Reviewing our grocery shopping habits

Image result for grocery store

Food comprises an important slice of every household budget – a slice that is likely to grow, as food prices are rising. Food is one of the variables of household consumption, together with electricity, water, clothing, entertainment, and miscellaneous purchases. It’s an area where we can exercise a lot of creativity (as opposed to, for example, rent).

We still have a lot of room for improvement, but a fair examination of our pantry, refrigerator and freezer showed that we have actually improved a lot, in points such as:

Shopping less often. We have managed to go down to one shopping trip per week, and sometimes we even pull off a bi-weekly shopping and errands run. This is partially due to more successful list-writing. When composing the shopping list, I began to write down not just things that we almost ran out of, but also things that ran just a little low. Also, if we forget to buy something, now we most often just do without it for a few days, until the next shopping trip.

Diapers and wipes. For seven or eight months now, since Israel got the hang of using the toilet, we have enjoyed the freedom of not having to buy diapers, which has really been a blessing – because we didn’t just cut the cost of diapers, but the need to rush to the store for an emergency pack. Plus, our trash bags last longer because they are filled less often with no diaper-users in the house. Of course, this break is temporary and due to come to an end in less than a month, when new Baby Girl joins our family.

Less pre-packaged foods. In particular cookies, cakes, sweet rolls, etc. There was a time when I decided that we’ll consume less sugar if I bake less. I tried that, and the result was only that my husband started buying cookies, cinnamon rolls, etc, which of course contained much more sugar than what I would have put into my homemade treats. So back to baking it is. Of course if it depended on me I’d bake less and serve platters of fresh and dried fruit, nuts and such like, but one has to be realistic. If the choice is between my homemade cookies and cakes and store-bought ones, it’s obvious that mine are the healthier and cheaper variety.

We also buy less spice mixes, which are mostly a waste – it’s much cheaper to use basic spices and make your own mixes.

Less store-bought bread. We do buy bread for sandwiches in the middle of the week, but I make our Shabbat challah. This saves a last-minute dash to the store on Friday (during which other things, some of them unneeded, are all to often picked up along with the challah).
Better-stocked shelves. I now have a larger variety of beans, grains, lentils, rice, pasta and such like inexpensive versatile basic foods which I can make into frugal meals.

Speaking of frugal meals, most of the meat I cook these days is made in the form of a stew with a lot of rich sauce that can be spooned onto rice or pasta or soaked up with bread. For example, if I make beef stew, one evening we might eat couscous with some of the liquid part of the stew. Then on the next two days we eat the beef. Lastly I take what is left of the stew – mostly liquid and little chunks of meat that fell apart – and serve it with rice or quinoa. This makes an excellent lunch, and a total of four days’ worth of meals – not too bad.

What about you? How are you working on improving your shopping habits?
Advertisements

Rural life and financial security

Image result for financial security homesteading

When we were about to get married, we knew just how we want to raise a family: we would live a quiet, simple, unhurried life in some beautiful rural place, and I would stay home and raise the children, as they would come.

Ten years and 3 (soon 4!) children later, our dreams haven’t changed, but our perspectives have, with experience that allows us, in hindsight, to realize many things we have missed in the past.

We had a good headstart, financially, and we were prepared to live modestly, which had enabled us to purchase our first little home outright, without getting into debt or mortgage. This was good, but it finished off all our pre-marriage savings, and there was nothing left to do some necessary repairs, which the house badly needed, and when my husband hit a period of unemployment, we eventually had to sell the house for some immediate relief. A lot of money then got frittered away on rent.

We bought another house eventually, the one where we live today, but we then hit another stretch of unemployment, or rather, underemployment, plus a few pitfalls such as unwise investments in projects, and being ill-used by unscrupulous people. This was unfortunate, but it could happen to anyone. The problem was that we failed to take something into account, namely, that in choosing to live in a relatively distant area, we are reducing our earning capabilities, and basically eliminating the possibility to find an extra job quickly and easily if needed in lean times. Spending less is great, but sometimes you just hit that bottom when you can’t cut back anymore, and must earn extra to pull through.

Since we only have one car, I don’t drive, and public transportation in our area is almost nonexistent, we couldn’t even make a temporary switch of me taking a job and my husband staying with the kids, which was, and is, incredibly frustrating, since there were opportunities of jobs five minutes away, but when you have no means of getting there, it doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes away or on Mars. I was prevented from acquiring a driver’s license by 1) all lessons being held in town, so how is one supposed to get there without any means of transportation?? and 2) the prohibitive cost, which is quite a robbery in Israel. Because, you see, around here it isn’t enough that someone who knows how to drive teaches you. Oh no! Even if you know perfectly well how to drive, you still need to take a minimum of 28 lessons (I think) with a licensed driving teacher, which costs a bundle. Sorry for the rant, but I always get my blood boiling over government-sanctioned extortion that robs people of their hard-earned money.

So, for months on end my husband and I would both be home, with the car sitting in the driveway (which, granted, saved on gas), and us going crazy with the despair of not being able to climb out of the pit.

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I have to make do with what I have, and find ways to generate income from home. Today, I give nutritional counseling (in which I have a degree), do editing, proofreading and translation, and write both fiction and nonfiction. It’s wonderful, but I wish I had done it sooner, because establishing yourself as a freelancer requires time and dedication, and it takes a while before you’re actually earning. It was also hard to shake off the dogma of the husband being 100% responsible for the income. I do still believe that it makes sense for the man to be the main breadwinner, and that it’s extremely difficult, unreasonable and unfair for the woman to shoulder this burden as well, in addition to pregnancy, birth, and nursing (my husband can change diapers and bathe babies very well, but he can’t breastfeed or do postpartum recovery instead of me, nor can he swap with me and borrow my heavy, tired, pregnant body). However, when one’s family is struggling financially, one of the most empowering things is to be proactive and seek ways out of the rut, rather than only look up to your other half and hope things will improve.

To sum up this long and rather rambling post: if you’re planning on a lifestyle in which you earn less and spend less, in particular if you take the plunge and move to a rural area with the goal of becoming more self-sufficient and producing at least part of your own food, that’s wonderful, and it’s still our path, though it has been rocky and winding. However, you must be prepared for financial crisis, or you’ll find yourself in deep trouble when it hits and you have no way to counter it. So what would I have done differently, if I could (some things really did not depend on me)?

1. Possibly, I would have waited with the purchase of that first home. It’s great to be a home owner, but if it leaves you with absolutely zero in the bank, it puts you in a very precarious position.

2. Once the house was bought, I would have tried harder, and would have been ready to endure more discomfort, to refrain from selling it. Selling your only home does not solve problems, though it may stave off crisis, and is unavoidable sometimes. You have to live somewhere, and loose money inevitably goes down the drain. In hindsight, we could have held on.

3. I would have fought tooth and nail to leave more in savings during that time when we did have a nice income.

4. I would have prepared earlier, and more seriously, to the possibility of having to generate income, by whatever means. Granted, even working from home isn’t always practical when babies come one after another and you struggle to hold your head above water, but I have become a lot more efficient with my time during the past three years, and my heart literally bleeds for all those hours in the past spent on passive entertainment or just muddling around.

5. I would have trusted my judgment more. Not because I’m cleverer than my husband, but because two heads are always better than one. Magnanimously saying, “I’m sure that whatever you decide will be great” may sound nice, but going into all the nitty-gritty together is far more helpful.

The silver lining: we have never been, and are not, in debt. This makes things so much easier and less stressful. Avoiding debt (and mortgage is debt as well) is the best and soundest choice, in my opinion, that a family can make.

Debt-free life and peace of mind

Image result for freedom and peace
An important part of simple, peaceful life is discharging your debts; not always easy, as circumstances can be different, but it is an essential. And when I say debt, I include mortgage in the definition as well; I’m not saying a mortgage is always wrong, and never acceptable, but today people tend to forget that mortgage really is a state of debt; that a mortgage means one is not really an owner of one’s home, or at least, an owner only conditionally – because if something happens and the payment cannot be made (in a case, say, of an illness and/or unemployment), the owners face a very real danger of losing their home.

Owning the roof above one’s head, free and clear, is therefore an important part of one’s peace of mind. If your home is your own (as much as any earthly possession can truly be our own), a reduction or loss of income is, of course, a blow – but at least you have your safe haven, which is yours, and you don’t owe anyone anything for being under that roof.

Having said that, I will allow myself a little vent and say that, at least in Israel, paying for a home without a mortgage is a near-impossibility, as the prices of land, and consequently housing, are very, very high. Most young families – unless they are fortunate enough to inherit property, or to have parents who can assist them in a very material way – face being bogged down by very considerable, suffocating debt.

Is there no cheap land or housing to be found here? To be sure there is; and we did find it when we were first married, even though it wasn’t exactly the home of our dreams, and we have moved since. We rented for a couple of years, and these days we once more live in a home we have bought outright, no mortgage. It was hard, hard to find and involved many compromises, but we did it. When people here are rioting for “affordable housing”, I think they ought to amend and say they actually mean, “affordable housing in the tiny over-crowded piece of land that comprises most of the country’s population” – which, in all fairness, I don’t think possible. Yes, there are sparsely populated areas with affordable housing – but the problem is, to live in such an area means fewer opportunities of employment.

Obviously, each situation is unique, but there may be several options. Working from home, or mainly from home, is one; re-considering the possible length of commute is another – some people park their cars at the nearest train station, and make the chief of their daily journey by train. Or a family may move to a less expensive area as a temporary measure, to obtain low rent, and scrimp and save for a few years to be able to buy a home in a better area with no or lower mortgage.

Another thing I wish for is that we weren’t so bogged down with the difficulty of building regulations. Say “Israel” and “building” in one phrase, and you’re up to political flare-up. These difficulties, along with government avarice, have caused housing prices to soar in recent years. For illustration, the little house we had bought back when we first married (and since sold at twice the price), now costs five times more than it had a decade ago. Did the salaries rise five times over, on average? No, of course not. They stayed more or less the same. Thus the housing issue continues to be really, really tough, and people keep looking for creative solutions.

I believe there is no real solution but a government decision to take the plunge and make use of the abundant land in politically controversial area. In the meantime, people will have to keep searching high and low for individual housing, financial and employment solutions, and pave their own way towards freedom and debt reduction.

The emotional side of financial pitfalls

Image result for financial trouble

I talk a lot on this blog about frugal strategies, saving money and financial independence, but there is another aspect, no less important, of financial difficulties – the emotional side of the matter. It isn’t enough to say, “OK, so we’ll tighten the belts and get over it”. Often financial challenges come with a heavy emotional baggage that needs to be dealt with.

Insecurity. The feeling of walking on rotten ice. Will things ever stabilize? What will happen tomorrow, in a year, or two, or ten?

Fears, some of them totally irrational and/or with little base in current reality. What if the washing machine breaks down tomorrow? What if the house needs repairs we can’t afford? How are we going to contribute towards our children’s future education/weddings?

Anger and resentment, towards all those people who can just walk into a store and buy whatever they need, without thinking about money.

You might end up in an emotional state that really warrants therapy, but the trouble is, if you’re really in the financial trenches, you probably won’t be able to afford it, and you might hold back from talking about your troubles with friends so that you won’t be taken for someone negative, or worse, someone who is indirectly asking for financial support.

Self-care is imperative. Eat as well as you can, keep up your personal hygiene, exercise (walking and running don’t cost anything), keep up hobbies and activities that make you feel good and don’t cost money. For me, this is usually writing, or finding a creative recycling project I can do at no cost, such as making candles out of old wax or soap out of old oil.

Keep a lookout towards the future. When things are at their low, it’s sometimes easy to forget all the many ways the situation can improve over time: a new job, a business opportunity, inheritance you can reasonably look forward to, ways to reduce one’s dependence on the money economy altogether. It really is tough to look ahead and think you are always going to be stuck when the cold season comes and you don’t have enough money to buy shoes, that you will never be able to afford good-quality, varied food in abundance (true, sardines and bone broth go a long way, but sometimes you really crave an expensive steak). Don’t think this way, because there’s no rational basis to it. Sometimes one really has to live day to day.

And, as a believer, I always keep my eyes on G-d and His divine guidance, which has never forsaken us so far. Indeed, we have experienced many small miracles, from unexpected gifts of furniture to finding a bag of almost-new children’s clothes just when we needed them most.

If you become depressed, you might miss out on opportunities to improve your situation as you wallow in misery and don’t dare to look up from the ground. So keep an eye on that. Whenever getting out of bed or tackling daily routines seems difficult, do all you can to get help and support, because this isn’t normal.

It’s tougher when you have children depending on you. I’ve sometimes found it hard to strike a balance between being open and honest, and not overburdening little children with circumstances beyond their control. I know my children are aware of the value of money, because we aren’t ashamed to say, “We won’t buy this because we can’t afford it.” They don’t seem traumatized or worried. But avoid making it seem as though the family is on the brink of disaster, because children can be extremely sensitive and become prone to anxiety.

Financial difficulties aren’t a picnic, but with wise strategy and cautious optimism, you can pull through towards a better future.

Top Money Saving Posts of 2017

Image result for saving money

2017 has been what one might call a year of successful thrift. We came up with even more ingenious ways of how to get on reasonably well with very limited means; we found treasures in thrift stores, we bartered, we entertained people and tightened community ties, all with little cash but a whole lot of creativity and optimism.

So here’s a recap of this year’s top frugal strategies:

Thrifty Green Cleaning – Clean your house with cheap, environmentally friendly substances such as vinegar, baking soda, and citric acid crystals.

Buying Second Hand – These simple tips will help you make the most of your thrift store finds.

Stockpiling – A good stockpile can be a lifesaver in hard times, significantly reducing your weekly grocery store expenses.

Cheap Entertainment – Living simply and frugally doesn’t have to mean living the life of a hermit. Here are some ideas for vacations and entertainment on the cheap.

Top Cheap and Healthy Foods – Eating well means being healthy, but what foods should you choose if you need to scrimp?

Surviving Hard Times – Some general strategies on pulling through financial difficulties.

And, of course, there is more information in my books, The Practical Homemaker’s Companion and Your Own Hands. Available also on Payhip.

Saving and survival in hard times

Image result for surviving financial crisis

Our family has been struggling with financial difficulties for some time now, and what has enabled us to survive, stay out of debt and keep our heads above water are, among other things, these money-saving strategies:

1. Food: we keep chickens for eggs, have a herb garden, and grow and gather some seasonal produce, but naturally, this isn’t enough for all our needs. We have learned to choose the cheapest and most nutritious foods we can get, and cook long-lasting, economical meals such as soups and stews.

We stockpile and try to venture out shopping less often, making do with what we have in the house. The less you pop into stores, the less you will buy!

Another useful strategy is, whenever you find a defect in any store-bought product, don’t pass, complain. If you word your complaint right, you might get not just a refund, but all sorts of coupons and gift cards as compensation. Lately we have complained about a bag of wormy rice, and got two bags of rice and a bunch of canned goods as a gesture of goodwill.

2. Utility bills: reexamine your electricity and water usage and scrimp as much as you can. We have a solar water heater and I try to make do with it even in winter – we still have enough sunny days to shower every other day or so. Shocked? A daily shower is a privilege, not a need, especially in winter (in summer, we have plenty of hot water from the solar heater to shower every day). Wash full loads of laundry, line-dry your clothes, turn off lights and appliances, and wear extra layers of clothes rather than heat your house.

3. Gas: gas and car maintenance are expensive. Stay home as much as you can. Schedule all your errands for one day. Try to get people to drive over to see you, rather than go to them.

If you live in an area with reliable public transportation, consider going without a car. We can’t do without a car, unfortunately, and furthermore, we’ll have to upgrade in the near future as we grow to be a family of six and a standard 5-seat vehicle is no longer enough for us. Of course, we’ll sell our current car to help fund the next one.

4. Clothes and shoes: hand-me-downs and thrift stores will keep you clothed for next to nothing, and often you can get very nice brand-name gently used clothes that will last a great deal longer than cheap new clothes you might have bought at the mall.

5. Housing costs: if you rent or are paying a mortgage, it’s a huge, stress-inducing drain in hard times. Many people have been able to downsize to a smaller, cheaper, easier to maintain home, without any material reduction of comfort. We are lucky enough to own our home free and clear, but unfortunately, the local taxes are killing us. We are praying for an opportunity to sell and move to an area with lower local taxes.

6. Health: we have reexamined our health insurance to get a more affordable plan that covers nearly as much. It’s still a huge expense, and we might have to give it up altogether if things don’t improve soon, because it’s absurd to have a health insurance and starve, but for now we’re holding on.

At the same time, keep yourself in as good health as possible, because depression and physical weakness make it more difficult to handle a financial crisis. Eat as well as you can, get your sleep, be out in the fresh air, and take exercise in the form of walks, riding a bicycle, or working in the garden. It’s healthy and free.

7. Shopping and entertainment: just close your pocket and don’t buy anything you can survive without. Limit your entertainment to free stuff – walks, hikes, bonfires, friendly get-togethers – and moreover, stuff that is within walking distance or a very short drive, because gas costs money too, remember? Swap books with friends or use the library, reexamine your mobile phone and internet plans, and if you still have cable TV, cancel it.

8. Alternative money making sources: as important as saving is, sometimes you also need to think how you can earn a little extra. My husband fixes computers while he’s getting his company established, while I write fiction and nonfiction, do freelance editing and proofreading, translate, and do occasional nutrition counseling for people who are prepared to make it to my neck of woods.

It’s hard when you’re on a tight budget, but it’s possible to survive and even thrive by judicious management. Read more on frugal living strategies here.

Top Cheap and Healthy Foods

Image result for beans and pulses

The more financially challenged a family is (I deliberately avoid using the word ‘poor’, as I believe poverty is as much a state of mind as of the pocket), the higher proportion of its budget is directed towards buying food. It makes sense – you can scrimp on entertainment, clothes, and all sorts of frills, but everyone needs to eat.

Some things are really no brainers when it comes to food choices: avoid prepackaged ready-to-eat stuff, soft drinks, and anything that isn’t food in its basic, natural state. But what if you really need to take this a step further? What foods are the best bargain, financially and health-wise?

Whole, dry pulses and grains – beans, lentils and peas of all kinds have provided a source of protein and nourished healthy populations all around the world for millennia. Combined with barley, rice, bulgur, corn, etc, these create dishes with an amino acid balance that needs only a little animal protein to make a well-rounded, low-cost diet. Learn how to prepare grains and pulses the right way by soaking and/or fermenting them.

You can get a lot of food out of a few bags of lentils, peas and beans, and when properly stored, they will keep almost indefinitely.

Oats – oats are very nutritious and make an excellent breakfast cereal, much better than any cold cereal you can buy. Get your oats whole and roll them yourself for longer storage and to get the most of their health benefits, and pre-soak for maximum digestibility.

Eggs – containing the most effectively bioavailable protein in human nutrition, eggs are filling, nourishing and incredibly versatile. They also have the advantage of being almost universally cheap. Of course, it’s a million times better to consume home-grown eggs with a healthier fatty acid profile and essential vitamins, but even a store-bought egg is a source of wholesome protein when you can ill afford anything else.

Organ meats – the general public has a refined taste when it comes to chicken and turkey, and prefers clean, white meat, breast being the most popular. Stuff like liver, hearts, stomachs, etc, falls by the wayside, and can often be got very cheaply – all the better for you! Organ meats contain plenty of iron and B12, and, of course, are an excellent source of animal protein. They can figure in a variety of soups, stews, casseroles and other dishes.

Vegetables – if you have a productive garden of your own, you’re in luck. If not, you still rely on what you buy – and though fresh vegetables are an essential in a healthy diet, they can be tricky on the budget. Prices go up and down according to season and other factors, and even when you get a really good deal on certain veggies, there’s only so much you can buy, and they won’t store forever. Learn to buy what is cheap and in season, rather than have a fixed idea of what you’re going to eat.

Plain dairy products – commercial dairy products are controversial, but if you don’t keep a dairy animal, plain unsweetened store-bought dairy products are still a good bet, and are usually affordable. Stick to whole milk, plain yogurt, naturally processed cheese and unsalted butter.

Canned goods – don’t automatically dismiss all that comes from a can. Some canned foods are very nutritious – such as canned tomatoes, beans, tuna, sardines, and more – and sometimes you can get very good deals on them, so keep your eyes open.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to make your meals more palatable or filling by the addition of refined sugar and highly processed vegetable oils. It will only mess up your blood sugar and satiety signals, and will ultimately make you hungrier.

Good luck in finding the best way to feed your family healthy, inexpensive food – I know this can be tricky, but the rewards are well worth it.