Friday, May 31, 2013

May Grocery Challenge Recap and Thoughts

Alright folks. The end of May has arrived and so has the end of my $21 grocery challenge where I tried to see if I could make it an entire month spending no more than $21 on groceries - and the tally is in...

I spent a grand total of $19.71 on food this month. Woo Hoo! 

Now, I had several reasons for undertaking this $21 challenge. First of all, I really needed to eat through some of the food that I had in my pantry and freezer, and this seemed like a good way to get myself to do that.

I also saw it as a part of my larger long term food stamp (SNAP) challenge where I'm trying to see if I can eat healthy and well on a budget of $137/month (which is the average SNAP benefit in my state.) Soooo if you average together the amounts I've spent on food since I started (March: $197 April: $141.65 and May: $19.71) it comes out to an average of $119.45/month, which is well beneath the SNAP level.

I'm still not convinced that it's a fair average though, since I did eat a lot of food purchased before I began the challenge, so I think I'm gonna have to keep going for at least a few more months in order to get a fair average.

Anyhow, recent discussions in the comment section have made me realize that I never really did a good job of explaining why I'm undertaking these challenges in the first place. Guess I have a tendency to jump into the middle of things and then work my way backwards.

So, without further ado...

Part of the reason I wanted to do all this is because I really want to explore the issue of poverty on a more personal level.

I live in one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods. To put that into perspective, at the elementary school a few blocks from my home, 94% of the students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program (84% free, 10% reduced). For those of you not familiar with the program, students who live at 130% of the federal poverty level or below qualify for free lunch, and students who live between 130 and 185% of the federal poverty level qualify for reduced lunch. Yup... this is where da poor folk live!

I often think that I know what it's like to live in poverty since I have spent a great deal of my life living very near (and sometimes below) the poverty level. But in reality, my poverty is totally voluntary. I have a degree from a prestigious university, I've got tons of marketable skills, I've got money in the bank from the years when I did make good money, and I have a family that's always trying to give me more.

I could quite easily go out and get a well paying job if I so desired, I just decided long ago that I didn't want that life, so I chose to trade money for freedom.

And even though the judgement of other people's food choices annoys me to no end, I'm not totally immune from it. I watch my neighbors fill their grocery carts with ramen noodles, soda, frozen pizza and bottled water and shake my head in dismay. I often find myself thinking things like "Gee... I don't spend much on food and I eat a very healthy diet full of fruits and veggies - if those people just made better choices..."

But the truth of the matter was that I didn't really know how much I spent on food in the first place, and I certainly don't know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck where the food budget is not just an arbitrary goal or number, but a fixed reality of how much money you have to spend on food - period.

I guess I figured that perhaps I ought to try walking a day (or a few months) in their shoes and see how it really feels to try to feed myself on such a small amount of money.

So that's part of my reason for undertaking all of these challenges, the other reasons are a bit more personal.

The past few years have been quite lean money-wise. This isn't really a problem because I'm a saver and I figure that it all evens out in the long run. I've been working on making more money, and all was going really well, but circumstances beyond my control took over earlier this year, and it was looking like I was gonna have another really bad year, and would be lucky to make $8-$10K, so I was starting to worry about drawing down my savings too much.

As it turns out, it hasn't actually been that bad, but the whole experience made me feel like I really ought to do a better job of watching my budget, especially where groceries are concerned.

I've also noticed over recent years that I've got some, ahem, "hoarding tendencies" when it comes to food. I think I tend to react to uncertainty by surrounding myself with things that make me feel safe, and a full pantry and freezer seem to be part of that.

But when I did a pantry clean about a year ago and had to toss out a remarkable amount of food that had gone bad, I decided that perhaps my system (or lack thereof) wasn't really serving me very well. Anyhow, I decided that I needed to get a better handle on how much food I really need to be buying/stockpiling!

All in all, I have to say that these grocery challenges have been quite eye opening.

I have much more to say on the issue of food and poverty, and I'll probably devote another post entirely to that topic, but for the moment I'll start by saying that when your money and transportation are limited, so are your food choices.

The other thing that's been a big eye opener is how tremendous your savings can be if you're willing to stick mostly to the loss leaders. For those of you not up on retail jargon, a "loss leader" is an item that a store sells at a deep discount, usually at a loss, in order to lure or lead customers into their establishment where they will hopefully spend more money on other full price items - hence the name loss leader.

Anyhow, pretty much all of the amazing prices that I've quoted over the past few months have been loss leaders. So when you ask yourself how the store can possibly make any money selling xyz things so cheap, the answer is: they can't. I'm basically taking advantage of the store's marketing strategy by going to different stores and purchasing only the loss leaders at each one.

This strategy only works, however, if you're willing/able to frequent a bunch of different stores and have the personal discipline to buy only the items that are on sale. It requires a great deal of flexibility with both shopping schedules and menu planning. So it's a great way to save on food, but it's not without its drawbacks.

OK... and the final eye opening bit is that I HAVE A TON OF FOOD! OK, that may strike some of you who read my food stock post as a line straight out of Captain Obvious, but I have to say that I'm amazed at how much I still have left even after living pretty much entirely off of my food stores for the past month.

Sooooo, while I'm not up for another month of rationing fruit and fresh veggies, I do think that I'll probably try to keep eating primarily from the pantry and freezer for the next month, and limit my purchases as much as possible to fresh produce and dairy.

And that brings me to my goals for June. Y'all got me thinking about "food issues" so I think that I'll try to focus this month on exploring some of the "better" food choices out there. While the choices in my immediate neighborhood are quite limited, there are other options like Farmer's Markets that I haven't really given as much consideration as I probably should.

I'm not saying that I'm gonna stick to purely organic or local foods this month, because that could be cost prohibitive, but I'm certainly gonna focus on exploring what's out there and seeing if there are ways to do it on a tight budget.

OK, so there you have it! I'm not sure how long I'm gonna keep up these little challenges, but for the moment I'm still finding them to be fun, challenging and eye-opening (as opposed to an oppressive pain in the rear) so I think I'll stick with it for at least a bit longer.

So how about you? Anybody have any great ideas for me about other ways to explore different food shopping options?


  1. I expect that if a family is living in poverty, buying pop and chips instead of milk and granola is not only cheaper, but has some entertainment value for all of the endless time spent at home. I'm not condoning it, but I understand it.

    Wouldn't it be fun to use up everything you have and then decide how/if you will re-stock?

    1. Excellent point about the pop & chips. Plus, I don't know the circumstances... it could be that they have a child who's having a birthday party or something like that. I just can't help but think of the fellow who lives across the alley... he's a total redneck, but a really nice guy. However, he lives on amazingly bad food, and lost part of a foot to diabetes last year. I guess more than anything it makes me sad.

      Anyhow, it would be great fun to "start over" in terms of stocking the pantry. At the rate I'm going though, it could be next year before I get there!

  2. Your food experiment is really amazing, and the many ways you've been able to save money are truly inspiring. Your suggestion to buy just the loss leaders at stores is a genius idea! It's great that you're an avid gardener, too. As far as ideas, do you grow and dry your own beans? That's one avenue I'm trying this year, since dried beans are such a great staple to keep in the pantry. Good luck and I look forward to hearing more about this journey.

    1. Well, I can't take credit for the loss leader shopping idea, since I stole it from Lili (whose comment appears just below yours.) But it certainly does save big bucks!

      Growing beans to dry... that's one that I've thought about but never actually tried. It always seems like it could be rather space intensive. Actually, I just recently decided to toss some tried beans that I had used to make a draft snake eons ago. The thing had gotten wet numerous times, and was 15 years old, so trying to eat the beans seemed like a bad idea. Anyhow, a bunch of them have started to sprout in the compost bin, so I might just let them grow and see what happens! Can't wait to hear how your experiment turns out!

  3. The difference between you and some of your neighbors is that you have happily chosen your level of income, and you know, absolutely know, that you could change that income in a month's time, if it ever became important to you. So, you don't "buy" happiness with your groceries. You have your happiness already.

    But for some of your neighbors, they feel as if their level of income has been put on them, by circumstances and by an uncaring society at large. Junk food affects the chemicals in our brains in the short term. It does give us that "happy" feeling for a short while. When you feel that life has shortchanged you in some way, you do what you can to get that happy feeling, and junk food is the affordable way to do that, if your income is very low. (Wealthy people who are unhappy buy their happiness too, just with things like boats, vacation homes, designer handbags, flashy cars, etc.)

    When my husband and I were saving aggressively to buy a house, we lived in a rather impoverished neighborhood, for the cheap rent. We knew that we were just there temporarily. As we watched our savings account grow, we felt empowered about our situation. There was an end in sight. Consequently, we rarely felt the need or desire to buy some happiness.

    But some of our neighbors were "stuck" at that low income level, for good. And they knew it. They chose all sorts of things that I'd call bad for a person (and cost a lot of money), like smoking, eating garbage food, getting drunk every weekend. We would think to ourselves, "can't they see that they're just blowing any money they have, and they could build a better life for themselves if they just had a bit of discipline?" But the truth is they were mentally stuck with living at a low income. They bought their happiness in the short-term.

    Not all families living at low income levels seem to exhibit this junk food/poor choices lifestyle. Some families can envision a better future for themselves, or their children. They're the families that dream their kids will go to college. They see something better down the road, obtained by hard work, or short-term sacrifice. But we tend to notice the outrageous shopping carts more than the sensible ones.

    1. That is such a great insight about trying to buy happiness. I think that it's so easy to look at the situation from your own perspective and say "why don't they just do this?" But the truth is, we don't really know what obstacles other people are up against.

      As I was reading this, I kept thinking of this girl named Esther who used to work answering phones at the music school that I ran. She came from a very poor family and was working SOOOO hard to change her situation. She was working full time with us, and part time somewhere else, all while going to school and trying to help support her family.

      Since she was the only person in the family holding down a real job and with a decent credit rating, her mother had talked her into co-signing a loan for a car. The car was her mother's - Esther had to take the bus. But then a year or two later her mother defaulted on the loan and we ended up having to garnish Esther's wages. So here she was, working her rear end off, trying to get a degree, and having her wages garnished to pay for a car that she never even got to drive! It all just made me want to cry. Talk about being "stuck!"

      I often wonder what happened to Esther. I sure hope she made it. Lord knows the cards were stacked against her.

  4. When I was growing up and times were tight, it was not the case for us that "the food budget is not just an arbitrary goal or number, but a fixed reality of how much money you have to spend on food." It wasn't arbitrary, but it wasn't fixed, either. So if a big expense came up, you could take it out of the food budget and eat more cheaply for a while.

    The one time we were on food stamps, we actually had more money for food because that was all you could use it for. My mom was pretty excited that they could afford steak for the grown-ups (we kids didn't like it anyway) once a month! This was in the 1970s--I don't know how the amounts compare these days.

    We didn't eat beans and rice because my dad doesn't like either of those (for the same reason some people don't like mushrooms--the texture). But we did eat a lot of pasta and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We did not get soda (but we did get Kool-Aid, the kind you add your own sugar to). We would get those little bags of chips only very occasionally for a treat. We did get dessert, but it was usually the cheapest cookies (sandwich cookies with one side chocolate and one side vanilla). Plus Mom would make our birthday cakes and our Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. And she also made keylime pies when we lived in Florida and had lime trees in the backyard.

    As my parents have gotten richer, my mom has gotten to doing a lot less of the food prep. She has a favorite pancake mix and she buys frozen biscuits, for example. They also always have Diet Coke and chips available (though they don't eat the chips that much). They still aren't big on produce, though--turns out they're both picky (though my mom's the least picky out of all of us except my sister, so I didn't notice until after I was an adult).


    I've heard that some immigrants buy junk food because they really don't realize which American foods are healthy. We have some groups in my area that educate people on the issue of how to eat well in the US. (Can you imagine that class? "Ignore all these aisles." "But why do they even sell all of this if it's barely even food?" Awkward!)


    As a sociology major, I learned that grocery stores in poor parts of town have higher prices than stores elsewhere. It's not (just?) because the store owners are scum who are grabbing extra profits from a captive populace (who can't afford cars to shop elsewhere), but (also?) because they have higher costs from theft and destruction. I know all stores have to plan for a certain amount of theft, but I don't know how that varies with location.

    1. Hmmm... lots of interesting thoughts here. Your comment about immigrants not knowing which foods are healthy made me think about the issue of pop differently. I think if you come from Mexico (which many of my neighbors do) then in your mind pop might be a safer beverage than water because there are so many waterborne diseases there.

      I'm also sure that if you're working your rear end off (which many low-income folks are) then the idea of coming home and spending hours cooking would be pretty hard to swallow. So both the price and convenience of ready made food would be pretty hard to turn down.

      Your point about the prices being higher in low income neighborhoods is disheartening to say the least. I haven't found that to be true with the discount stores in my area, but they are both discount chains that cater specifically to "food desert" low income areas, so I actually feel pretty good about supporting them even if they don't offer things like organic food. But I think if you're relying on the corner convenience store I could certainly see that being true.

    2. Nope, grocery stores in poor areas have higher prices than grocery stores from the same chain in richer areas if you're looking at the same items. In my (somewhat poor) neighborhood, some of the stores stock much cheaper items. At one store (that is now out of business), I once bought three things, none of which I finished. One was a chocolate cream pie, which had orange die from the chocolate layer staining the whipped cream layer and it tasted disgusting. (I no longer remember the other two things.) On my way out, some lady backed her truck into my car and, when she was giving me her contact information, erased the last number of her phone number (which was correct) and replaced it with another digit. I never returned to that store, both because of the poor quality of the food and because I didn't think much of my fellow customers.

    3. Yikes! I don't think I'd go back either after that experience!

  5. Very interesting ideas about reasons of why people buy what they do at the grocery store. On a less serious note, when you are exploring other ways to save money on food, here's one I read about on Simple Being Mum's blog. Walk to get your food or park far away. If you have to carry your bags of groceries very far, you will definitely buy less than if you were able to drive to the store. You eluded to this in your post.

    1. Ha! That is a truism indeed! I do most of my grocery shopping either on bike or on foot, and the knowledge that you're gonna have to physically haul whatever you buy certainly curbs the urge to splurge!

  6. Very thought-provoking post, Cat! I know a couple of social workers; it has been interesting to hear their perspectives on food pantry items (on what is or is not helpful to give people). They both said that some families may be living in motels or apartments which lack appliances for food prep. If you only have a hot plate and a mini-fridge, you may tend to purchase ready-made food. Also, I have enough disposable income that I am able to stock up when I find a good sale and save money that way, but if you can't afford to stock up, your financial benefit from a sale is minimal.

    On a side note, your cat-on-a-sled looks like my hairy beast! :)

    1. Little ability to prepare or store food... those are interesting thoughts that I also hadn't considered. I think there is just SOOOOO much that we take for granted.

      And if your kitty looks like that last one he/she is a cutie indeed! :-)

    2. Oh noes... my smiley face got split at the end of the line. Here - I'll try again!


    3. Max Cat is gorgeous and a big love. :)

      You know, it was soooooo eye opening to talk with my friends (our church does food baskets at Thanksgiving/Christmas and we were discussing how best to meet the needs) about the logistics of what people have to live with. I think I have no idea how hard it can be. My particular community is middle-class but there are a lot of fringe communities in our area which are at or below the poverty level. It is not unusual for an "ad" to be in our church bulletin requesting mattresses/bed frames because families are sleeping on the floor. We donated a 20-year-old mattress/box springs a few years ago and we were told when we delivered it that it would be gone that evening to a needy family. It was very humbling for us to realize that this crappy mattress we were glad to be rid of would be highly valued by someone (and a good argument to donate used goods instead of throwing them away).

      There is an ecumenical organization in West Michigan which reaches out to families in poverty and I am very impressed with what they do. They encourage families to use food pantries so that any available money they have can go to paying bills/rent. Different churches host classes to help them rise above their circumstances (ours hosts a money management class--there are basic cooking classes, parenting classes, among others). I know there are some donated funds to help with medications/paying bills in selected circumstances. Someday when life slows down for me (retirement years?) I think it would be highly meaningful to volunteer with them.

      I didn't comment on your previous post about food choices largely because somewhere lurking in me are conflicting feelings which I haven't sorted out, and I think largely I am conflicted because of the (admittedly little!) knowledge of I have poverty. Yes, I think we need to be aware of food sourcing and choosing the healthiest foods, but I'm not sure I see this as the "ethical issue of our time" when right in our own country are people who are nutritionally starved (potato chips and soda pop don't do much for our bodies). Like I said, I'm sorting through this in my mind. Our concern about organic/free range/etc. strikes me as concerns of the relatively wealthy (I am NOT being judgmental of those concerns, they are valid!).

    4. I got my first up close and personal look at poverty in grade school when I befriended the new girl at school. She lived just down the street from me, in one of the few apartment complexes in the area. She and I both had paper routes and used to make it more fun by doing them together.

      Anyhow, one day she invited me over to her place... it was a studio apartment where she, her mother and her two younger siblings lived. There wasn't a shred of furniture in the place, just some old blankets piled on the floor. And while my paper route money was all mine to spend on candy bars or whatever I liked, she was using hers to help her mother pay the rent. That put a lot of things into perspective for me!

      And I am totally in sync with your last paragraph. I have such mixed feelings about it all, and have swung wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other many times and over again. I guess when it comes right down to it, there is just no shortage of suffering in this world of ours.

      I know that people tend to grab on to one specific issue that has touched them personally, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think the trouble comes when people assume that everyone who hasn't adopted their specific pet issue is a heartless clod who cares nothing for anyone but themselves. There are many ways to help, and for some people, keeping their own family fed and with a roof over their heads might be the most important contribution they can make.

  7. Congratulations on finishing the challenge :) That's interesting what you say about the loss leaders - I was wondering how people in the US got such low prices on fruit and veg, I guess that's the answer (now if they'd only bring them in here!).

    When we lived in Cincinnati for a year, my mum worked out that we would qualify for free lunches based on my dad's income (I think he was being paid in Australian dollars and back then they were 60 cents to the US dollar).

    However, since we were living on that income by choice, we never looked into applying them. Plus, we didn't really like the food and preferred to take our own lunches.

    I am choosing to live on a low income at the moment and I enjoy it and treat it like a game. However, like you I have savings and I know that this will not be forever. I really think that does make a difference.

    1. What? No loss leaders in Australia? That's a major bummer!

      I totally agree that poverty by choice is a totally different thing than poverty that you're stuck with. I mean, for me, living here in "the barrio" (as I lovingly call it) allows me to own a house cheaply (I'll have the mortgage paid off completely in 6 months... woo hooo!!!) And having low housing costs means that I can afford to support myself through my crazy websites and whatnot without having to have an actual job.

      So I'm basically choosing poverty, but in exchange I get a whole lot of freedom. But if I had to work my fingers to the bone at some horrible minimum wage job just to try to hang onto a spot in this place (which is the situation for many of my neighbors) I'm sure I'd feel much differently about it.

    2. You know, Cat, I don't think of you as living in poverty. A person can be wealthy in spirit, but have relatively few financial assets.

      My own grandmother lived with such flair and elegance, and yet she had a teeny income, and no savings but the equity in her home. As a child, I never, ever thought of my grandmother as poor. But going strictly on her income as an artist, she was well below the poverty line. She had a way of meeting people from all around the world, and spent an entire year traveling the world, staying with her many friends in other countries. I always thought she was rich. And she was, in her spirit.

    3. Lili, your grandmother sounds absolutely amazing! And that's exactly the way I look at it.

      CatMan and I went to hear some friends perform at a concert this afternoon. There were lots of people there from my music school days - many of whom I hadn't seen since I left 7 years ago. Everybody kept asking me what I was "doing" - meaning where was I working etc. I kept struggling to answer the question. I told various people about my websites, but in reality they are such a small slice of my life that I'd be hard pressed to define myself that way. I kept saying... well, I'm gardening, and riding my bike, and taking care of my cats and cooking and having a great time!

      My income may indeed be tiny, but I feel incredibly wealthy in all of the ways that matter!

  8. I think I mentioned on an earlier post when you started this challenge that I have done similar challenges and really enjoyed it. People thought I was crazy to try to feed a family of five on a dollar a day, plus whatever I had in the freezer and pantry for a month. I didn't find it difficult. I have been in the position in the past where we were on food stamps for about a year after my husband was injured (back in 1998). I was shocked at how generous it was. What I got in food stamps that year was WAY more than I normally spent on food. That was a shocker for me, but I had learned how to shop, budget, cook from scratch, etc. Many don't know how to do that and live on expensive processed foods. I think your experiment is an awesome one! I'm getting ready to trade my job in for freedom, I'll be joining you soon!

    1. Well, I have to say that I'll never take fresh produce for granted again!

      I think knowing how to cook (and having the time to do it) is HUGE when it comes to grocery savings!

    2. I know what you mean! One thing I did when I was doing one of my grocery challenges was to purchase these big bags of veggies one of our local farmers markets had. It was veggies that were bruised that they would have had to toss out, but instead they would put a huge assortment of those veggies in big bags and sell them for a dollar. I haven't seen anywhere else that does that,but I thought it was a great idea!

      I found a grocery challenge I did and posted about on an old inactive blog back in 2010. I amazed myself reading it. I definitely can't wait to get back to basics! Here's the link if you want to check it out -

    3. My gosh, you were very thorough in posting about your challenge. And all that menu planning - I fear I'm not very good at planning in general!

      Those huge discount veggie bags sound fabulous! I fear I have sorta struck out in terms of farmer's markets around here. But hopefully I'll have time to explore a few more as the summer wears on.

      The discount veggie bin at the grocery store is such a hit and miss affair. Earlier this week I happened to be at the store and discovered a bunch of red, orange & yellow peppers that hardly looked old at all for 33 cents each! I bought 9 of them! But then yesterday when I looked they had these tiny bunches of brown bananas for a dollar a piece! Seriously, I don't know who priced them because they were like twice the price of the regular good bananas! Perhaps someone needs to be trained as to the exact definition of the word "discount!"


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