Living Below The Line: Hidden Costs

So, actually we are living comparatively well on our $2 daily budget.  But there’s a really good reason for that, and that is that we’re really not living on $2 a day in any realistic sense.

We are living in a house that is close to public transport and to a variety of supermarkets, markets, greengrocers, and other food shops.

This is not accounted for in the budget.

We are living in a house that has running water, gas and electricity.  And a telephone and internet, of course.

This is not accounted for in the budget.

I have something close to twenty years of experience at cooking meals, I have a kitchen with all the cooking implements I’m likely to need, I’m fairly efficient at food preparation, and I also have quite a bit of time that I can put into cooking at the moment.  Also, I enjoy cooking, which may not sound like it’s important, but does make a difference.

None of this is accounted for in the budget.

Let’s unpack how this actually works.

Geography

It’s been interesting seeing what other people doing this challenge have been able to get for their $10 per person.  Some of them have the most amazing shopping lists, and I live in envy of their local shops.  Others have these tiny little lists that make me feel a bit scared for them.

We’re lucky in where we live, but the fact that we can live somewhere close to so many shops is down, quite simply, to wealth.  We can afford to live in a part of Melbourne that has a lot of services and fantastic places to buy food, even cheap food.

A person who was truly living on a $2 budget would be unlikely to have this.

In addition, I was able to do all my shopping on foot.  I didn’t accrue any fuel costs, and that is also a function of fortunate – or rather, affluent – geography.

Utilities

We don’t, obviously, have to include our bills in our $2 budget.

This means that I can buy dried beans, soak them (in water from the tap), drain them, and cook them in more water for two hours using my gas stove, and come out ahead of where I would be if I bought tinned beans.

In fact, if I were truly on a low budget, I’d certainly be better off with tinned beans, which are pre-cooked and just need a few minutes of heating – no water, and far less fuel.

Actually, a number of the things I’ve done over the last few days to infuse flavour into my food – roasting peppers, making schmalz, making soup slowly with a chicken wing for flavour – all accrue costs in fuel.  Possibly quite large ones.  Simmering time is one of the best ingredients a cook can have.  I could have done better if I’d thought to use my pressure cooker for more of this, but it would still be a fuel cost.  This is not accounted for.

Equipment

In my cooking this week (and I have, in fact, now done all the cooking I will be doing – it’s all re-heating from here on in, apart from the jaffles) I have used knives, chopping boards, wooden spoons, egg flips, baking paper, at least three saucepans, a frying pan, a blender, a garlic press, a jaffle iron, non-stick trays, quite a bit of tupperware, and a food processor.

Oh, and a stove, an oven, a microwave, and my fridge.  Let’s not forget the fridge.

Some of these items were optional, but some really aren’t.  Living on $2 a day is possible largely because I have the capacity to prepare food and also to store it without it going bad.  While the soup and the cauliflower pasta would probably be OK for a few days at room temperature, the tuna bake would not be, and nor would the frittata.

For a few years, I followed the blog of a woman who was homeless and blogged about the challenges facing her.  One of the things she talked about was the problem of storage – if you are carrying all your worldly goods around in a backpack, a 2kg bag of rice isn’t going to be much good to you, because you can’t store it anywhere once it’s open – you have to buy foods that can be eaten in one sitting, and single-serve packets of things tend to cost a lot more.   Equally, if you are homeless – or if the electricity is off – or even if you have just moved out and don’t have a fridge or a working stove yet – you are pretty much limited to buying foods that can be eaten as they are, or at most, after a brief burst in the microwave.

Again, these pre-made foods are more expensive than making something from scratch would be.

Of course, there are a few other things you need to make food from scratch, and one of those things is…

Time

In fact, time is a factor on a lot of levels.  I spent approximately 4 hours on my grocery shopping this week.  Two hours scouting around, and two hours doing the actual shopping, at six different shops and in several different trips.  That last part was my own inefficiency, but the point still stands.

One would hopefully learn over time which shops were the cheapest for which items, but I suspect shopping is still going to take longer when you can’t just go to one shop or one market and buy what you want without checking if another supermarket has it at 20c or 50c cheaper today.

Also, I don’t have kids, but I’m pretty sure you can’t spend 4 hours on the shopping if you do.  Or even 2 hours.

The other place where time comes in is in the cooking itself.  Now, admittedly, I am a fairly thorough sort of cook – I make most of my meals from scratch, and how food tastes is important to me.  Not everyone cares enough to spend a couple of hours infusing chicken flavour into a couple of different meals, and that is absolutely fine and probably a sign of being much saner than I am.

But even if you aren’t an enthusiastic cook, it’s still something that takes time to do every day, and if you are living on a low budget, you can’t really afford a lot of the short cuts.

Experience / Skill

This isn’t a cost, exactly (though it is the sum of many hours of skills refinement over the last twenty years), but it’s a huge part of why we’re able to function fairly well on this budget.  I am a good cook, I’m someone who cooks a lot, and I think and read about food pretty much all the time.  Which is driving me crazy right now, because, as I have mentioned elsewhere, if I don’t think about food, I can forget that I’m hungry, but if I do think about food, I’m RAVENOUS.  But it does mean that I have a combination of resourcefulness, knowledge and skills that greatly increase my capacity to produce edible food on a budget.

When your food budget is tiny, you can’t afford waste, and these days, I’m a good enough cook that even my failures are edible.  Except when I drop them on the floor.  Equally, my knowledge of food is broad enough that I know what to do with dried legumes, I know which vegetables have edible leaves (hello, beetroot!  And carrots, and radishes, for that matter) which might provide an extra serving of vegetables, I can make stock without thinking, and above all, I can look at a collection of food on the table and think of something to do with it.

This last ability is particularly helpful, as it allows me to buy the fruit and veg that are cheap, regardless of what they are – I am not limited to a small set of ingredients that I might have to pay more for.

Also, I do have a reasonable amount of knowledge about nutrition, not that I am the healthiest eater on the planet.  I know how to put together a meal that contains a good range of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals, with or without meat.  This is incredibly useful.

Incidentally, last time I was poor, I was a fairly crappy cook, and this despite having done home economics at school whenever it was available to me.  I do think that a really good home economics class – one that focused on how to put together a balanced meal on a budget, and how to cook the basics – would be a fabulous addition to any curriculum.  Cooking really is a survival skill, and so many people move out of home with only the vaguest clue to how it works.

Health 

I’m lucky that I’m in pretty good health, and that I actually enjoy cooking and thinking about food.  But food is still something I have to think about and plan and spend time on, and it’s much harder to find the energy to do this when I’m sick.  For someone with a chronic illness (physical or mental), these costs of time and energy can be much higher than they are for someone in good health.  And, in fact, one may well have less time in which to build cooking skills – or less of an ability to maintain them.

(And if you’re depressed enough, eating healthily is probably the last thing on your mind.)

Which again brings you back to foods that require less thought and less preparation – and which are more expensive.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I don’t know what the benefits above amount to in my case.  I’m not sure if it’s even possible to calculate them.

But one thing is absolutely certain – I’m not living on $2 a day.  I’m not at all sure I could.

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10 Responses to Living Below The Line: Hidden Costs

  1. Thank you for doing the challenge and then sharing all the thinking and energy that goes into trying to eat well on next to nothing. So many discussions of living in poverty assume laziness rather than wonder at what it takes from a person and their resources to do things. I think your point in an earlier post about the long term dietary deficiencies of such a diet even one cooked by you with your skills and knowledge are also wilfully overlooked by a society that doesn’t want to know.

    You are also so right about time and energy mattering. I am surfacing from quite a long period of chronic illness related unwellness and what went by the board including getting out of the house, was cooking.

    • Thanks for your comment – and I’m sorry you’ve been doing so poorly recently.

      I must admit, I’m constantly aware in doing this challenge and writing these posts that it’s horribly easy to be accidentally patronising – or alternatively, to be so lost in showing off one’s own cunning budgety cooking prowess that one leaves the impression that this is something people should be able to do. And I really, really don’t want anyone to think that. But it’s a fine line between not saying ‘see, this is possible’ and constant whingeing!

  2. I have been enjoying your posts on this and this one, in particular, hits so many nails on the head. I am highly annoyed at myself for not doing this challenge this year – I intended to, I sponsored my cousin ahead of time, I checked the sign up link, and I forgot. I want to do it for lots of reasons but in part, to really bring home to myself how different our lives are from those who truly HAVE to live on $2 / day. Your reflections here highlight those differences beautifully. Congratulations on your own efforts and sense :)

    • Thanks, Kari! Yes, I only found out about this challenge at the very last possible minute for me to have time to get organised and do it. (I was seriously considering trying to organise a food bloggers team, but was just too late off the mark… maybe next year?)

      It’s certainly illuminating, even accounting for all the hidden costs.

  3. I’ve been reading this whole series with interest, and especially appreciate this post about the hidden resources we draw on when we feed ourselves. Thanks, Catherine!

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