A month ago, I took a pledge to cut our grocery bills down to $70 a week for four weeks and give the extra $50 a week that I normally spend to charity and/or interesting causes. I thought it would be hard to spend so little on food, but in fact it wasn’t difficult at all, partly because I normally have so much food in the house that we could have eaten from the pantry for six months if we really had to.
I have two basic psychological blocks to curbing my food budget. First, we raised three sons and I got used to buying huge quantities of food to feed vast hordes of teenage boys for well over a decade. After cooking for five or more people for dinner every night for years, it was really hard to learn to cook, and shop, for two. Second, my mother was a concentration camp survivor and the one place she did not stint in our budget, ever, was food. We had lots of food growing up, almost as though we were Mormons. We never, ever, ran out of anything because to run out of food would have made my mother intensely anxious. I imagine that people who lived through the siege of Leningrad had the same problem. Unless jack booted thugs broke down our door and dragged us away, we could survive any disaster. Although I do not share my mother’s particular fear, old habits die hard and my many shopping trips with her as a child made a deep impression on me. I did not grow up with a frugal Yankee mother who cut coupons and saved string. My mother sat around smoking cigarettes to calm her nerves, waiting for the servants to return; it affected me.
So this is how I made it through my month of living frugally. I started by looking around the kitchen to see what we needed before I went to the store. Simple, eh? Bet you never thought of that. Then, I took my notebook to the store with me, since I am a pen and paper kind of person, and wrote down everything I bought, with the price next to it. I did not include non-food items, like laundry detergent or pet food, in my budget. That could be the next frontier. I stayed below $70 for humanly edible and drinkable purchases. Finally, instead of walking around the store saying “Mangoes, I like mangoes,” and buying mangoes, I said, “We already have a mango,” or “We have apples, let’s eat those before buying mangoes.”
Since I have milk and eggs delivered to my house, and also have a CSA share during the fall and winter, I subtracted the money I spent on those items from the $70 available each week. The CSA costs $22 a week and the milk and eggs cost $8 a week, so I was really left with $40 in grocery store budget, a somewhat scary number. Week one I ran out of coffee mid week and had (I mean really had, I am an addict) to go buy organic fair trade coffee downtown at $14 a pound instead of at the food coop where it costs around $10 a pound if you buy the sale coffee. There went more than a third of my budget for the week.
To keep from spending too much money at the store, I upped my usual ante of home made items. I made all my own yogurt, granola, bread, hummus, and beans. I brought lunch to work from home, usually either fruit and bread with hummus or yogurt with granola or left over soup. We drank water, mostly, and ate a lot of tortillas that I bought in New York City cheaply (30 for $1.49). We ate every single thing in our CSA share, except once I accidentally let some kale dessicate so I composted it, not being fond of dried out, half-rotten kale. We even ate the stupid butternut squash from our CSA share, turning it into coconut-curry squash soup. Since my husband starts to whine piteously if I don’t buy meat, I bought a “natural” chicken or sustainable fish once a week from the food coop or grocery store or farmers market, murmuring my apologies to their spirits as usual. If I bought a chicken, I purchased a whole chicken instead of parts, made roast chicken the first night, followed by a left-over chicken dish like fake chicken mole or tinga, and then used the scraps and bones to make chicken soup with noodles or matzo balls or rice. I used our garden supplies to make potato leek soup or spaghetti with our own tomato sauce. We ate very well, rediscovering the joy of home made garlic bread.
This is the break down of our food expenditures: Week one, my CSA had not kicked in yet, so I spent $38 at the grocery store, $14 on coffee (which lasted two weeks) and $14 at the farmers’ market; $66 total. Not bad, I thought. I can do this. Week two, my CSA share still hadn’t started, so I spent $65 on groceries at the regular old grocery store, including a second pound of security coffee, which goes back to my daughter-of-a-concentration-camp-survivor roots. I also relented and bought my husband some cereal, but then when I came home he said, “Oh, I guess we already had cereal,” so thereafter I ignored him. Week three our CSA kicked in but we had guests for five days. I didn’t know them, and they were from a foreign country, Jamaica, which made me nervous about inflicting my weird budget regime on them, so I went wild and spent a total of $81 on groceries, buying most of them at Honest Weight Food Coop. Then they bought us some groceries of their own volition and made a fabulous Jamaican Sunday dinner, which not only knocked my socks off, but also supplemented our food supply for the following week with delicious left overs. Week four, I compensated for the excess spending of Week three and spent only $60 on groceries, including our CSA and milk delivery. Total expenditure for four weeks: $276. Four dollars below budget. Huzzah!
I had $204 to give away at the end of the four weeks. Because Occupy Wall Street seems to have successfully become self supporting, I decided it could survive without my money. This is what I did it with it:
1) $10 through Philanthroper.com to fund a community water pump in Nonagpanoun Village, Laos.
2) $10.00 through the same web site to an organization called Hand Reach that provides help to kids with severe burns and amputations due to burns.
3) $50 through a web site called Kickstarter.com to fund a movie by a young graduate student in the Tisch film school at NYU about a Ghanaian immigrant family in Louisiana taking their daughter to be cured of her violent mental illness by a traditional bone shaker.
4) $100 to one of the projects of my heart, a prison college program called Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.
5) As a sign of affection, I bought our CSA coordinator and blog organizer, Christina Davis, a $5 gift pastry from Mrs. London’s stand at the farmer’s market and gave the last $29 to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. Talk about a satisfying shopping trip!
I may decide to cut our food expenses even further and give more money away. The Sierra Club’s membership has plummeted during the recession, for example. And Fishkill Correctional Facility has a great Puppies Behind Bars program. And then there is the Agricultural Stewardship Association in Washington County…
As a salute to Jamaican Sunday dinner, here is my favorite thing the Jamaicans made while they stayed with us:
Jamaican Carrot Juice
7 or 8 carrots
1 small can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
nutmeg to taste
almond extract to taste
white rum, preferably Jamaican, as much as you want
Wash and cut up the carrots without peeling them. Place them in a pot and cover them with enough water to make one blender full, but not overflowing. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot with a lid. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Pour the whole thing into a blender and blend until the carrots are entirely ground up. Strain the resulting carrot juice into a pitcher. Stir in vanilla, some nutmeg, condensed milk, a pinch of almond extract and white rum. Chill and drink while eating fried fish and jerk chicken.