The past 9 months: What I’ve learned

Hard to believe it’s been about 9 months since I started this blog, and while my spending habits obviously haven’t changed, I’ve learned a lot and had to make some adjustments. For those also trying to live on $35 a week or just looking to figure out a way to keep the budget down without going insane, here are 6 not-necessarily-intuitive things I’ve learned since I began:

1. Don’t forget the importance of inexpensive snacks and desserts. As some people who’ve done the $35-a-week thing on the short term have attested, living this way does not result in a ton of food. It’s enough food, to be sure, but those used to supersized portions may be a bit panicked to discover dinner now consists of a modest bowl of pasta and a single cookie rather than a platter of meat and three different side dishes. For sure, I’ve definitely had to change the way I eat—no more starving all day and eating to my heart’s content at dinner. Two or three times a day I try to eat an inexpensive snack, like gingered carrot pickles, a cheap muffin, or a hunk of bread, to keep me from getting too hungry, and I try to keep inexpensive desserts around whenever I find the time to make them, so I don’t feel too deprived. If you find you’re having trouble keeping to one dessert item—let’s say, a cookie (I don’t know who that would ever happen to…)—wrap each one individually in plastic and freeze it. Trust me, you feel a lot more guilty defrosting and unwrapping a second one than you would just nabbing it out of the cookie jar.

2. Portion food out ahead of time. This is an easy one, but I admit it’s something that didn’t occur to me until several months into the project: Immediately upon finishing cooking, portion out your food into separate containers. This way you’ll be guaranteed to have lunch the next day. If it’s more than you’ll eat in a couple days, freeze it. Most—if not all—of the things we make can be frozen, and while we are lucky enough to have a vacuum sealer and chest freezer, things can just as easily be frozen in plastic bags or used yogurt containers, then taken out to defrost in the fridge the day before you’re going to use them.

3. You can’t mind eating the same thing pretty much every day. I’ve been eating almost the exact same thing for breakfast and lunch since this project began: oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts for breakfast, a hunk of bread and some fruit (with maybe a slice of on-sale cheese or a handful of nuts) for lunch. This doesn’t bother me in practice, but if someone had told me a year ago I’d be doing this and be all right with it, I don’t think I would have believed them.

4. Things aren’t always cheaper in bulk. This one still galls me. When I first started out, I was an unrepentant bulk-bin evangelist. Bulk bins could do no wrong! EVERYTHING was cheaper! That is, until the day I realized pasta was actually more expensive in bulk than it was prepackaged on the shelf, as was also the case with some beans, and some spices. This isn’t as true at stores like Winco as it is more mainstream stores like Kroger and Fred Meyer, but the lesson is to always double-check.

5. Grow something. Even if you only have a window and 3 square inches of space. Sure, I have a garden now, but I spent about 8 years in tiny apartments without yards, so I know how defeating it is to read about gardening and feel there’s nothing you can do to improve your lot. However, not all is lost for everyone. Even a single herb—such as rosemary, which doesn’t need much light or space—can take a small bite out of your budget. If you have a full windowsill available, grow several kinds of herbs. If you don’t even have a window, try investing in an Aerogarden hydroponic garden; they’re foolproof and fecund, and the cheapest models are only around $80. Grow something that’s expensive to buy at the store, like basil, and over the years you’ll recoup the money you spent.

6. Reward yourself. Doing this long term is grueling. I knew it would be, but there are some days I’d rather poke my eyeballs out with a stick than get up early in the morning and bake bread for what feels like the 20,000th time. Still, I do it anyway because I know I’m doing the absolute best I can with limited resources and essentially generating income with how much I’m saving. In fact, in January I even bought a truck with how much we saved and knew we were going to save over the coming months—something that would’ve been fiscally impossible were I not doing this. So make sure you do something fun or useful with (some of) the money you’re saving. Go on a trip, buy a new toy, sign up for HBO—it’s amazing how much of a motivator it can be to keep going.

18 responses to “The past 9 months: What I’ve learned

  1. As usual, I’m in awe of your ingenuity, persistence and good taste. Way to go Kat!

  2. Good tips! I do the portioning out thing too – I cook enough to put a few lunches away in the freezer too. It took me a few trips to the bulk food store to realize that not everything is cheaper – like the time I bought a small bag of veggie chips and it came to $9. How’d they figure that one out?

    We also grow our own veggies and bake our own goodies (cakes, cookies, muffins, pizza), and our budget stays at around $500/month for 4 people and a dog for food and household goods (basically food, medications, cleaning supplies, dog food, etc).

  3. I hear you. Living on any kind of budget is hard, but I think a food budget is especially tough. I grew up in an Italian family where there was always a bowl of pasta served before the main course. While my mother has since stopped cooking like that, larger portions is still ingrained in my being. While smaller meals are healthier, it’s definitely something that people have to get used to.

    Looking forward to the financial rewards makes it worth it. By cutting back our food spending, I’m able to work at a job that I love but doesn’t really pay too well. I know that if we decide to buy a house, we’ll be fine because we’ve learned to do well with less. It really just depends on what your priorities are.

  4. While I haven’t ascribed to $35 a week (yet!), I am working hard to save money where I can. To wit: Yesterday, I did not buy Roman Meal because I had a successful test of making whole wheat bread last week. And this morning, I had to take time to make the dough because we are out of bread. So I have a batch of whole wheat dough rising right now simply because I am sick of paying almost $4 for a loaf of healthy bread.

  5. Great post. LOVE the idea about the cookies.

  6. Good idea about the herbs

  7. Second luvnorcal – fresh herbs at the supermarket are insanely expensive! That’s not a big problem in summer when I can grow some myself and get others very very cheap at the farmers’ market – but farmers’ markets close down for the winter here in New Jersey, because nothing is really growable outside a greenhouse from November through March. I’ve tried growing herbs indoors without success – but now I have a grow light (bought for my tomato and pepper and tomatillo seedlings). Maybe it can keep herbs growing over the winter.

  8. Happy 9-month-iversary! Keep it up. You do a terrific job of keeping your blog clickable. I for one am hooked.

    PS — Oatmeal with blueberries (I pick them from my yard) and pecans (from local trees) with coconut butter for salt and a little “naughty.” My daily breakfast TREAT!

    • Thank you! You’re so lucky to have blueberries in your yard. We ran out of room, sadly. I love the coconut butter idea.

      • Blueberries are easy to grow in their own containers. Nearly 100% peat for their soil amended only occasionally with veggie compost, sulphur and mulched heavily on top with oak leaves (acidic) to conserve water. They’re my top producers, but I only have two shrubs. I want 20 more…

      • I happen to have some peat in the garage. Hmm…a trip to the nursery might be in my near future.

      • Get a really BIG pot, like one of the black containers they use for trees. Bushes need space. And make sure it’s got holes drilled. Go shopping!! You will not be disappointed by ripened-on-the-bush blueberries. Store-bought comes no where close.

      • Totally going to do this. Thanks for the motivation!

      • Hey…if I (a/k/a/ lazy, disorganized, shortcut-taker-in-the-garden) can do it, you can do. I like to think if we just give them a nice cozy home, plants just know what to do. All we gotta do is pick the fruits of their labor. 🙂

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