Living Below the Line: Shopping

Well.  Two hours of shopping, one discount store, two supermarkets, a greengrocer, a dry-goods shop and a butcher later, and I have my groceries for the next five days!  Did I mention that this whole budgeting for $2 per day is actually hard work?  That $2 budget conceals a lot of hidden costs.

I actually went out with a somewhat flexible shopping list – I knew, approximately, what I was doing for breakfast, lunches and dinners, and what bulky and tinned items I needed to buy, but decided to let the market specials be my guide when it came to what fruit and vegetables would flavour these meals.

My budget for the five days is actually $19 in total.  The reason for this is that, while Andrew will be sharing my cheap, cheap lifestyle this week, he is not actually signed up for the challenge, and is therefore allowed to accept an invitation to dinner on Tuesday night.  I’m going to eat at home, and then head over after dinner for the company.  I’ve therefore deducted $1 from our $20 budget, representing approximately the amount I would have spent on Andrew’s dinner if he had been at home.

Here’s what I bought with my $19.00

1 kg penne pasta – $1.10
1 loaf of sliced bread – $1.00
2 x 400g tins of tomatoes @ 60c each – $1.20
1 x 185g tin of tuna – $1.15
1 kg frozen mixed veg – $1.59
1 x 400g tin peaches – $0.69
6 dubiously free-range eggs – $1.75
175 g dried chickpeas – $0.80
175 g dried borlotti beans $0.60
75 g cashews (luxury item)- $1.05
1 stick celery – $0.26
1 cauliflower – $0.99
1 pumpkin – $2.38
1 beetroot with greens (bonus vegetable!!) – $0.99
1 carrot – $0.19
1 potat0 (stupid impulse buy – I didn’t check the prices properly) – $0.50
2 onions – $0.54
2 apples – $0.69
1 capsicum – $0.19
1 chilli (cheap flavour enhancer, yay!) – $0.04
1 garlic bulb (extreme luxury item)- $0.80
10 g salt – shopkeeper refused to charge me, so I’m calling it $.05
1 chicken wing – $0.40
1 sprig of rosemary from my garden – $0.05 (estimated cost)*

Total: $19.00

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Yes, I really did spend every last cent. I went to the shops with a $20 note, and came back with $1.10, which was my Andrew-tax, my salt, and my rosemary.

You’ll notice that I spent an extravagant $1.34 of my weekly budget on flavour ingredients – chilli, garlic, salt, rosemary, and a chicken wing (for soup).  The garlic is really the naughtiest thing on my list, being nearly half a day’s food for one person. The compromise on flavour versus bulk is one I have a lot of difficulty with, to be honest.  I really hate being hungry.  But I do want food that is at least slightly interesting and palatable.  Otherwise Andrew won’t eat it – and already I’m feeling guilty about inflicting this on him, and making plans to eat less than my share if he is hungry.  Which is frighteningly old-fashioned of me.  But, in fact, I think I have enough in the way of carbohydrates and protein every day that we are not going to be too hungry as a result of this little indulgence.   I think it’s worth it.

You’ll also note that I now feel the need to justify how I used my food budget.  Because I feel weirdly guilty about that garlic.  And those eggs!  And for getting such a tiny amount of salt that the storekeeper wouldn’t charge me (I’m going to have to go back and buy lots of goodies there once this is done – though, to be fair, I tend to do that anyway).  And, actually, this is quite interesting, because I suspect that this is one of the charming bits of baggage that comes with poverty, at least in first-world countries where there is a pension.  One is seen to be getting ‘free money’ from the government (and never mind that most people receiving a pension have either contributed to the community in the past by paying taxes or in other less tangible ways), and therefore a certain segment of the community is just itching to police you on how you spend it.

There is a rather toxic idea out there that people living on the dole are living the high life on taxpayer money, buying luxuries that hard working people can’t afford, and so forth.  And there are so many problems with this idea, ranging from the fact that pensions in Australia, at least, are far from generous, especially given current rental rates, to the fact that ‘luxuries’ like smartphones might be necessary for jobhunting (they are cheaper than a computer, after all) or for personal safety, to the rather Victorian idea that a ‘good’ poor person will be spending all their money on gruel and jobhunting and deserves no indulgences.  Never mind that living in poverty is itself stressful and gruelling and full of hidden costs – or that poverty and depression often go hand in hand.

A little bit of money spent on seeing a film, or a new t-shirt, or a haircut – or a bulb of garlic that doesn’t really fit in the weekly food budget – can actually be money very well spent if it allows the person buying it to feel a bit better about themselves and others, a bit more human, a bit more like part of the community.

But even these tiny indulgences are not always possible.

Stay tuned tomorrow for – THE MENU!

* We aren’t supposed to forage or use garden items without accounting for them, and I really don’t know how best to account for the rosemary – you are supposed to go with the cost based on the seeds, but I planted the rosemary six years ago, I can’t remember what it cost (probably more than a dollar – but obviously, I’m not using the whole plant!).  I think I will call that my last 5 cents.  I’m hoping that isn’t cheating.

I’m also thinking about the fact that there is mint growing in my driveway.  Am I allowed to use it?  I never bought seeds for it, or watered it, or did anything with it – it’s effectively an edible weed.  Would it be cheating to use a sprig, if appropriate?

If you are enjoying these articles, please consider sponsoring me by following this link!  Yes, I’m going to be shamelessly promoting this for the next week.  And updating every day, with menu plans, recipes both good and bad, and probably a lot of complaining.  Because I get a little bit focused when it comes to fundraising…

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9 Responses to Living Below the Line: Shopping

  1. I’m not doing this challenge, mostly because by the time I started reading about it, I’d already bought food for next week that would go to waste if I could only eat $10 worth of it, but I hope I can do it next year.

    The home-grown food thing is a bit perplexing to me too, simply because a lot of the stuff that I grow wouldn’t have a market value — for instance, my dwarf beans can be a bit mishappen and mottled, though they still taste great, but you couldn’t sell them to the general public.

    In terms of flavourings, that’s also something that I think becomes a lot easier if you’re sharing between two people for a week (I wouldn’t be able to do this, as my partner is a very picky eater). I was thinking that four week challenge might actually be more interesting, since it would give participants a bit more flexibility once they’d stocked up on staples, though I can see that such a long challenge would be highly impractical, not to mention damaging health-wise.

    • My partner is extremely picky, too. One of the really hard things is realising that while we don’t have super-expensive tastes, we also don’t like the incredibly cheap stuff – and when we do, we like *different* incredibly cheap stuff! I’m still lamenting my lack of rolled oats – I don’t think my breakfast jaffles will be anywhere near as filling.

      As for the home-grown food thing, I agree, it’s really hard to tell. I think they are just trying to discourage people with extensive veggie gardens from ‘cheating’, but on the other hand, when I was buying (ironically pricy) wild greens from one of the Italian stallholders at the market last year, my father got all excited because he remembered his mother picking those exact same greens from the sides of the roads as they walked back from the farm. People do forage, and barter, and try to grow bits and pieces in whatever spare space they have. But I can see why the organisers want to level the playing field, too…

      • Also, thank you so much for your donation!

      • My partner actually has no problem with eating incredibly cheap stuff — he likes to say that I’m the picky one, because I’d rather go without something than have the cheap and nasty version a lot of the time (that’s not to say that I think all cheap foods are nasty — cheap and good is fine with me!) — but on $10 per week, his diet would be so limited that he would get even less nutrition than most people doing the challenge.

        I think your point about how foraging, bartering, and growing bits and pieces is part of living below the line for a lot of people is a really important one — if you don’t have (much) money, then the tangible value of an item can’t necessarily translate into value in a monetary system. Hence, we can’t really make accurate assessments of the “cost” of home grown or bartered food when we’re assigning a dollar value to it. I would actually think, in terms of this challenge, that it would be better to say, “Yes, you can use food from your garden,” simply in acknowledgment that there is a degree of variation in terms of resources for people in living poverty — it’s not a monolithic state of being. As you note, some people doing this challenge in Australia have been able to afford things that you couldn’t fit into your budget, and this would just be another variation.

        • I’m the same as you with regard to cheap and nasty vs cheap and good!

          It’s interesting to see what everyone is coming up with, certainly. There’s a lot of variation just because of where people live – doing this challenge in any sort of remote area where a lot of foods have to be shipped in would be a nightmare, I’d think.

  2. It’s interesting. I know Cook On The Wild Side is one of my favourite cooking shows as Hugh basically went around the UK not paying any money for food. He foraged and bartered and did odd jobs for food. I know foraging is different depending on where you are but even though I’d have a lot more chance of foraging for food here in Hill End but I also have an hour and a half drive to town and pay a fortune for food.
    This time of year I could probably get a fair bit of protein from mushrooms and nuts, though I think the nuts are almost gone now.

    The main reason I can’t do the challenge though is that my partner and I are gluten free and bread and pasta are never going to be bought for $1 each.

    Good luck with challenge.

    • Yeah, gluten free would be a lot harder! The site did have some suggestions for gluten-free menus – you eat a *lot* of rice, though the banana-egg breakfast pancakes looked pretty yummy…

  3. I think challenges like this help people to understand that it is hard to be poor but I don’t think the restraints involved are particularly realistic. I think that one of the biggest barriers that poor people face is a lack of transportation. I can get really good deals on food, but that’s because I have a car and can drive to where the good deals are. Many of the really poor people who live in my city can’t do that so they mostly don’t get the same deals that I do. They’d have to take the bus which is not always quick or easy and the fares do add up if you try to go to a bunch of places. Contrary to what some news reports have claimed, there are grocery stores in the city but their prices tend to be higher and their selection lower.

    The other thing that I find somewhat unrealistic is the short time period involved. Real people who are trying to feed themselves decently don’t usually start from scratch each week. They have some staples on hand and don’t have to buy stuff like salt, pepper and oil each week. Budgeting for a month at a time would be more realistic and would allow the expense of buying some inexpensive spices and other items which are only used in small amounts in any given meal.

    In any case, I think your attempts to both raise awareness of the problem and funding to help are worthwhile.

    • Hi Katrina,

      I quite agree regarding the realism of the limits. My best guess is that the organisers are intended to level the playing field a bit (I could live very comfortably from my pantry, fridge and freezer for several weeks if I had $2 per day for fruit and veg and such), and that they figured a longer time period would put off too many people from doing it. Though having said that, I saw that several people were going for two or even four weeks.

      The geography thing is a fascinating one, I’m finding. First, there is the fact that fresh produce seems to be hugely cheaper in Australia generally than elsewhere, but what is interesting to me is that even within Australia, there is huge variance. Remoter cities, like Darwin, have very high food prices because everything is imported. And yes, even within cities like Melbourne, if you are in an area that is poorly served by public transport, you will have difficulties. I made two separate shopping trips on the Saturday morning, each encompassing several shops, and each on foot – but I could only do that because we have a fairly major shopping area less than half a kilometre from our house. And that gave me options that other people just didn’t have… then again, one woman on the list had a larger family and a Costco card and could afford things I couldn’t even dream of!

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