I see a lot of comments about budgeting: how can I eat Paleo for less? How can I afford grass-fed meat? I used to think I had some good tips, but now I am not so sure…..
When I go to the butcher every week, I spend €50 or more. Top that with the €50 -100 spent on fruit and veg and perhaps another €50-€60 for standard dry store foodstuffs/cleaning products/baby nappies at the supermarket and we’re probably looking at a good €200 a week. I think we budget fairly well, but talking to a close friend of mine, who budgets £200 (about €240) a month for food with only an extra £15-20 a week for fresh fruit and veg, it got me thinking. Is it really possible for me to apply my budgeting tips to somebody else’s life, realistically?
My own life is also an example in point….
In 2008, I was a full-time Probation Officer, earning just over £28,000 a year and living in hideous debt. I had absolutely no clue why or how I was in the red every month. I did spreadsheets, lists, made plans and even gave myself a weekly cash allowance. Nothing worked. I had literally gone from living on benefits as a single mum for three years, to earning 4 times as much, but I was still skint. I had started to earn a grown up wage, yet I could not fathom how to budget. I stayed like this until I gave up my job in 2011.
Whilst my spending power hadn’t always been enormous, my terrible spending habits had. For years, I suffered terribly with depression. I would spend money like it was endless and a diagnosis of bipolar in 2009 allowed me to label my spending as “out of my control”. The truth was it was just “out of control”. I would shop smartly, spending hours scouring catalogue sales online, buying all my Christmas cards in the January sales and buying key pieces of clothing that I would wear for years. However, this was coupled with days of frivolity, drinks out with friends; weeks of depression, which I desperately tried to alleviate with purchases here and there; hundreds of pounds spent on my daughter for her birthday and Christmas, trying to compensate for the fact that I was too depressed to get off my backside and entertain her for free. This and my self-righteous sense of entitlement to the newest mobile phone on the market every year, Sky TV and well, anything that anyone else had, left me thousands of pounds in the red.
Fast forward to February 2011. I had married Mr B, I was 4 months pregnant and I had handed my notice in at work. I was no longer financially independent. I could no longer justify buying that new little gadget or another lip-gloss. There was no spending in the sales, in case there was a bargain I would never ever see again. No. I was in freaking bizarre territory and there was no fighting it. My lovely husband was now supporting us as a family. No longer Miss Independent, I was going to have to consult with another person and be made accountable about every single purchase I made. For the first time since I started earning money aged 15, I actually had to stop and think before I flexed the plastic. Did I need it or did I just want it? Could it wait until tomorrow? Until next week? Until next payday? Would I manage without it? Would Mr B consider spending the equivalent on himself? WWJD( What would Jesus do)? Ok, maybe not WWJD.
When I met Mr B, it seemed like he spent a fortune on food. Good, wholesome food, which he would spend hours cooking. I winced as he placed organic produce into the shopping basket, up to three or four times the price I would’ve paid for my usual groceries. Before we got together, I had scrimped and bought frozen, processed food for years. Living on pasta and beans was the norm. I refused to buy battery farmed chicken and was reluctant to buy cheap meat. As such, my diet was largely vegetarian, but not healthy vegetarian. I mean meat substitute, Quorn, noodles, canned baked beans, canned tomatoes – anything in a tin really. I “didn’t have time” to cut vegetables and certainly didn’t have the motivation.
Looking back now, I think I understand where I was going wrong. I’m not sure that back then, as a depressed, single mum, that I was ever in any hope of changing it though. So what has changed? I have a supportive husband, whose catch phrase is “next payday” and who is super motivated to save money. I have an autoimmune disease, which is massively helped by eating “clean”. I have re-educated myself on what a healthy diet is and am at my slimmest ever weight since I was a teen. I live across the road from a greengrocer and a butcher, where most produce is locally sourced.
We are also fortunate to be living under a Socialist Government, where medical is free. All my HS treatments and prescriptions are free – is it even possible to put a figure on how much we save on medical?? It used to cost us $1000 per month for health insurance, reimbursed at 80% in Louisiana. Here it is less than €70 per month and reimbursed at 100% in most cases (dental and optical, too) We are healthily reimbursed for childcare costs incurred by us both working. Mr B also gets “cheques restaurant”, cheques provided by his work which give us an extra 100 euro a month to spend on food in supermarkets or the butchers. We are building a new house here in France, helped financially by Government subsidised loans and building initiatives. If I don’t get my haircut more than twice this year, I’ll be able to buy a fig tree when we finally move in.
We cut costs in so many places…. We are living in a two-bed 75 m2 flat (807 square feet), whilst we save for the build. The kitchen was not equipped and as we are also saving to buy a kitchen, we cook on a two-hob Campingaz stove, attached to a gas bottle on our kitchen side. We rarely buy clothes for ourselves and when we do, they’re in the sales. The kids get a minimal amount of presents (from us) for Christmas and birthdays. Instead they have loads of time with us, out for walks in the countryside, at the seaside, swimming in the lake, cooking, playing games and watching movies at home. We very rarely eat out and most takeouts are replaced by a trusty tin of ‘confit de canard’ (just local duck and duck fat), ready to eat in under 20 minutes with minimal effort and maximum flavour. We don’t go to concerts, festivals, or anywhere that costs anything. We were so fortunate to go to so many festivals in the UK for years that we try to just be thankful for that!
Mr B has a basic work phone and I have an old mobile phone with a phone tariff of 2 euro a month (phone calls only). I have no roaming Internet and I don’t really miss it. Who needs the ability to Tweet stuff in the moment anyway – surely it’s better to wait until you are back in the land of Wifi, so you’ve had time to consider whether it should be public? And if I really, really need to Google something up, I’ll remember it when I’m back home.
Our list of cutbacks is endless, but they are cuts that suit us here in France. When I tell my sister that she can save money too, by wearing the same coat she has had for the past 2 years, she wrinkles her nose. When my cousin started Uni, she asked me for ways to save – I told her not to buy coffee or magazines when she was out, but just read stuff on the Net instead and drink at home. She told me that was just “tight”. Perhaps it is. For some people my version of budgeting is just not viable. Is it even possible to compare myself to two other people living completely different lives to my own? I can’t even imagine taking my own advice I if I lived back home in the UK. Style would hold more importance for me, as I would be socialising more with friends and would be likely to bump into people I knew. I would use my phone more, so an old phone with limited calling credit would be out of the question. I would be tempted by the constant sales (they are only on twice a year in France) and Red Hot Chilli Peppers playing at the Isle of Wight Festival?? That’s 300 quid gone straight away!
So when I hear people ask if there are any tips for spending less on good food, I am afraid that my answers may not be relevant. Sure, shopping around is best, using everything you have in the fridge to make leftovers, being creative, filling up on vegetables and many other tips are all out there on the Net. Google them up. However, as a family who spend 800 Euro a month on food, who has limited fashion sense and a bird's nest of hair, I may not be best placed to give you any advice.
All I know is, if I can’t Tweet a selfie of me and my besties drinking Mojitos with the Chilli’s playing in the background, I have just got to be grateful for the good food in my belly and the dream kitchen I’ll be cooking in next year!