Monday, November 4, 2013

Budget Basics and the Food Stamp Challenge

Some of my friends have said that there's no way they could ever eat on as little as I spend when I'm doing a Food Stamp Challenge. A Food Stamp Challenge (FSC), the way I do it, lasts for a month. I have only $132.42 to spend on food for the whole month, or $4.40 per day. That was the average monthly food stamp benefit per person received in Indiana in 2012. Not the maximum possible, but the average that was actually received per person. With this, I have to buy all of my food. I assume that I started out with absolutely nothing – not even salt and pepper.

I try to make the Challenges as realistic as possible, but I know that I have a lot of advantages that many people who live on food stampsbecause they have to and for long periods of time don’t have. For one thing, I know that it’s just for a month and that I can quit any time I want to. Just knowing that is a big help when I get tired of it or want to eat something that I “can’t afford.” I also have the advantage of not working, so I have lots of time to cook. And I have transportation and can go around to the different stores to get stuff wherever it’s cheapest. And I have lots of small appliances and freezer containers and pots and pans and things like that. And I have lots of cookbooks and the time to look through them and to look on the internet to find recipes that use what’s on sale.

I do have a couple of disadvantages, too. The biggest one is that I am diabetic and I really limit my carbs. That means nothing with sugar in it, and no processed foods. More important from a budget point of view, that means nothing with any grain in it (no pasta or noodles or rice or bread or ramen, etc.), no potatoes, and no dried beans. These are all the “fillers” that seem to be at the heart of most “budget” menus and recipes. And no processed foods means very little of the stuff that’s on sale. The good thing about this is that I’m already used to not eating junk food, so I don’t have that bad and expensive habit to break. I eat almost exclusively meat, eggs, vegetables and a little bit of dairy, and, as you know, these aren’t cheap.

Here’s what I told my friends recently, when they said they could never live on just $4.40 per day.

The first Challenge I ever did, which was several years ago, was hard, but each one has gotten easier. The first menus were very clunky and stilted and unimaginative. Over time, though, I've gotten together a set of recipes that use stuff that's often on sale or priced unusually low (around here that's chicken leg quarters from Walmart, whole fryers/roasters at Aldi, and frequent sales on pork and sometimes hamburger). I have basic menus that I eat over and over. Fortunately, I don't mind leftovers, and in fact have them a lot whether I'm on a FSC or not. I still eat full, healthy, satisfying meals, but I stop when I've had enough. I know that if I eat too much today, I might not have enough left for the end of the month. 

Here are a few tips, not just for a FSC, but for eating more cheaply in general. These are the same tips you'll get from just about anyone who's trying to tell you how to save money on food, but it helps to have them repeated sometimes. 

First, take a look at your meat sources. Do a thorough job of this once so you know what the regular prices are, then do it again periodically to see how they change. WRITE DOWN THE PRICES! If something goes on sale, write that down too. 

For example, I know that around here, Walmart's regular price on chicken leg quarters is $5.90 for a 10 pound bag. That comes out to about 59 cents for a leg quarter (thigh, drumstick, and bit of back). That's my basic, go-to budget meat. But I have to remember to budget for the whole $5.90 because that's what I have to spend. It doesn't make sense (and more importantly doesn't work!) to figure on just one or two leg quarters. I have to plan to eat, and to actually eat, the whole bag during the month or other budget period. Aldi's regular price on whole chickens is 89 cents a pound, and I've gotten some really big ones there. The biggest, I think, was almost 9 pounds, which made a delicious roaster. Again, it was the whole price of almost $8 that was important. I got a lot of meals out of that one bird, but I had to plan for them all. Because I know these prices, I know that I can get the meat for a meal for 59 cents, and I compare all other meat prices against that. 

Hamburger is usually between $2.25 and $2.50 a pound, if I buy it in 5 pound chubs. I figure that about half a pound of hamburger is a "serving" for me (remember, I eat just meat and veggies), so that's well over $1 a serving. It sometimes goes on sale for just under $2, and when it does, I buy some. Not a lot, because even at $1.87 (the last price I bought it at), that's still almost 95 cents a serving. Hamburger always goes into a soup or casserole so I can stretch it way out. 

Pork frequently goes on sale. Marsh sometimes has pork combo packs (ribs, chops and roast) for 98 cents a pound, but you have to buy at least $25 worth of other stuff. Their other prices are higher than Walmart or Aldi, so I haven't been getting them. I should go ahead and do it anyway, even if I do have to pay more for the rest. The usual sale price on pork is about $1.97. Even at 98 cents a pound, though, that’s between $10 and $15 for the pack, and I have to be able to work that whole amount into my budget. If it’s at the end of the month, when I’ve spent most of my money, I’m out of luck.

There are definitely kinds and cuts of meat that I wish I could get. I would love to have a beef roast. Even chuck would be good. But even on sale it's between $2.50 and $4.00 a pound, and that just doesn't work. I would continue to get the cheap leg quarters even if I preferred the white meat, because it's so much cheaper. Fortunately I prefer the dark meat anyway. 

I do the same thing with eggs and dairy. Aldi's regular price on cottage cheese is $2.29 for 24 ounces. Sour cream is $1.29 a pint. Butter just came down from $2.49 to $1.99 a pound. Cheese is $1.79 for an 8 ounce block. These are the best non-sale prices in town, and I compare sale prices to them. Whipping cream, on the other hand, is $1.99 a pint at Aldi and around $3.76 a quart at Walmart and Sam's. I get my cream at Walmart or Sam's, if I'm going there anyway. If not, I go ahead and pay the few cents extra at Aldi, because I know that if I go to Walmart or Sam's I won't get out with just the cream. Eggs are a different matter. They seem to vary a lot even when they're not on sale. I figure that the "regular" price is about $1.49 a dozen. When Aldi has them for $1.29 I really stock up. I think I bought 10 dozen the last time they were that price. 

And the same with vegetables. My basics there are cabbage, carrots, onions, and frozen broccoli. Frozen spinach used to be one of my basics, but Walmart's price on that jumped from $1.99 for 26 ounces to $1.58 for 16 ounces, so I don't get as much of that. I prefer fresh broccoli, but it's a lot cheaper frozen. And I prefer chopped broccoli, but what Walmart has for 99 cents a pound is broccoli cuts. Oh well. I make do. Aldi has the cheapest canned veggies by far, so I always get them there. Not much variety - just canned green beans and canned tomatoes. I would rather have more variety when it comes to veggies, especially fresh ones, but these are what's affordable. I seldom do the FSC during the summer when there are so many wonderful veggies at the Farmers Market! They're not cheap, but they're good.

Other than that - the basics like mayo and seasonings - when I'm on a FSC I usually have mayo, salt and pepper, cinnamon and chili powder, mustard and salad dressing. And that's about it. That's because I usually start with absolutely nothing when I do a FSC. It would be more realistic to start with whatever I had left over at the end of the last FSC, at least in terms of things like a part of a jar of mayo, some mustard, a few seasonings, etc. Then the next month I wouldn't need to buy them and could buy a few other staples, instead, or stock up on something when it’s on sale.

So there's the shopping part of doing a FSC. It's pretty much what you've read everywhere else, though the foods are probably different. No potatoes, pasta, bread, dried beans, or ramen. Instead, lots of the cheapest meats and veggies, and a little bit of dairy that I buy at the cheapest places. It's not necessarily the kinds of meat and veggies that I prefer, or the cuts that I prefer, but it's the cheapest kinds. I don’t know what I really spend on food, when I’m not doing a Challenge, but I’m sure it’s way more than $132.42 most months. I am fortunate to have a deep freeze so I can really stock up on meat when it’s on sale, which means that what I spend fluctuates wildly, depending on what the sales are.

As for actual menus, breakfast is usually eggs. Lunch is usually either soup or a salad, and the protein is usually either tuna, chicken or eggs. Supper is usually meat and veggies, sometimes separately and sometimes in a casserole or soup or stew. Sometimes I have a salad to go with it, but usually not, except in summer. No desserts, but then I don’t eat them anyway.

And that’s it. I don’t have any special secret to how I do it. It’s the same sort of thing you find in Good Housekeeping or other magazines when they talk about how to cut your food budget. I think the things that really make it work for me are that I don’t mind leftovers and that I have access to lots and lots of recipes. The fact that I like to cook really helps, too!

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