After graduating from college in 2005, Becky Guiles was left with a mountain of debt.
The now-42-year-old took out nearly $25,000 in student loans to pay for her tuition at a New York state school, and put her room, board, and books on her credit card. To get around campus, Guiles also took out a car loan. Eventually, Guiles accrued nearly $35,000 in debt.
After years of living with it, the weight of that debt was causing major anxiety, and she recalls having a recurring nightmare where she felt just out of reach of a terrible monster. That monster, she says, was a symbol of her debt and her inability to get ahead financially.
As new parents living in New York on a single salary in 2018, Guiles and her husband were barely bringing in enough income to afford their current bills—let alone pay off the debt she had accumulated.
A trip to Target—in which impulse buying a $25 set of silverware would have made the difference between paying her bills on time that month or not—was her breaking point. The couple knew they needed to start saving money and they certainly couldn’t afford childcare. They decided that Guiles would stay home with their baby, while he continued working full-time.
“I just went home that day, and felt like, if I’m going to continue to stay at home with my son, if we don’t make some radical changes, then this is it forever,” Guiles tells Fortune. “And I don’t want this.”
Between feeding her newborn and changing diapers, she spent all of her time over the next couple months researching how to cut down on expenses. She eventually devised an ambitious plan to payoff her debt in one year, using a method she dubbed the Onion System.
“The idea behind it was to take things one layer at a time,” says Guiles. “I started on the outside layer.”
This included “invisible” expenses like insurance premiums. From there, she worked layer by layer, starting on the outside.
“I literally took a notepad and wrote down everything that costs us money on the outside of our house,” says Guiles, including lawn care and their car. “Then once I got everything as bare minimum as I could—I went on to the next layer.”
After eight months of peeling through the onion she and her husband had managed to save enough to pay off the $35,000 debt completely.
One of the major layers for the Guiles family—like most families in the U.S.—was their grocery budget. Before she started taking her debt seriously, her household could easily spend $1,400 a month on food at home. To cut costs, she started following “B.O.R.E.D,” an acronym of her own making. Here’s what it means.
Set a dollar amount for each major spending category and stick with it—no excuses.
With inflation hitting grocery stores particularly hard, she admits this can be tough to swing, so she gives herself a little leeway when she needs it and cuts back on times when she doesn’t. But don’t go to the grocery store without setting some guardrails.
To that end, you’ll always spend more money shopping if you’re not organized, and that means having a list and checking your cupboards before you head out.
“I’m sure everyone has had the moment when they go to the grocery store and they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t have flour. I’ll just buy some,’ and they get home and have like four bags of flour,” says Guiles. Take a picture of your cupboards or pantry to help you remember what you already have.
Reduce waste and reuse
When reaching for your fourth bag of flour, you might notice you have some extra salt in the bottom of your pretzel bag, or chips you can use to bread chicken. Saving money in small ways adds up in the long run, says Guiles.
“People really underestimate what they can freeze,” says Guiles. Consider reviewing a freezer chart to see what items can be frozen and saved for a later date. This can also make your fresh produce last longer.
Another tip is to use a vinegar solution on your fruits and vegetables to make them last longer.
Don’t complicate things
Avoiding complicated recipes most days can reduce costs. One easy way is to simplify the recipes you cook. For instance, many traditional Mexican and Italian dishes use the same base ingredients. Choose a day of the week you want to make that meal, and continue restocking these items regularly.
“Don’t go and try to make these elaborate meals with 30 ingredients and spices you’ll only use once,” says Guiles.
Guiles and her family have continued to use the B.O.R.E.D. strategy to keep their grocery costs low since 2018. Now, she shares money saving tips like these on her YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and blog. Her hope for those following along is that they can learn something from her they can apply to their own life.
“I’m not special,” says Guiles. “If there’s a will, there’s a way. You just have to be more stubborn than whatever’s in your way.”
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