no groceries challenge #x

Back in May of 2013, I undertook a “no groceries challenge” for myself. Borne of necessity (I had almost no money), I found adding the element of choice into my situation was empowering. Since then, I’ve done the challenge a few times (clicking this link brings you to all of the “no groceries” posts). The last couple challenges were on the milquetoast side of the scale and just kind of fizzled out. I wasn’t really committed. I also wasn’t really scared.

A couple months ago, I backed my car into a telephone pole. I wiped out a big chunk of my savings. I wrote about it in my Bangor Daily News column.

Last month, a client for my business made the decision to shut their doors. As their grant writer, this means I was suddenly not needed. There’s work for me in the next few months, but nothing close to what I’ve depended on for more than 10 years. I’ve picked up good new clients, but my current clients pay as I invoice, due within 30 days. (The client I’ve worked with for a decade always paid immediately, just because they wanted to.) That means cash flow isn’t as liquid.

Last week, I found myself transferring balances from my various savings accounts—I’ve been working on having a long-term “major” savings, a short-term “emergencies” account, and, eventually, a summer savings—to bring both my work and my personal accounts back up from double digit balances.

I still have about $1,000 in savings. For many people, this is a lot. For many, it’s not much at all. For me, it’s somewhere in between. It’s not enough that I feel comfortable or steady. It’s more than I was used to having until relatively recently. Last week I had to consider dipping even farther into it — would this bill come due before the (generous) child support came through? In this case, things worked out. At least temporarily.

I mention the specific dollar amounts because I think people are too afraid to talk about the reality of money. Money can be so complicated an issue, and all of our experiences skew our interpretations.

The point of this post is simply to say I’m going to look at the refrigerator, freezer(s), and pantry, make a trip to the super market, and embark on yet another “no groceries” challenge. It should be a little less challenging now that the garden is starting to produce a bit—August will be even better.

family values (McDonald’s)

Pulling into the drive-through, I apologized to my daughter’s friend. I joked about how inconsistent this move was with our community’s shared values. As I ordered my enormous Diet Coke, I was energized by the conversations we had. We all agreed that giving money to McDonald’s was the biggest problem. Drinking the artificial unhealthy-chemicals laden beverage wasn’t great, either.

I’m grateful for our shared values—at my daughters’ school, in our Religious Society of Friends community, and among most of my friends and family. We care about whole and healthy foods, jobs that pay a good livable wage with benefits, small and local businesses, and a whole host of other Earth-loving issues. It’s lucky to be surrounded by people among whom I feel a little sheepish when I’m in one of these waves of drinking this garbage.

Part of living my values, however, is recognizing that finding balance matters. As I wrote about a couple years ago in the Bangor Daily News, sometimes my choices need to be inconsistent with my deeper values. In “Let us eat junk,” I pointed out that sometimes super-quick and not-so-healthy food choices are the right ones. My daughters and I have talked about how the number of calories per dollar is pretty amazing, and the fat helps the eater feel full; sometimes that’s what matters for families who have no food to eat. We don’t judge harshly people who eat McDonald’s or other food that I call garbage food.

I love that my daughters think going to McDonald’s is gross. I love that their friends have either never eaten it, or think it’s gross that they have. We are lucky and we’re all pretty healthy. I’m also glad we can think critically and talk about the many issues surrounding our food (and drink) choices.

cheating (fake poverty)

Because it’s true that I’m only just on the edge of financial stability and saving money now will protect my stability in the future, this “no groceries challenge” isn’t fake. It’s not borne out of crisis, though, so it’s a little more like the SNAP challenge I criticized in the Bangor Daily News. So, I cheated.

Yesterday I bought a few bags of frozen fruit (buy $15, get $5 at Hannaford!) and yoghurt. When our fresh fruit runs out, we’ll still be able to make smoothies—until a few days ago, my daughters weren’t fans of smoothies, but that seems to’ve changed.


No matter how my business is growing, I know I would not have come out of that situational poverty without the support of my ex-husband and also gifts from my family. I’m an example of how unavoidable life circumstances and personal choices can lead to poverty. I’m also an example of how family background can make all the difference in getting out of the hole. My great uncle left me money that I used to buy a nearly-new car, for example. Car failure crisis averted.

The first time I did my no groceries challenge, I did it because I had been in a position where I didn’t have the money to buy groceries. Times are better, but the near-trauma of that experience looms large. I never want to go back there.


no groceries challenge #4

In May of 2013, I imposed a “no groceries” rule on myself to see how long I could go without going to the supermarket. I learned quite a bit more than I expected. I repeated the challenge in less stringent forms a couple more times. (To view those posts, you can visit the “no groceries” category on this site.)

With the full involvement of my daughters, we’re embarking on the challenge again. Two weeks of summer camp (paid for with scholarship money) for the last two or three years aren’t available this summer. This means decreased childcare and increased expenses. With some good luck and some good choices, I’m not currently facing the threat of negative bank balances. But, bills will come due. Without some drastic budget cutting or with some bad luck, it could be dire.

Most of my expenses are fixed (rent, phone, Internet, tuition, insurance). One area where we have some control is food. I don’t expect it will make all the difference we need as I look towards the challenges of summer, but as it was before, just the actions themselves—knowing I can do something—keeps me on the side of gratitude rather than fear.

Full disclosure: I will not have a zero-tolerance rule for this challenge. We’ll get fresh fruits and vegetables as we need them, and, after a chunk of time going without (almost) entirely, if there are one or two ingredients that will make a meal complete, I’ll get them. No “grocery shopping,” at all. No remembering “I need x or y” when I’m picking up a prescription, etc. No “I wish we had a frozen pizza, I am so bleeping tired…” purchases.

We went to Hannaford today which I only recently learned has much better prices than the Shaw’s we had been using (I assumed grubby = cheaper!) and stocked up on some staples like dried beans and kale (to parboil and freeze) as well as some perishables that will last like tofu and sweet potatoes. We’re ready.

daily luxuries. (no groceries challenge #3 ends.)

This “no groceries challenge” lasted just a month, and not even that (twice I bought fresh fruits and vegetables). Last night I went to the grocery store and bought, within reason, what I wanted. IMG_2724Like the challenges before, my perspective about what I “need” has adjusted to a more sustainable level. And, as it was before, I was full of gratitude when I had the option of going for the fresh produce. Not everyone gets to do this.

When I write about the no groceries challenges, or being “newly poor,” I write mostly for people who have backgrounds like mine. I hope to share with people who have always meant well; who embraced what I’ve always considered the liberal philosophies of helping those who need help the most. Even as I approach financial stability, I want to call on those many months where I lived with less than I’d ever known before.

I understand better why people who need the most help feel condescended to or patronized by well-meaning people. I also understand better why it seems poor people support policies that are “against their own interests.” I want to help people like me to do what they have intended to all along. There is a change in perspective that needs to happen. Instead of “helping them,” we need to “help each other.” I’ll write about it more in my newspaper column, but I’ll likely continue sharing thoughts here that are less fully formed and more personal.

(And, I expect to resist the temptation to go to the grocery store for “just a few things,” whenever the mood strikes.)