Sustainability on a Budget: Week One

A few years ago, my ex-boyfriend and I took a camping trip to the Olympics. The culminating hike of a three-day trip was in the Colonel Bob Wilderness area. The hike was listed as “challenging” in the guide book, a four on a scale of one to five, but it might as well have said “easy.” I’m not reckless, but I’m overconfident for sure. So what if I’m breaking in new hiking boots? Who cares if I already have some good blisters going already? That’s what band-aids are for! Needless to say, I drug my overconfident ass up that mountain, we ran out of water at the top, and I logged that one in the record books as one of the hardest hikes of my life, once we finally made it to the bottom. The state of my feet once we finished hiking those 14 miles is a story for another time. From that day on, anything that we took on that seemed easy at first, but then turned out to be more difficult was deemed a “Colonel Bob.” This budget challenge is turning out to be one of those kinds of situations.

My overconfidence and drive is probably a good thing, really, or I might never take on some of the challenges I take on. I tend to think, “I can do that!” and dive head first into the project, which is exactly how the budget project went down. I went into this thinking I’d probably feel the tightness of my budget, but that I wouldn’t have to change too much. So far, that’s really not the case.

Pay Day
You can read about what started this challenge in this post, but here’s what’s been going on in a nutshell. I made myself a food budget of $140 for the month, which was based on what my sister and her husband live on, cut in half since I’m a single lady. I added $5 a week on to my budget to compensate for the one day a week I make dinner for both me and Jeremy. So, that brought my monthly budget to a total of $160. Since my sister gets paid twice per month, unlike my once-a-month salaried paycheck, I divided my budget in half and “paid” myself $80 in cash. Since I didn’t actually start my challenge until the 4th, I will get “paid” again on the 18th and to say I’m looking forward to getting that next $80 would be an understatement.

Once I got paid, I went shopping. Since I needed to buy the staples I depend on, I knew my budget would be especially tight. Also, part of the challenge was to see if I could continue to afford groceries where I like to shop and buying the local ingredients I prefer to buy. I set out on Saturday morning to accomplish this mission and made four stops before I made it back home with $5 left to my name. Never have I gone to more places, scribbled on my shopping list, scrutinized prices or weighed my bulk items more than while shopping on this budget. Major strategy and prioritization were required.

To prove I could continue to support local farmers at the farmers’ market, I made that my first stop. I bought a pound of sweet Italian sausage, a head of cabbage, a bunch of lacinato kale, and an onion.  Total: $12

A stop at Safeway got me the chocolate chips I needed to make the cookies I would bring to the Super Bowl party on Sunday. Those would be imported and processed anyway – might as well save a buck or two by buying them at a conventional supermarket. Total: $3

My next stop at Trader Joe’s would provide me with nuts, one of my main sources of protein, at a more affordable price. Walnuts for bread and morning oatmeal and raw almonds for mid-day snacks and homemade almond milk. Total: $11

It was at my local co-op that I spent the rest of my money. A bag of white and wheat flour,  from local company, Bob’s Red Mill, would provide me with bread this week. Masa harina would allow me to make some tortillas to go with the black beans and brown rice I bought in bulk. Garbanzo flour would provide me with protein-rich and delicious socca. Loose leaf Earl Grey tea, just $2.42 of my budget, would provide me with multiple cups of morning tea. A three-pound bag of organic, local apples was more affordable than the dried fruit I’d hoped to buy for my oatmeal. Besides, those apples could be transformed into other things along the way. A head of garlic and a lemon were purchased because they can add delicious flavor to just about anything. A pound of oatmeal went into my basket – the breakfast of champions! Fair trade sugar, both brown and “white” (unrefined cane sugar), and butter had to be acquired to make those cookies. Damn budget eaters! Total: $49

I decided that herbs from the garden would be allowed and I’d use the olive oil, spices, salt and pepper I already had. The rest would be purchased with my challenge budget.

Here is what I put together this week with the ingredients I purchased:

  • Quinoa with garlic and cilantro
  • Socca
  • Cardamom apple “compote” with walnuts to stir into morning oatmeal
  • Five dozen chocolate chip cookies for the Super Bowl
  • Baked farro for lunch this week
  • Cabbage kale slaw, the bare bones version
  • French walnut bread (recipe and how-to post coming soon!)
  • A pint of rosemary almonds to bring to a girly craft party
  • One quart + one pint of homemade almond milk
  • Black bean and sausage chili (dinner + two portions frozen for next week’s lunch)
  • Spicy coleslaw to contribute to a dinner with Jeremy
  • Quiche with brown rice and kale
  • Scrambled eggs and toasted walnut bread

Lessons learned:
– Farro is a luxury grain. It’s local, hearty, and I love it, but it’s expensive – just under $4 a pound. I’ll be more aware of its unassuming decadence from now on.

– Two parties in one budget cycle is tough, especially when you’re bringing a dish for other foodies, where a bag of chips just won’t cut it. I had to get super creative and rely on old favorites or recipes where just one or two ingredients or herbs shined.

– Being on a tight budget like this means all the flair is gone. At least during this two-week period after having to buy so many staples, I won’t be able to make a recipe from one of my cookbooks for Sunday dinners. What I came home with after my budget shopping trip resulted in a no frills meal plan, but also a lot of creative improvisation.

– Protein costs a lot. What I don’t pay for in meat, since I don’t eat much of it, I pay for in other sources of protein, mainly nuts and grains like quinoa. Trader Joe’s is pretty affordable when it comes to the nut department. Quinoa costs about as much as the farro. Had it not been such a nutritional powerhouse, I would have just stuck with the 1.39/lb brown rice.

– A lemon and a head of garlic go a long way. Lemons make a great natural flavor enhancer.

– I depend on my garden more than I thought I did. There’s no way around it – fresh produce is expensive. My winter garden is meager, but the fresh spinach and chard that’s still growing under the cloche is calling my name like a bar of chocolate. I have so much bounty preserved in my freezer – it is killing me not to be able to draw from it or my pantry to add more nutritional value to my meals.

– Bartering and trading is an invaluable resource. I traded three bars of homemade soap for 15 eggs (thanks, Meg!) and they’ve brought me more protein and joy than I could have bought from the store.

I need to get even more creative in the kitchen this week and stretch out what I’ve purchased until “payday.” Here’s hoping it’s not a Colonel Bob!

7 thoughts on “Sustainability on a Budget: Week One

  1. Kristine

    Wow… I’m amazed by you!! Way to go, Stacy! I don’t think I could do it! I’m too set in my ways! Can’t wait to hear how the rest of the month goes.

  2. radhi

    you are my hero!!!! i too just realized how expensive farro was last week during check out! sigh. now it’s back to beans, nuts & quinoa. also, so glad you talked about socca again. i remember wanting to make it last year!

  3. Lindsey @NW Backyard Veggies

    It gives a new dimension to cooking, though, to do it on this kind of budget. This is no small feat that you are doing.
    I finally, after a year, was able to get our food bill, for three people, to $400 a month and I was feeling pretty good about that!!!
    I need to try homemade tortillas – I’ve never done that before….

  4. Joanna

    Good job making it thru! I’ve found one way to have those more expensive items on a tight budget is to buy in bulk. I’m cooking for three and a half(my one year old has a pretty limited diet so far) and buy my rice, wheat, quinoa and white sugar at Costco. They have the same brands as at the co-op for a quarter to half the price(i.e. organic sugar is $1/lb!). We also buy a half a cow from a friend’s dad every year since meat is quite a staple in our house. This is a hard time of year to try and shop off a budget without dipping into the pantry stuff you have stored up.

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