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.