I love my four kids, but I must admit they are essentially financial leeches. They suck money out of us like a force field in a science fiction thriller. After tallying up my grocery bills for one month, I realized that for the same money, I could have made a down payment on a car and had my teeth bleached. Wondering how to invigorate both my sagging assets and my smile at the same time, I looked for money-saving ideas.

I was in luck. One of those members-only warehouse grocery stores had just opened up near me, so I ran right over and plunked down $45.00 for the privilege of pushing a shopping cart the size of a big rig around the place. Once inside Big Food-A-Plenty, I didn't know where to begin. The place was a behemoth, several times larger than the Houston Astrodome, and there was nothing it didn't sell: pasta by the pound, socks by the scores, pickles in profusion. Whatever you wanted to buy at Big Food-A-Plenty, you had better like it, because it only came in multiples. Enthused with my plan to save my family money, I filled my cart with impunity.

Once in the mile-long line to pay, I realized with horror that the store only took cash, checks and an obscure credit card I had never heard of. My kids see to it that I never have more than twenty dollars in cash at any given time, and my checking account had about enough to cover only my twin-pack of gallon-sized ketchup. Exasperated, I asked a clerk to hold my cart while I went to the bank to get enough cash to save my family money.

I wasn't sure if anyone would like the new off-brand of cereal I found, but I hoped so, since it only came in an eight-pound box.

I found, however, that this kind of economy has its own costs. For one thing, I managed to ring up more than $375.00 while trying to conserve our financial resources. For another, I wasn't sure if anyone would like the new off-brand of cereal I found, but I hoped so, since it only came in an eight-pound box.

When I got home, I shouted "Groceries! Come and help, everyone!" a plea that, like so many others, fell on hearing-impaired ears. I dragged them, one by one, to the van, pointed to my haul, and said, "Get a move on. I'll break my back lifting that 25-pound bag of brown rice. Here, each of you take one side, and carry it like a couch, with one of you backing into the house with it. That way it will fit in the doorway."

"But Mom, we don't like brown rice!" cried one.

"Look, I'm saving money here, and this whole bag was only six bucks. Besides, brown rice has many more nutrients than white rice."

"Hey, look at this! Mom got a box of 44 Kit-Kat bars and a box with a 120 waffles! Thanks, Mom!"

"Stop tearing into that box," I said. "No one gets a Kit-Kat until everything is brought into the house and you eat at least four pounds of rice. Then we'll talk Kit-Kats."

"Why do we need twelve blue towels?" another asked, carrying in both the towels and a twin-pack of gallon-sized mystery brand hair conditioner, imported from the Czech Republic.

"They only sold them by the dozens. They'll keep," I said, perhaps too defensively.

"Someone help me with this," my daughter said, pulling ineffectually on the plastic handle of a 20-pound tub of laundry detergent. "I can't lift it."

"Of course not. It weighs almost as much as you do. Boys, take that from her."

"Mom, just where do you think we're going to keep all this stuff? The pantry's kind of full, isn't it?"

"You don't know the meaning of the word," I said, hefting a crate of toilet paper into the house and, looking around, deciding it would have to reside in the corner of the living room for now.

"Who's going to eat all this salad? Are we having company for dinner?" another son asked as he hauled a five-pound bag of pre-washed salad greens, a flat of tomatoes and a jar of mayonnaise that was larger than my Crock-Pot into the kitchen.

Looking around the kitchen, I realized my son's idea had potential. If I kept shopping at Big Food-A-Plenty, I would need to spend at least another $400.00 to buy a second refrigerator. Otherwise, I'd have to revert to the wasteful habit of buying eggs by the dozen, when they were so much cheaper to buy them 60 at a time. But until then, I just had one fridge. And even with my credentials as a Gold Medal finalist in the "shove more food into the fridge" decathlon, I couldn't see how we would keep today's purchases from spoiling. Besides, I had also snapped up five incredibly cheap smoked fish, 600 paper plates and almost as many napkins, Styrofoam cups and plastic cutlery. If I cooked a few pounds of the brown rice or pasta, we could share our bounty with the whole block.

When my husband came home, he was more than a little surprised to see us all eating at the picnic table on the front lawn, with a sign hanging from it that said "Free Food!" My kids and I had set up a buffet of an all-you-can-eat salad bar, smoked fish, the infamous brown rice (which brought the macrobiotic neighbors out in droves) and waffles for dessert.

"What's going on here?" he asked. He noticed that our buffet was rapidly being depleted, and in a survival-of-the-fittest mode, immediately started filling his own plate.

"Mom went shopping at the Big Food-A-Plenty today," explained our daughter, "and we didn't have room to keep it all. But she saved us a LOT of money."

Excerpted from "Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy."

© 2000 Judy Gruen