Monday, August 3, 2009

Home Economics 101: A Month On $40 For Family of Four Part II

Subtitle of this part (part 2): FOOD!

Now we're coming to the hardest part of living with little money. You can't let anyone go hungry, and food is your most important priority. But beyond utilities, it is also the biggest expense for most folks living on a low income.

This is why there are so many programs focused on getting food to people who need it. The problem is that most of those programs are also short on resources.

In order to best advise you, let me share some of my assumptions. This way, if something doesn't apply to you, you can figure out the easiest way to take your own personal situation into account.

When you discover you have only $40 to last the month, you may have just been paid. If so, congratulations. I say congrats because this also means you are likely to have done at least a little grocery shopping recently and that while your fridge and cupbards might not be full, they will have some new "stock."

The hardest scenario of course is if you are on your second, third, fourth, or fifth month with $40 or $50, and your cupboards and fridge just haven't had any chance to recover.

But my assumption for our purposes is that most folks who discover they only have $40 to last a month are looking at a situation somewhere in between. Perhaps you have half a carton of a half-gallon of milk left, some rice, a few carrots. But you don't have eggs. Or you don't have beans. When I am giving advice, I am assuming that you aren't using my tips as any more than a jumping off place.

My tips come from having looked in my own fridge at various times, and having figured out how to make a meal out of meager random odds and ends. So if you haven't done so already, go to your fridge and go to your cupboards. Take inventory of what you have. Start looking up recipes that can make use of the random can of olives and that little bag of uncooked barley that you bought back when times were better. It's time to get creative, and my list is really as much for inspirational purposes as for tips.

Getting Help

Knowing that sometimes, it might come down to this, I want to throw a couple notes in here about getting help. Your stops along the way might include:

  • Friends, neighbors, and relatives
  • The food stamps program and/or WIC, though fair warning: many folks in need may not qualify or may qualify for a very low amount of assistance only
  • A foodbank and/or Dollar-a-Bag programs

If you are trying to get help from foodbanks in your area, it is helpful to call ahead. It's great when you can find a bank that serves your whole county, has accessible hours, and has a lot of goods and you can just go in and grab what you need. Unfortunately, in most locales, that won't be the case. Call and find out:

  • Whether they serve folks where you live (some larger foodbanks divide up their distribution centers by zip code, for example)
  • What proof of ID and/or income might be required
  • What other information will be collected
  • How often you can receive help
  • The type of food and amount of help you can expect to receive
  • The hours and days of operation (usually very limited, and unfortunately it may be during workday hours)

As I've mentioned, many foodbanks these days are short on food. They will give out a very, very small amount to sustain you for a meal or three. Also keep in mind that though beggars can't be choosers and you will surely eat what you are given because you need it, the food they give you is not usually going to be the healthiest. Many foodbanks, if not most, do not have produce, dairy, or meats. Applesauce will be the type with added sugar, canned fruits will be in heavy syrup, and tuna helper will be as good as it gets for boxed meals.

I only say that so you won't be surprised. There is nothing worse than worrying about whether your family will go hungry and then realizing when you go to get help that little help is available, and that which is available is not going to be very helpful in reducing your risk of nutrient deficiencies. Do get the help, but don't go in expecting much. Instead, focus on planning your life around the below type of tips.

One More Assumption

Another assumption I have made for this post is that while one's first concern, when experiencing hunger, is usually filling the belly, most of us are also worried about making sure our bodies stay healthy through financial hardship. There are a couple ways to survive on $40.

The easiest way is to fill up on sugar and fat laden foods because they make you feel fuller. While prepared foods that resemble something healthy (take canned soups), for instance, are expensive, there are a lot of prepared foods that don't resemble anything healthy and are sold pretty darn cheaply. Which makes them alluring when you don't have money. And despite what nutritionists say, that our bodies actually become more hungry more quickly with these foods, if your body is not accustomed to wholesome foods, the truth may be that you won't feel full until you do have them.

Fitting with my "groundrule" that living poorer (more frugally, for those who have a choice) should mean living better, I am going to assume that you want your kids and yourself to be as healthy as possible, to get all the nutrients they need. Clearly, that can't happen if you're busy trying to feel full again. Instead, I suggest you go through withdrawl from your usual diet and adjust to a new one...a healthier, more wholesome, more nutrient-dense diet. And I am going to bet that it WILL be healthier and more wholesome even for those who have a great diet already (unless you are have a REALLY, REALLY great diet!).

And a Quick Public Safety Announcement

Some people dumpster dive for food. I personally don't believe dumpster diving for food is safe. If you want to do that, research it throughly and be very, very careful. While dumpster diving for certain items is probably safe, under certain conditions, dumpster diving for FOOD is an extremely hazardous activity in my opinion. I don't recommend it even with caution, and I urge you not to do it at all if you have children. However, if you have connections at a grocery store and are able to obtain the foods directly from those people before the foods leave the backdoor and head out to the dumpster, more power to you. Just be sure to carefully sort through these "finds" and make sure you are not eating food that is truly on its way out. (You'll get some gems, since many stores through away things like milk on the day of expiration, and it still probably has a little "window of safe" on it.)

Now, My Tips

  • We make ALL foods from scratch. Yes, it takes time. My wife G can tell you. At times it's very taxing. But yes, if you really have only $40 to your name, you'll find a way to make the time. And G and I have decided that even if we have money, we want to live this way so we can actually do things like save. Here are a sampling of foods that many families who make most foods homeade still buy from the store that we make from scratch:

-->bread (ever notice how expensive truly whole wheat bread, without corn syrup, has become?) including pita bread, biscuits, and bagels

-->tortillas (and chips, for a treat)

-->salad dressings, dips of all types including hummus and salsa, and spreads, including sometimes peanut butter

-->sauces, including sometimes apple sauce

  • We rarely buy canned foods. Soups are made from scratch at home. Beans are made from bags of dried beans. We do buy canned diced tomatoes whenever we see a good sale because this is a good food to use in order to bulk up and add flavor to inexpensive meals. We also buy canned and/or frozen corn and canned olives once a year in bulk (hard to grow in a small yard where we live, for one thing).

  • All that said, "from scratch" is not always cheaper. We can have fun making our own butter, but it actually costs less to buy it from the store. I'm not sure about yogurt and cheese...that's something we plan to try soon. For now we just don't buy yogurt when the cash flow is low, and we buy cheese on a very tightly monitored cheese budget. We also plan to begin making our own pasta noodles, though I have to say I think our diet is more well-rounded when we can't depend on having pastas.
  • It's more of a long-term thing, so won't work if you are down on cash for only a month and plan to resume a previous lifestyle later, but some vegetables you can grow even if you have little more than a small patio. Assuming they aren't genetically engineered, tomatoes can be grown from the tomato seeds of the tomatoes you eat, in a couple of pots...including plastic ones that you may find in-- for example-- your neighbors trash. We have some other projects coming up: You can easily sprout your own sprouts in a jar in the kitchen from dried lentils, etc. Potatoes and onions might not be that expensive, but when money is short, who cares. Save whatever you can, wherever you can. They are easy container garden items, and all it takes is having a potato or onion that is getting old.

  • Consider whether you and a friend can share resources. We don't have a yard to speak of, but we have a couple raised bed gardens that we planted with friends of ours, in our friend's yard. She had wanted a garden for a couple of years, but didn't feel like she could do it on her own. We didn't have much know how, but were willing to help figure it out. Win-win. We all put in some labor, though honestly our friend put in much more since it was at her house and she saw it everyday. Now we have peppers, squash, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, peas, and all kinds of things growing! By the way, there are some folks on YouTube who have instructional videos on raised bed gardens, including ones you can create with whatever you can find.
  • If you can gather together money for it at some point, you can also share a membership to a bulk warehouse such as Costco or Sam's with a friend. This reduces the membership cost, and if you are both planners, you might be able to buy some items you wouldn't normally buy in bulk, and then split them. If you don't split the membership experience though, bulk warehouses are not a good idea at all for a $40 month. As much as you need food, getting, say, 100 pounds of carrots just isn't going to work for you because you don't have the money to spend on just one type of food like that. I'll have more notes on shopping in a future part of this series.
  • On a similar note, consider any and all resources available to you. Some friends of ours know somebody who has a couple of well-cared for organic eating cows and is able to get us raw milk every now and then for a price that is close to the same as non-organic pasteurized milk in the store. Only problem is that we have to arrange for someone who lives out by him to pick it up, which is why it isn't our regular practice.
  • We don't eat meat, so I don't know much if anything about saving money around meats. I DO know that diary is *expensive.* Especially if you are trying to do organic (which is recommended, as many pesticides are stored in fat tissue among dairy animals...dairy should rate higher on your organic priority list than produce) and support sustainable and humane dairy farming practices. If you know somebody who has chickens, see if they'll sell you eggs. Unfortunately, with only $40, you can't stick with organic all the time. See what the costs are. You might be able to do organic some of the time depending on your source (sometimes the costs will be comparable), but I've found that most $40 months pretty much nix any hope of organic aside from what comes out of the garden.

  • Do not eat eggs during a $40 month. No omelettes, scrambled eggs, or egg sandwiches. You'll run out of eggs right away. Save your eggs for baking. Use baking recipes that use minimal eggs.
  • Except for making something like pizza, use a cheese sauce rather than straight cheese. Cheese is super expensive and milk and butter is expensive but less-so than cheese. You can make a fine cheese sauce with a little cheese, some milk (try it also with powdered milk mixed with water), a little butter, and a little flour. Cheese sauce goes a lot farther than cheese.
  • If you have to use cheese rather than cheese sauce, grate rather than slicing when possible. Do this even if you are eating a sandwich. You'll use far less cheese.

  • When baking/cooking, consider using a powdered milk bought in bulk. It may be cheaper (though not always, as powdered milk can be surprisingly expensive) and will allow you to save your regular milk for drinking or oatmeal and so forth. Try to avoid drinking milk, and consider diluting your milk mildly (don't tell the kids!) if you do drink it.

  • Buy more of the types of produce that last longer periods in the fridge. When you are low on cash, you'll want to use less at one time, and spread your resources out longer. Cauliflower, for example, is a superb vegetable for this purpose. Carrots and tomatoes also do pretty well. Apples are long lasting and can be used in a variety of dishes either cooked or raw. Once sliced, just use a little lemon juice on it to keep from browning.

  • Read up on produce storage, including how to store produce when it has been partially used. Storing foods properly will extend their life, allowing you to eat them more slowly.
  • Avoid using all of anything on any one recipe. Half or cut into 3/4 the amounts originally listed in the recipe for ingredients on which you're running low. Get creative. Learn to adjust recipes to make up for less of one ingredient or another.
  • Don't throw anything out. If things look like they are about to "turn," freeze them. Freeze all kinds of fruits, which can later be used to make everything from sorbet to popsicles to slushies to smoothies. Vegetables can be frozen before or after blanching, depending on the type. If you are practicing low-cost living in anticipation of a lean winter, see if you can start the winter out with a freezer full of fruits and veggies.

  • Free yourself of the idea that no snack foods or an empty fridge means you don't have food. Plan ahead for snacking. While a full fridge and freezer run more efficiently in terms of energy, a relatively empty fridge doesn't mean you are starving. It may just mean you are cooking from scratch.
  • Discover what low cost foods, easily stored foods, are particularly filling for your family. Things like oatmeal or a hearty couscous dish or rice and beans. Make big batches and keep them in the fridge, readily available for meals-on-the-go. dw cooks up pintos, makes a batch of refried beans, and makes a big bowl of rice almost weekly. She also makes tortillas (which can be stored in the freezer if humidity is an issue for you right now). Because we buy our rice in great big bags when we do have the money, and beans in the biggest bags they come in, meals of this sort may just be pennies.
  • Some produce costs nearly the same amount year round, such as bananas or potatoes. Other food definitely offers a financial benefit if bought in season. So, if you *do* ever have a month with more money (or you are only practicing or getting ready for a lean winter), buy more seasonal stuff then and use your freezer to help keep your nutrients flowing in leaner and off-season months.

Things That Are Helpful to Stock Up On When You Have Some Cash

This will vary depending on your personal diet, but I've found these are helpful items that can go far in preparing foods from scratch:

  • Large bags of whole grain (not enriched, which means at one point it was stripped of nutrients) rice
  • A variety of large bags of beans, such as black beans, pintos, lentils, garbanzos/chickpeas, kidney beans, butterbeans, etc.
  • Flour in the biggest bags you can find and afford. This is very, very important. You'll use it in a variety of filling foods. It helps to have a selection of types including bread flour, unbleached all-purpose flour, and whole wheat or white whole wheat.
  • Yeast
  • Dry milk
  • Couscous, if you can find someplace that sells it in bulk rather than in those expensive little boxes of prepared couscous meals
  • Oatmeal (not the little packets, but the big containers of non-flavored oats)
  • Seeds and nuts, when you can find a very cheap source for them (they are often good sources of supplementary protein, and they can be used to make spreads)
  • Cheese, which can store well over extended periods if stored properly

1 comment:

sf said...

For Seppie's vanilla recipe (she wrote out on Hopalong's blog), you are supposed to slice the beans open, one long slice along the length.