Frugality

Pinched in February

I see that I posted about the results for January as far as tracking spending on groceries and sundries. Now we’re in March, so I know that February’s spending was higher, even though it needed to be at least as low. Heck, I thought I’d failed to take it far enough in January.

Grand total in February was $718.42, which came to $643.01 after removing taxable items and tax, an inexact shortcut to reducing the number to groceries-only. That compares to a net of $543.86 for January, almost exactly $100 more.

Part of the difference is in spending on meat, assuming I recorded it accurately both months. February was $100.04 to January’s $51.50. That surprises me, but there were some good sales, and I ended up with a good amount in the freezer. This is going to help me skate through the first two weeks of March, when things will be even worse than they’ve been yet this year.

I also softened up my stance on soda, which frankly hasn’t been the source of financial damage I had assumed. Still, $42.34 and $2.95 in deposits is a lot more than $26.53 and $1.75 in deposits.

Finally, an easily identifiable anomaly was my daughter’s birthday. She wanted an ice cream cake. That was $18.99 I would never have spent normally. For dinner that day she wanted crepes with strawberries and whipped cream. I bought her fresh strawberries as a treat, on sale but still $2.99, and a 3 pound bag of frozen strawberries for the crepes. That was over $5. Not knowing what we’d need, I bought 2 spray cannisters of whipped cream, store brand, something like $2.79 each. Extra eggs, too.

Just figured out that stuff that was neither taxable nor food came to almost $32 this month, versus almost $34 last month. Almost a wash. I should probably change my spreadsheet to distinguish such things easily.

My big lesson from these two months is that we buy a ridiculous amount of cereal. I believe not buying potato chips has increased it, because it changes rather than eliminates the snacks. We also buy more tortilla chips, attributable to the same reason combined with kids discovering they love nachos. For the oldest, that is an alternate meal if she doesn’t like what I’m making.

I suspect things will level out when taken in a three month chunk, but we’ll see at the end of March. By May, money should be much less tight, but I can’t see going crazy.

Subpar Sub Rolls

Things have been grim here financially, and then I got sick and we had a blizzard warning on top of it. I’d bought two big packs of on sale ground beef at Market Basket, super fresh and tasty 85%, and the first of them had been partly used and partly frozen. The other sat in the fridge until the day after I’d normally have preferred to use. With everyone having suffered through fending for themselves the day before, and the burger needing to be used unless it had gone bad, I decided to make meatballs. Universally loved by all five of us, but not a meal I consider very frugal. The burger turned out to be as fresh as if you’d just bought it at an ordinary store. Given that it was well over 3 lbs, the amount that normally goes into meatballs, and that it wasn’t right on the edge, I made a big patty to freeze and at least got some freezer fodder out of it. While I was sick, with a blizzard expected, the wife went to the store and got a couple bags of ice to top off the freezer and help it keep should the power go out. Also, as a preventative to losing power, which worked. The alternative to meatballs was chili, but I could have done that on a pound of burger.

When I make meatballs, I usually make gravy and either egg noodles or potatoes. Neither were on hand. Sometimes we have them as meatball subs, for anyone who wants them that way, with red sauce (or just ketchup) and optional cheese. But there were no rolls, either! And not much bread, for that matter. I haven’t been buying sub rolls because I haven’t been buying cold cuts, because that’s expensive. When I could afford it, every 2-4 weeks we’d have subs for supper. If I’d planned the meatballs and been able to time a trip to Market Basket appropriately, I could have bought sub rolls, but would probably have bought egg noodles or potatoes instead.

Well, I’ve been experiementing with making bread, and in one case dinner rolls, so why not sub rolls? I focused on two recipes I came across, comparing what they involved if you made the batch size the same. This one looked tasty but looked like it might be too crusty compared to the result I wanted. This other one purports to be a way to match the rolls you would get at Subway. Now, I don’t know from Subway, but the picture looked like what I’d buy at Market Basket six for $1.50. With some trepidation about the volume of oil and lack of sugar compared to the other recipe and other breads I’ve made or looked at, I went for it.

This was not an entirely smooth process, given that I forgot to melt the butter before everything else was in the bowl, and that I don’t have a stand mixer. I could make a case for always moving on from recipes that assume you have a stand mixer. I usually do, but how hard could it be to just do things the old way?

Everything through the first rise and dividing the dough into eight rolls went fine. It rose enthusiastically enough not to provoke concern. The rolls, though… they would have taken hours to rise to where I thought they should be, at the rate they were going. After an hour and a half, I put them in the oven.

They tasted OK, if more like sourdough than the bread and rolls I am used to. You could definitely tell the lack of sugar. They were flat, though, completely unsuited to being a sub roll, especially for meatballs. Their best use seems to be as garlic bread, or cheesey garlic bread. Because it didn’t rise fully, the texture is pretty heavy.

I won’t make that recipe again, at least not without modifying it into something of my own. I don’t have enough bread making savvy yet to parse what went wrong without researching. Which, come to think of it, I had meant to do right afterward. “Why does second rise fail” or something like that fed to Google might give me insight. Or perhaps something on the science/principles of bread baking. That’s how I learned gravy. Best thing I found was something that described the principles of what you were doing, rather than trying to be an exact recipe, and gave insight into various types of gravy. Sometimes I have an imperfect batch, but in general I have never had gravy as good as what I make.

Pinched

I’ve been neglecting things basically since work got intense during our peak season, then haven’t picked it back up now that work is unusually light. Between that and having spent through our tax refund and what savings I had, largely to supplement the grocery budget, we’re in a particularly tight spot. Voila, stuff to write about! Stretching the money is the whole point, here.

I’ve done some baking and meals I hadn’t normally done, and even taken a few pictures. But this post is about money itself, and tracking what we’re spending.

I started a Google spreadsheet for this year to track grocery purchases. It’s cruder than I’d like, since many purchases are mixed. Partly I can filter by figuring if it’s taxable, it’s not groceries. There are some items that are neither.

January is over, and the grand total came to $626.85. We’re a family of five. Mind you, this amount made everyone feel like they were put upon compared to normal, which suggests to me that our spending had been running a couple hundred a month more. Given that back when we were getting SNAP of about $500, I was supplementing it by about $300, that fits. The thing is, what I spent this past month was at least $100 more than I could afford.

The metric of taxable items and tax coming off for a measure of actual food makes it $543.86, but the receipts contain over $30 in non-taxable non-grocery necessities. Call it about $510, then. I’d say that we depleted the cabinets somewhat, but there’s stuff that’s been added to balance it out. Still, while cranberry sauce was inexpensive, I accumulated cans of it, and when the dust cleared there were 14 cans. We’ve used two, and probably won’t need to buy any for a few months, depending how often kielbasa or roasting chickens are on sale. The main uses are for sweet and sour kielbasa or as a side with roast chicken.

Today was the first entry for February; $68.55 total, of which $27.30 was meat on sale. Pork loin for $1.69/lb for the win. It was a trip to get cheese and butter where the price is lowest, frozen veggies for the lowest price and that are also the best, and ingredients like flour and sugar at the best available prices. Flour at the two loacal stores is $1.99 and $2.49, versus $1.69. I’d run out entirely, making bread multiple times.

We’ll see how it goes. I’d like to have the family on board with keeping this up, even when funds are more available.

Economical Ham

We recently got a Carando spiral ham, on sale for $1.99/lb, after discussing it and, besides other reasons, deciding it was a good value. Any meat for that price is cheap, but the outlay is large when it’s 10 lbs at once.

I make a ham dinner of it. Then it can be used in pea soup, another post entirely (I have been using kielbasa in it), or something I have yet to try making, bean soup. It can make sandwiches. It can go with eggs, or into scrambled eggs. It can be frozen. I find it useful to cut little pieces of ham and put the appropriate amount for scrambled eggs in each of multiple bags in the freezer. It can go from freezer to pan when needed.

The bone can be frozen for future soup.

I love it! My gout, well, that could do without my eating too much ham at once.

A Real SNAP

Over the past few years we’ve been, shall we say, financially challenged. We were never really flush. In the couple years before I married, I was barely able to support myself, but had room for more frugality and had coasted business-wise. Marriage would have helped, but circumstances meant I had to squeeze out more money without substantial career change, in order to support more of us. It would have been a bear to apply because I was self-employed via a partnership, but my income seldom strayed far above the numbers that would just qualify for assistance. Food Stamps, now called SNAP. Just never would have thought to do it, even if I’d made less – or not juggled things to appear to make more than cash flow justified, as the case may be. I spent the first few years of marriage and kids worrying beyond worry about money and what could eventually happen, but trying not to worry my spouse. Beyond what implicit awareness there was of the smoke and mirrors juggling involved. There’s a frugality move for you: Breast feeding to save the insane cost of formula.

I digress somewhat.

Eventually, well after I should have, I applied for what is now SNAP. We qualified at the time not merely handily, but for emergency alacrity. That was suddenly almost $500 a month for groceries! Out of what they computed was at least $600 a month for a family of our size.

I was amazed that the official amount was so high! I mean, I’m old enough to think of $600 a month as practically an entire income. Which would also explain why I think a grand a month in rent is the far side of insane.

We went from, well, I think I was spending on the order of $20 a week and getting random handouts of food from relatives, to all that money. (I could be misremembering, because a lot of people online donated us a lot of cash and that is where some of it went, but I was still being beyond frugal, because there were other things it had to cover.) That opened the door to losing some of the biggest and most time consuming frugality measures. Which is another post; the sheer time and energy cost of being poor/frugal. That opened the door to convenience foods being in the house more routinely. Which is another other post, how much extra it costs if you want to be able to let the kids graze conveniently.

Eventually circumstances changed enough that we’d have qualified for considerably less in SNAP, but the agency basically jerked us around to the point where I gave up on obtaining the maybe $200 a month it would have entailed. We could manage. Of course, our income has ebbed since then, overall, and it’s been tough at times.

What’s made it tougher is having gotten used to what was more money than I might have spent on groceries when I “had money” back when, it’s harder to go back. I mean, besides the kids having become locusts. Now I can see the $470 or whatever being too little, or barely enough. I reliably would end each month with at least a month’s balance left on the card. That sure made weaning off of it easier.

I still tried to be as frugal as possible, obviously, but really felt like I was cheating. When I really miss it is when I am forced to buy things like soy milk and soy butter, and when it might help in branching into some of the other allergy options like non-dairy cheese.

I expect to be on it again at some point, with only four of us in the house and my income plus whatever child support figures in being the factors. It will help tremendously, much as I’d like to remain off or move back off of it as soon as possible. [I was a little confused, reading this after all this time, but this must have been the point when Deb was going to move out, but didn’t.]

Did I have a point here? I mean, besides that for me the SNAP benefits felt like we were rich grocery-wise and that changed habits in a way that can be hard to change back? Don’t think so. Outside factors and what is customary for you can change your perception of what is or isn’t frugal, and your adaptability. I know many people would look at that $600 figure for a family of five and be surprised anyone can do it on only that much. I suspect there are people on SNAP who wouldn’t begin to know how to save massively, which was part of the formative inspiration for a blog of this focus. Other are in the trap of too little income, but also too little time. Which is why I’d want to convey as much as I can ways around both circumstances.

Enough rambling. Speaking of being too busy. If I weren’t treating writing here as a job, trying to build something, it might not be getting done. That and the kids have become easier to work around.

Update as of September 6, 2015

What actually happened with SNAP back then, near as I can tell, was that I angered the people at the local office and they blacklisted me. I tried again over the course of as much as two years, culminating with the final time I applied, turning in needed documentation on time, in person, in the presence of the person handling my case, with the stuff I turned in stamped as to when they were received. I got turned down with a notice that was probably all ready to go by that time, and was sent out to me before they would even have had time to review what I’d provided. I gave up and we did nothing else with SNAP until Deb applied in her name while waiting for long-term disability to be approved, with no income because short-term disability had expired. They fell all over themselves to give us about $500 a month. This helped hugely. They actually bumped the amount up a tiny bit when she started getting disability. Ultimately I was spending that plus maybe $300, and that left bills all being paid comfortably, and the hope of things like dentistry.

Then at renewal time in February, they checked my pay for one of the weeks after the four they ask for stubs from. It was an anomalous $150 higher than normal, due to a two week burst of volume that happens twice each year and factors into my average pay. Rather, their newly automated system checked. It bizarrely cut us to zero but left us an active account. This kind of thing had become rampant starting in 2014, with Massachusetts using an automated system of data mining to do checks on people. Someone disabled and far more reliant than we are on SNAP would work one day as a poll worker, for instance. The system would extrapolate that to a full year’s income and shut them off. The latest thing I saw indicated that Massachusetts has a participation rate of around 1% for SNAP, down from over 6% a couple years ago, without an employment change to match. Nationally the participation is in the ballpark of what Massachusetts had been. That’s clearly not right. At the same time, they have eliminated case workers from have assigned cases, so you don’t get a person who is already familiar with your situation. The poor workers are harried and can’t be happy with the changes. They were buried in work in the first place, given the economy. They never did review our case. It had to wait for the six month renewal. We clearly qualified for something, even if the prior amount had been overkill. We’ve been spending the tax refund on groceries for months! Apart from fixing cars, that’s where most of it went, and it was down to what we needed for a car emergency and ensuring a normal Christmas. So it was time to have the help again. Of course, I am philosophically opposed to programs like it, in an ideal world, but this is the world we have. I’d be happier to have a pumped economy with a free market and adequate opportunity.

So here we are, about $1200 a month below the income cutoff for SNAP, and we again get a “benefit” of $0. But they still have us on their roles, considered eligible for benefits, so anything else that uses the same metric, like free school lunch, remains available. Say what? We’re confused. This time it is supposed to be based on information provided by Equifax. Yes, a notoriously inaccurate credit reporting agency also is in the business of qualifying you, or not, for SNAP benefits. First thought was they clearly had something wrong. Or first thought after “why did we give you all that data if something else tells you what to do?” I have started to wonder if it is the savings I maintained and gradually doled out for food and car repairs and such that triggered it. They don’t seem to ask about savings when you apply, though I could swear I remember it back when I originally did. The internet says they take it into account, though, and that you have two months to spend your tax refund (made large through EIC) before it can get you shut off. That seems counterproductive, even as I can see some logic to it. If you are responsible and don’t blow it on a vacation to Disney, but use it gradually, you are penalized. At the same time, if you were that poor, you’d probably spend it fast. Some people can spend a lump sum like that breathtakingly fast. I try to put the brakes on it, because I never again want to be unable to pay a heating and electric bill, fix a car, or cope with a moderate emergency.

So as I revive this blog, it seems we face going particularly frugal again. Most of my business income for the year, as it stands, falls during a six month or so period that’s drawing to a close. We’re in a slow time of year at work, until late November, except for a couple weeks around the first half of October. It’ll be tight. But hey, that’s part of the impetus for renewing the blogging, organizing it better, and making that a big part of each day. It’s a resource that already exists and has income potential if I put some effort into it.

It’s Not Frugal If You Don’t Use It

Being frugal isn’t an absolute, but is conditional. For instance, if you use a coupon to save 25 cents on a name brand item that costs 50 cents less every day in the store brand, is it really frugal to do that rather than simply buy the store brand?

That depends.

On the face of it, I’d say no.

But what if the store brand of that particular item is just awful, as is sometimes the case, so what if nobody in the house will eat or use it? You save 50 cents, or 25 with the red herring coupon, then you throw the product away, or throw part of it away, or you suck it up and don’t throw it away, but nobody’s happy choking it down.

That’s no good.

I learned when I was still a kid, probably more like a teen, that there were things you Just Didn’t Buy. I witnessed my mother buy things we wouldn’t use, but boy it was cheap. It struck me as a horrible, wasteful thing, anti-thrifty.

The same applies to stocking up, buying in bulk, preserving, then not using all of it for whatever reason. Perhaps not getting it all eaten, frozen or preserved in time. Perhaps poor resource management, so the old food isn’t rotated so older is used sooner and newer is used later. Which also touches on the idea that being frugal can involve time and work, and time can mean opportunity cost, but that’s another post.

If you can buy the large container that’s three times the size of the small container but only twice the cost, but it spoils in the time it takes you to use a third of it, you’ve used a small container worth at twice the cost. That’s not frugal. And that may not be obvious at first, and may be something you have to learn.

Same thing with brand preferences. You can’t know that a store brand is worth it, or not, or which brand is better for the price, or which brand you’re willing to settle on for the sheer savings, without having tried them.

There are things I have strong brand preferences for, like Heinz ketchup. Sure, I can eat other brands, but for me it’s the difference between eating ketchup and eating… something that isn’t really ketchup. This doesn’t always apply to name brands. I prefer Hannaford’s private label refried beans, but none of the brands are horrible, at least until you get into the variants that try to eliminate the fat content. That becomes a calculus of preference, cost, and convenience. The convenience factor is, again, another post.

I’ve sometimes fallen into the wholesale club trap. That is, it’s a good price… in a specific brand and a large size. I’ve thrown out a lot of warehouse club food that didn’t get used before it spoiled or became boring. I’ve seen it be less per unit, if you were actually paying attention, for a smaller quantity elsewhere of another or maybe even the same brand. Before I became too broke for a club membership and that kind of bulk shopping, I became very careful what I bought there versus Walmart versus a supermarket. And there’s another other post… discussion of what venues I am dealing with as I write, for comparison with yours and the fact that your mileage may vary.

Introduction

[Edited]

Once upon a time, I posted about cooking on personal blogs, and then I started a food blog named The Married Guy Cook [posts prior to this one chronologically were imported from there].  It was inspired by and a spoof on the name of a short-lived food blog by Jeff Soyer, The Single Guy Cook.  That was especially appropriate, since my cooking ability came to the fore once I was married.

Now I am not.  Married.  [Not true, exactly. Deb wished to break up, but we have never divorced or lived apart – not that we could have afforded to, and remain an intact family for all practical purposes.] Which makes the name a bit odd.  And it’s built into the domain [which I regret having subsequent failed to renew, probably since I wasn’t using it and lacked funds to keep it in the collection], so still odd even if I rename the blog itself.  Which I did, but in the midst of a blogging drought and already dreaming of this new place.

Along the way, I thought about how much I knew now could have saved me and given me a better diet when I was single.  Along the way, I hit economic disaster that made my existing frugality useful and challenged it to be more so.  Along the way, I had a child with multiple allergies.  Allergies to fundamentals, eggs and milk, and more avoidably, peanuts, bananas and now tree nuts.  Worse, early on, thankfully temporary sensitivities to substances in most foods.

When I was young, I loved watching Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet.  I had to agree with my late grandfather’s remark that there was nothing frugal about much of what he cooked.  I hope to do better here, but the theme is general, not absolute.  Nor is it only about cooking.

To cut to the chase, this blog will be about frugality, something more in vogue than usual currently, and while that may relate mainly to food, that’s not about cooking as such.  Call it lifestyle as much as anything.  This blog will be about food and cooking, obviously, with an eye to frugality and making do, but not tied exclusively to it.  This blog will have a large coping with allergies component.  That could perhaps be its own blog, but I decided not to be too niche about it.  Finally, with three young, variably fussy kids to feed, expect to see an element of making them happy.  At the same time, I haven’t forgotten my decades as a single person who could have saved money and eaten better, so I plan to touch on that as well.

I welcome guest recipes and ideas.  Feel free to contact me in the comments or at an address to be named later, as I set the place up in finer detail.

Finally, I expect to import material from my old blog.  Probably directly, with the possibility of reposts from the past as well.  That may look disjointed, or be dated prior to this “first post,” so please bear with me.  And by all means, if you missed it the first time, peruse away.