I’ve Been Using Cash to Pay for My Groceries for 10 Months Now — And I Do Not Miss Credit Cards

updated Oct 15, 2019
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Making a grocery budget is one of the easiest things you can do if you’re trying to save money on food. Sticking to said grocery budget, on the other hand, is obviously the hard part. Impulse buys and extra yummy-looking produce deter our best intentions and, when you’re just swiping a credit card, you can easily dismiss how quickly these add up!

In January I started using a cash-only grocery system for food spending. Each month I’d divide my grocery dollars into four envelopes: one for each week, and a fifth one for eating out. During my weekly trip, I’d have a single cash envelope for paying — meaning that I couldn’t swipe my card if I went over on my spending.

My original intention was to try the envelope method for just three months. I didn’t expect my experiment to last 10 whole months, but the financial savings have been so rewarding that I’m still using cash for groceries and have zero plans to stop now. Here’s why cash spending has worked for me, plus three things I learned along the way.

Why Cash Spending Is the Best Budgeting Tool for Grocery Shopping

A cash budget is pretty simple: You use cash for your variable expenses, so that you physically can’t overspend. Many people who use a cash budget also use the envelope method (that I use), which involves pulling out their cash and dividing it into envelopes designated for specific shopping trips. You should use cash for areas of life where you tend to overspend and keep the money for paying things like your water bill or mortgage in your checking account. The act of handing over a $100 bill has a lot more gravity than swiping your card ever will, and research has proven we’re more likely to overspend with credit cards.

Cash budgeting works especially well if you can stand to leave your credit card at home and stick tightly to your budget. Without the crutch of a card to swipe, you really cannot overspend at the store. Because I’m often grocery shopping with two kids in tow, cash spending immediately curbed our (read: their) impulse requests. We simply didn’t have extra cash budgeted for Cocoa Crispies this week and our budget got to be the bad guy instead of me! Physically moving cash from envelope to envelope also helped me track our goals and readjust as needed. For example, I started a BONUS envelope and added rollover cash (this is unused cash at the end of a week) to it as a small reward to myself — which became a way for me to splurge a little each month on either new and exciting ingredients or on a good Costco run. This bonus envelope keeps me motivated to keep up my momentum!

Credit: Meghan Splawn

3 Tips for Easier Cash Spending at the Store

Practically speaking, cash spending can be uncomfortable at the grocery store — especially if you go over budget and have to awkwardly pick and choose what to leave behind. So here are a few tips.

1. Shop when you really have the time. Don’t try to squeeze a trip into those free 15 minutes you have before kid pick-up. Go when you really have the time and you won’t feel rushed to shop and accidentally grab the party-sized bag of tortilla chips instead of the standard. Plus you can take your time to split your purchases (something I do to keep my food and household expenses separate) or ask for more help at the check-out.

2. Tell your cashier your budget! I pinkie promise the cashier does not care what you spend. They will care, though, if you waste their time and hold up the line later by awkwardly putting things back. I usually say “Hey, I only have $100 cash on me, so can you stop when the total hits $90.” (This way you have money left for the tax!) I have never had a cashier balk at this.

3. Put impulse purchases at the end of the belt. Obviously you can track your spending as you shop using a calculator to estimate your spending (although this is a little easier said than done). Even if you have a rough estimate of your spending before you check out, leave any and all things that were not on your list at the end of the checkout belt until you can see your total is safely in budget. This helps the cashier and saves time.

I admit, I kind of miss stacking up credit card points from swiping my groceries and the occasional use of grocery delivery (if you have a hot tip for paying cash from that, I’m all ears), but watching my debit dwindle and my vacation savings swell is keeping me motivated enough to keep trying through the end of the year.

Have you ever tried cash spending for grocery budgeting?