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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Frugality (Part I): Make It At Home

What do you think when you hear the word Frugal? Some people think cheap and chintzy, some think skinflint and tightwad, some think miserly and spartan. I don't think it has to be any of those things. We are frugal because it is a wise use of our time and money, allows me to be home with our children and for us to afford things that we otherwise wouldn't be able to if we didn't keep track of our money. Frugality does not mean poverty, scarcity, deficiency or poor quality. It does sometimes mean delayed gratification.

We have such an abundance of good things that we have to work hard to store, clean, protect and keep track of them. Just this week, I have given away about five large sacks of things we didn't need, and our children are going through their toys and coats to give away extras and pare down what they have. People frequently ask us how we can afford to have six children. They have bought into the common myth of our culture that families cannot afford to live on one income and that children are too expensive. We are able to do it on one rather average income in a rather above average income area because of how we budget and plan. It does require forethought and work. This whole economy downturn has everyone tightening their belts, people are starting to think about living as we've always lived. This is how we live regardless of how the economy is doing, and it has served our family well, perhaps it can help your family, too.

I had no fewer than four different people independently ask me how we stored our bulk foods in one week, they wanted to know how to stock up and be prepared for economic collapse, natural disaster, whatever might come their way. So I thought I'd pass on a few tips on maintaining a budget in good times and bad. Those of you with larger families or who have dedicated yourselves to having a parent at home are probably already doing a lot of this, but maybe you'll get a few ideas or be able to pass on things I haven't thought about or mentioned yet. In order to keep from overwhelming people, I will write this as a series.

We are a family of eight. One of us is an infant who nurses exclusively, one is an adult male and three of our children eat at least as much as I do. We also buy feed for 33 chickens and 4 ducks. Our grocery budget for our whole family, including paper products, toiletries and cleaning supplies, is roughly $700 just checked our records, it's more like $600 a month ($700 is more around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter). That is about $175 $150 a week, which is up from our $125 a week that we used to spend about a year and a half ago. Our poultry feed is also included in this amount. If we took out the paper, toiletries and cleaning supplies, we'd probably pay about $125 a week.

We buy about 70% of our food from within a 100 mile radius of our home. You can make that at least 85% if you expand that area to include the region in which we live. We buy organic, raw milk, locally raised pastured meat and as much organic produce as we can afford. So, how do we do it? This week I will tell you one of the things that helps us save money: making it ourselves.

For most people, groceries, gas, clothing and entertainment are the only variables in their budget. For the sake of my discussion here, I will include paper products, toiletries and cleaning supplies with your groceries, eating out, books, music and movies in entertainment, along with vacations and dates. Your house payment or rent is the same each month, ditto for your electricity/heating, water and trash, insurance, etc. You cannot cut them that much. So, the first place to look is your groceries and dinner table. We will look at how and where you shop for groceries later.

One thing I'd like to say up front is that I think going without milk is a false economy. Milk provides water, fat, calcium, protein and other nutrients. Even at the $6 a gallon we pay for raw, organic, pasture raised milk (we can afford this because of how we cook and cuts costs elsewhere), this works out to about $0.75 a pound. We get four gallons a week. If you're buying the standard $4 a gallon milk, this is now about $0.50 a pound. That's not a bad investment for keeping your children hydrated (my children drink more liquid when they drink milk) at the same time as providing fat, calcium and protein that they need. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it also fills them up, while giving nutrition, at a much cheaper price than most foods. The rule in our house is that the children can drink as much milk as they want with their meal, but their last glass has to be water. This ensures that they get water with every meal, as well as clearing their throat of the milk film before they get up from the table. Of course, they are able and encouraged to drink water any time at all. Back to making things from scratch.

How many things do you buy that are ready made? How many of those things could you make from scratch? With a few exceptions, making something from scratch saves you money. It does cost you in time, but there are ways to minimize that. For instance, many things take basically the same amount of time regardless of how much is made. So, make the most you can store and you have maximized the time you have spent on that task. If you use helper appliances like a slow cooker or a bread machine, your input is minimal, and the machine basically works for you, while you do other things. The bonus is that you can make food that is more healthful, has fewer preservatives, fewer additives and is made to the tastes/needs of your family. Immediately, you are now shopping in the outer sections of the grocery store, produce, dairy, meats, bulk foods. Ingredients. Generally speaking, this will save you money right off the bat.

That cream of whatever soup? Make a bechamel sauce, remember the ratio of 1 tablespoon of fat (butter/oil/lard) and 1 tablespoon of flour to 1 cup cream/milk (you can reduce this amount if you split it with broth), and add any seasonings or flavorings you like. Pancake mix? Flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, eggs, fat, milk. Even better, take the recipe you like and mix up the dry ingredients in an airtight container, and scoop into it each time you want to make pancakes, only adding the eggs, fat and milk. Taco seasoning/spice mix/herb blend? Stock up on herbs and spices and mix them as you like, or make your own pre-made mixes. There are tons of recipes online for things like this. I am a big fan of used bread machines and making your own bread at home.

If you need step by step instructions for anything like this, or have recipe questions, please feel free to comment or e-mail me to ask, and I will post separately as soon as possible In fact, I think I'd like the challenge, tell me what kind of instant foods do you normally buy and I'll see if I can come up with a from scratch way that tastes good and costs less. You will be buying ingredients instead of meals, you will be closer to the whole grains and foods that everyone recommends, and your bill will be lower.

Of course, this means a little more time planning, too. Some of you may read my menu plans, or some of the many posted over at I'm an Organizing Junkie. These are a great way to stick to a budget, make sure you have a plan for the vegetables and meats you pick up at the grocery store, and keep yourself from picking up a pizza, fast food, getting frozen dinners or boxed meals. One quick look at it and you know what needs to be prepared ahead, what needs to be started early or thawed out or whatever. One way to cut down on time is to do something that is time consuming in a larger quantity and store the excess. Need to cook beans? Cook three times as much as you need and freeze the rest. Make your oatmeal, grits, cream of wheat or farina in the crockpot over night, so it is ready to serve in the morning. Faster and cheaper than boxed cereals and healthier for you. When you hard cook eggs, make twice as much and you'll have enough for lunches, the next day's breakfast or deviled eggs. How about that lasagne or chili your family likes? What about those enchiladas? Make a double or triple batch, and freeze the rest. You'll have a healthy, inexpensive, ready to heat frozen dinner for those nights when you are wiped out, or if someone you know has a baby, or is just home from the hospital. I do invest in those oven safe plastic pans and foil pans for this purpose and wash and re-use them.

We make our own bread, preserves, jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, cookies, cakes, pies, desserts, muffins, biscuits, scones, granola, mayonaisse and yogurt. We've taken it a step further and keep poultry and bees and raise a part of the food we eat. Our chickens and ducks turn kitchen waste into eggs. It's the best recycling system we have going here.

Food is not the only place to look if you want to make it yourself. We make our own laundry detergent, fabric softener, glass and all purpose cleaner and bleach spray (1 1/2 teaspoons bleach to 2 3/4 cups or 22 oz water).

If you need some frugal meal ideas please see these other posts of mine:

Frugal Main Dishes
Lentil Soup
Hamburger Stew
Frugal Side Dishes & Dessert

Over this series, I will focus largely on groceries, food, gas and entertainment. There are many other areas in which to be frugal, but these are the easiest to begin with and still feel comfortable. If this is new to you, please start small, get used to the habit and move on from there. I hope this post has been helpful to you, my next post on this subject will deal with shopping wisely.

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This is very good sound advice! I also found a lot of money saving budget tips here: 20 ways to cut expenses
I am so excited to read all that you write in this 'series'. I have already taken and used some of your ideas, although not as much as I would like. I have recently become a couponer to save some money. I get 1 or 2 papers on Sunday and occasionally I pick up a couple inserts when I drop off the recycle. I am on a few message boards that show many ways to save with coupons. I have stockpiled shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap so far. I have been able to get this for free or close to it. I am always looking for new ideas and I check here usually 2x per day. Thanks.
I hadn't thought of milk's cost-per-pound before - good point!
That is a fantastic post, thank you.

I'm s-l-o-w-l-y working us this way. We'll get there in time; this is close to how I grew up with my mom, but very different from the way Robb grew up (which is funny, because they SHOULD have been eating this way, but were just that bit farther form the farm).

Baby steps. :)
I'll be looking forward to seeing more of your series too. We are slowly moving that direction as well. We're in a huge distraction right now because of the whole building a house thing, but even in that I still cook from scratch, use dried beans, etc. I've just had to cut way back on the organic stuff because I don't have time to grow much and I don't have the same resources to buy all that as I used to before we moved.

We're currently spending about $350-400/mo to feed 3-4 adults (one adult is up here only part-time) and 2 children. The additional categories you have would probably add another $15-20 or so per month. I'm not sure I could do much better than this. I hope to have a little more to spend sometime in the not so distant future so that we can get better meat. Right now I just get stuff on sale at Safeway, but we only eat meat 1-2 times a week so at least our exposure is low.

Once we're in the house, we're planning on keeping chickens, milk goats (we have a lot of lactose problems in our house, so drinking cow milk isn't an option for any of us), and bees to try and bring more of our food production closer to home.
I really enjoyed the blog and am looking forward to the res of the posts to see how it compares with what we do. Since we are the ultimate urban dwellers in an apt. 3 stories up, animals are out of the question for now. However, we are hoping to do some gardening on our deck by making a greenhouse out of half the space and just using planters. I am trying a composting experiment with a rubbermaid style bin and a garbage bag, but I noticed fruit flies so I may have to re-think that. The laundry soap idea is interesting, but we can buy in bulk pretty cheaply. Here we can buy approx. 12lbs of soap for aprox. $14.00 and it will last around 6months. So I don't think I could do much better, but it looks fun to try. I do like the logic in the milk which I had not thought of. We can get organic milk here, but I have to look into it. When we were in Jerusalem it was no problem to get, but since we have moved I just got a notice about someone supplying it so will have to see what it costs. Most organic products here are near double the cost so we are picking a choosing at this point. In some cases that includes picking and choosing the battle of who will eat what too.....Whole wheat is not popular here for some members of our household......Thanks for the tips look forward to more.
I feel better after reading this -- I spend, for our family of 7 {8, but one is away} between $800 - $900/mo and I KNOW there are MANY places that I could, but choose not to, cut back {ie, I buy pudding cups and individually packed snacks for Darren's lunch,
I buy HE laundry detergent,mostly name brand household cleaners, high end dog and cat foods,} so I guess I'm still doing pretty darned well!!
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