So there was a day this week when I was looking at the grocery budget. When I set the budget at $80 a week, I knew it would be a challenge. But I thought it would be a challenge in the "just think about what you are buying this week way", not as much of a "you can have this OR that" kind of way.
I've done budget challenges in the past (at one point, more than a decade ago, $25 a week for two). They are always challenging, but this one gives me some new perspective.
So there I sat, realizing I had $11 left for the week. I knew I wanted to buy a 10 lb bag of pinto beans for $6, because that's a sale price.
That leaves $5. And we are almost out of eggs and cream cheese, and completely out of yogurt and cottage cheese.
Is this a tragedy? No. My son likes eggs for lunch, but I can just as easily give him homemade bread and some cheese. My kids like bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, but there is always cereal or oatmeal. They love yogurt as a snack, but we have fruit. But I was embarking on four days with a traveling husband, and I wasn't sure how much harder I was going to make it for myself.
So what to do with those $5? Well I personally don't eat too many carbs these days for weight control, so how do I get my 4 servings of protein a day, if we are out of eggs and cottage cheese? One of my servings is a smoothie and the other is dinner, but that's still 2 servings of protein needed. And 2 eggs is one serving. Luckily I have some canned fish and some frozen ham from Christmas.
My freezer is full so I figured that the first couple of months of this challenge would be easy-peasy. I'd underestimated how much of a HABIT that I got into, buying the same foods to eat over and over, and only supplementing with stuff from the freezer.
So for people who are "food insecure" - on food stamps or not - this is a constant struggle. Can you imagine how much brain power it takes to make sure you and your family are eating enough, much less getting a well balanced meal? Day in and day out. It is very easy to sit back from a place of "choosing" to limit your budget. It's something else entirely when your entire life is this way. I grew up poor, and I know that for my family, it became rote. Everyone knew how to cook economically. These days, many people are coming from a place of having to learn it from the start. The knowledge wasn't passed on and learning it causes a ton of stress.
One of the forums that I am a regular at is Mr. Money Mustache. There have been a few threads lately on food. One of them is a paleo thread - and how do you eat cheap on paleo? I went through and did an interesting math exercise this week where I wrote down a typical day of food for me (about 1400 calories) and calculated the cost of each item. Rather than asking someone "give me your best paleo meal", I think it's important for each person to calculate the cost per item themselves.
The next step is, of course, to figure out how to get each item you eat for cheaper, OR to increase frequency of the cheaper items OR to find cheaper alternatives. If you are strict paleo or even lean more towards lower carb (like me), you may find yourself eating more fat for your calories vs. protein.
For example, it's 9 cents for 120 calories of olive oil (7.5 cents per 100 calories), but it's 47 cents for 100 calories of cottage cheese. Of course, you need protein so you wouldn't want to have all olive oil and no cottage cheese. But instead of eating a cup of cottage cheese for 200 calories, it's cheaper to eat half cup, and then be liberal with the olive oil on your vegetables.
On the same vein, another thread was talking about food costs in general. One of the members mentioned that for two adults and two toddlers, they budget about $300 to $350 a month (including all paper products, etc), and they cannot imagine people with $800 grocery bills. They cook from scratch, etc. etc. Well, grocery costs vary widely around the country, and the aforementioned member eats a lot of oats, rice, beans, and pasta. I know that these things are very inexpensive and I used to eat a lot of them. But these days I limit myself to 2 servings per day, so even if they are cheap, I am only saving so much money.
This week, of course, the kids were eating like horses and I fear the teenage years.