Let me begin my saying that my husband and myself are certainly not the target participant for this kind of challenge. Both of us being social workers (a profession well known for being grossly overpaid) we regularly strive for a grocery bill of about $75/week. This already requires the cutting open of empty toothpaste tubes when our fingers have become too weak from squeezing out that last little bit, and the careful monitoring of each others tissue and paper towel use so as to not become glutinous and end up dusting with toilet paper by Sunday. This cold war depression era attitude is simply rooted in the tongue lashings we imagine to receive from our future house, babies, and savings account, with every dollar spent. In reality, our thrift is certainly not all out of necessity, as we are blessed to have what we need rather than wanting for it. Upon contemplating this challenge, we both agreed that it would be a good reminder of just how appreciative we are for what we have, and give us another way to understand and appreciate the reality of the challenge so many face without their choosing. And I have to admit, my dear husband and I also thought, “Finally! A socially and professionally appropriate reason to further crush our non-existent spending habits!” With that, we set forth.
First, we sat down to create a meal plan. Already we tend to prepare meals similar in ingredients in order to capitalize on purchases and minimize risk of anything going bad/unused. This absolutely requires, then, a return trip to the store exactly one week later, as our fridge becomes a barren wasteland, colored only by ketchup, soy sauce, and dressings. (Authors note: This is not recommended in the event of a pending zombie apocalypse). We cut out some of the more indulgent recipe’s that float through our rotation in lieu of recipes with shorter ingredient lists and that packed more for the punch (cost value vs. nutrients). Thinking we had it made, we went with a coup de grace of breakfast for dinner, thereby substituting another meal with the cheapest protein out there – the mighty egg.
In all honesty, I thought we were prepared. “I’ll run by the store on Monday, price our list, and give you a call if we are over,” I said matter-of-fact-ly to my husband. It was an excellent plan. List in hand & phone set to calculator, I set off.
Walking in, I was immediately overwhelmed. Green beans were the first on our list – simple enough, right? Well, there’s fresh for $1.99/lb, frozen $.99/16oz, canned $.49/14.5oz, pre-packaged fresh $2.99/12oz – in fact, there are exactly 54 different ways to buy green beans in my grocery store. And of course there isn’t a “green bean aisle,” which means multiple trips around the store pricing and debating my green bean purchase – then wash, rinse, and repeat for every other item on my list. If this wasn’t enough to drive a person to run out of the store screaming, I can’t count the number of times I inadvertently hit “C” on my calculator while tossing an item into the basket, thereby setting be back another 15 minutes re-counting expenses.
An hour and a half later I could be found curled in a tight ball of anxiety, hiding in the bread aisle, crying on the phone to my husband. Ok, I may be exaggerating. But, if we hadn’t been on a food stamp budget this week I definitely would have needed a trip to the neighborhood watering hole.
In reflection, it was not only the shopping that was stressful. Planning meals on a tiny budget was difficult. Is it possible to cut costs elsewhere to allow for purchase of fresh foods? Can we justify the $1.49 increase for whole grain bread? Certainly most organic, natural, or “clean” foods would be out of reach for us – which are most negotiable? Was peanut butter ($3.49) a better investment than milk ($2.75)? These decisions took considerable time and delegation. And heaven forbid we run out of shampoo ($5.99) or detergent ($4.99) that week – we’d need a whole week of breakfast for dinner (secretly sounds awesome – how much for pancakes)?
Most of us are fortunate enough to find grocery shopping stressful because of all those damn people who stop their carts in the middle of the aisle, or the little humans running around screaming for candy (or is that just me?). In doing this project, we learned to further appreciate the luxury of being able to set our own food budge and the flexibility to absorb unusual costs or purchases that arise along the way.
So, next time you go shopping with a big cart and open wallet, pause for a moment in that stress and feel thankful for your good fortune that today you are able to afford those items in your cart…and that you don’t have to thoroughly investigate 54 types of green beans just to make one casserole.
Learn more about the Food Stamp Challenge Here.