On the mundane: Food budgeting

If you look up “Grocery budget” on the internet you will find endless sites and blogs that drone on about meal plans, sales, and coupons in a variety of either utterly boring or irritatingly in-your-face ways. You will also find a variety of sites where blog moms or scam artists (or both?) will claim that they feed their family of six three square healthy meals a day for $50 a month. Looking through all that was profoundly intimidating to me. How could I get my scattered, inattentive, and occasionally lazy brain to stay on task long enough to make that stuff a reality?

The honest answer is that I can’t. It’s not realistic. Like Victoria’s Secret models, the Pinterest craft god(dess)s, and housekeeping bloggers, the $50 a month shoppers have achieved a level of inhuman perfection that simply cannot be achieved by most normal people leading normal lives. (The mental image of all of the above combined into one super human person just accosted me. It was scarier than any Halloween costume I’ve ever seen, I swear.)

I finally made my peace with my inability to achieve perfection several months ago, and subsequently tried a few different not-so-perfect approaches to dropping our food bill.  In the process, I learned some basic truths about food and shopping that hadn’t really made themselves apparent until that point. Some of them are absolutely contrary to what those shopping tip websites have to say, which really surprised me.

  • I don’t care what the “shopping authorities” say- store brand neither tastes the same nor is of the same quality as name brand. When it comes down to it, I would rather spend the extra quarter and get name brand.
  • That said, some name brands ARE better than others…and they are not necessarily the more expensive ones.
  • In terms of produce quality and variety (in the Portland area at least), Fred Meyer > Safeway > Thriftway > Albertson’s > WinCo, and the prices between those stores only vary by a few pennies. I neither know nor care where WalMart falls in that scale because I do not shop there.
  • Fresh meat is cheaper and tastes better than the flash-frozen kind, and it only takes a few seconds to portion it into bags and pop them in the freezer for use later.
  • “Extreme couponing” methods are a mystery to me. How can you “stack” coupons when every coupon I’ve ever seen says “cannot be used in combination with other offers”?
  • On the other hand, the coupons I get at the checkstand at Safeway are remarkably useful- and they are designed to fit in a standard sized wallet.
  • It is unrealistic to expect to eat the same thing for snacks, breakfast, and/or lunch for weeks on end, no matter how much I like it and no matter how cheap it is on sale.  If we switch it up every two weeks or so, however, we go right through it.
  • Similarly, buying food just because it is on sale is silly. If I didn’t eat it before, I won’t eat it now- so why waste the money?
  • Pregnancy causes complications in even the best-laid budgets. My cravings (and revulsions) are painfully abrupt sometimes.
  • The one truly effective method I have found for cutting down on the grocery bill is to make a weekly meal plan and stick to it. Our bill has dropped by $125 a week since I did that, and we’re eating better than we ever have before. No regrets, my friends.

Random musings on groceries are all I’ve got today.  Now it’s back to work with me!

Privilege: I have it. (A confession)

Yesterday, I got a much-needed attitude slap down, and I don’t know if the person giving it to me even realized what she was doing.

I was sitting in my mother’s studio-slash-study (a room in the basement of her house that ironically enough used to be my bedroom). We’d been talking for a couple of hours, and the conversation had spanned from my four year old niece’s latest exploits, to why there are no female street artists, to how I was going to afford to pay for my husband’s therapy bill.

That turned the conversation towards the Affordable Care Act, and I started going off about my monthly bills. I personally was very upset because the Department of Education can’t communicate with the Department of Human Services and see that they’re each saying that because I make X amount of money, I don’t qualify for assistance with their respective payments. However, if I deducted, say, my student loan payments from my income, I WOULD qualify for assistance with my health insurance (and vice versa).  I didn’t think that was “fair” at all, since the bills would force me to put a hold on my long term plans. My question to my mother was: Why can’t the government communicate? Why can’t they count debt as well as income so I could keep a handle on my life?

Her response was not as supportive as I expected, given that my complaint seemed perfectly valid to me.

She sat back in her chair, looked at me for a moment, and said, “You have some serious First World problems.”  I laughed, but she didn’t. She talked to me for a few minutes about how absurd it was that I was complaining about “unfair” with the job, lifestyle, and dreams that I have. Then she went on to say: “Do you know who needs assistance, honey? People like your aunt.  Even though she’s blind and crippled by diabetes and no one is willing to hire her, the government wants to cut her disability payments, and she can’t make it by as it is. She needs help with her insurance. You don’t.”

That shut me right the hell up.

Her sharp commentary on my privilege are still echoing inside my head and poking at my pride. The more I think about it, the more I realize she is unquestionably right.  Yes, my husband and I struggle…but we are NOT struggling to survive. We have achieved stability, even if it is not quite the way we want it, and the only reason we cannot afford our insurance premium is because we do not want to sacrifice the immediate comforts we feel we are entitled to….nor are we willing to extend the timeline on our long term plans. We are not willing to sacrifice our current privilege, and therefore we have zero right to complain about being denied yet another.

With her words and those facts in mind, I have come to the conclusion that the only decent thing I can do at this point is to shut my freaking pie-hole about what I can and cannot afford, stop being an ass about my self-inflicted problems, and fix my tiny family’s issues the hard way.   It’s going to be rough and uncomfortable for a while, and it’s going to force me to be patient and thrifty, and to institute a level of self-discipline that has not previously existed. I also have a feeling it’ll be a forced march for my husband on some of the decisions that need to be made…but….the end result, I think, will be worth the effort- not just for us, but for those we love and the random lives that we touch every day.

I’m going to begin my journey by making a conscious effort to STOP complaining.  Such an action has nothing to do with finances, but….it will have a hell of a positive impact on my life in general, wouldn’t you say?

Cheers,
M

Houses

About eleven months ago, E and I saw an ad for an amazingly cheap apartment essentially around the corner from my mother’s house (where we were living at the time). We went and checked it out the next day, and I ‘fell in love’. We paid a fee so the property company would hold it for us until we could pay the full deposit, because I had just changed jobs to my manager position and had not yet received a paycheck. Once I got paid we put down the deposit and moved the next day. It was honestly not the wisest of decisions; if we had waited two more weeks, we would have had a much easier time; if we’d pushed it back until January, we would have been sitting pretty. As it was, we had NOTHING for the first few weeks we lived here.  I had budgeted our income down to the last nickel (literally), made sure all our bills were paid, and triumphantly announced we would be “fine”.  The next day we found out our milk had gone bad and had no money at all until the following Friday. Somehow we did without for almost a week, and we laugh about it now when we’re feeling nostalgic.

Gradually over the time since then, I have worked –sometimes with E’s help, sometimes without- to make this apartment a home. Getting pregnant was an unexpected (though very welcome!) set back in that goal, because it took me from giving 110%  to barely managing 20% in the space of a month. Now, however…now I look around and I see a space that I created with love….an organized and clean place that I wouldn’t mind bringing friends into.  I have to be honest: it’s not all that welcoming in an immediate sense (our living room is my studio and office, after all, and thus it is rather bare of visitor amenities). However,  if you don’t mind sitting at the dining room table I can make you some coffee or a snack while we chat, or you can go upstairs to E’s ‘man cave’ which contains all the normally expected accouterments of a living space:  TV, game console, coffee table, couch.   All in all, I’m really proud of how this apartment has been transformed! I

Unfortunately, it has some serious and unavoidable limitations that I was not fully aware of when we moved. Our kitchen is smaller than the closet in our bedroom (in fact, E had to entirely remove some cupboard doors to free up more space). We share a centrally-located water heater with the entire complex, and therefore we have to turn the water on at 5:30 in order to get hot water by 6 (on the plus side, we never run out of REALLY hot water once it actually arrives). Storage space is decently sized but poorly planned in both location and shelving.  Our electrical system seems to be stuck in the 40’s (seriously), our kitchen appliances are the cheapest variety on the market, and we do not have a washer/dryer.  We have gas heating (fabulous!) but only one heating unit, located on the opposite side of the house from the stairs. As a result, the downstairs is always roasting and the upstairs is always frigid when it’s cold outside. We are located across the street from a high school football field, and our walls and windows have no sound proofing whatsoever.  The icing on the cake is the fact that there is a very busy city highway on the other side of the fence outside our back door…and getting out of our parking lot during rush hour is an absolute nightmare.

Basically, the more I live here, the more I realize why the rent was so low, and the more impatient I am to just leave.  If I had come to this realization at any point in the past I would already be gearing up to move. This time, however, something is different. This time I am holding back because I don’t want to move to just another apartment- I want to buy a house.  I have never been very good at waiting or being patient, but I recognize that this is not a thing I will accomplish tomorrow, and therefore I’m going to have to hold my horses for a while, and I have to come up with a long term plan.  The interesting thing to me –and the thing that I hope will keep me focused on the goal- is that E and I actually have the resources to actually do it if we plan things properly.  That’s a very good feeling indeed!

At the moment, I think we could reasonably attain the goal of moving into a real house by the end of 2015 if we really apply ourselves. If some of the potential opportunities that my boss has been talking to me about become reality, it could happen a lot sooner.  It’s very exciting!

Sadly I have to temper the excitement by asking myself if I can handle living in this apartment until then, or if I should try to work temporarily moving to a different apartment into our plans. If we did move, would I be willing to trade our fantastic location (in relation to our lifestyle) for cheaper rent? If not, would I be willing to lengthen our house timeline in exchange for a better temporary living arrangement?  It may seem silly, but those are hard questions for me. I don’t have answers yet.

Plus, there are other more practical questions to consider, and the answers could affect our plans in unwelcome ways. What does it actually take to buy a house? I know we will need to get a loan, but that’s basically it. Since my credit is significantly better than my husband’s (and is going up as quickly as his is going down), can I get a mortgage in just my name? Should we pay off our credit card before we even attempt to pursue this? What monthly mortgage payment could we realistically afford with credit card debt? What about without? What is a “decent mortgage”, anyway? How does house insurance work? If we’re planning on buying a house in two years, how soon should we find a realtor we like, and how soon is too soon to start looking at houses and getting a feel for what we really want/need?  Do we apply for a loan before or after we find a house we want? If before, how do we know what price range to look at? If after, what happens if we don’t get approved?

So many questions…so little idea of how to get them answered. Somehow, I will figure it out. I always do!

Less than a year ago I was sitting on my bed in my mom’s basement, crying because it felt like I was trapped forever in a circle of ineptitude. Eleven months later here I am, asking serious questions about the very confusing grown up world of financing the purchase of a house, and trying to balance my own comfort with the needs of a growing family.  Life can seem so foreign and unreal at times!

Cheers,

M

Intimidation

In my last entry, I spent almost 5 solid pages of 10-point type telling the world that I am happy and successful specifically because I told society’s expectations to fuck off.  Ironically enough, I find that since then I cannot write in my own freaking blog. I am paralyzed by the knowledge that even 1% of the people who read the “Story of M” might come back and scan my mundane plans, be bored silly, and write me off as another random loser.

Very few of those people will ever have any recognizable individual impact on my life, so why do I care what they think? I shouldn’t- and it baffles me that I do.  I have spent twenty days trying to talk myself past how intimidated I feel, and I can no longer ignore the fact that somehow getting all that attention -no matter how passive or distant it was- changed how I view this blog. I went from writing for my own emotional health to feeling like I had to write to please an unseen audience…from one second to the next.

I am posting this entry tonight as a way of challenging myself to keep going despite how self-conscious I feel. Tomorrow (or perhaps sometime over the weekend) I plan on posting about my plans to buy a house in the next couple of years. I also want to write a bit about what’s going on with my pregnancy, what my husband and I have been doing lately, and my plans for Christmas.

Yawn-worthy to everyone else on the face of the planet? Probably.  This is where I have to force myself to say “oh well” and write about it all anyway. Increasing a viewer count graph is not the only worthy goal in the world, after all.

Cheers,
M