Meet our 2011 Grocery Challenge winner

Our winner and finalists share their savings secrets

Winner: Sara Robertson, 32, Madison, Miss.

Family members: 4   

Her pre-challenge spending: $300

Weekly budget: $125

Whenever I see the word challenge, the athlete in me—I grew up playing soccer—can’t back down, not even when I’m 36 weeks pregnant and craving ice cream in the 100-degree Mississippi heat. Last summer I was busy being a full-time mom to two growing boys (Rhett, 3, and Colt, 2), while my husband, Rob, was in his third year of a five-year medical residency. Having both been raised by frugal parents who taught us to pinch pennies, we had paid for Rob’s schooling outright to avoid dealing with loans. But with baby No. 3 on the way, we dipped into our savings for medical bills. And because Rob is making less than I did when I was working part-time, it became clear that we had to buckle down even more.

I was already an avid couponer, but to shine in the Grocery Challenge I had to make a few changes. For starters, I began tweaking recipes to use whatever we had on hand—which meant hiding shredded vegetables in muffins, meatloaf and more. We had zucchini coming out of our ears from our garden this year, so I wielded my cheese grater and snuck it into everything I could. My sons barely noticed. And when a recipe called for an item we didn’t have, I swapped something in or just left it out. (Turns out zucchini boats are still delicious without bacon on top!) I also became more conscious of my habits: Normally if a recipe needs, say, 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, I’d toss out what was left in the can. Now, I actually freeze the leftovers. At 50 cents a can, that’s a quarter saved!

To get even more from our bounty, we started a weekly ‘garden only’ night—nothing store-bought allowed. Having the boys help plant, weed and water the garden definitely made them more excited about eating vegetables—although I did have to remind them sometimes. The hardest part of the challenge, though, was tackling our milk consumption. Rob and the boys drink milk all day long like it’s their job. Buying 7 gallons was a good week for us, and that’s with my husband rationing himself! Because milk costs $4 per gallon, I set a new rule: Milk at breakfast, before naps and at bedtime only, water with lunch and dinner. It took some getting used to, but they all eventually got on board, and that saved us a lot of money.

To curb our cravings for takeout, I started re-creating our favorite treats at home. The boys wanted popcorn at the movies, so I made it myself. Orange Julius is a big favorite around our house, too, so I found a similar fruit drink recipe that’s only 150 calories per serving, just as delicious, and gave us leftovers to boot! And in the spirit of getting our money’s worth, I brought back to the supermarket a jar of moldy applesauce that had an expiration date of 2014. The result: cash back in my wallet. I never would have been so conscious of such seemingly little things, yet we were spending up to $75 per person per week before the challenge. By Week 2, we were well below that level and going strong.

The challenge took a turn for the unexpected in the third week, when my doctor decided our baby had to come out a few days earlier—rather than at the end of the four weeks as planned. Knowing the grandparents would be staying with us and everybody would be fending for themselves in the kitchen while I recovered, I busied myself planning and cooking up a storm so we wouldn’t be thrown off track for the sake of convenience.

By doubling recipes and freezing extras, I made sure that there were enough whole-wheat pancakes, slow-cooker meals, eggs—for my low carb–eating parents—and more to last an entire week.

On July 11, I gave birth to another beautiful boy, Beau, and my family managed the last week of the challenge without any help from me. Rob and I were amazed to see how much better our family was eating without adding to my workload, even while we saved so much money. Rob said he never felt deprived once. With my little guy in tow and my big guys helping out, we’re using all the lessons I learned that month to continue to live as frugally as we did during the challenge weeks. We’re building up our emergency fund, too. Homemade Orange Julius drinks all around!

Keep reading to see our top finalists.

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