Today I was struck by how many times I haven’t gone to the grocery store in the time my no-groceries challenge has been going on. My memory of it is fuzzy, but I suspect I’d stop at the market every few days for something I “needed” for a meal. On any quick stop for one or two things, I almost always end up with at least a bag full. Before this challenge, I thought I was pretty frugal. Now, I realize I can do just fine with a lot less than I thought I needed.
It turns out my not going to the grocery store has been more important than I realized. I’ll be out of this extra-low dip in my bank account in the next 30 days, but when my car makes grumbling sounds it’s worrisome.
That said, I still don’t think of myself “really” poor because I know I will not be in this position forever. There are ways out, and I am on those paths. A few thoughts I’ve had that I didn’t fully consider until I was in this position:
- When the preschool expects all the parents to provide snacks once or twice a month, it seems reasonable. It seems reasonable until you’re not buying groceries (by choice or need). It was our turn again, and I was glad to have on hand something to bring. Still, it was embarrassing because they weren’t foods I would’ve chosen if I were to go to the market and buy something. For one, I don’t like SmartFood. My daughters have decided they don’t, either. But, I bought it at BJs because it was cheap and it’s nice to have a treat for a snack for the girls once in a while. Second, the fruit cups in the not-environmentally friendly packaging were my backup for when I’m out of fresh fruit. As I said in my last post, this challenge of mine isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s not pretending either. The combination of feeling embarrassed that my snack wasn’t what I would’ve liked to bring and also using up what turns out to be important food was uncomfortable. I could tell the school I’m not able to contribute, but that would be humiliating. And, the truth is, I can contribute. Things aren’t that bad. That’s for me, though. What about the families for whom it really is “that bad?” I think preschools and other organizations expecting parental contributions should offer a kind and quiet alternative, a box that simply says, “Unable due to financial hardship” or something like that. No questions asked.
- In a similar vein, a friend and I made plans to go out and she made it clear before we got together that she wanted to pay my way. She even deflected some of my dependence on her generosity by pointing out that I was “driving down there,” and was therefore already making a contribution. This was helpful in several ways. First, it allowed me to go out without the knot in my stomach thinking “I probably shouldn’t be doing this.” Second, it took the weight off of me because I knew I didn’t have to bring up money. If you have a friend who you even suspect might be struggling financially, inviting them to do something and insisting that it be your treat—pointing out that it would make you happy to pay the bills—in advance may make their day. It’s a horrible feeling, not paying my way. But when my friends offer and remind me they really want to do it, I can accept their gifts (some of the time).
- Potlucks can also be tricky in the same way these first two issues are. Just assuming it’s an easy thing to bring something to share can make those of us without a lot feel uncomfortable. For me, it’s not that I can’t make the contribution, but I’ve become more aware of what it was like when bringing something to a potluck meant that much less at home for me and my daughters.
This whole experience is still quite surreal. As many of you know, my background is certainly one of privilege. My ex-husband is much more generous than the law requires. My work brings in decent money when I have the time to do it. It’s strange to be talking “as if” I’m poor when in many respects I actually am and in many respects I’m not at all. I hope my sharing about this experience might help other people be more aware (and, therefore, more sensitive) to people who are living with not-enough money.
In my first post about the “no groceries challenge” I set for myself, I mentioned that I would likely make an exception for milk (that I would probably buy it). I also mentioned I might look at the sale rack for fresh(ish) produce. A day or two ago I did, in fact, go to the grocery store for milk. I also checked out the old-produce sale section and was delighted to find a big bag of onions. I was down to two onions and regretting I hadn’t noticed I was so low when I did my “last” shopping last week.
I also got a bag of coffee from Starbucks which will give me a credit toward my “free” fancy drink that I look forward to every few weeks. My use of coffee, however, has gotten much more mindful despite the fact that I’m allowing myself the coffee beans purchase. I don’t make it as much, or as often. I have had fewer 1/4 pots of tepid coffee sitting on the coffee maker from making too much in the morning.
As for these “cheats,” I feel comfortable with them. This is not a game for me in the sense that I’m making it up. I honestly can’t afford to just get anything I want, so, being extraordinarily cautious about what I buy isn’t just for kicks. If I was playing at being too poor, I probably would’ve used the CoffeeMate and made my daughters use the remaining soy and almond milks that I have in the pantry before I went to the market. This isn’t about pretending, though.
Most dramatic for me has been how much more valuable every morsel seems. I see each unfinished item as something that might be saved. The difference is that while I have always been a saver of perfectly good food, I am now actually using it instead of saving it, forgetting it, and then tossing it in the trash because it seems too gross (even if it hasn’t gone bad). Food matters more now. This is good.
On my mind a lot is the point when I will have no more fresh produce. I’ve been anxious about it. I almost cooked the spinach I have, though it will last a while so I’ll leave it be.
In the name of not letting things go bad, I decided to make one of our favorite soups (Rosemary Red Soup) for dinner on Tuesday night. Already, I’ve noticed how much more I think about advanced preparations. It’s not as if I was leaning on prepared foods or takeout, but, knowing that it “won’t be an option” to pick things up at the market, it all seems more weighted. I want to use everything, I want to waste nothing. I had everything needed for this soup (wrong kind of lentils and wrong kind of miso, but that didn’t matter) and we all love it. The recipe would make plenty to freeze for another day when I didn’t have time to cook. So, great, right?
I got to work. I’m chopping away, proud of myself for gathering the ingredients first as I have a tendency to find out 3/4 of the way through I’m missing something essential. And, well, it turned out I did miss something essential. “Lower heat and simmer 40 minutes.”
I needed this soup for the table in a total of about 30 minutes, including prep time. Duh. It’s not a long-simmering soup, but getting it ready in time for dinner wasn’t going to happen. I kept on with it and will use it for our next meal.
This left me without a dinner plan, so I scrambled and came up with this:
That’s leftover salmon, a tortilla with melted cheese and salsa, carrot sticks, and some Romaine lettuce with mayo. It’s a little embarrassing laying out for all the Internet what I gave my daughters for dinner. But, sharing this is part of what I want from this experience.
“Coming up with dinner” takes mental energy and planning. It’s not a simple thing that takes no time. Add the stresses of bills barely paid, health problems, and work deadlines (let alone more significant issues I don’t face, like violence in the home, children struggling in school, or active addictions, etc.) and “coming up with dinner” is a major emotional drain.
Why do people make unhealthy or expensive food choices? Convenience is my first answer. Second is “I know my kids will eat it.” I happen to have children who are relatively great about eating, but, at the end of a terrifically long day, spending time cooking food knowing the children may find it inedible can feel overwhelming.
So, the bits I’ve learned already:
- every trace of food seems more important. I have half-drunk cups of milk my daughters didn’t finish sitting in the fridge to use for my coffee, for example, that probably would’ve ended up down the drain last week;
- planning and deciding what to cook and how to best use the ingredients on hand takes time, and that’s not just time in the kitchen, it’s throughout the day as meals approach or planning for the days ahead;
- I already made an exception and let my parenting partner bring oyster crackers, ginger ale, and pedialyte popsicles to our daughters because they were sick. It felt a bit like a cheat, as I would’ve gone to the market for those things if I could’ve left the girls at home to do it. I have a supportive ex- and that means my daughters don’t have to only rely on me for their love and care, and for extra food when the need arises;
- I’m out of coffee and haven’t yet decided if getting more coffee counts since I generally get it at Starbucks and that purchase goes toward my credits for an eventual “free” fancy drink. We’ll see… I did put together fixin’s for chai tea concentrate, so, maybe I’ll get my caffeine there.
I’m barely a couple days into this and already I feel hurried and worried. Trying to stay in the present moment (where we have plenty of food) is already a challenge. My refrigerator and shelves are full to bursting, but instead of just feeling grateful for that I feel especially stressed about making the best use of all of it so it will last as long as possible and will be the most healthy and delicious. I’m living in a deeper awareness of the time required to manage food and sustenance.
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.
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.