Friday, August 14, 2009

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

This part could also be subtitled: Shopping

Alright, now in terms of shopping, in addition to the few tips I snuck into the last part of this series, here are the only other suggestions I have:

  • Don't spend any time in stores. None. Avoid stores like the plague. Especially non-grocery stores. Go when you have to, get what you are there for, and get out. Don't go to Target or any similar department stores, and certainly don't bring "plastic" with you (INCLUDING debit cards).

  • Shop with a list and pay in cash. Seriously, I thought that we had an incredibly tight from-scratch budget before, with few expendables, but I still saved myself a little money switching to cash.

  • Don't bring the kids with you when shopping. If you must bring kids, go at their cheeriest time of day when you are both well fed.

  • If you do bring the kids, and they ask for something off the list, don't say "we can't afford that" (a mistake I made until recently). Instead, per the suggestion of the author of Debt Proof Your Kids, say, "we don't choose to spend our money that way." Otherwise, they associate their situation with deprivation, and thus money with happiness. This will make them hungry to acquire. When the kids want something, now we talk about choices. I've learned this also helps me stay accountable for my choices, and highlights for me any area in which I am making choices that aren't consistent with my intentions, limits, desires, or values!

  • And if you have to bring the kids, put the kids in charge of cash. I've started shopping with $1 bills and quarters. For each item, I now count out each dollar and quarter from my purse (where it is stored in envelopes) and my kids put it in a gallon-size Ziploc to keep track of the money we spent. Aside from being a good math and economics lesson, this keeps the kids busy while we are shopping, helps them understand the choices we make and why we make them, and helps me keep myself accountable.

  • Shop for what you have! I know that sounds strange. I don't mean that you should buy what you already have, but rather you should shop for things to go along with what you have. When most folks sit down to make a grocery list, they decide first what they want to eat. *Then* they look at what they have, and write down anything that is missing. You can't afford to do that. Assuming you are going no more than thirty days on $40, even if you put every cent into food and NOTHING else, that gives you about $1.33 per day. If your family eats only three meals, that's about 44 cents per meal. For most of us, snacking is critical to good health, so you can put away at least ten or twenty cents per meal to go into other food costs. That gives you no more than 34 cents per meal, generously. That's around 8.5 cents per person in a family of four. Put another way, in 30 days, you need to plan for around 90 meals (360 individual meal-servings for a family of four) plus snacks. Even with all your money going toward food, you clearly can't get by unless you make full use of whatever you can scrounge from your cupboards and fridge. So look at what you have, and think "how can I make this stretch the farthest?"

  • Even though you should shop for what you already have, you should also try to use what you have first. Let's say you went to the food bank and they gave you a can of peaches. There are a few ways to make use of it. You could open up that can and have it for snack one day with your kids. Chances are, that snack isn't going to be satisfying on its own, so you'll probably have something else with it. So you've used the peaches, and something else, and then the whole thing is gone and all you've had is a snack. Alternatively, you could also set out to shop for what you have. But be careful if you do because it would be easy to start thinking that you've got to build a whole meal around peaches. If you are building your meal around peaches, rather than a more bulky item, chances are it will be more expensive. As a third alternative, you could pair it with something more bulky that you have on hand (and I do pray you have something on hand), such as rice. So maybe you have a rice stir-fry with veggies and (grilled?) peaches. Even if you had to buy a veggie to add to it, you'd still have avoided the expensive danger of starting to think of building a meal in terms of its least bulky item.

  • If at all possible, use your money during the month for produce only. As I've said, one of my ground rules involves eating a balanced diet. Try to put aside a few dollars each week-- or whatever you can afford-- for something fresh to add to your stock. Fresh produce runs out quickly when there is no money to spend, and unfortunately, it is unavailable at most food banks. It's the kind of thing you have to plan to replenish weekly.

  • Assuming you have some form of transportation, if you have had money in the past, your regular grocery store may be out of your budget. For one thing, just because a store is big (a big box store that has groceries, for example), doesn't mean it is the cheapest. If you can, when you are out and about, check out alternative stores. Look for stores that aren't as "pretty" or well-maintained. If a store isn't putting money into its image, it probably has a smaller profit margin. Avoid stores in middle or upper class areas of town. Obviously, stores can get away with charging more if they know the folks shopping there have the money. Look for stores that very prominently advertise acceptance of food stamps.

  • That said, a store that carries more groceries is usually (not always, but usually) a cheaper source of groceries than say, a corner store or a store that carries only a select few grocery items. No matter how run down your corner store is, it isn't ideal usually to plan to get your milk there.

  • Often, you can get certain things at a low cost in one store, but other things at a lower cost in another store. It can be tempting to "store hop" and shop at two or more stores for the best deal...if you have the transportation. If you are going to do this, do it in a planned and very strategic manner. Avoid taking unnecessary trips. Combine trips whenever possible. If you drive a car, think about gas. If you are in a car that gets 20 miles per one gallon and gas is about $2.60 per gallon, you are looking at a 13 cent expenditure per mile. That doesn't seem like a lot, but when you have only $40, remember that this is more than what you have per person for each meal. Going five miles will cost you 65 cents. I am assuming that you are not buying more than $10 of food on this grocery shopping trip. After all, that is a weekly allowance if you have managed to spend ALL your money on food. So when you go to that store that is 2.5 miles out of the way (5 miles roundtrip), you likely have no more than $9.35 to spend. If you only save 10 cents on tomatoes, it isn't worth it. This is also the case if you are taking the bus-- assuming that you pay for it-- only moreso, as even with a bus pass, you've likely spent way more than a $1 per day on bus fare.

  • Speaking of store hopping, if you have a dollar store near you and you haven't been there in a while, don't forget to re-acquaint yourself. Some things are a rip off at the dollar store. If you really compare prices, you will find that the dollar store is relying on your not knowing what things cost at the regular grocery store. Or they are selling smaller packages so that the price for the amount you get is as high if not higher than in a regular store. Be especially cautious with groceries at the dollar store, and anything sold in packages of one. That said, there may be household necessities that you can get for a great bargain. Or things that you can't afford in the amounts sold at the regular store. Sometimes in a $40 month, you can get enough toilet paper or toothpaste to sustain you, simply by shopping at the dollar store.

  • In a previous post, I mentioned sharing the benefits of a membership warehouse with someone else. Let me talk about a one-time type manifestation of that. On a $40 month, you can't afford to go to a membership warehouse even if you have a membership. Everything there is going to cost $6 or more because it is in large quantities. You won't get pasta for under $10 for example, even if you do end up with enough pasta to last months. However, if you know someone who is shopping at such a warehouse and you are comfortable enough to share your struggles, you might ask if they would let you buy a small amount of their groceries off of them. This way, you can benefit from the bulk rate without paying the initial cost of buying bulk. Sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won't. For example, let's say they purchased $10 of enriched pasta and there were ten boxes in their package. That works out to about $1 per box, which is roughly the cost of a package of pasta at the grocery store. The only benefit to them is that they've stocked up. It isn't a financial advantage to anyone. However, if they bought whole wheat pasta for $10 and got 10 boxes, that definitely is less than the cost of whole wheat pasta if you buy one box at a grocery store. If you can afford to give them a dollar for a box of pasta, it would be a financial benefit to you. However, do consider how far you can take one box of pasta for your family (consider ways to bulk it up and use less pasta per meal). It may or may not be something you can afford on a $40 month.

  • Whatever amount of money you have, whether it is exactly $40 or it is $52.33 or whatever, think in terms of percentage. $2 is five percent of what you have for the whole month. $4 is a whole ten percent. When you are spending money, think in terms of that percentage as you try to navigate priorities.

  • It bears repeating one more time: cash, CASH, and ONLY CASH. No debit cards. Too easy to "bounce" your account on accident. With cash in hand, you know you have the money. No credit cards. They will dig you deeper into your hole. You CAN survive. You can even thrive. You CAN.
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