Cooking My Way to a Dream of Personal Finance Mastery

Cooking my way to financial mastery one bill at a time

News Flash!

I have decided on a very specific, measurable, achievable goal on route to my dream of mastering my personal finances. I’m putting myself on a grocery budget.

It started out like this.

A couple of months ago, my husband went to Safeway with me, as he sometimes will. He’s frugal by nature, but he does sometimes find something that is both frugal and seductive, and when that happens he splurges.

On this particular trip, he was seduced by a frozen turkey on sale for $1.19 a pound. We brought it home and crammed it into the freezer and there it rested, until last weekend.

Sidebar: Regular readers may recall that I have a fondness for organic turkeys. Rest assured that they are not $1.19 per pound. There’s a reason they’re not that cheap. It costs more to raise and process organic turkeys that have never been frozen, and at the same time, most local organic farms have a far smaller carbon footprint than the big industrial processors.

So it’s not that the extra money is wasted in the larger social sense, but before you can contribute to the larger social sense of organic food production, you have to be able to afford it in the first place.

I’ve got additional justifications for my once-annual organic turkey, too. I know where it came from, and I know what it was fed. I believe it is healthier for my family and friends because it’s far less processed than an industrial frozen bird. And I was certain it just tasted better. Thanksgiving is a celebration that is all about the food. You won’t catch me serving canned cranberries or frozen processed turkeys or Mrs Smith pumpkin pies – no sirree Bob.

But back to the story.

Last week, I took the cheap-o turkey out and thawed it safely over a couple of days under refrigeration, then brined it for 24 hours. Roasted it on Saturday and invited some friends over.

And guess what.

I was dead wrong.

The $1.19 turkey was every bit as tasty as my beloved organic turkey.

Loved it, and ate off it for at least two lunches and three more dinners. That’s a big feast and five additional meals for about $15.

Inspired, I decided it’s time to pay attention to my grocery purchasing assumptions and habits.

There are three things I routinely overspend money on: books, yarn, and groceries. Of those three, the biggest expenditure is, hands down, groceries. I love to cook and I love to feed people. I rarely cook the same thing twice in the same season, and most things I cook, even though they turn out delicious, never make a return appearance at all, ever.


I end up buying a lot of stuff that gets a one-time use and then languishes forever in the pantry.

For example, I have a jar of whole cardamom that probably cost at least $10. I needed five pods for a Thai chicken soup recipe I made once.

I’ve got various flavored vinegars that I needed tablespoons of, that would be too strange in place of plain old vinegar in any other recipe.

I’ve got some fancy Japanese sushi rice that we used half of when O Psychic One wanted to try his hand at sushi.

It’s a veritable graveyard of stuff that is too expensive to throw away and too unusual to use in every day cooking.

So! We arrive, at last and circuitously, at my goal.

I am putting myself on a grocery budget of 16% of my family’s income.

I read that the national average expenditure for groceries is 16% of a family’s income. I can guarantee you that I am spending quite a lot more than that. I haven’t calculated it because I don’t want 16% to sound too impossible compared to how much I am really spending. But I am confident that what I spend and 16% are not even in the same part of town.

Here are 5 simple guiding principles I’m going to use —

I’m not calling them rules, because rules are made to be broken and they bring out the rebel in me. Principles sound so much nicer.

  1. Out of every source of income coming into this house, 16% will be taken in cash and put into an envelope. Quaint, I know. But I don’t want to be tempted by a credit card, check, or debit card, because it’s a lot easier to lose track of a budget when you use money-substitutes.
  2. I can only spend what is actually in the grocery money envelope at the time of spending. No borrowing from some other source. No IOUs. No rooting around in Sir Empath’s backpack for his leftover lunch money.
  3. The grocery money cannot be used for anything except groceries. So when I go to Costco, I am not allowed to spend any of the grocery money on a gross of pencils.
  4. We are going to eat from the pantry and the freezer before we eat from the grocery store. (I borrowed this principle from knitting, where knitters talk all the time about “knitting from the stash,” although most of us don’t really actually do it.)
  5. Forgetting to take something out of the freezer for dinner is not an excuse to go buy something at the grocery store. We can still eat from the pantry, it just won’t have meat in it.

I expect to have much to say about this goal in future posts. In fact, last night I was thinking to myself, hey…this could be like Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame. Her goal was to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She wrote a book and they made a movie out of it!

My goal is to cook my way to financial mastery. You think it has any possibilities?

Dreamers, if you have any suggestions for healthy, inexpensive, delicious meals that I’ve never made before, I gleefully await your comments!


Jayne Speich is a small business coach/consultant who writes, thinks, and coaches extensively on customer service, business finance, and ways to thrive in the new economy. She is the owner of Onsys21 Dental, a coaching/consulting firm for dental practice owners. You can sometimes find her at Jayne’s post day is Saturday.

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  • LOL love this: “But I am confident that what I spend and 16% are not even in the same part of town.”

    So timely as I was just recently reminded to pay 10% to myself first in the form of adding back to my savings. Oh yeah. There’s that.

    Gotta come up with a catchy title for that book . . . . hmmmm.


  • Katie Eigel, Travel & Wellness coach

    Great post!

    I also like to buy in the bulk foods and spices aisles. Paying for an item per pound and per ounce, especially when you only need one spice for one recipe, can help too.

    I’m excited to see where you take this!

  • Remy Gervais, Top Photographer

    Well this post brings up a few things for me. Did the envelope thing and that actually worked for us as a family. I watched what we bought, only bought what we needed for the week. at the end of the month we got to go shopping in the pantry and make a “crazy meal” of stuff that you normally wouldn’t put together – one night it was all canned goods. Tuna, soup and pears. Not stirred all together, mind you…but it worked out just fine.

    Frozen veggies and fruit work well especially with smaller families like mine. cook what you need and put the rest back kind of approach. We ALWAYS have leftovers and those are either eaten the next night or for lunch, or turned into something else (like chicken breast Tuesday night became stir fry the next night) that kind of thing.

    Just paying attention to it will be a HUGE difference Jayne. And I LOVE the book idea…hmmm. Who’s financial book can you read and invite over for dinner! :) xox Rem