Okay. So I’m standing in the produce aisle, comparing costs between the cherries, which have just come into season and cost $4.99/lb–peaches, which aren’t quite in season, and cost $2.89/lb, and a 5-pound bag of apples, that costs $4.99, or $1/lb. I would really like the cherries. We haven’t had a lot of them since my grandmother’s cherry trees got diseased and died. I would also like the peaches. Canned peaches, no matter how good, cannot compare with fresh. I stand there, nibbling my lip, doing math in my head for the cost per serving, and longing after those fresh cherries with a fierce hunger made up of childhood memories, the rewarding glow in my heart of giving my kids a treat, and the serious financial consequences of spending so much on cherries that we don’t have enough fruit to make it through the week. Finally, I sigh, resigned, and plop the apples into my cart.
The apples cost about 33¢ per serving, the cherries cost $1.25 per serving. The peaches are about 75¢ per serving. I’m not happy about it, but I feel like I made the right decision. I add 6-pounds of bananas to the cart (20¢ per serving) and then pick up 2-quarts of strawberries (38¢ per serving) to make up for the cherries I can’t afford. I add four (29-ounce) cans of peaches, and plan to gorge myself on them and make a peach crisp for dessert one night. At 28¢ a serving, I can afford to. Finally, I choose 4-cans of frozen orange juice concentrate (12-1/2¢ per 1/2-cup serving) and I’ve picked out my fruit for the week. The total comes to about $21, or about 19¢ per serving. We’ve got apples, bananas, strawberries, canned peaches, reconstituted orange juice plus raisins and prunes already at home. That’s enough for everyone to have 4-servings of fruit a day. This is one of my health goals for the family, so I’m satisfied.
I still think about those cherries; and I still lament that the peaches were so high. But I’ve made my choices. My family is getting all the nutrition and fresh fruit they need, and I stayed within my budget. It hurt to say “no” to the cherries. It hurt so much that I’m still writing about them even though this scenario happened a few weeks ago. For me it boils down to quality verses quantity. The quality of the cherries was superb. They were a “gourmet” offering to titillate my palate. In the end, I chose quantity over quality. It wasn’t a pleasant decision, but for me, it was the right decision.
Quality verses quantity, this is the ongoing struggle for anyone trying to eat well on a budget. The truth of the matter is not always pretty. Sometimes we must compromise quality and variety because we simply cannot afford to eat as well as we’d like to. I’d like to be able to afford organic, grass-fed beef and organic, gluten-free, vegan, veggie-burgers. I would love asparagus, artichokes, vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh berries in the middle of winter. My family would like these things too. The fact is, I cannot afford these things. They are far, far (far) outside of my budget. So I do not buy them, no matter how good for us they are.
In my world, if we want beef, we’re lucky to be able to afford the cheapest ground beef. If we want veggie-burgers, I have to make them in my own kitchen with brown rice and legumes that are home cooked from scratch. It takes a lot more work and a lot more planning. When fruits and vegetables are out of season, they are simply not an option. Organic produce is something that we either grow ourselves or simply do without. Conventional produce is our standard. I’m lucky to be able to afford fresh green peppers. There is no way I can afford to pay twice as much for an organic one. Frozen broccoli is one of my family’s mainstay vegetables. If I only allowed myself to buy organic, fresh broccoli–we simply wouldn’t be able to afford to eat it and we would eat fewer vegetables than we do now. Better to have all the frozen broccoli we can eat, than to have no vegetables at all because we can’t afford the “best” ones.
These are the hard, cold facts of life on a limited budget. There are things I want to buy, that I cannot afford to buy. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.
My husband came into our marriage with certain food prejudices. He didn’t eat store-brands. He only ate nationally advertised foods. He preferred anything in a jar, can or box over the homemade version. He didn’t like to touch raw meat, so he only chose small, tidy packages of meat and chicken. If he could buy pre-cooked meat, that was his preference. It was very strange to me.
I came into our marriage with a completely different background. I had been poor and hungry, so my food prejudices ran in the opposite direction. I did not know how to choose national brands over store-brands. I could not stand to buy something that I knew I could make at home for less money. Packaged cookies were disturbing and tasted bad to me. Whole milk was weirdly thick and rich. I had grown up on reconstituted milk and was thankful for it, because I knew what it was like to go without it. Meat was an absolute luxury, buying it pre-cooked wasn’t even something I knew was possible.
He and I each had food prejudices, and we each had to work to get over them. His were more expensive than mine, but mine were just as firmly entrenched. To be the most flexible, to save the most amount of money on our grocery bill, we both needed to let our food prejudices go. This was not easy to do.
I have an old budget-cookbook that contains one of my favorite recipes for spaghetti sauce. Our first year of marriage Fred very carefully wrote next to that recipe, in permanent marker, the words “Just buy Ragu.” He was trying to tell me to stop cooking from scratch and to simply buy him the foods he was used to. When I found out what he did, I was so mad at him I couldn’t even talk to him for several days. It took some time and some compromises on both our parts to come to the consensus we hold today. Mostly we couldn’t afford to eat the way Fred was accustomed to, but also Fred eventually realized that homemade food, from scratch, tastes better than anything you can buy in a package. I needed to let go of my pride which refused to allow me to buy canned spaghetti sauce, which is super cheap and convenient, and I have to admit, doesn’t taste that bad either. He and I both had issues with our pride, albeit from opposite sides of the coin. Still, it was the same coin–pride–that we struggled with.
When we are poor we cannot afford to have food prejudices. When we have special dietary requirements this is especially so. The old saying that beggars can’t be choosers is true to a certain extent. My family doesn’t eat gluten or dairy. Once we’ve eliminated these foods from our diet, we really can’t afford to have any prejudices against other foods. I can’t afford to turn up my nose at slimy gigantic packages of chicken breasts. I have to be able to bring them home, repackage them and freeze them in my home freezer. I don’t like to touch the slimy, wet chicken. I don’t like that the only chicken I can afford has 15% added chicken broth (salt water). I don’t like having to clean everything up with bleach water afterwards. It’s unpleasant and time consuming. These drawbacks don’t matter. If I want to eat chicken, then this is the only way I can afford to use it. Those pretty packages of individually wrapped 4-ounce chicken cutlets seem both attractive and convenient to me. I am certainly tempted by them. If I buy them though, I could only afford half as many pounds. Which means my family would go without. They would be nutritionally deprived because of my desire for convenience and my squeamishness.
Brand loyalty is another food prejudice that I cannot afford. I have a few brands that I sincerely do prefer. Earth Balance margarine, Bob’s Red Mill gluten free grains, Bragg’s apple cider vinegar. If I had the cash, I would use these products exclusively. But I don’t have the cash, so I use the cheapest versions of these products that I can find. Sometimes it’s the brands mentioned, sometimes it’s a store-brand. I buy the brand that costs the least while still fulfilling our dietary requirements.
Broke people cannot afford brand loyalty. National brands have enormous advertising budgets which the consumer pays for, usually through the nose. Off-brands, generics and store-brands are almost always cheaper than national brands. Large corporations pay stores extra money to put their items at eye level on the grocery store shelves. Store-brands are usually above or below eye level. Stoop, stretch and bend for your bargains. Gigantic food corporations are not loyal to you, and you do not owe them your loyalty either. If you have a favorite company who is corporately and environmentally responsible, pays it’s workers fair wages, produces the best product in the industry, and only costs twice as much as it’s store-brand knock off, you may be tempted to purchase it. If your social conscious is that much stronger than the balance of your check book, then go ahead and indulge in the expensive luxury of purchasing your ethics. If you’re on a tight budget, make this the exception, not the rule.
It’s terribly humbling to realize that I am one of those people on fixed incomes who cannot afford to buy whatever I like at the supermarket. I imagine for people who are accustomed to buying whatever they like, suddenly having to make the hard choices at the supermarket is even more challenging. I had a friend several years ago who told me she always bought whatever she liked at the supermarket because she refused to compromise on what she fed her family. She used a credit card, every single week, to buy her groceries. She and her husband were over $40,000 in debt, but they ate very well.
I live in a different world. I compromise during each and every trip to the grocery store. I buy lower quality meats, dried beans instead of canned, frozen vegetables instead of fresh, and common fresh fruits and vegetables, such as apples, bananas, cabbage and carrots instead of organic trendy produce. All of our baked goods are homemade because there is no way on God’s green earth that I can afford prepared gluten free baked goods. It’s not exotic. It’s not fashionable. It is a lot of work. I do it because I have an obligation to my family to be responsible with the resources they entrust into my care. I do it because I am a Christian woman and it’s the right thing to do. I do it because I believe it is what the virtuous woman from Proverbs 31 would do.
One of the hardest issues for me personally is the matter of margarine. I’ve written about margarine extensively over the years. It continues to be a fulcrum for my personal struggle with quantity verses quality. My favorite margarine is trans fat free, dairy-free and tastes delicious. It’s also nearly $4 for a single pound. The cheap, dairy-free margarine I have been buying does contain evil trans fat. It also costs a single dollar per pound, and tastes pretty good too. I know that I shouldn’t eat trans fat. I know it’s bad for my cholesterol. I know it’s not good for me or my family. Yet I continue to buy it because it saves me $6 a week. That $6 buys a lot of apples or frozen broccoli, as well as 3-pounds of chicken breasts. I regret that finances force me to make these types of uncomfortable decisions. I regret that I cannot afford all of the cherries I want eat.
Still, I am thankful that I am able to afford as much food as I can. I am thankful that my family is so well fed. I write this article, not so that people will pity me for my circumstances. I write it to bring attention to the uncomfortable choices everyone on a budget is forced to make, every single day. This is simply one of the many things we become accustomed to. We learn to do it without thinking. Those of us who are new to living on a budget will be surprised at how challenging it is to learn this skill. Our pride gets in the way. I’ve been eating on a budget for decades and my pride still gets in the way some days. I believe this is false pride. It’s better, I think, to take pride in a job well done. Better, indeed, to be grateful that my creator has given me both the means and skills to meet my family’s nutritional needs through careful planning and effort.
My family doesn’t go without. We are not victims of our circumstances. We make the best choices we can, with the resources available to us. People in other countries and from other cultures, do this type of thing as a matter of course. There is no sense of entitlement, that somehow we are deserving of all of the high-end goods available in the American market, simply because they are available. I’ve had to remind myself of this concept more than once. I have at times, had to dig deep to find the gratitude that I am able to afford as much food, and comparatively, as good quality food as I can. With too many food and nutrition websites, as well as cookbooks and health publications, this idea that some of us must live within our means, is an alien concept. The idea that I cannot afford fresh organic produce, or grass-fed, free-range meats is like trying to communicate in a foreign language.
The truth is that I spend as much on food as we can afford to. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford almost $150 a week. Many families of four are spending two-thirds to half as much. I spend more because my family does have special dietary needs. It is challenging to meet these needs on a budget. I do have to compromise quality in order to provide enough quantity to keep everyone well fed. Even with all the compromises I have to make, even with the “lower” quality foods we eat day in and day out, we are still able to eat better, and more nutritiously, than much of the earth’s population. We never go hungry, except by choice, and we meet everyone’s special dietary needs without going into debt. In America today, that alone is an accomplishment worth crowing about.
As a final note, I want to point out that anything you’ve prepared yourself–that is good, old-fashioned, home cooking–is far higher quality than any prepared or processed item you can buy at the supermarket. It’s better quality that most restaurant food too. When you’re weighing quality verses quantity, it’s important to understand that homemade food is far superior to anything you can buy. Even if it’s made with lower-quality meats, produce, and in my case, margarine, you will still take more care and produce better tasting results. At home we can control the sodium, sugar, fat, cholesterol, fiber and nutritional content of everything we serve our families. This allows us to provide both quality and quantity at a price we can afford.
UPDATE: Not 2-weeks after writing this I found cherries on sale for $1.99/lb. I bought 7-pounds and we ate them until we were sick of them. It was wonderful. Three weeks later peaches were $1/lb and remained at that price for several weeks. All told, we probably ate 40-pounds, maybe more. In addition, I found a great compromise for dairy-free margarine. Smart Balance is now making their regular version of margarine completely dairy-free. It’s transfat free, costs less than Earth Balance (made by the same company), and tastes very good. It performs flawlessly in baking and in boiled candies. I buy it at Sam’s Club and it’s very affordable–about $2/lb. I’ve noticed that often when I write about something here, in my blog, that God will work his will in that same area, and whatever I was struggling with, seems to effortlessly be solved. Thank-you God, for solving my problems before I even ask. Amen.