One of the biggest pleasures and challenges of the 90’s for me had nothing to do with the Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, The Cranberries, or the Clinton Whitehouse but with feeding a family of six, then seven, followed by eight, and you guessed it, nine people on a budget of about $250 a month, and keeping them in the dark where nutrition and flavor were concerned as to the strict limits of that budget.I followed common advice such as:
DO . . .
. . . buy in bulk when it’s cheaper (50 to 100 lbs. of potatoes when the new crop comes in, 50 lb. oats instead of 42 oz., 50 lbs of flour or wheat berries instead of 5 lbs., 2 lbs of baking powder instead of ten oz., 1 lb of yeast instead of those little bitty packages, 1 lb. of pectin instead of those L.B.P., etc.)
. . . compare prices by the unit; ounce, lb, etc.; sometimes smaller is actually cheaper by the unit
. . . buy in quantity on sale — I had set a price of $1.09 lb. for meat as the most I would pay (Remember it was the 90’s. Now my budget is higher and my meat price limit is $2.00 lb.), and I wouldn’t buy hot dogs or cheap lunch meat. When it — chicken usually — was on sale for my price, I would buy up to 20 lbs. If cheese was on sale, I would buy ten lbs or more. If eggs were cheap (even when I had chickens) I would buy dozens and freeze them in quantities for baking favorite recipes or in quantities for scrambling.
Stocking up creates some good family memories. Earlier this year Wal-mart had a sale on butter, 2 lb. for $4. I bought 80 lbs during the month of the sale. Yes, that is a lot of butter. Each time we went my kids would groan and say, “More butter, Mother?” (That’s what they call me when I am in trouble.) But it was groaned with a grin, because that butter signified good things to come!
. . . store what you buy appropriately — I had plenty of storage including an unheated back bathroom with large crank-out windows with no storm inserts in our uninsulated concrete block house. SHIVER ME TIMBERS! Pretty freaking cold for showering in the late fall through early spring, but, it was great for storing bushels of apples and huge bags of potatoes! I learned to pressure can and water bath foods as needed, and/or to dehydrate and properly freeze WHATEVER we had in excess.
. . . use coupons if they will actually save you money — coupons didn’t work well for me because of our low budget and alternative methods of filling the pantry but sometimes they helped.
DON’T . . .
. . . buy what you can’t store well — if it goes bad, that just stinks, maybe literally
. . . buy what you will not use — I have done this on a bad impulse. It’s really dumb.
. . . use coupons if the store brand is still cheaper or if you don’t really have a reason other than the coupon for the purchase (see above!)In the 90’s our small town of 2,000 had two small grocery stores, each offering double coupons one day a week. I took advantage of their sales and double-coupon offers, but I had to come up with some options custom-tailored to the growing Miller family.
Because I have long believed I should have been born about 40 years earlier than 1958 (Just so you don’t bother with the math, I’m 57) when “times were simpler” — and, because times are never really "simple", by that I mean I should have been born on a small farm with a mama who homemade everything and a daddy who plowed fields with oxen or draft horses and education took place in a one-room schoolhouse and we sat on the porch of an evening drinking lemonade and playing checkers and we always had sheets waving about on a clothes line and we gathered eggs and apples from our hens and orchards — these “old-fashioned” methods came easily to me as I would . . .
. . . Grow the biggest garden possible in our very small yard; green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and onions, lettuce, spinach always, as well as basils, dill, sage and thyme.
. . . Find the wild sources of food, which for us include venison, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, persimmons, grapes, and morels
. . . Chase down the owners of those unpicked pear and apple trees and ask if I could pick and pay for fruit. This included advertising for them on a local free radio program.
. . . Get chickens for eggs
. . . Get dairy goats for milk — which ended up being too restrictive for us as we had reasons to travel (Daddy dying of cancer two hours away and all that those many months entailed) but Oh. My. Goodness! The milk, cheese, soap and BARTER possibilities!
. . . Let it be known that I will happily use whatever gardeners over-produced. The world over, there are gardeners who plant too much just for the joy of gardening, and are blessed by sharing their produce with others. And when you have a lot of children, people tend to want to share with you anyway. We were gifted with bushels of apples, green beans, pears, cucumbers, peppers, grapes, even gooseberries over the years. I always offered to pay or to give back some jam or sauce or pickle made with what I was given, and sometimes that was accepted, but often nothing was wanted other than the joy of knowing their produce was going to be put to good use.
. . . Make everything possible or practical from scratch — breads are a big deal. Tortillas, biscuits, rolls, pancakes, loaf bread, cookies, muffins, cakes, etc. can all be homemade for pennies. Get in the habit of making them, and they become routine and take less and less time the better you get at them. The purchased ones are so expensive and so full of weirdness. And if you buy the ones that aren’t full of weirdness you have to spend enough that you could make 3 times as much or more from scratch. Also pasta. Homemade pasta costs pennies and makes a regular meal into something family gets excited about!
. . . Find a whole lot of good ways to make inexpensive foods taste good — Yes. Potatoes and beans, rice and corn meal, cabbage and carrots and apples and bananas, etc. (How many times did I and do I buy dark, mushy bananas at $.19 lb to freeze for smoothies, quick breads, etc. )
. . . Shop Ike and Cora Godsey’s store. Remember the Walton’s? I love the Godsey’s store and find the local (50 mile radius) Mennonite and Amish stores have that same simple food and family feel. They are a great source for cheaper bulk dry goods (grains, beans, spices, cereals, baking supplies) and things like lye, good cookware, healing herbs and oils, molasses and honey by the quart, fresh produce by the bushel, nuts, dried fruits, etc. Believe it or not, back in the 90’s 50 lbs. of oatmeal could be had in the fall for $8 to $12. Now it’s around $20.
One of the oddest and most fun ways of stretching our food budget was (and is) salvage store shopping. People buy truckloads of salvage grocery items, often sight-unseen, and sell them in small, usually over-stuffed stores. We frequented one in a town 35 miles away that also boasted an Aldi, and were able to find special sauces, vinegars, cooking wines, oils, and normal stuff like canned fruits and veggies extremely cheaply. You have to check for expiration dates and good seals on canned goods. You even have to check for moths in the pasta! It’s quite the adventure, but when you find a jar of honey for $1 or special wines, vinegars and sauces for $.79 a bottle, you GO! We could often buy a case (24 cans) of pineapple or 29 oz tomatoes for around $.50 a can, so while we were very low budget, we could still afford some treats!To this day I can’t pass up a salvage store, and though our budget is looser and there are only five at home now, Smoked Gouda at $2.50 lb or Provelone at $2.00 lb still makes my little heart sing.
Last year we discovered one 45 miles away that one special weekend sells new crop fresh apples; fuji, gala, jonathans, etc. for $.28 lb. This year wee bought about 70 lbs, canned a lot of sauce and apple butter, and ate fresh apples for weeks. Sweet and ripe! The apples, I mean.The Thrill Of The Hunt kept me searching for inexpensive sources (Still does, and I find that toilet paper is very cheap purchased online if you have the right account and free shipping, but I have not purchased it that way yet. All in good time . . .) and I discovered ethnic grocery stores can provide cool stuff at great prices. Sesame seeds, sesame oil, dried shitakes, Kikkoman soy sauce, jasmine rice are all cheaper in the Asian grocers 80 miles away, so when we visited Springfield, Mo., we picked up that stuff. Kikkoman by the gallon is now $15. I frankly don’t remember what it was in the 90’s, but $8 seems right.
If there is a take away or three from this, one might be that although there are some basic dos and don’ts that generally work for everyone, you need to customize your plan for your location and family. Obviously, if you live in the city, and especially in an apartment, “farm” animals won’t work for you. And you may not have even a south facing window for ornamental peppers much less a tomato plant or two. You may need to come up with a barter system or something entirely different than anything I’ve mentioned! If there are only two to provide for, you are unlikely to want to buy 50 lbs of oats, but maybe you could co-op such things with friends.
Also, obviously you have to put effort into saving money — searching out sources, putting your own two hands to work, putting the word out that you are willing to work for produce, keeping your eyes open for dented can specials or sales on things nearing or just past the sell by date, being prepared with storage ideas and containers for the unexpected find.Keep your eyes peeled and think outside the box! “The Box” is too small to meet the challenge of the seriously restricted grocery budget anyway.