our “no groceries” challenge

Last week, several bills came due at once and I wasn’t sure I had money enough to cover the checks I was sending out. It was scary, again.

Things are much better than they were at the worst point of these financially challenging times. However, despite my ex-husband’s continued generous support, grantwinners.net’s growth, and a gift my daughters got to help with summer camp, I’m still not financially stable. In fact, to cover the cost of preschool and childcare for the summer (still not all paid for), I had to withdraw the savings I had set aside from our tax refund. That savings needs to be there for when my 2002 Subaru decides it’s time to go. That savings isn’t there anymore. The checks cleared, but it was another eye opening experience. The possibility of having no money at all, again, was terrifying.

During those few days where I wasn’t sure how things would work out, I decided I’d better not go to the grocery store if I could avoid it—I have dried and canned goods in the pantry, and previously cooked frozen foods in the deep freezer. I could make do for… how long?

At that point, I started getting a little excited. I realized that if I see it as a freely-chosen challenge, rather than depravation borne of necessity, I feel enthusiastic about “winning” the not-spending battle. It’s an enormously useful reframing of a previously terrifying situation.

I decided to see how long I could go without going to the grocery store. I don’t mean that we’d starve or even really be uncomfortable. I’m a good cook, and, like I said, we have a lot on hand. I talked to my daughters about it and mentioned some items we didn’t have and how my one concern would be fresh vegetables, fruit, and milk. My older daughter suggested one more trip to the market to stock up on what we needed and then we’d start with our challenge.

Yesterday, I made a run to BJs, using up my foodstamps for the month, and made the last of our purchases for… how long? I don’t know.

IMG_3005
I will eventually buy milk and, when I do, I might sometimes go to the shelf where they sell the not-pretty but perfectly good fruits and vegetables if we are out. I will use foodstamps for that. I also expect when the time comes that I do need to go to the grocery store, I will have accrued some funds in my foodstamps account which will help me stay on the path to almost-stable financial ground.

I’m going to post updates about the experience here. I realize people all over the Internet are publicly tracking their experiences with private and personal goals. Usually, if “everyone is doing it,” I find it unappealing. But, this is something my daughters and I are doing together (my older daughter okay’d several of the school lunches she had X’d out previously) and it’s something I’d like to be mindful of as we go along. Writing about it here will help me.

Knowing me, there will be exceptions to the “no grocery shopping” rule beyond buying milk and bruised fruit. There will be issues I haven’t considered. However, the idea of spending almost no money on groceries because we are using what we have feels empowering. I’m feeling motivated and energized by all the creativity it’s going to require.

The costs of eating well

home cookingEating out and buying prepared foods are both expensive. It’s also easy to eat too much junk (processed, refined) food that way. Yesterday morning I was chopping up some stuff, moving things from the deep freezer to the freezer, and from the freezer to the ‘fridge. My 3.5 year old was listening to an audio book and playing with blocks (right where I needed to walk, between the stove and counter, but her contentment was very worth the inconvenience). I was reminded of the days when my first daughter was a baby. I devoted hours and hours preparing wonderful meals full of whole grains, organic fresh (locally grown, or from our gardens) vegetables, and even meat from animals raised and slaughtered right here in Maine. I froze foods, I fried seaweed, I embraced quinoa (10 years ago when it was relatively new on the American scene)… I was creative and quite frugal. Bulk purchasing and home preparation saved us a lot of money. But, it also cost a lot of time.

Buying ingredients and making our own foods costs a lot less in dollars than buying prepared foods (if the prepared foods are relatively nutritious). But the time it takes to prepare food at home—that’s what I do 90% of the time—shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not even preparing the food, but managing it. What do we have on hand, what’s still frozen, what needs preparation, what makes a meal, what leftovers need to be used… all of these things take brain space. All of these things are also things I love to think about and do, when I have the time.

The choices aren’t easy. Take out, restaurants, and prepared foods from the grocery store are all too expensive. They are also much less likely to fit our values or our desire to eat foods that make our bodies strong. Spending the morning making stock from the freezer bag of chicken bones and vegetables, quinoa bean chili, fruit smoothies from the frozen fruit scraps, whole grain cookies, baked tofu with Bragg’s… there’s what I want to do (the cooking and planning) and there’s what I need to do (make money). There’s the bottom line (cash/bills to pay) and the bottom line (quality of life) to be considered, too.

Right now, I’m choosing to breathe in the present moment. Balance is my goal, though I certainly lean toward the quality of life side of the scales.

As many of you know, I have been writing a monthly column at The Bangor Daily News about being “newly poor.” Food choices are complicated when living with so little money. I fully understand the appeal of the McDonald’s drive-through. In fact, over the last few years I have used that option much more than feels comfortable to me. But, we’re all human and can only do the best we can. I just don’t judge harshly people who make “bad” food choices when it feels so much easier and even feels less expensive to get the quick fix food. In an ideal world, I could take it easy and buy, prepare, and share foods that feed our bodies and our values. In this world of necessary compromise, I can only do the best I can.

the shame of being newly poor (or, why I canceled our plans today)

When I started crying, it wasn’t to try and get out of the ticket. When I couldn’t keep the sobbing inside, I tried to quiet myself with tissues and breathing before the cop got back to my window.

“I’m gonna let you go with a warning,” he said. I think he said something about $150 and points (expired registration since March, not inspected). I’m not sure what else, though, because I didn’t hear anything after “warning;” my tears and laughter of relief were too loud. “I’m sure you can’t afford it,” he said. “No, I can’t,” I said, not trying to hide my crying anymore, “Thank you.”

That was Saturday. Today is Monday.

Today, I canceled plans with a friend who is here from out of state. This is our only afternoon to meet up and I haven’t yet explained why I decided I can’t go.

Being “newly poor” is teaching me more than I ever imagined. As a politically and socially progressive person, I’ve always understood poverty to be a challenging way of life. I’ve never believed that breaking free of the cycle of poverty is just a case of a great big tug on the ol’ bootstraps. I understood, intellectually, that trying to make ends meet with the regular expenses of living—let alone health care or transportation or childcare costs—would be a serious strain on anyone’s mental health and that it must feel hopeless at times.

Writing about being actually and truly poor leads me to want to be clear: my former husband is generous and supportive. He provides more than the minimum required to care for his children, and, because he believes my financial stability impacts the lives of our daughters, he supports me as well. It’s important to mention this because despite his generosity, I am living without enough money.

The other issue I feel compelled to mention at any time that I discuss living in “poverty” is that it’s nearly impossible to be open about how bad it is without feeling like I am, a) asking for someone to bail me out, or, b) making irresponsible and ridiculous choices that are putting me in this awful situation. Both “a” and “b” are not true.

Growing up, I thought we didn’t have much. My parents never showed what our financial status was in the same ways my peers’ families did. We didn’t have a housekeeper or housecleaners that kept things clean. We always had a many-years-old car (and, just one). My mother took us to (the horror!) second hand clothing stores. My friends had the hottest new clothes (Izod then Benetton, for example, at the time it started mattering to me), more than one car, and people came in to clean their homes.

Looking into the fridge now I always think, “What will our protein be for the next few days?” Protein and fresh vegetables are my top priorities for food. We’ve been without milk for several days because I haven’t had money for gas and I knew we could make do without milk for a little while so I didn’t want to “waste” the gas on a trip to the market.

On Friday, a friend and I were going to get together. I said Starbucks was my only option because I had money left on my Starbucks card. I said she’d have to pick me up (the car was on “E” and I had no cash at all and literally nothing available in the bank). She wasn’t into getting coffee, so she offered to pay my way. This is what it comes down to when finances are so tight: tell the truth (not enough money to go out) and friends offer to pay.

I get a sick feeling deep in my gut. I want to vomit or cry or lie and pretend I can do whatever I want. The option of telling the truth always leads to offers of paying my way. That isn’t what I want. That is what I don’t want. Lying, however, is worse.

Sometimes, I’ll take my friend up on the offer. I let my friend pay for our appetizers and drinks on Friday and I found loose singles in my desk and bedside table and purse so I chipped in $4 for the tip. I should have saved that $4 for gas.

How can I (a competent, intelligent, well-educated, talented woman) be in such a desperate situation? This is the question I assume people will ask, or, worse, I assume they will think it.

In an effort to help my friends who have no experience living in real poverty—several pages of thoughts about defining “real poverty” must be omitted here to stay focused—understand, let me explain.

There’s rent, childcare, phone, an Internet connection, food (I receive $380 in foodstamps each month which, of course, doesn’t cover all the food I need for me and my two daughters), car insurance, gas, some clothes (my daughter who is nine hasn’t grown a lot, thankfully), library fees (an example of where I hear voices protesting, “don’t be late and you won’t have the fee!”), postage, birthday gifts, electricity, coffee (a luxury I choose to continue to allow myself), sunblock, city-issued trash bags, prescription medications, bug spray, kitty litter, cat food, diapers, dishwasher and laundry soap, shampoo, tampons, highway tolls, business expenses (PO Box, paper, printer ink, web space), oil for the car, coolant for the car, washer fluid for the car, vacuum cleaner belts, Tylenol, parking, car inspection, car registration. This list is not exhaustive.

In addition to support from my former husband, I receive the foodstamps money, and I own my own business. I have only two active clients and sporadicly other clients with small jobs who, when I am busy and they pay quickly, make it possible for me to just make it each month.

This month, two checks I was expecting from my work didn’t arrive as quickly as I expected. There were a variety of other reasons for the temporary crisis, but, when the rent came due on the first, I found myself with around $700 in the bank (rent is $950). Thankfully, my landlord doesn’t deposit my check immediately (as of this writing, he still hasn’t) and I was able to deposit a check that came in so the rent check will clear. I have $957.12 in my personal bank account. Remember, rent is $950.

I have $57 left on my foodstamps card, so I’ll get milk and a few other items. I’ll be at my parents’ summer place where the garden is (finally!) exploding into usable food, so we’ll be able to eat well this week. My new foodstamps money comes in on the 10th.

I borrowed $50 from my former husband to get gas (so I can get up to be with my daughters at my parents’ summer place and get us back home again) and so I can get kitty litter. I was going to put off the kitty litter again, but on this last scooping it became clear we’ll all be happier if I just get some.

Last week was my birthday. I returned art supplies (that I probably shouldn’t’ve bought in the first place) so I could go out for brunch with my daughters. I got a gift card for my birthday so I bought back the supplies, but, it didn’t cover everything so I effectively paid for brunch plus some art supplies. Brunch and art supplies are two things that I can’t afford but I chose to spend money on anyway. I sometimes make mistakes like this. It’s very, very difficult to get into the proper mindset where I am fully connected with the reality that I simply can not afford these things.

Right now, there are two checks from grantwinners.net in my business account that should clear soon. Foodstamps comes in on the 10th. I was just told someone wants to buy one of my paintings. My daughters have clothing, childcare, good and healthy food, and are living happy and contented lives. I’m using the limits of not having acces to “just the right materials” as an artistic challenge again, where I’m painting based on what I have rather than on what I’d like to paint.

If my car doesn’t break down, if my temporary crown (the one that broke last week) holds a while longer (the tooth is shattered so the crown must stay put), if we have no unexpected emergencies, and if I get even more realistic about what I can’t do socially (gas and parking alone are expenses I need to cut back on) and artistically, we will be okay.

All of this was written because I needed to cancel plans to meet up with my old friend and I couldn’t find the words to explain why. I knew if I said “I can’t afford it” she would have said they’d pay. I knew we could’ve done something that “costed nothing” but parking costs and gas costs and it’s silly to think that we wouldn’t find ourselves wanting to stop “just for a cup of coffee” or something like that. I didn’t want anyone to pay my way. I try really hard to let people do that, but it’s one of the most horrible feelings in the world to me. It’s almost worse than the shame I feel when I realize I might not have money for food.

After the cop let me go, I drove just a bit until I came to a rest stop. I couldn’t keep driving because I was crying too hard. Most of the time, I know everything is going to be okay. Most of the time, I know that things are just as they are. I do my billable work. I find time for myself (painting and friends). I use most of my energy being with and caring for my daughters. I save wherever I can. I’ve learned pretty well the answer to the question, “Do I really need this?” is almost always “no.” I can’t let the knowledge of how close to the edge of financial devastation we are destroy my life today. I can’t pretend I can afford things, but I also need to live my life right now rather than in a frenzy of fear.

Writing about this, knowing I am about to hit “publish” and share the link with Facebook and friends has a loud chorus of voices demanding I explain how it could be so bad. Surely I’m doing something wrong, making bad choices. Surely there’s something I’m not doing that would make my situation more secure. Writing this and sharing it is my way of saying, “This is how it is. I won’t defend every bit of it against attacks. I’m not perfect, but I’m kicking a lot of ass and it’s pretty humiliating at times. I need to recognize that I am okay, my children are okay, and we are doing the best we can with the very little we have.” Thank all things holy, we have more than so many people when it comes to the intangibles. We have love and peace and joy in our lives and those things don’t cost us a single penny.

(We caught the moment when a caterpillar shed its skin for the last time, becoming a chrysalis:)

$75/hour and on food stamps?

Coming “out of the closet” about my financial situation’s dire state turned out to be a good move. People have flooded me with what feels like genuine hugs and applause.

After that post, a friend asked me how much I charge for my work. When I told her, I felt the smothering feeling of shame again. Yes. On the grantwinners.net website I note our typical fee is $75/hour. How can someone who charges that rate possibly require assistance from the government?

As I said earlier, I’m antsy about having gone public with my situation because I believe it could hurt my business. Because I’m not “hiding” here, I considered posting on doinggoodbetter.org (the blog for grantwinners.net) but I believe these thoughts belong here.

How can someone who charges $75/hour possibly require assistance from the government?

Working as a consultant means no benefits, no paid time off, nothing provided by someone else (office, computer, supplies, phone, website), and carries with it loads of expenses that many of us are terrible about tracking (marketing, admin). The fees we charge need to take these things into account. The client doesn’t pay all the overhead, of course, but the real costs of doing business need to be included when the fees are estimated. That said, with contracts or when we work using a “by the project” fee structure, the rates are typically lower than $75/hr.

No matter what rates are charged, however, I don’t see most of the money. This is how grantwinners.net works (clients know about this process): Initially, I work with new clients directly. Soon after the work begins, I find a good match from among the grantwinners.net team members (independent consultants) and I subcontract work to them. Thankfully the group I’ve got are very talented and dependable professionals. But, I don’t take much “off the top” of the fees the client pays. I learned in the last couple years that I usually don’t take enough. Finding people who do the job very well but will accept what is essentially a “below market” rate can be very challenging. A couple of my best subcontractors are executive directors of non-profit agencies doing work on the side (not depending on the work to survive). I have a few very bright women I’ve been training who have had very little experience winning grants. They are quick learners, but it takes more of my time to process their work because I need to be sure our clients are getting what they are paying for. People trying to make a living as grant writers generally need to be paid what I need to be paid, not less than that.

The time required to nurture relationships that might blossom into professional partnerships is time I haven’t had available based on my choice to focus on my children. I also tend to shoot myself in the foot (“don’t hire me”) because I believe so sincerely that most nonprofit organizations should be winning their own grants, not hiring consultants. Because I don’t think I offer (through the grantwinners.net team) some kind of magic potion that will get grants for organizations, I can’t in good conscience try to convince someone to hire us. I’m not a “direct sales” kind of person. I can discuss their needs and let them know what we can do, but I won’t say “if you hire us, you’ll get better results.” It doesn’t always work that way, though sometimes it does. (There are some very common mistakes people make in grant writing that I forget aren’t common knowledge. Just simple things, like, if the grant maker says a proposal should be no more than two pages, that means no more than two pages.)

Because of the work I have done, and the relationships I already have, grantwinners.net has had great clients in the last few years. Not many, but as this blog describes in more detail elsewhere, it’s been a Hell of a last few years. The post about being on food stamps and looking into additional support options describes where I am now.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking, “Who on earth will find this interesting?” The answer is, “These are things I need to say.”

I feel guilty, less-than-deserving of the support I’m getting from the government, when I discuss my business rates in the same breath as “government assistance.” My business has the potential to be a decent source of income, but it isn’t my top priority. That is probably one of the most difficult phrases I’ve written in all of this (“it isn’t my top priority”). Amazing how awful that feels. My children are my top priority. That shouldn’t feel bad to write or say.

I won’t take on work that I won’t be able to do well. This means I haven’t taken on much work (or, rather, I haven’t followed up on requests for more information). As my 3-year-old gets older, I will make more time for growing my business. For now, I need to keep it very basic and simple and know that putting my children first, for me, means being with them more than it means going to meetings to try to drum up new business. Time with my children comes first. I’m going to keep saying that until I don’t feel guilty when I say it.

not *that* kind of welfare recipient

Looking at the pint of Ben & Jerry’s, the Doritos, and the thinly sliced prosciutto, I felt suddenly self conscious. I had taken out my EBT card to pay for groceries. When I considered what I was buying (the my-daughters-are-going-to-be-with-their-father-for-a-few-days supplies) it all seemed so unhealthy that I thought, “how can I justify using government benefits to do my self-medicating with this salt and sugar and fat?” And then I actually said, “Aw, no, I’ll just pay for this. I’d feel weird using this [waving the EBT card] for all this junk… ha ha ha…”

I’m new to using foodstamps. The topics about which I know nothing are seemingly endless when it comes to getting assistance from the government. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so entirely clueless. What has surprised me in all of this, among many things, is how deep my shame is as I participate in the system. Instead of feeling proud that I am doing everything I need to for my children, I feel guilty and spoiled and greedy.

Walking around the grocery store a couple weeks ago I felt like I’d taken off backpacks filled with wet sand. I literally felt lighter. I walked through the store slowly and considered every section. I compared prices. I took time to recall what I had in the pantry and the freezer. I thought about what I could make and freeze or what would be useful to have on hand to use later. At first I thought I was feeling so light because I tend to shop very, very quickly with two young children and their needs filling up most of my time. I looked into my cart at the fresh produce and canned tomatoes and a few bags of whole wheat flour, and I realized it wasn’t that I was child-free. It was knowing I was going to use my newly acquired “food stamps” benefits to purchase the great bulk of this food. What an enormous relief! I was giddy. I could buy food! I could just BUY FOOD. It didn’t have to be depressing or stressful. I could look beyond the two deep discount sale sections that I tend to stick to and I could just buy food. I felt free.

With that realization came a sudden flood of shame. What kind of person goes grocery shopping and has someone else pay for the food? I was disgusting. Greedy. Lazy. Irresponsible. Surely I wasn’t someone who really *needed* this kind of help, right? Surely it was the woman who escaped domestic violence who has maybe a high school education who has three children under 4 and has untreated depression? She’s the one who really needs help who (as a general stereotype) I would never in a million years consider lazy or irresponsible for getting the help she needed to start over. Me? My former husband is much more generous with child and spousal support than the law requires. I make good money in my business when I am working. I go to Starbucks almost every day. [Here I have deleted a long explanation of why this is a necessary expense in my life.]

How easily I slide into justifying and explaining and excusing my choices. For months I’ve toyed with writing about applying for and using assistance but I found myself lacking the courage. The moment I mention I’m using food stamps I feel an urgent need to explain my situation.

Asking for help is humiliating for me. It’s so easy for me to find other people responsible and smart and brave when they ask for help. When it’s me, it’s harder for me to see it that way. Asking for assistance from the government, from “social services,” is a level of humiliating I have rarely ever felt. So much of the shame I feel comes from inside me. I’m stunned as I consider each individual person who is going through something similar to this;  how each person has their own “issues” and their own sense of pride and self-sufficiency to tackle. That stereotype woman (domestic violence, little education, etc.) could very easily have just as much or more of an aversion to asking for help as I do.

The shame doesn’t only come from inside me, though. There is a deathly blanket of shame that covers the whole process of “assistance.” The way I’ve been talked to as I try to negotiate the system has brought me to tears more than once. So many of the people (the workers who process the paperwork) are just flat out mean. I understand it’s a broken system. I knew that before I was in it. I just had no idea how far-reaching the fractures and breaks extend.

When I take out my EBT card at the market, I’m so uncomfortable I’m usually compelled to make some sort of loud statement pointing out that I’m using food stamps. (As I mentioned, if I’m uncomfortable, I tend to address the discomfort very, very directly.) Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed. Emotionally, I haven’t found a way to shake the feeling that I’m being a lazy, spoiled, irresponsible moocher by using this tremendous gift. Writing about it here might help me, I suppose. Of one thing I am sure: the fact that I can go to the grocery store and just buy food makes wrestling with shame and humiliation a very small price to pay.