Let’s start with the basics, a food budget. First, try to figure out what you are now spending on all your food because the largest part of your budget is the day-to-day spending on food items. If it seems mundane, it is. But according to DebtSmart.com, the average family of five spends $8,178 on food each year.
Ideally we want to engage our children in a creating a real budget that teaches them real lifeskills like planning menus, shopping, using coupons, shopping sales, buying in bulk and cutting down restaurant visits. My guess is that you can greatly reduce this huge cash outlay and the kids can share in your success.
Before you create a food budget that works, look at why your budgets may have failed in the past. They may have failed for two reasons: (1) lack of commitment (a.k.a. self-discipline) or, (2) unrealistic goals. The good news is that your child, on the other hand, is probably a newcomer to the world of budgets and there is much you can do to encourage them to help with your budget.
So, why is a budget important? Explain to your children that “a good budget enables you to pay for what you need and save for what you want.” As a parent, I feel that understanding the concept of budgeting strongly encourages youngsters of any age to face the consequences of spending money and to discipline the urges we all have for instant gratification.
The only way to start a budget is to set a goal. We are dealing solely with a food budget here so let’s say that our goal is to serve healthy, fresh and good food at the lowest cost to all family members. The whole family can participate in all phases of this -- from setting menus to shopping and cooking. This is where you can encourage your kids to partake in the process. You can say, for instance, that as a family you could use half of the money you’ve saved with this new budget to save for a vacation or special treat, like a computer or new television set. Or, each child could share in the money saved by clipping and using coupons or finding needed items on sale.
Begin by counting the number of meals you’ll be eating at home each week. Discuss this at a family meeting. Explain your nutritional goals. For instance, do you want meat with every meal? Do you want to serve only organic foods? Are sugars and fats restricted in your home? Articulate your rules to your children.
Next, set up menus. Make sure you and your family decide on lunch meals, too. Each of you can save a lot of money by bringing lunch to work or school instead of buying it while you’re there.
Then, start shopping with coupons, looking for sales and/or buying in bulk. The trick with getting the kids involved with coupons and sale items is to send them “on a mission” to locate “deals” on products you use in the sizes you want. The 64-ounce jar of mayonnaise may not be convenient for you to store and may take a year to use up. A very effective incentive: I allow kids to keep half of the money saved with coupons they find and use.
Next comes the actual shopping. I have a “label-checking game” for the younger children. This gets even the youngest family member involved in the shopping process. The goal is to teach your child what to look for on a label with regard to price, size, calories, ingredients and so forth.
You assign your child the task of finding a product with your specifications. A family-sized serving of low-salt content mushroom soup is a good example. Show your child how to find the soup aisle. Most stores post signs telling what products are in the different aisles. And always, for safety’s sake, make sure your young shopper stays within view. Teach them to read the labels to find calorie content and the healthy ingredients you’re looking for and teach them how to decipher the pricing information, too. After they get proficient at this, you can gradually step up the rate at which they find the correct items.
The mission is to have your child find the item you asked for before you and your shopping cart reach the end of the aisle. Also, have your kids come up with other ways to cut the family food budget. Maybe bringing coffee in travel mugs from home rather than stopping off to pick up one of those “designer” coffee drinks before work? Or maybe you could fill a water bottle at home, as well.
Let them track the new budget and compare it against the old and measure their success. Learning smart shopping skills go hand-in-hand with developing valuable budgeting knowledge.