Here’s How One Mom Paid Down Her Debt by Meal Planning

updated May 29, 2019
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For many years my husband and I tried to set a budget, but it never really stuck. And for a while that was fine. We didn’t struggle to pay bills or have tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and we always had a healthy savings. But last year we relocated, and my husband’s income changed in a way we didn’t expect; we had to get really serious about budgeting our regular income and his variable income.

About the same time I discovered The Budget Mom on Instagram, and my family and I started using her methods for tracking and budgeting our expenses. The biggest challenge we faced was finding a food budget that worked well for our family. Here’s how Kumiko Love taught me to set a realistic food budget that my family can actually live with.

(Image credit: Jennifer Debarros)

Meet Kumiko Love, The Budget Mom

I started following The Budget Mom a few months ago, inspired at first by her debt pay-off (she’s paid about $50,000 in less than a year and is quickly working on becoming debt-free) but was hooked by her weekly meal planning and cooking stories. As a single mom, Kumiko works full-time as a financial counselor while raising her son and teaching others (mostly women) that they can have a life they love on a real budget.

I was most inspired by her November pantry challenge, where by inventorying her freezer and pantry, she spent just $200 on food for the whole month of November! While my family has implemented Kumiko’s Budget by Paycheck system over the last three months, this is our first month using a cash envelope system to keep our grocery budget in check. For even more inspiration, I recently interviewed Kumiko about about meal planning, grocery budgets, and more for my podcast Didn’t I Just Feed You.

Here’s what she had to say about creating a food budget you can actually stick with.

Why Meal Planning Is Important to Paying Down Debt

Kumiko regularly shares her monthly meal plans on her Instagram (including the highs and lows of her adventures in Instant Pot cooking) and she creates budgetized meal plans to help her reach her savings goals. She explains:

“Your food budget is one of the most expensive categories right behind housing, childcare, and insurance. When I started on my financial journey and started tracking expenses, I noticed that I was spending close to $800 a month on groceries and eating out. I started meal planning to help me map out a plan for my meals and it really help me cut down on spending and stick to my grocery budget.

“Meal planning made me really have a purpose when I went to the grocery, but it also really opened my eyes to how much I was eating out. One of the big reasons people eat out is because they don’t have a plan for what to eat at home. So I cut my food budget down from $800 a month down $400 strictly by having a meal plan, sticking to my budget, and basically having each week’s meal mapped out. Those other $400 went towards paying down my debt or my savings goals.”

Four Keys to Creating a Food Budget You Can Live With

I know all too well the ambitions of trying to tighten up a family’s food spending, only to feel like a failure when I couldn’t take my $1200-a-month grocery bill down to $300. So I asked Kumiko to teach us all the secrets to setting a grocery budget we can all stick to. Obviously, budgets vary by location, family size, dietary restrictions, or goals — but these four universal steps will help you budget and stick with it.

1. Track your spending.

Kumiko says the very first step for creating any budget is tracking your current spending. “Many people aren’t truly aware of how much money they’re spending on food. Tracking is all about being aware of where your dollars are currently going,” she says. “Once you know that, then you have a starting point. Only then can you say, ‘This is where I am and here is where I want to be.'”

One thing to avoid, though? Setting your goals too high off the bat, like going from an $800 food spend down to $200. You’ll get frustrated and likely fail, says Kumiko.

2. Shop your kitchen first.

“One of the things that has saved me the most money is meal planning by utilizing what I already have at home,” explains Kumiko. “It is essential that you know what you already have on hand and to pick recipes for meal plans based on them.”

3. Test different weekly budgets and then adjust as needed.

“Start by cutting just a little bit each month. Grocery budgeting should be done in baby steps. If you’re going to be reducing your grocery budget, start by just cutting $100 to $50 for the first month and see how that feels first. Before you know it, you’ll be able to cut your original budget in half.”

4. When in doubt? Pay cash.

“I am strictly a cash spender,” says Kumiko. “One of the reasons I got into credit card debit is because I was an impatient spender. When I wanted something, I didn’t care about the long-term cost.” But cash, she explains, changes that dynamic. “Cash is a visual way to see what you’re spending [because] it turns your budget into something tangible. That cash in your hands makes your spending decisions a lot more important. For instance, if I’m at the grocery store and I only have $20 left in my grocery budget, it becomes about stretching those dollars.”