Tag Archives: Budgeting

A week at $35

Last Monday, I started the Food Stamp Challenge – an experiment to try to live on the average food stamp (or SNAP) benefit of $35 a week. Now it’s Sunday. How did things turn out?

The experience was very, very stressful at the beginning of the week when I was inexperienced and anxious about what a day’s worth of food was likely to cost. By this time, I have a clearer idea of what I can get away with eating, so I’m less worried – but I’m also pretty sick of counting pennies.

On the other hand, I did come in under the $35 limit – by the end of the day, I expect my food for the past week will have cost $29.32. (But who’s counting? 😉 Millions of people who have to go right on living like this, that’s who.) So you can say I was successful – but what did being successful require?

First, I relied on cooked-from-scratch food. I like to cook, I have enough free time to cook, and I’m in good health and have the energy to cook, so that wasn’t a burden – for me. With a job or two plus kids to care for plus health problems? Could look very different. Second, I had pay a lot of attention to what I was planning to eat and what it would cost. Third, I ate less meat than usual – over the course of the week, about four ounces (a very little more than 110 grams) of chicken and two ounces each of cod, pork, and hamburger.  And finally, I ate less food of any kind than usual – there’s a pound, or not quite half a kilo, less of me than there was a week ago.

(Could I have had more meat and more food? To some extent, one or the other. Not both. Meat becomes shockingly expensive when you’re trying to keep your food costs under $5 a day – I would have had to eat even less overall to afford the amount of meat I usually eat. And I could have traded off meat and milk and cheese and vegetables for a lot more bread and rice. But I was also trying to come up with a reasonably healthy diet.)

What did this approximation to a healthy diet look like? Lots of beans. Plenty of vegetables. Not many sweets – and that’s counting the muffins as sweets. Not a lot of meat. So far, that’s reasonable – nutritionists are forever complaining that we Americans eat a lot more meat and sugar than is good for us. Does that mean there are no problems with eating like this?

There’s at least one. Quantity. I’m a five foot one inch (1.55 m) tall woman who stopped growing (except sideways) years and years ago. I make a point of exercising, but if I chose I could spend most of my time sitting down. And I lost a pound in a week without trying to. I don’t think this would be enough food for my six foot two inch (1.88 m) tall husband – active, but with a job that’s not physically demanding. (I didn’t try to talk him into joining this project. It didn’t seem fair to pressure him into a project that I had mixed feelings about myself, and he habitually eats lunch at work anyway.) I’m positive it would be too little for growing teenage boys (I don’t have any daughters, but I do have experience with trying to keep fourteen year old boys fed) or those doing manual labor.

Again, you might be able to make up the calorie deficit by leaning harder on rice and bread and pasta than I did – but what’s the nutritional cost in the long run? I can’t stress hard enough that there are a lot of people who live like this indefinitely, because they have no choice.

So here I am at the end of the Food Stamp Challenge week. Only not; I plan to try to stick this out for at least a month. Why? To give myself a better picture of just how possible it is to stick to this budget, for one thing. The challenge rules allowed you to ignore the cost of condiments. And that makes sense when you’re only tracking expenses for a week, because it’s hard to figure in the price of small quantities. But condiments tend to be relatively expensive. Over the long haul, you have to either find the money to replace them, or go without. And, beyond that, to get a feel for the longer term psychological and nutritional effects. And it still seems as if it should be possible to use this experience toward programs for my church to help people who are hungry more effectively.

I put up a couple of other posts related to this challenge:
Could I live on food stamps?
Three days into the $35 week
186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

For those with a thirst for detail – what I actually ate:
Monday, black coffee and seven or eight peanuts for breakfast. Lunch, red lentils with ginger and garlic, and homemade pita bread. Dinner, African peanut chicken (chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and thyme, plus peanut butter at the end), rice, and salad. Also, two cups of milk.
Tuesday: coffee and peanuts for breakfast; lunch, lentils with caramelized onion, pita bread; dinner, macaroni and cheese, asparagus, salad.
Wednesday: Breakfast, coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with spinach, pita bread; dinner, cheese and veggie omelet, bread.
Thursday, coffee and peanuts again; lunch, Greek style peppers with yogurt, pita bread; dinner, New England fish chowder and salad.
Friday, more coffee and peanuts; lunch, lentils with chilis, pita bread; dinner, pork sate (skewered cubes of pork marinated in a mixture of peanut butter, soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, and spices, then broiled), green beans, apple-raisin-walnut muffins. Two cups of milk.
Saturday, a change in the pattern – leftover muffins for breakfast and lunch, with coffee as usual. Dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce and salad.
And today, coffee and peanuts for breakfast and lunch; dinner will be chicken enchiladas (with corn, peppers, and onions in the enchilada filling as well as chicken), refried beans, and salad. Probably some more milk; at least, I included its cost in my calculations.

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Three days into the $35 week

Last Friday, I posted that a number of people in Philadelphia were preparing to spend a week living on a Food Stamp budget, and I was planning to see if it was possible myself. Here’s a half-week update:

First, I now understand a little better what’s going on – basically, it’s political theater. (Which is not always a bad thing, mind you.) The state of Pennsylvania is about to impose restrictions on how much people getting food stamps can have in assets; a number of people consider the restrictions way too harsh. In addition, the Republicans in the (national) House of Representatives cut the Food Stamp budget in 2010 (cuts in benefits kick in as of 2013) and want to continue cutting it over the next ten years; Democrats don’t agree. (More detail in this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

But what am I learning? First, there’s a lot of discipline and anxiety in trying to keep food costs under $35 a week. More to the point, though: Just how generous or how stingy are such benefits?

On one hand, so far I am sticking to the $5 a day limit – I’m averaging a little over $4 per day. So it’s theoretically possible, with qualifications. I’m a short woman who doesn’t do a lot of physical work, and I’ve been fairly hungry. Could you feed a man doing manual labor on this amount of money? What about a teenage boy? I don’t think so.

Of course, you could argue that I’m being too luxurious. And I’ll agree that some of what I’ve eaten (fresh asparagus, bought last Thursday before I heard about this project) was expensive. On the other hand, it’s been an almost entirely vegetarian week, bordering on vegan. What did I eat so far?

Breakfast each day, black coffee with a small handful of peanuts (7-8 nuts).

Lunch, lentils cooked with several Indian recipes (more about this in a few days) with homemade pita bread.

Dinner: Monday, African peanut chicken / groundnut chicken with rice and salad. Tuesday, spicy macaroni and cheese, asparagus, and salad. Tonight, cheese and veggie omelet and bread.

In all honesty, I don’t see a lot of extravagance there, and not a lot of food either. I say it’s time to raise the allotments, not cut them.

Money money, food food…..

About a month ago, I decided it was time to figure out where all the money goes, and if some of it could be persuaded to stay with us a bit longer.

The one thing I buy most often is food, and there’s lots of ways to tweak the food budget between stingy and extravagant. So last month, I kept a log of what I spend in supermarkets – this will get more complex next month when the Farmers’ Market opens. On the other hand, alas, it’s simpler than it used to be now that my favorite fish store has gone out of business.

I won’t bore you green with the details of how I analyzed the costs. Basically, I figured it made sense to start from the USDA’s figures for “cost of food at home”, and tweak to allow for the fact that my husband eats about six meals a week at work, but our son comes over for dinner about two times a week.

The results? Not bad; I landed pretty close to the “low-cost” USDA budget. Could be better; I should be able to save $80 or so a month if I can get down to the “thrifty” level.

There are plenty of people on the Web who blog about their astonishingly low food costs – I’ve been following, and enjoying, K. at $35 a Week. I’ll try some of her suggestions, but others just aren’t practical for us – for instance, if I started raising chickens in the back yard, the neighbors would get upset pretty quickly. And soon after that, the Township would get upset. And then I’d be looking for someone who wanted to adopt my chickens.

Still, there are other things I can be more careful about. (Two weeks ago I got enthusiastic about salad. There’s only so much lettuce you can eat, even at two big salads a day, before it spoils.) I’ll be commenting from time to time about what does, or doesn’t, seem to work.

And once I finish slimming down our food budget, it’s time to see where else we can save.

Thrift. Again.

February's grocery receipts

I’m almost afraid, superstitiously, to bring this subject up. Last fall, I was just starting to try to keep track of Where The Money Goes and blog about it, when my mother was suddenly hospitalized.

Ah well. You can’t stay keyed up to cope with a crisis forever. It’s too exhausting. So, here on the extra day of February, a week into Lent, I’m going to make another try at figuring out if there’s any padding to trim from our food budget.

That’s harder to judge than you might think. I totaled up what I spent on groceries in February, leaving out nonfood stuff and things I bought to donate to the food bank, and it comes to about $390. Is that good or bad? Well, I consulted the USDA monthly estimates on what it “should” cost families of different sizes and resources to provide a month worth of meals, and I’m still not sure.

On the one hand, there are two people living here, me and my husband. So that means I should use the “Family of 2” estimates, right? Well, not so fast. Paul rarely eats lunch at home; on his teaching days, he has lunch in the faculty cafeteria, and this semester he squeezes in Wednesday dinner there, too, before teaching his evening class. So I should decrease our estimate to take that into account.

Well, yes – but what about the times our son comes over for dinner? On a typical week, we have three people, two of them grown men, dining here several nights. Gotta increase our estimate. So we should spend less than the USDA two-person estimate on food, and also we should spend more.

My plan – and I hope it doesn’t get interrupted again – is use March as the test sample. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be keeping records of who eats which meals here, and probably of what we eat. By the end of the month, I ought to learn that (a) we’re wildly extravagant or (b) we’re thriftier than the thriftiest mommy-blogger on the Internet or (c) we’re nuthin’ unusual.