Feeding a family of 5 on $100 a week: Road trip

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We all know we are supposed to pack all kinds of food for our road trips so we don't end up overspending on gas station snacks and restaurants. I succeeded this week in getting good deals on snacks to avoid the gas station part, but I still did spend on-the-go for restaurants, because with three kids and a job, I haven't hit that Mom Competency Level where I manage to pack both their clothes, the actual children, and a picnic to eat along the way.

We spent a lot of Memorial Day weekend on the road, driving first to Naperville to pick up a rental vehicle*, then to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee for Saturday, then to Indiana Sunday, home from Indiana Monday, and then finally out to Naperville and back again Monday night. (No wonder I feel not at all rested now that it's Tuesday.)

We used a Restaurant.com certificate to eat out in Naperville Friday, bought our lunch at Culver's outside of Great America Saturday, dined at McDonalds on the way to Indiana Sunday, ate free breakfast at our hotel Sunday morning, indulged in ice cream and crepes Sunday while touring scenic West Lafayette, Ind., and managed to make dinner from scratch Sunday evening in between getting home from Indiana and setting out for Naperville.

By the way, a friend recently asked over on the Frugalista Facebook page how we are dealing with the high price of food at Six Flags, since we got season passes there. Well, the main thing is that I told the kids before we ever set foot into the park not to ask me for food or treats, because I was not buying them anything to eat there. This is possible for several reasons: 1) Although they say no carry-in food, they do allow you to bring one snack per child, at least that's what I've been told at the gate. I pack something like a cereal bar or fruit leather that they rarely get, so it feels like a special treat. 2) Since we have season passes, we don't feel compelled to stay for more than a few hours, so we can leave when we get hungry. 3) You can pack a lunch and eat it at picnic tables outside the park. Or, since we also have a parking pass, we can leave the park to grab food from a nearby fast-food restaurant and then go back. 4) We did buy the refillable soda cup, for which we paid $10 (that's the price when you buy three at a time, we went in with friends) and enjoyed free refills all day. On future visits, we can refill the cup for 99 cents. I don't normally give my kids pop, but again, this feels like enough of a special treat to make them not feel so deprived when they see the $10 funnel cakes and ice cream sundaes.

Despite all that planning, it turns out my kids are still kids, and they've been eyeing the tiny cups of Dippin' Dots that sell for $5.50. I decided to start paying them allowances. The 7-year-old now gets $3 a week, the 4-year-old $1.50, and if they decide to save up several weeks of allowance for one lousy cup of ice cream, that's their problem.

As for road snacks, I purchased and packed cereal bars (eaten at Six Flags, they do let you bring in one snack per kid), dried snap peas, pistachios and potato chips. We drank water from our reusable bottles and cups. I also packed organic apples, which we munched in the Indiana hotel; a watermelon and wine to share with the folks we were visiting in Indiana, and some organic blackberries, which got moldy during the hot, humid drive. (Curses!) I also brought raisins, Goldfish crackers and fruit leather from my pantry.

I'd grade myself a B for saving money on the road. To get an A, I will really have to get it together to pack a bona fide picnic for our next road trip, coming up in late June.

As for grocery shopping in general, this week I was surprised to find out I had spent more than my $100 budget. What with preparing for our trip, it felt like I scarcely had time to shop at all. But it turns out I spent $106.55:

At CVS I spent $6.42 on milk, $1-after-coupon bottles of Purex and the Sunday paper.

At Trader Joe's I spent $35.88 on organic strawberries, blackberries,* apples and yogurt, cage-free eggs, wine and kid snacks for our road trip (dried snap peas and cereal bars).

At Jewel-Osco I spent $24.25, with the highlights being free hot dogs, buns and 7-Up with in-ad coupon and the $2.99 watermelon. (Actually, it was kinda mealy.)

At Petco I spent $40 on cat litter and cat food. (Should be at least 3 months' worth of dry food.)

Since we were on the road so much this week, I'll skip listing the meals again. Next week, I'll have only $93.45 to spend, to make up for going over budget this week.

* We're thinking about buying a bigger car because our three kids are so squished together that they're in easy hitting and hair-pulling range. We thought we would try out one of our potential car choices by renting one and driving it to Indiana. At a cost of $150, I figured it could help us avoid a hassle and more expense if we bought a car that ended up not working for us.

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