Friday, August 5, 2011

Life on a Budget

Two posts in three days? I know. If I don't stop the insanity the world may well stop turning, and that would be a terrible thing indeed. Don't worry. I'm almost positive there won't be another this weekend, as it looks to be a busy one!

I thought I would sit down and share very frankly with you all about what our budget looks like. Specifically our grocery budget. I know this is a tough and stressful subject for many of you out there. I know that personally I often come home from trips to the grocery store feeling defeated. We have so many options but what do we choose, and how can we possibly manage to feed our families healthily while maintaining a budget that doesn't break the bank? The good news is that you can do it. I cannot promise you that it will be easy. That you won't occasionally leave the store with a mostly empty cart. But it can be done if you're willing to make some sacrifices!

Before I get into how we manage to eat healthily on a small budget, keep in mind a few points and make adjustments for your household accordingly:

1. We have no children yet. So when I say we spent "X dollars" one week, or a certain item lasts "so" long, remember that I am talking about feeding two average height, trim, but mostly inactive (I know, tsk, tsk!) adults.
2. We live in an area of the country where food prices are low, compared to areas like the east and west coasts. Of course, average income is also higher in those areas, but you get my point! Take this into consideration and adjust accordingly.
3. We usually eat a relatively low-carbohydrate diet, which due to it's higher protein, higher fat composition improves satiety and somewhat reduces food cravings. For this reason and others, we rarely snack during the day, but may occasionally grab a couple slices of home-dehydrated banana, or a few nuts to "hold us" if we do get hungry between meals.

So now that we've gotten that out of the way I'm going to tell you right now, when I say we eat on a tight budget, I mean tight. I've found that in the past when I tried Googling tips on grocery shopping on a small budget, most of the blog posts, message boards, and other websites I find which claim to be all about eating well on a small budget felt like a joke to me. Their idea of a "tight" budget is usually $100 a week or more. Let me tell you right now, if I had $100 a week we would be dining like kings every night! We do our best to spend just over $100 per month on our groceries (my ideal maximum weekly amount is $30 but I try very hard to come in under that). It varies a little from week to week and some weeks it is impossible to stay under $30. So what do we eat then, on such a tight budget? The answer is really too varied to type out! Here is a list of tips I've found to be indispensable in my effort to spend less while still eating well.

1. Buy sales. Don't go to the grocery store with a pre-written list of all your "must haves" (aside from true essentials, such as toilet paper -- though I would protest that even toilet paper doesn't have to be an essential), or with a "We'll see what sounds good" attitude. Go with a completely open mind and buy the meats, veggies, and fruits that are on the best sale that week. In recent history American's have had it so easy that it has become natural for us to go to the grocery store thinking, "What am I in the mood for?" instead of, "What can I afford for my health and pocketbook?" In order to keep your budget where you want it, you must break this habit and learn to enjoy whatever that weeks shopping trip brings. We've been surprised to discover some really delicious "new" vegetables this way!
2. Make the most of what you have. Most of us buy a whole chicken, bake it in the oven, eat the breast, thighs, legs, and wings (and maybe those tender little "oysters" on the back), and dump the rest into the garbage. What a waste! Instead we should be consuming the majority of the meat and then making bone broths with what remains. You'll be pleasantly surprised to find several more days worth of delicious meals in a chicken carcass! Whenever possible, buy whole poultry with giblets. The most nutrient dense meats are organ means -- use this to your advantage! If you can't stomach the thought of biting into a chicken liver try grinding it raw with a good blender and adding a small amount to ground beef dishes, soups, and stews. Back to the bone broths, you should always save any meat bones you have (in the freezer until you have enough to make broth with) to make bone broths. Whether you use the broth for soups, to cook a little rice in, or just as a filling, nutrient dense hot beverage between meals, take advantage of this powerhouse food for your health! It's free medicine!
3. Don't be afraid to buy frozen. I've noticed that a lot of people seem to have some (and sometimes great!) disdain for frozen vegetables. Why is this? Frozen vegetables are not only almost always cheaper than fresh produce, but because they're frozen right after picking, they're actually picked ripe, unlike a lot of fresh produce that is picked before it is ripe in expectation of long transit times to various destinations across the country. Frozen veggies also won't rot when you forget about them for two weeks, so there's never any waste, and most vegetables need to be at least lightly cooked for the nutrients in them to become most readily available for your bodies use, anyway, so you're not losing anything by having to cook your frozen veggies a little. Much of the same applies to frozen meats. You can't accidentally push it to the back of the fridge and forget about it until it is hairy -- the worst that can happen to frozen foods is that they toughen up a little, or if poorly packaged get a little freezer burn. A little freezer burn doesn't usually affect the flavor of food too much (though a lot can be very unappetizing), either. Additionally, freezing can kill certain bacteria, making frozen meats and vegetables somewhat safer to consume than non-frozen meats and vegetables.
4. Buy local. It is true that you have to be careful when buying local. It is not always cheaper (a "local" produce stand we stopped at recently was downright exorbitant!), but careful research should help you to find some less expensive seasonal sources. A friend of mine gets eggs from a local small farm for $1.00 per dozen! So local can be better. But another problem is that not only do a lot of roadside produce stands try to deceive us into thinking their produce is locally grown when it isn't, but the truth is often times local organically grown produce is just puny. We visited our local farmer's market back in May and while I know that was early in the season, the produce was far less than impressive. The point? Buying local can be healthy and budget friendly, but shop wisely.
5. Barter! If you are blessed like we are to live in or near a farming community (and I realize not everyone is), consider bartering for fresh food. Not only can you feel more confident about the quality of food you're getting from a friend whose home, barn, and yard you probably spend time in, but you get the added benefit of blessing your friends in the process of personally benefiting. It's a win-win situation! Have chickens, but no time or desire for a garden? Consider trading your pastured eggs for organic, vine-ripened tomatoes during the summer months. Have property where men in your community could hunt for deer or foul? Find something you want from them and offer the exchange!
6. Grow something. Even if you have a small yard, or no yard at all, pretty much all of us have the space for at least one potted plant on a front porch or back patio! Planting and tending just one small tomato plant during the summer can be rewarding and help -- at least a little -- with your budget (store bought tomatoes are expensive). After you try a tomato or two, consider expanding if you have the space! It is inexpressibly satisfying to sit down and eat a salad you grew yourself, or to make a pot of tomato basil soup with only your homegrown produce. Even the stresses of trying to deal with pests, lack of rain, and other garden problems is far outweighed by the joy of harvesting a dozen gorgeous tomatoes, zucchini, or leeks (especially if you garden organically and know that your food is 100% natural and free of all pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides!). If you're a big potato fan, for example, but have limited space consider building a simple potato tower. We've started our first, hoping for a fall harvest, though we started about a month late, so we'll see what happens! But once people become familiar with the best potatoes to grow in their area, etc., many people claim to harvest around 100 lbs of potatoes from one of these small boxes!

Whether you can put all of these ideas into use, or only one of them, I'm sure you'll find that if you pay attention you'll see that your grocery bills will drop! How much depends on what you're already doing, and your determination to stick with whatever you decide to try. I hope this proves helpful to some of you. As always, I love discussion, so if you have any tips or tricks of your own, feel free to share them!

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