When Erin Chase was a teen, serving as features editor on her high school newspaper, she wrote a story about how to eat lunch for just 39 cents. And in her 20s, when she lived in the Caribbean and taught at an international school, she used similar thinking to learn how to "get down to the basics" of feeding herself by cooking from scratch.
"I lived in a house with a couple of other coworkers, and we didn't have a car," she recalls. "We'd have to walk up to the ATM outside the bank to get cash we needed to buy groceries that week, then walk right across the street to the grocery store, get what we needed, and walk home. I had to really plan out what I needed to get that week and make sure I had enough cash to do it."
A couple of years later, after Chase met her husband Steve overseas and gave birth to their first son, meal prep got "a bit more involved than just grabbing a couple bags" for herself every week. But soon, they were on their way back to the U.S. as an almost family of four, with baby #2 on the way.
They moved into an apartment in Ohio, near Chase's husband's family, working to get on their feet and save. "We wrote down every dollar on a piece of paper every single month and watched our savings grow," she recalls. "We were saving between 5 and 10 percent of my husband's paycheck to then put toward a down payment."
Six months in, they moved into a house and welcomed their second son. But it was the summer of 2008-right on the brink on the Great Recession-and it wasn't long until gas prices skyrocketed. "I needed to spend less money on groceries because at that time that was the only line item of our budget that I could control and control quickly," recalls Chase.
One night, she had made a meal with pork chops and peaches, and she told her husband that it had cost $3.85. "I remember it very clearly-I had this vision of $5 dinners," says Chase. "It was like this lightbulb."
That fall, she started a blog, documenting her grocery shopping and sharing any and all details that could help other families make a meal for $5. "It was this challenge, this game," says Chase. "I was so excited about it and wanted to share it with other people."
The blog took off, attracting thousands of visitors in the first month alone, she remembers. "It was wild how quickly it took off," says Chase.
To this day, Chase, now a mom of four boys, continues to run 5DollarDinners.com. She's on a mission to help other families cut their grocery spending in half by teaching a "Grocery Budget Makeover" class online, offering people a step-by-step program to transform their grocery shopping and stop overspending.
The entrepreneur is also endlessly proud of her sons' "forward-thinking mindset" and their ability to think critically about financial decisions. "My oldest son has had a job since right after he turned 15, so he's been making money and he's going to buy himself a car and he has a custodial investment account," notes Chase. "He's right on track. And my second son wants to get a job when he turns 15 a year from now and follow in [his older brother's] footsteps."
Here, what she recommends families do to not only save on their grocery bills but stay on top of their finances in the short- and long-term.
Plan Your Grocery List Based on Sales
Chase recommends meal planning based on whatever meat is on sale on any given week-or meat you already have in your freezer-as that's the priciest part of any meal. For example, if chicken is on sale at her store, she'll stock up and make 12 freezer meals with it. "Then, I don't have to pay for chicken for full price in the next six or seven weeks," she notes. And that practice alone will cut your bill, says Chase.
Then, she advises considering produce that's marked down. "Sometimes we're going to have apples four nights a week because it's the fall and apples are on sale," she says.
Finally, think about pantry staples like pasta or pasta sauces. "You might not use it that week, but you're going to have it on hand when you need it so that when you go to make your meal plan, you're like, 'Oh, I already have rice,'" says Chase.
Stay Focused on Your Long-Term Goals
Everyone experiences the temptation to order in or take out-even Chase. "I would love to buzz through and grab some barbecue every now and again, but it is not cheap," she acknowledges.
She'll remind herself that she has food at home she can cook quickly. And ultimately, being honed in on what's best for the family's budget in the long-run, as well as big picture financial goals, will pull her out of a "temptation situation."
Talk About Money
From early on in her marriage, Chase and her husband kept tabs on cash in and cash out-and met regularly to go over the details. Being on the same page about money-and having a communication system in place to discuss spending and saving-has been a "key to long-term success" in their relationship, says Chase.
"The tracking system that we set up when we lived overseas made it a lot easier for Steve and I to move through the changes of coming back and just keeping up with the money conversations that we were already having," she notes.
Track Your Spending
In addition to talking money matters through with your partner on a regular basis, Chase says "hyper-tracking" is imperative as it helps you stay in tune with your spending and make decisions related to your financial goals.
"Check your account balances all the time," she recommends. Also, watch your investments grow. "There are certain seasons where they're down. But keeping that long-term mindset has been really helpful for us, and that's something that we hope to teach our kids as well," adds Chase.
In short, ignorance is not bliss when it comes to money. Instead, you'll do best to make decisions based on the "actual reality of the situation." And if you have to adjust your goals, that's all a part of the process, according to the now mom of four. Ultimately, shifting gears-just as Chase did with her approach to meal prep back in 2008-is necessary to "continuing on your personal financial journey."