Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Budget and Brain Power

One of the things on my mind this week is the budget with respect to brain power.

Now, I'm not sure if brain power is constant or not.  I know that different people have different abilities for sure, but what of a single person - does it vary?  I think it does.

When I embarked on this $80 a week budget thing in late January, I knew it was going to take some effort.  Though I learned to cook 13 years ago and spent many years cooking frugally, the addition of that second child and an increase in work hours took its toll.  That's when we started slipping into easier food terrain.  Small cups of yogurt, canned beans, some pre-prepared meals, especially proteins.  I figured that it would take some work to get my good frugal habits and mojo back.

And it did.  The first few weeks had us eating out a few times a week in laziness and boredom, so I set a goal of NO eating out until spring break.

Boy, what a challenge.  I didn't quite realize how much of one it would be!

When I was a child, my mother was at home until I was 11 or 12.  Her cooking repertoire was pretty repetitive, but I didn't know any different.  And she was good at it - spaghetti and meatballs, baked chicken, casseroles, fish on Friday nights, grilled cheese, meatloaf, sauerkraut, corned beef and cabbage, chili.  Not a huge amount of variety, but that was pretty normal, AND we were poor, and on a budget.  However, my mother grew up gardening, canning, and cooking from scratch - so the budget thing was normal for her.

Several years ago, when I'd been cooking for 5 or 6 years, both my mom and my MIL asked me (separately), "aren't you tired of cooking?"  The answer was NO - because I hadn't been cooking long, and because my husband was a more adventurous eater.  So I was often trying new recipes - vegan, vegetarian, meat, Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese...whereas my mom and MIL were cooking with much less variety.

But how does that work on a budget.  Well, let me tell you, it's hard.  Why?
1.  $80 is a challenge for me. I cannot buy EVERYTHING that I think I need. I  have to buy what we NEED, with a little extra for wants.
2.  $80 doesn't give you a lot of variety.  The problem with the "no eating out" rule is complete and utter boredom.  Now, we weren't eating out at a lot of different places (I like Asian cuisine, family not so much).  However, it's really nice to grab a burger, or a burrito, or a pizza, or a sandwich, that someone else made.  If you have a big enough budget, you can get this in your groceries.  Costco and Trader Joe's, for example, offer prepared (or partially prepared) refrigerated and frozen items to tickle your fancy - like sushi, or orange chicken, or pad thai, or spanakopita, or curry.
3.  $80 is tough when you and your husband are trying to lose weight, and therefore need to prioritize protein and fat (meat, nuts) over carbs.  Beans, brown rice, and homemade bread are cheap, but I can only have 2 servings a day.
4.  $80 can be done with variety if you can cook from scratch - buy some chicken thighs, broccoli, and make a good stir-fry sauce.  Make your own empanadas.  Try your hand at making different salad dressings.  This takes time, AND thought of how to make everything, proper planning!

All of this takes BRAIN POWER.
I consider myself to be intelligent and organized.
At work, I am usually efficient and can multi-task.
I've handled this budget thing pretty well I think, balancing the grocery shopping and cooking.

But I spend a LOT of time and energy on planning meals, shopping on a budget, and cooking.
I am so tired of salad right now, I cannot even tell you.  But we get greens from the CSA every week, so there you go.

I am on the PTA board at our school.  As I attend meetings, there are a few women there who are SO organized, and efficient, I am amazed!  I simply cannot hold it together like they do.

And this what I ask myself: "why?"
The answer? "Brain power"

I use brain power at work all day.  I use brain power at home to plan meals, cook on a budget, and plan at least 3 meals a day for 3-4 people.  I use brain power to carefully control my own food intake so that I can lose weight.  I use brain power to try and schedule workouts, when insomnia and the toddler let me sleep.

I really think that after all that?  I don't have the brain power to focus on this school stuff.  It takes thought, and planning, and organization - to get people interested in helping, to make phone calls, send emails, plan events, divide up tasks if you at least have people to give the tasks too.

But after the job, the kids (one toddler) and the meal planning, there's just not the brain power left.  I think that some of my more organized friends have some advantages.  Some of them work fewer hours, so they have more time to devote to this stuff.  Some of them have older children, so they aren't dealing with lack of sleep 4-5 nights a week.  Some of them don't give a crap about a grocery budget, so they just buy and eat whatever the hell they want.

Why do I bring this up?  Imagine that you are poor, with a hard job and a couple of kids.  Imagine that you have to spend this brain power on how to feed your family on a budget.  But it doesn't stop there - you have to use it to figure out how to fix your car, pay your electricity bill, and pay your rent.  You have to use it to help your kids with homework.

Is it any wonder that there is a cycle of poverty.  "Pull yourself up from your bootstraps!  Get an education!"  There are studies out there that discuss the stress that comes with being poor - and how it affects your brain in a negative way.

I only read the abstract, but hope to read the full article here, as an example:

So: brain power.  This time last year, I was able to put regular hours into the PTA every week. I awoke before the kids on the weekend and banged it out. But it involved simpler tasks (not planning)

This year: the kids wake up before me, so it's WAY more difficult!

How much brain power do YOU have?


Andrea said...

Yes, meal planning, making everything from scratch, going to multiple stores, sticking to a budget while eating more protein - it all takes brain power! I'm teaching an extra class in the spring, which has led to many, many, many more hours of work per week. And I know I devote less time to meal prep, am less creative and have been taking more shortcuts... But you inspire me to seriously look at our budget! One good thing is that we have not been eating out...

Joanne said...

Meal planning, even when you're not particularly trying to stick a budget, definitely takes some brain power! I can't imagine having to also stick to a strict budget. I'm sure once we have kids I will, so I always love your tips!

sevenoverb said...

You are doing amazing with an $80/week grocery budget! I am at home with my 3 and 5 year old every day, we have a 30 minute drive to get groceries or eat out (so therefore can't just "order in". Basically everything we eat is from scratch) and I spend more than $80/week...and my dad is a cattle rancher so I get my beef for free! To do what you are doing, especially while working AND with a toddler is amazing. I can't imagine also helping with PTA etc. It is sobering to think of doing all of these things with the fear of eviction, or of major health issues or work disruptions...yet another reason to be very grateful for the life we have. Thanks for that!