Seeds, plants and soil all cost money, building a coop does too and those canning jars don’t come cheap. But we urban homesteaders feel it’s worth it. We are in it for the food. So we have to find a way to make it work. How do we eat well without breaking the bank?
This week we’re going to talk about budgeting, particularly budgeting for food and how to eat sustainably. It’s not the funnest skill for me, but it is an essential one. We could not do the things we do around our urban homestead without it.
When Rick and I started this journey, we had just had a baby and I decided to stay home with him, cutting our income in half. We thought we’d be ok financially, but I had to get my appendix removed three weeks after Henry was born and medical bills ate through our savings. Soon we were using a credit card to make ends meet. And then one month we couldn’t pay off the balance. And the debt racked up faster than we could have imagined.
Eventually, we cancelled the credit cards and started trying to get it under control. But there were months where we were looking at choosing between gas and groceries. Now, when I hear people talk about being “broke,” I think about those times. The only way we made it through, all the while feeding ourselves, was budgeting.
Budget is a four letter word for many people (often those four letters are D-E-B-T). But I have really come to understand that a workable budget is the only way to survive. I’m not a natural budgeter. I’m much more of an instant gratification person. And people like me often have a hard time sticking to a budget. I have a really hard time keeping the willpower up for an entire month (or few months), and tend to want to reward myself for being so good all month long by blowing my money on something silly. I know I’m not alone. It really helps me to trick my brain into doing some sort of project or challenge that is a budget in disguise.
One things that really helped me during that dark time of choosing between food and fuel was Crunchy Chicken’s Sustainable Food Budget Challenge in 2009. The idea was to see if it was possible to eat sustainably on a food stamp budget. I was successful at the challenge, but at the end of it I noted that,
I don’t know if this would actually be possible on food stamps because the majority of our savings came from food saved from the CSA last summer, the hog we bought whole last fall, things we saved our money up for so that we could have a year of sustainable eating on our tight budget. That and two years of practice at cutting the grocery bill each week a bit more, while still making fresh meals for my family. Things like eating out, coffee shops, and convenience foods have not been in the budget for a long time.
That’s right I had already been at it for two years, and I had some secret weapons up my sleeve; a whole hog and a CSA membership. So in talking about budgets, I’m also going to tout the benefits of joining a community supported agriculture farm. I am not exaggerating when I say that this one thing saved us. Seriously.
More on that in soon, but first, how do you make a budget? There’s a lot of places online you can learn to do this. Just find something that works for you without too much brain damage.
I am NOT an expert, this is just what we do. I start by writing down on a piece of paper our income and all of our expenses. My husband gets paid weekly, so I do the math and figure his income for the month. Then I list out each bill we have. I know financial experty people tell you to save money and pay yourself first. That’s all good and fine, if you can do it; if you can, you should, but for about five years, we couldn’t. Anyway, I deduct the expenses from the income. The rest of the money that is not going to a bill is what we have left to split between food, gas and whatever else you like to spend your money on. Hopefully, you can save a bit too.
I try to be realistic about what we need to spend for each category. Using a computer program for this really helps (like Quicken or Quick Books or whatever) that allows you to see how you’ve been spending in the past. I might try to trim down certain things, like eating out, but I’ve learned that I need to leave us a little wiggle room. A budget is not a diet. You can’t go into it thinking about what you are depriving yourself from or you surely won’t stick to it. Also, it is not permanent. It can change month-to-month until you figure out what works for you and your family. Lately, I’ve been using Erica’s Budget Fun Cards, because I like checking boxes.
The savings is key for us. We don’t have much cushion built up yet as we’re fresh off of paying off those rotten credit cards and still are working on knocking out Rick’s student loans. But we try to set aside a little every month to pay for some seemingly big-ticket items, which in reality save us lots of money. Once we have a number for what we want to spend on food every month, we have a starting point. I don’t follow all the experts that say your food should only be 5% of your budget. Honestly, that is ridiculous.
Our food is easily our largest expenditure after our mortgage. But we have ways of keeping the month-to-month food bill manageable. Things like buying meat in bulk, the CSA membership and buying 300 pounds of peaches are financially tough to swallow all at once, but saves big time in the long run. Those bulk items pay off in spades, particularly in lean financial times.
Tomorrow, I’m talking money savings in the food budget department. In the mean time, do you budget? Do you buy in bulk or have tips for saving on the food bill? What questions do you have about eating well on a budget?