The other day, I was at the grocery store with my seven year old son. As we walked through the entrance of the store, I looked over at him and said, “Today, we’re going to try something different.”
He looked up at me. “Today,” I said, “you’re going to buy the groceries. You have $100. You need to feed all of us for a week. What do you buy?”
For the next hour, we wandered through the store looking at various items. At first, he was very certain of what he wanted to buy. He picked out materials with which to make pancakes (his favorite food on Earth), got materials for making homemade pizza, and picked out stuff for multiple meals on the grill.
The problem for him was that by the time we’d found stuff for about seven meals, he hit his $100 limit.
He was frustrated, as you might expect.
First, he asked why we couldn’t just spend more. I told him that a family only has so much money based on their income and that if you spend more on groceries, you have less to spend on everything else – like electricity at home.
Next – and this is where I was very proud of him – he started looking in the cart and wondering what we could put back to save money.
We went back through everything we had put into the cart and came up with cheaper substitutes for quite a lot of the stuff.
We talked about how leftovers save money, so if we buy a lot of something and make enough so that we can eat it two or three times, those extra meals become really cheap.
We also talked about sales, as I pointed out to him how some of the things in the store were on sale.
I even got to touch on the idea of meal planning. I showed him the store flyer and said that you could figure out what your meals would be at home before you ever came to the store.
Remember, this child is seven years old. From the moment I told him that I was making grocery shopping his responsibility this time through every little bit of discussion we had about buying food, he was engaged and asking questions almost constantly.
We wound up spending about $115 on our trip to the store, which was enough to buy groceries to cover virtually the entire week. (We did make a few assumptions about what we had in our pantry.)
The best part came a few days later. When the grocery store flyer arrived in our mailbox, he was actually interested in leafing through it. He wanted to know how much we would normally pay for these things and, for a few items, he seemed to be quite impressed with the savings. Together, we sketched out the basics of a meal plan from this.
Undoubtedly, this was a great learning experience for him with regards to shopping for food and frugality. I have two caveats, though.
First, it took a lot of time. My normal grocery store trip while alone is about forty five minutes. With one child, it takes a little under an hour. This trip took over two hours because of all of the discussions and searching for items. A good lesson like this is going to take time.
Second, I wasn’t hugely thrilled with the meals for the week. By letting a seven year old steer the boat, we wound up with some meals that I would never have picked on my own. I did put a few dietary restrictions on his choices, but I didn’t feel the need to add another layer of complexity to this lesson. That second lesson can wait.
If you have an inquisitive kid that’s somewhere between seven and twelve years old and you want to introduce that child to the reality of maximizing their dollars at the store, this is certainly an effective way of doing it.