It's been seven years since I first started doing a regular pantry challenge, and it's never failed me in saving money and helping our family stay under budget.
If you've never heard of a pantry challenge, know that it's not complicated; it's simply making the effort to use up what you already have. By not buying more (because you already have what you need), you lower your grocery budget for that period of time.
What is a pantry challenge?
I usually challenge myself to "eat down the pantry" every January. It's like a real-life game of Chopped that helps us use up the excess from the holidays, waste less, and save some cash for the upcoming tax season.
This past June was a crazy month for us with surgeries, birthdays, travel, and house guests. When I saw that our grocery money was disappearing faster than the days on the calendar, I set aside the rest of the month to eat what we had, instead of buying more. We squeaked in under budget.
A pantry challenge can last from a week to a month, depending on your circumstances, finances, and general mood. I understand there can be some objections to a low- or no-spend season.
Four Common Questions I Get on Pantry Challenges
Let's address common questions about the Pantry Challenge here:
1. You mean I can't spend any money?
Well, that really depends on you. Folks' reasons for a pantry challenge can vary from "there is no money to spend" to "we just have too much food in the house." You know what your motivation would be to eat down the pantry, so you get to set the rules.
I usually set a smaller budget for my pantry challenge. I allow myself some money to buy milk and fresh produce, but then I focus on what we already have. We rotate stock, use up things before they go bad, and honestly, count our blessings.
We have an abundance even when we don't think we do at first. Depending on what you have on hand and what your normal shopping habits are — not to mention other factors like having a home garden — it could be a no-spend month for you.
2. But I'll use up my stockpile of cheap groceries!
Folks who love to shop the sales and nab good deals often feel sad to use it all up during a pantry challenge. There's a difference between hoarding and making wise purchases. If your food supply is outgrowing your storage space, then it's time to use things up.
Good deals will come again. The reason you bought it was to use it. You will be able to refill the pantry on a budget in no time.
3. I don't want to live like I'm poor.
Sometimes when you stick to a pantry challenge, you don't get to buy what you want. Our culture isn't used to too much "self-deprivation". While we might not be truly "poor," it sometimes feels like that when we aren't in a position to do everything we want.
Seven years ago my husband and I found ourselves deep in debt without work for several weeks. We had to scrimp and save to get right-side-up. Adjusting our grocery spending was a very tangible thing I could do to help right the ship. We had $400 a month to feed seven of us, including my pregnant self, but we managed!
Today, thankfully, we're in a better situation. But an occasional pantry challenge helps me remember those harder times. When I agree to spend less than I could, I force myself to be more conservative, to prioritize better, to keep my frugal-living chops sharp.
I hope we will never be in dire straits again, but I want to be prepared in case we are.
4. But wait — how are you really saving cash if you're eating food you already paid money for?
I suppose if you're one of those very organized shoppers who only buys what they need and always uses it up without ever wasting anything, you probably have no need to ever "eat down the pantry."
I, however, like shopping for groceries more than some women like to shop for shoes. I inevitably end up with items in the cupboard, fridge, or freezer that need to be used up. They will go to waste if I don't, and then I'm definitely wasting money as well.
In addition to eating things up before they go bad, I find that a pantry challenge reminds me to be more careful in how much of something I use — I'm not so generous pouring olive oil in a pan to sauté a few vegetables; I am a little more careful in pouring cream in my coffee.
Do you make it a habit to eat down the pantry? How has it worked out for you and your grocery budget?