Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who gets paid?

As we've learned how to control our money, we've also been learning a lot of about our life's priorities and budgetary decision. One of the big questions we have had to ask ourselves is: Who gets paid? Every month we allot our paycheck across the four/five weeks of the month as to what bill gets paid when; but what about the deeper question of who gets paid over the long haul of our lives? We pay for insurance because there's no certainty about tomorrow or the day after. We spend money on preventative maintenance for our cars so that they run safely and reliably. There are other areas of money spent that fill this category: paying now to protect the future. Lately, we've been asking this question about our food choices. Do we spend the money on food or doctor's bills?

For us, this decision is easy: spend the money on food that is healthy, local, and organic now rather than exorbitant doctor's bills later on. The connections between poor diet and chronic illness are too clear to ignore, and we are making the choice for a healthier lifestyle that will be less expensive when seen over the course of our lives. We have made the choice to say "no" to processed foods and dollar menu specials, and "yes" to healthy, nutritious foods purchased at the local co-op, our CSA, and locally raised meats.

A lot of people struggle to make ends meet, and many of them (including us) have ended up on government assistance. As a result, it's very easy to spend your assistance monies on foods which will ultimately harm you. It takes discipline and wisdom to use WIC and SNAP to your health advantage. The biggest weapon in our arsenal has been the sinking fund: setting aside money a little bit at a time to make these large-sum payments for better foods.

  • We joined our local co-op, at which Emily volunteers each week to receive a 22% discount.
  • We set aside money to pay for a winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for 9 weeks of fresh vegetables plus two root/preserve pick-ups in January and February.
  • We have put aside money for either a side of pork or a quarter of beef from one of two farms down the road
  • We set aside very little money for "eating out" each month, and when we do it's usually local, small, and inexpensive.
For us the choice was easy: pay for a healthier lifestyle rather than pay the piper later on.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Looking back on eating local part 2: a book review

Our first movement into becoming "locavores" was to brush up on the philosophy and thinking of the movement. Growing up in mostly rural areas, Caleb was used to the idea of finding the local farm stand and/or natural foods stores to do the majority of important shopping. Living in the city had turned us from what would have been a natural habit: eating local into the average suburban eater--no clear direction, buy what's on sale, don't pay attention to origin or season. We knew the shift back to thinking about localized food sources would be harder than just putting "local" in front of everything on our shopping list. Why were these things so important? What was so wrong with eating strawberries from California, tomatoes from Mexico, and corn from God-knows-where as long as we did the shopping at the local grocery store chain?

For inspiration and motivation we turned to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, published by Penguin. This book has been life changing for our family; here are a few of the reasons why:
Pollan's premise is simple: Eat food; not too much; mostly vegetables. It seems simple, but once you start to unpack each of those things, you begin to see how difficult the solution to the problem has become over the last seventy years. With the advent of nutritionism, eating food has been harder and harder for the average person. Food science has taken hold of our national consciousness, and you can't even go to the grocery store without being bombarded by messages from the shelves about the supposed health benefits of the products contained.

We found this book to be incredibly challenging and exciting as we worked our way through it. Since that time, we have been more aware of the things we are spending (or not spending) our money on. We joined our winter CSA as a way to eat better and ensure that we got our money's worth on food in a way that we never were able to when we were making things up as we go along. It's done wonders for our health, quality of life, and budget.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Crazy Couponing is Not For Me

I have a love-hate relationship with coupons.  When we first started working our budget, I got all excited about them and immediately began clipping, collecting, sorting, and organizing.  It didn't take me long to realize the dark, dirty truth about coupons.  Well, maybe not that dramatic but I did discover a few things which turned me off from being a truly Crazy Coupon-er.

When using coupons, don't:

 - buy more than necessary.
There are two ways that a coupon can cause a shopping cart to fill too quickly.  The first is that many coupons require one to purchase 2 or 3 of a given item in order to get a discount.  While some may see buying four gallons of ice cream to save a dollar as "stocking up", I see it as a waste.  Certainly, some items may be "stocked" at home (anything without an expiration date), but this mentality easily becomes a justification for buying too many at once.

The second way is by buying tag-along items which are not on sale.  For example, using a coupon for hot dog buns and then getting hot dogs as well.  This is especially true for "Free" coupons which require the purchase of another item.  Getting a free 2-liter of Coke is nice, but not when you must buy ten dollars worth of cookies and chips to get it.

- buy unnecessary items.
I'm all for saving a dollar, but buying an item simply because a coupon sits before you is not a good strategy for saving money.  I have taking to not clipping coupons for items that we generally do not buy to eliminate the temptation to "save money" on an item which will spend eternity in a cupboard.

- buy more unhealthy foods.
For the most part, whole and unprocessed foods do not have coupons.  The reason is simple: coupons are produced by the large companies which produce processed foods, not by farmers.  Coupons are designed to be used at large-scale, box-store grocery chains, not the farmers market.  This can lead one to spend a greater portion of the grocery budget on "cheaper" (i.e. discounted) foods, instead of those that are more nourishing and, simply, better. 

I tend not to clip coupons for foods I don't want to end up buying.  In our case, this includes microwave foods, anything with an unsightly amount of packaging, most things containing high fructose corn syrup, and anything with an ingredient list that's more than an inch long.  We aren't exclusive and we aren't paranoid (you will find Cheez-its in our pantry and Pepsi Throwback in our fridge), but I also don't want our diet to drift too much into that world.

- buy more expensive brand names.

As I mentioned above, coupons are put out by the large multi-national corporations which produce so much of our daily needs and everyone of those needs has a name, and a brand.  With the notable exception of Store coupons, generic brands do not generate coupons and, more often than not, are not on Sale.  Even with a coupon, brands are often still more expensive than generics; be sure to check.  This marketing at it's finest - companies know that you will pay more for their name brand simply because you have a coupon in hand and/or there's a little yellow Sale tag, even though the generic sitting right there is still $2 less, and has the exact same ingredients!

It is possible to go off the conspiracy theory deep end when discussing coupons and the companies behind them, but I try not to go that far.  I do use coupons.  A lot.  I have an accordion organizer that I carry around with me.  I am that lady standing in the middle of the aisle doing long division on the newspaper insert trying to figure out which Raisin Bran is cheaper per ounce.  I am every cashier's worst nightmare.  But I fall into these traps to some extent every time I shop.

In summary, when used wisely and carefully, coupons can save loads of money.  The key is to make your own list, don't let the circulars and their discounts write it for you.  Use coupons only on items you already buy in manageable quantities when you actually need them, and don't go crazy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Looking back on local eating: part 1

The plan had been to blog our way through the month of September talking about becoming locavores. As it turned out, September is a really hard month to blog through when you're working and parenting full-time, struggling to pay your bills, and making plans for the future. Add to that the fun we had experimenting with being local consumers, and you've got a month of adventure and zero free time with which to blog about a runny nose. This, now, is our attempt to blog about our trials and triumphs in being locavores for a month, and the way that it has changed our lives forever.

It turns out that a 250 mile radius from our little village covers a good portion of New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and a tiny sliver of Canada and Pennsylvania. I wouldn't say we struggled to remain local, though sometimes we forgot and splurged on something silly like bananas (the only thing our one year old would eat for breakfast for a while). Still, I would say that our menu was able to be incredibly varied including locally raised beef and turkey, produce, honey and maple syrup, and a delicious box of wine that lasted us for the entire month! Supplementing what we already do with new experiences, made this a big success; and it has forever changed the way we eat and think about food.

Things we already do:

  • make our own yogurt
  • compost our kitchen scraps
  • members of our local co-op
  • shop road side garden stands and farmers' market(s)
  • buy locally raised beef and other meats
  • shop local bakeries
Things we added to our regular food routine:
  • reading books and articles about food production
  • watching films about food business
  • processing apples and other produce to freeze and use later
  • joined One Million Against Monsanto
  • joined a winter CSA (saving for a summer CSA)
  • Grew our own pumpkin ( just grew in our compost pile)
  • wrote letters to our Senators and Representatives re food issues
  • enjoyed a box of local wine for the entire month

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Paper Towels are Groceries Too

Being on a tight budget is hard.  Really hard.  It's stressful to squeeze every dollar till it screams, and pinch every penny and cut every coupon.  It takes work to stay on top of all the envelopes and keep in mind that this $10 is to buy bread, eggs and milk when I suddenly realize that we're out of butter too and, wouldn't it be nice to have some cream cheese on hand, since it's on sale and I have a coupon.

Since most of the household buying decisions are made by me as Mom, I find myself under increasing pressure to make do with as little as possible so that money can be freed up to go towards our debt.  I deal with this by lumping a lot of things under the heading of "groceries".

Our budget form has many different categories, but I roll everything for the household, from Toiletries to Cleaning Supplies, into Groceries (mostly because we buy so many things at the same store, whether it be Walmart, Dollar General or IGA, and I don't want to stand in line at the check-out pulling $5 from one envelope and $20 from another while also balancing coupons and toddlers).

Ergo, the Grocery envelope is my All-purpose envelope.  Flour, coffee and dish detergent from the co-op - Grocery.  McDonalds coffee - Grocery.  Diapers - Grocery.  Infant tylenol and cough drops - Grocery.  Huge shopping trip to Price Chopper for 6 months worth of bread and toilet paper - you guessed it, Grocery.

All of this picking at the Grocery category throughout the month often ends up with me having two things: 1) an empty envelope when we're out of something important (like milk) and 2) incredible amounts of guilt for that $1 coffee or for paying $1.29 a pound for the Organic rolled oats or any number of other decisions made throughout the month that were justifiable at the time.

What to do?  I'm attempting to be easier on myself.  I know that, while not beneficial, going over budget by a gallon of milk or a roll of toilet paper is not going to kill anything.  Also, I, frequently, remind myself that there are some things in life which are more important than keeping the budget balanced (like my sanity, for one, and feeding my children, for another).  In future months this may lead to increasing of our grocery budget (gasp!) to prevent the completely-empty-envelope-and-refrigerator phenomenon.

Every month, we find ourselves walking the line between appropriate dollar stretching and being overly optimistic about how little it takes to adequately feed and clothe ourselves.  Just to make things more exciting, every month that line seems to be in a different place.

(Btw, our budget meetings don't actually look like that cartoon.  But it did make me laugh, so I thought I'd share.)