That’s what I consistently spend on monthly groceries for our family of four.But I’m not always happy with that number.
Other finance bloggers spend far, far less — sometimes as little as $100 per person, per month.
I compare my budget that’s double that and wonder, why can’t I do that too? I get sucked into googling how to save on groceries, looking for an easy answer or a simple way to spend less on food. I obsess over my meal plans and grocery mailers and coupons until my eyes cross.
Other times I tell myself: It’s fine! I’m trying! Feeding a family is no easy thing, and our spending is below the average for a family of four. I already keep costs low while feeding everyone, and my spending is consistent. I’m doing great, really, and there’s just no room or need for improvement.
In both cases, I’ve noticed something happens: I idealize a financial situation — either someone else’s or my own.
When I idealize other people’s finances
In the first case, I look at someone else’s situation and automatically view that as the ideal. In this example, it’s other people’s grocery budgets. But it also happens with their debt-free lifestyles, higher savings rates, or more-impressive freelance incomes.
I see someone doing better than me and get starry-eyed and a little jealous. There’s a compulsion to try to accomplish the same. To show I can put in the hard work to earn the same outcomes.
But why do I idealize others’ finances? Why do I look at their money situation from the outside and see only easy success?
Because I want it to be as easy as it looks — easy enough that I can do it, too. I want that idealized version of money management that promises results and always delivers. I want to know that if I only follow this financial advice, I’ll always get amazing results.
When I idealize other’s finances, however, I’m missing the steep costs that are paid to reach that success. While cutting groceries costs looks easy when it’s packaged into a slick list of 10 tips, that doesn’t mean it is. It doesn’t reflect the author’s effort coming up with these tips. Or how hard it was to apply them to build a consistently frugal system for buying groceries.
When I idealize others’ money, I buy into the fantasy that money is easy, the myth that these one-size-fits-all solutions will work for me.
When I idealize my own money
I don’t just idealize other’s finances, however. I’ve noticed another pattern that crops up: I idealize my own finances.
I minimize money issues, smooth over financial bumps, and tell myself I’m already doing my absolute best. My grocery budget or money simply is what it is — and it can’t really be changed, I say to myself.
Or I justify my car loan and why I’m not yet focused on paying it off. I tell myself that my retirement savings rate is already
This mindset might be comforting, but it’s not exactly helpful. Because like the first mindset, it also means living in an idealized version of financial management rather than face harsh realities. It encourages me to be complacent and
I get to tell myself white lies like, I’m doing the best I can and can’t do any better, or that change and improvement isn’t possible or is too hard.
In reality, I do have the ability to lower my grocery costs or improve most areas of my finances.
I can’t control everything, but I do have a huge influence over what I spend, earn, owe, or invest. By idealizing my current financial efforts and situation as the best possible outcome, I’m actually downplaying and diluting my power to change and improve.
Idealizing my money to avoid financial reality
These two patterns have something important in common: they both get me stuck in some idealized version of my money, a story that tells me I either:
- I can’t or don’t need to improve how I manage my money
- Fixing my finances will be easy and simple if I can just be like somebody else
Both of these financial fantasies protect me from what I sometimes would prefer to avoid: the discomfort, scariness, effort, or pain of change and self-improvement.
Whether I’m idealizing my own finances or others, in both cases I’m creating comforting glamours of how I believe my money is or should be. And by focusing on these financial fantasies, I can avoid the uncomfortable truths of my money and financial behaviors.
This habit of idealizing financial matters creates the illusion that my finances are or can be better — without doing anything to actually improve them. It keeps me from accepting and dealing with the reality of my money.
The real opportunities for growth, however, are in my financial reality — located somewhere between the two extremes represented by these fantasies.
Look at your financial realities — and work within them
Working within the reality of my finances means I’m seeing my money as it really is.
I look past my wishes for my finances and see
If I take an honest look at my grocery spending and budget, for example, I can see there are real obstacles that keep our spending higher than I’d prefer. My 6- and 3-year-old have opposite tastes and dietary needs. She loves veggies, he’ll only eat fruit. He’s allergic to dairy, she refuses to even taste soy milk.
But I can also clearly see that I haven’t put a lot of time or effort into cutting costs. I can be honest about the less-frugal habits that have slipped in, whether it’s buying conveniently prepackaged snacks for the kids’ lunches or loading up on more Diet Coke than a human could possibly need.
Living in the reality of my finances in this way keeps me from getting wrapped up in fairy tale financial advice that promises results. Focusing on the reality of my money, rather than the stories I tell myself about it, provides a more balanced and honest picture of how things truly are:
- See what is and can weigh competing priorities intentionally and decisively
- Commit to doing the work when it makes sense, and know what work needs to wait or isn’t worth it
- Give credit for what’s going right, but be honest about what’s going wrong and keep an eye on issues
- Acknowledge there’s always room to grow and do better, but also remember the often-high costs of time, energy, and effort that comes with personal growth
We can take a look at all sides of our money, the good and the ugly, without giving in to the temptation to filter it through some financial fantasy.
In doing so, we gain power — the power to see clearly, to decide clearly, to mor consciously and intentionally shape money management in the present and our financial security in the future.