiences to share?

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