Real life can be a budget buster


by Ken and Karen Gonyer

Shopping with a list in hand–and sticking to it–is generally an excellent way to control grocery expenses. © Thinkstock

It’s 5:15 p.m. on a typical weekday—time for Ken to pack up and head home from work. First, though, he’ll send a quick text message to Karen.

Ken: Hi Honey. What are we doing tonight?

Karen: I’m picking up M from practice, D is home and dinner’s in the oven. We have a church meeting at 7.

Ken: That’s tonight? Oops. OK—heading home.

Like a lot of dads, Ken manages his calendar at work just fine but apparently has no capacity to keep track of the family’s schedule at home. For that he depends on Karen. And for the last couple decades, it has worked out okay. Like a lot of moms, Karen can’t help but think ahead, make plans and manage the details of her family’s life.

Recently, however, something has changed for our family. Karen, now a real estate agent, has a very unpredictable schedule and a job that requires her to constantly juggle the hundreds of details involved in homes sales. It’s no longer humanly possible to manage her husband’s and teenage children’s lives as well.

Reality is beginning to set in, and it’s feeling a bit harsh. Ken and the children are starting to realize just how privileged they’ve been to have someone else do most of their thinking on that score for them.

By far the biggest challenge has been meal times. In past years, Karen’s routine was to plan and shop for two weeks of meals at a time. We would share cooking responsibilities, but for the most part, Karen was in charge. It wasn’t always easy, but she managed it. Now there’s just not enough time for that. The stress is easy to read between the lines of the 5:15 p.m. text conversations:
Ken: Are you at home?

Karen: No, I have to show a house at 5:30. Home by 7.

Ken: Are the kids home?

Karen: Yes.

Ken: Any thoughts re: supper?

Karen: No, sorry… running all day.

Ken: None here either. I’ll order take-out.

This was real life for the Gonyers, and in the beginning it really wrecked our monthly budget.

This was real life for the Gonyers, and in the beginning it really wrecked our monthly budget. We ate out or picked up restaurant food several times a week, which for a family of four adults could add as much as $120-150 per week to what we spent on food. When we could get to the grocery store, we rarely had a shopping list and bought a lot of pre-packaged convenience entrees to save time. Somehow we always seemed to come home with a lot of impulse purchases such as snacks and comfort foods, too. Shopping while hungry destroyed our self-discipline. The whole scenario also destroyed our monthly spending plan.

Although we’ve been teaching other people about financial management and doing financial coaching for about 20 years, we’ve been humbled to recognize that we too are a work-in-progress. We don’t have everything figured out and we don’t do everything right. Even so, the challenge of our new normal has not been insurmountable. In fact, this season of life has inspired us to approach family life in some new, healthy ways that are helping save the budget as well as challenging everyone to grow.

First, we’re learning to share the load. Ken does enjoy cooking, so it hasn’t been a hardship for him to comb through cookbooks for recipes and plan a menu he’d be willing to help prepare. He’s also found some internet sources for cheap meals—bloggers like Erin Chase, Jill Cooper and Tawra Kellam who plan meals for $5 or much less using beans, lentils, rice, in-season fruits and veggies, etc. Like many guys, Ken really enjoys grilling, so that’s been a standard part of our meal plan even through the winter months. The teenagers are part of the team as well. Karen had them each find four recipes they liked and were willing to cook. We printed each recipe and put them in a binder with some of our other standard favorites. The goal is for each of us to cook one weekday evening and then go out to eat once as a family (or as a date for us and a leftover night for the kids).

With everyone’s busy schedule, our team approach doesn’t always work out as regularly as we’d like, but the structure helps. Planning meals together also helps us tame the grocery budget. We put together a shopping list, and Karen can often fit the shopping into her daily work-related travels. We use a pre-printed shopping list that Karen wrote up years ago, marking a check next to everything we need. Having it pre-printed reminds us to check our supplies of staples like sugar, flour and pasta as well as other household needs. Getting these on the list saves us making another trip to the grocery store.

One meal of the week that’s proved to be especially challenging for home-cooking is Sunday lunch. As we exit the church parking lot, we can either turn right to go home or turn left to go directly to an Italian restaurant. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get the vehicle to make that right turn! Low blood sugar makes all of us grumpy and irrational, and we can’t bear the thought of trying to figure something out for lunch. Ken’s sister-in-law solved that problem for her family by stocking an insulated container with granola bars or other healthy snacks. When her family got whiney after church, that snack was just enough to keep everyone sane until lunch was ready. For us, the commute to church is about three-fourths of a mile, so we needed another solution. When we can, we put potatoes in our slow cooker to bake while we’re at church. It only takes a few minutes to chop up some veggies, cheese and deli meat for a “baked potato bar.” We also like to keep some “emergency supplies” in the pantry for other Sundays—easy to cook items like dry pasta and jars of spaghetti sauce, tomato soup and stuff to make grilled cheese sandwiches, etc. They’re not gourmet, but they meet the urgent need for food and keep us from spending $40 at a restaurant. Budget crisis averted!

Through this new stage, we’ve discovered that real life can bring unexpected, budget-busting challenges. We’ve also seen that it can bring out the best in our family. With a little extra effort from everyone, we’re doing just fine.

Ken: What time will you be home?

Karen: By 6 I think.

Ken: Sounds good. D is making that Zucchini Penne dish he loves.

Karen: Yum.

Ken: See you there.

Ken Gonyer is Director of Member Care at Park View Federal Credit Union ( in Harrisonburg, Va. KAREN GONYER is a real estate agent with KlineMay Realty in Harrisonburg, Va. Email questions to .


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