In Part I of my Grocery Budget Series, I laid out how I gathered data for a grocery budget analysis. In Part II, I talked about a simple system to analyze and come up with possible solutions for problem areas. In this, the third and final part, I’ll talk about how to implement your good ideas and turn them into habits.

 Creating Guidelines

Go back to the various brainstorming lists you developed and pick 1-2 things you can change right now to improve your spending habits from each problem category (if you can’t find any, keep brainstorming and involve your friends and family).

Write them down. These are your new guidelines. The guidelines I developed for myself were:

  1. Reduce dairy to one small glass of milk a day and cheese used in some recipes.
  2. Limit meat purchases to $20/week.
  3. Salvage our old cloth diapers and use them for nights for my older daughter.
  4. Buy some flour sack towels and quit using paper towels.
  5. Stop buying desserts. We don’t need them.
  6. Develop a collection of meals with few ingredients and with prep time less than 30 minutes.

The ideal number of guidelines is probably around three.  Three is the magic number for most lists and is small enough that you’ll be able to accomplish everything.  So, prioritize and start with three.  Keep the others in your back pocket and do those once you’ve made the first three habits.  I’m starting with these:

  1. Reduce dairy to one small glass of milk a day and cheese used in some recipes.
  2. Limit meat purchases to $20/week.
  3. Stop buying desserts. We don’t need them.

 Form New Habits

Now that you’ve got your guidelines, you need to incorporate them into your spending routines. At Opower, we use behavioral science to get people to save energy.  Here, you can use a little behavioral science to remind yourself to do these things at the appropriate time.

Your tricks will be very personalized, but here are some examples to get you started.  This is largely a creative exercise for you to figure out how to remind yourself of your guidelines at the right time.

Reduce Dairy

My main problem is that I drink a LOT of milk.  To remind myself only to drink it with dinner, I’ll write a note on the cap so I’ll see it before I get anything to drink.

Form New Habits

Spend Less Than $20 on Meat

Every week, I write a grocery list using the same pad of paper. I decided to write a reminder at the top of every sheet in that pad to remind me to stick within my budget.

Stop Buying Desserts

I did the same thing for desserts, but went a step further.  I put a reminder on my calendar during my regular grocery shopping hour that reminds me not to buy sugar.  The reminder pops up on my phone just at the right time.

How Long Does It Take to Form New Habits?

Habit formation happens at different rates for different people.  On average, it takes people around two months to form a new habit, sometimes far longer.  You’ll know you can take away the habit-forming trick when the habit become second-nature.  For instance, when you no longer reach for the milk at lunch at all.  That’s when you know you’ve made something more automatic.  At that point, you can focus your energy on forming (or breaking) another habit.