Money saving theory: cash only

When John and I first got married, we were in school and very broke.  We’d walk to the store two blocks away, get cash with our bank card, and come back with as much food as we happened to have money for at the time.  We never came close to starving, but when the money was done, so was the shopping. Plain and simple.

Somehow over the years we got used to the convenience of debit cards and checks– backed of course by that ever-tempting line of credit.   And there were times that we’d go ahead and buy a bit more at the grocery store, knowing that payday was tomorrow and the credit line would ‘rescue’ us if we went over our limit.

Cash or not, I’ve always been pretty careful at the grocery store–see the sidebar for our grocery expenses in the past year.  But the line of credit attached to our checking account did make me more relaxed about my grocery spending.  Recently I wondered if the cash-only approach would help me impulse-shop less and pull our grocery bill just a little lower.

Instead of our usual $800-$900 per month, for July I decided to budget $700, which is a little more than $23 a day. (I’m feeding 11 people most days.)  We put a week’s worth of grocery money ($175) into an envelope, and repeated that every week, with the aim of spending no more than $700 for the month.

When I went to the store (always with a list!), I kept a running tally in my head of what went into the cart, rounding up to the nearest dollar for simplicity.  I found that I actually enjoyed keeping a closer eye on the totals.   And it was much easier to skip a $5 impulse buy knowing that I’d already spent all but $22 of that week’s money.

At the end of the month — no surprise — we’d spent $700 and no more.  Actually, it was probably a bit less, judging by the number of quarters jingling in my purse.  I didn’t bother to count my change this month.  But it was nice to know the change was there, in case we ran out of milk or baking powder or whatever.

In August I’m open to spending more than $700 if we really need to– I’ll keep you posted.  But I’m optimistic we’ll do fine with $700. And if this turns out to be doable long term, we could save $1200 or more over a year’s time.   I think we’ve gone back to cash grocery shopping full time.


  1. We moved to cash this year too. I always save all my change and watch it accumulate in a jar. It’s just an added tidbit of fun. I think I’m saving my change for my daughter’s up-coming wedding.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. We’ve been doing this for a while now. This is what Dave Ramsey teaches in his Financial Peace University.

  3. We started Cash Only when we started our debt free journey with Dave Ramsey. We recently started to not spend change.. and wowie it’s adding up fast!

  4. That is how I like to shop — always adding up to the highest dollar. I’ve taught it to my 14-year-old daughter and she uses it all the time and her friends are amazed. This weekend we are using our “change” from the past year to help celebrate her birthday. We’ll be treating ourselves to a pro baseball game, a musical, great restaurants and a great hotel in Milwaukee for four days. We typically collect approximately $400 each year in change, and use it on an end of summer splurge such as this. In two years we hope the splurge will be a musical weekend in NYC.

  5. thriftymomma says:

    I shop the same way, cash only with a running cart total. Just curious, does your grocery budget include things like toilet paper, laundry soap and shampoo or is it food items only? “Saving your change” in Canada can add up really fast because we have one and two dollar coins…lol

    • thriftymomma- Yes, it includes toiletries, cleaning supplies and pet food. (We have a medium sized dog and three cats.)


  6. You are a wise woman, Mary. I need to do better with grocery spending. Thank you for sharing this.

  7. my eldest wants to know what you are fixing.She has a family of 9(not counting friends at the table some nights) and is spending over $1000. You understand that “mom” never knows the answer LOL

    • Julia,
      We eat a lot of different things. Recent examples include spaghetti and homemade bread, Chinese chicken salad, homemade BBQ pizza, roast chicken and mashed potatoes, lentil stew, Thai pasta salad, fried rice, biscuits and gravy, beef stroganoff, potato pancakes and applesauce, plus a really fantabulous zucchini ricotta tart. There are lots of other good ideas here on my blog in the recipe section, and in my cookbook FAMILY FEASTS FOR $75 A WEEK. Good food does not have to cost tons of money.

  8. Cash is the ONLY way I stay completely on-track with my spending. Love it!

  9. What a great idea Mary! Its much easier to overspend when we dont have the cash in our hand even if we do have a list and a budget. Thanks for the tips- I am excited I get to use them someday

  10. Kate in NY says:

    Thanks for the inspiration, Mary. We have been overspending by a lot this summer, and I think “cash only” is the way to go.

    Just out of curiosity, do you use cash for everything, or only for groceries? Outside of that particular expenditure, how much do you budget for other categories – clothing, entertainment, gas, gifts, etc.?

    And one more – now that you’ve been in NY a couple of times (!), and you have a basic sense of the food prices in a big city as compared to your hometown, what do you think a reasonable grocery budget for your family would look like there?

    • Kate,
      We use cash for other things sometimes, but we are only systematically using cash for groceries at the moment. Since we drive a mega van and my husband has a commute, we spend about $300 a month on gas. We spend $50 or less a month on clothes because I yard sale, thrift, etc. Gifts are about $60/mo, mostly our own kids’ birthdays since we have birthdays 10 months out of the year. Entertainment (mostly eating out is rarely more than $100/mo.

      I didn’t price tons of stuff in New York, so I may not have the full view of costs there, but I think I’d probably need to budget at least $200-$300 more per month for groceries if we lived there.


  11. Hi Mary!
    I have your Family Feasts for $75 book right now from the library and will DEFINITELY be ordering it! What a blessing it has been! When I had my first two children, I stayed very much on top of things like this. Then, we had a baby in 2009 and are now expecting this November. But, the Lord has inspired me to begin budgeting and doing my best at this “job” He’s given me at home. We are profound believers in cash only, but still let things slide at times. This is a great reminder to get back on top of things. Can I link back to your blog and post about your book??? Thanks and many blessings to your family!

  12. I had become very aware that I wasn’t really sure how much I was spending at the supermarket because I was always paying with my debit card. I decided to go for the cash and budget route three weeks ago. And so far it’s working. I allow myself a bit of leeway – like the week I found nappies on a fantastic deal I stocked up, but then i deducted the money from the budget the next week.
    I’m giving myself £25 for food (to feed two adults plus 10 month old)and that seems about right. I don’t shop with a list cos I’m also doing my ‘buy reduced’ challenge which means I’m buying mostly reduced produce and meat. But that has been good and I try to evaluate ‘do I really need this?’ before I put something in my trolley.

  13. Cash only for groceries is probably the thing that helps our budget most, when I do that we stay in budget so much more. I need to be disciplined with that even now that we have two new foster children. I’ll put doing a review on Amazon on my to do list. Technically my husband bought it for me so he might need to post it but he LOVES your recipes.

  14. Mary, I just wanted to say I absolutely love your “Family Feasts for $75 a Week”! I found the book in the grocery store a few months back, read the covers, paged through to look at some of the recipes, and decided this would be a perfect addition to my cookbook shelf. We are a family of four, with one small income (I stay home with the two boys). We have some food issues, so most cookbooks won’t work, since many of them call for canned condensed soup, or other things. I loved seeing that your recipes are free of that. We’ve tried several recipes (Crunchy Baked Chimis are on this weeks menu) and have loved most of them.

    The cash-only idea is intriguing. I just might have to give that a try, and see if it helps cut our food budget.

    I’m adding a link to your site on my blog, and will go out to Amazon to do a review. 🙂

  15. Mary,
    My husband and I switched to the cash system two months ago. We had been using a credit card for everything in order to capitalize on the cash back. While we paid off our balance each month, I found that it was too easy to fudge on the budget with the credit card. I’m really enjoying the cash system!

  16. I see a lot of comments from people that are switching to the all cash system. I used to use the all cash system but it was a pain. Also I didn’t like the idea of always having the cash with me or at my house. What would happen if I lost the cash? It is however the most effective way to budget. So I have found the perfect mix. I use a service called It combines a checkbook register, an envelope system style of budget, and text messaging. Here is how it works. You set up a balanced budget (meaning your expenses and savings match your net income). Every time you get paid you send a text message to your account with the word Budget and the dollar amount of your paycheck. Then your account will make deposits in each one of your categories based on a percentage (all the calculations are done for you and they are 100% accurate). Then you only spend the money in those categories. When you spend money, you send a text message. You send the dollar amount that you spent and the name of the category that you want the money taken out of. You will then get a reply from your account that tell you the new category balance and new total account balance. It’s extremely effective. Mary, I would love to get your thoughts on this service. It has helped me so much and I just want people to get the same help. You can also still use a credit card to get rewards and not go over budget. They thought of everything! They have a customer service phone number that you can call and get help as well. I want to tell you more, but I don’t want to write a blog on your blog. Sorry if I took too much space. I just have a passion for helping people with their money.