Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tightening the belt

Right before Hurricane Katrina happened, my husband was unemployed. Seriously unemployed... for nearly a year. This was actually fortunate for us in a way, because A) when Katrina happened he had the freedom to look for a job in our new locale, instead of wondering "Do I have a job to go back to or not?" and B) it gave me some serious skills that I am putting to good use during this recession.

Barronius and I are both veterans, and he put in fifteen years in the Navy, so he gets a modest retirement check. That covered our house payment... barely. At the time I was a stay-at-home mom, and I created digital content for hobbyists using 3D art programs (so I wasn't making that much money... if you think Etsy fees are bad, try the digital art community where it's common for the hosting sales site to take HALF of your sale price in fees). During this time I managed to feed our family of three on $20 a week. No, not a typo. Here's how it's done...

1) Give up pre-packaged, pre-processed foods. Make everything from scratch. I draw the line at making my own pasta, but it can be done, and for much cheaper than store bought. Instead of boxed mac and cheese, buy pasta and cheese and make your own. It's healthier that way too.

2) Eat more fresh veggies and produce. This kind of ties in with #1.

3) Use meat as a cameo actor, not the star of the show. Meat is expensive, and while I hate to admit it, we carniverous people probably eat too much of it anyway. Use meat to flavor foods instead of as the main dish. For example, a small amount of ham in a large pot of lentils, or my personal favorite... homemade pizza. While he was unemployed, I'd buy one package of Italian sausage for the week, and instead of using it all as one main course, I'd cook it all, chop it up, and save it for a week's worth of pizzas. You can do the same with a small package of boneless skinless chicken breasts, or a large portobello mushroom if you prefer.

4) Save a tiny bit of your budget up to buy in bulk where possible. Since I was stretching most of our meats by making pizza, I would save up when I could and buy a twenty-five pound bag of flour for about $8 (store brand). This would last me at least a month making pizza regularily and bread once a week. Stretched out over time that $8 fed us very cheaply.

5) Buy WIC approved foods. If you don't know what WIC is, it's a program that gives food vouchers to financially challenged women who are pregnant to make sure they eat well during their pregnancy. Only certain foods are approved, and there's a reason... they are usually inexpensive foods packed with nutrition. Dried beans, milk, *real* cheese (not factory processed crap), whole grain bread, etc. If you're going to spend your last dollar on foods, they should actually give you some nutrients when they get in there. If you look closely at most grocery store pricing labels, you'll occasionally see a small tag that says "WIC approved" next to the price. Especially on the items I mentioned above, like dried beans, milks, and cheeses.

6) For goodness' sake, don't eat out! This includes quick trips to McDonalds, people. For the $15 you spend at McD's, you can buy a bag of flour and a five-pound package of hamburger and eat homemade burgers for weeks. It's a luxury, not a necessity. I have a friend on the internet, a bachelor, who told me his monthly bill for eating out was over $1500. !!! That's a monthly payment on a nice house... I just about died. Fortunately his sister was a chef, so with her help he cut his food bill to about 1/8th of that.

7) My grandmother had a saying, and I think this is common to anyone who lived through the '30s depression... "Fix it, re-use it, make do, or do without". What this means is, instead of throwing away a pair of jeans with a hole in them, patch them. If you're a girl, patch it with something pretty and consider it art. Or keep them and use the fabric to patch the next pair of jeans with a hole in them. Or cut it into strips and knit a bath mat. Need something to hold old magazines? Don't buy a fancy (but cheap) plastic organizer from target... cut the side off a cereal box and put them in there. Cover it in contact paper if you have to. Need a pencil holder? Wash out that tin can your tomatoes for last night's spaghetti came in and use that. We pay manufacturers a TON of money for all this packaging, and we're throwing it away, when some of it is perfectly useful.

After Katrina, we stayed with my brother-in-law for a while. He used to buy that sandwich lunch meat that came in the Glad containers. He'd throw the containers out, even though it's the *exact* same container that Glad charges money for as kitchen storage. Why? He said because it came with food in it... even though they were BUYING the same containers without food in them, washing, and reusing those. The mind boggles.

I have lots more of these kinds of little tricks, but I think I've ranted long enough. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

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