Grocery Shopping and the 4-Minute Mile: How to Challenge Yourself

By Carrie Kirby on 24 April 2012 4 comments
Photo: mbpowell

When I teach workshops about cutting the grocery budget, I always start with one basic tip — create a set weekly (or monthly) grocery budget, and stick to it. (See also: How to Grocery Shop for Five on $100 a Week)

Why do I recommend setting a specific goal instead of going into the grocery store and just looking for the cheapest variety of everything on your list?

Think about the four-minute mile.

Yes, I'm seriously comparing grocery shopping to competitive athletics. But I have science backing me up on this!

According to the scientific paper Development of Superior Expert Performance (PDF) by K. Anders Ericsson, the four-minute mile “had been viewed as the ultimate limit for performance, but after (Roger) Bannister broke the four-minute barrier, several other runners were able to do so within a couple of years.”

Nowadays sub-four-minute miles are normal for professional competitive runners.

What does that have to do with grocery shopping? This scientific research shows that no matter what skill we are working on, the only way to achieve superior performance is by targeted practice. When we learn a new skill — start a job, learn to type, whatever — we usually improve with practice at first — UNTIL we achieve an acceptable level of proficiency — then we go on autopilot.

Does autopilot describe you in the grocery store since about age 22? We're out of Cheerios — in the cart. We need bread — in the cart. Ooh that's on sale — in the cart.

If you want to run a faster mile or become a better dancer or grocery shop more effectively, you need to get off autopilot. The way an Olympic runner's coach gets her off autopilot is by setting a goal that is just outside her current ability level. This motivates her to find ways to overcome the obstacles between her and that faster mile. The same thing goes for grocery shopping, or any other life skill you'd like to improve.

In the example of grocery shopping, my first step was to figure out how much I was spending each week at the supermarket. I knew I was putting in an effort to save, but I honestly didn't know how much I was spending. So first, I simply kept a few week's worth of receipts so I could get a ballpark idea of what I usually spent. This averaged out to about $100 a week for a family of two adults, one kid, and one infant.

Second, I decided to set my new grocery budget at 80% of my former spending. So I set the goal of getting everything we needed for a week's worth of healthy meals (and toiletries and household items such as diapers) for $80 a week.

Then, of course, I was forced to figure out ways to accomplish that goal. That's where the challenge came in. I tried new things that I would not have tried otherwise — I checked out nearby stores I had never visited to see if they were less expensive. I researched strategic coupon use and learned a lot of tricks for combining coupons, sales, and other incentives. I started tracking which foods were always less expensive — which had me buying less meat, of course, and leaning toward carrots and heads of cabbage over green beans and packaged lettuce.

You can apply this challenge tactic to any life skill you'd like to improve. Of course, not everything is as easy to quantify as your weekly grocery bill, but everything can be measured. You want to improve your relationship with your kids? Write down every positive activity you did with them in the past week, and then decide how you would like to build on that. Want to play the violin more proficiently? You can challenge yourself in terms of minutes of practice first, then set out specific challenges during that practice time, such as tackling exercises and pieces that are just outside your current ability.

Then keep measuring. If your challenge is successful, you may want to set a new goal to keep yourself off autopilot.

One more ingredient that is very useful in self-challenging — accountability. Competitive athletes have coaches and teammates to answer to, but the rest of us are often lonely in our pursuits to better ourselves. Having a running buddy is nice, but sharing your written targets with your running buddy and reviewing them periodically? That's effective self-challenging.

Personally, as a frugal blogger, I keep myself accountable by posting my grocery budget goals online and reporting on my weekly shopping trips. Knowing that I will have to tell the world that I went over budget has been a powerful help when faced with the temptation to overspend, especially on things like wine or chocolate. I can be a harsh coach to myself, but Internet commenters are probably the harshest masters of all!

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Meg Favreau's picture

"When we learn a new skill — start a job, learn to type, whatever — we usually improve with practice at first — UNTIL we achieve an acceptable level of proficiency — then we go on autopilot.

Does autopilot describe you in the grocery store since about age 22? We're out of Cheerios — in the cart. We need bread — in the cart. Ooh that's on sale — in the cart."

I love applying that concept to how we deal with money. It's really easy to start saving more, but then get in a rut where you don't take it any further.

What about you, readers -- do you have any particular ways that you challenge yourself?

Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

That was an awesome article! I'm a big sports fan so whenever someone ties anything into sports, I'm right there with them.

The most effective way I challenge myself is to set a series of small attainable goals with a reward if I attain all my small goals. This system seems to work best with me.

Guest's picture

I know that the two things that help me be a better grocery shopper is to always shop with a list, and to always know what I plan to cook. I was lucky. My Dad came from 13 kids with a swedish cook for a mother, so ilearned how to cook well and with little. Plus, I try to make a point of buying pretty much everything except milk, fruit,etc every two weeks. Then I don't go back to the store. That has save me quite a bit of money and usually time too.

Guest's picture

A unique idea!