Food Stamp Nation – Get a SNAP budget

I’ve worked in social services for about 7 years now.  Three of those years were spent working as a Case Manager for single parent families living within the poverty spectrum. I would say “living below the poverty line” but it’s not really a line and phrasing it as such is a big pet peeve of mine. You get weird pet peeves like that when you work in social services.

The term “food stamps” is a mild pet peeve also. Food assistance has been on electronic cards in most states of the nation for around 10 years now. Keep this in mind the next time your cousin drinks too much wine at the party, gets on her tipsy socio political soapbox, and starts telling the story of how she recently witnessed a drunk bum trade his filthy crinkled food stamp dollars for a fifth of whiskey and that’s why the poor can’t be trusted with tax payer blah blah blah…. It’s all on plastic credit cards linked to your social security number. Yes, it can still be exploited with some planning and effort but no, your cousin did NOT see that happen last week. But I digress…my social work rash is starting to flare up.

I live in the state of Missouri where the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Program aka government food assistance) is about $128 per month per person in a family that qualifies. That means about $4/day is how much you can spend on food for yourself. Yes, just food. The card doesn’t work if it recognizes non-food bar codes. Diapers, paper products, and beer will not be covered by the EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. Again, your cousin was lying and now might be a good time to schedule that intervention for her binge wine habit – now who’s the one needing services?

Some people think this amount is too much. Some people think it is not enough. There’s fun blogs and articles out there of people claiming to thrive on $4/day for food and other articles of people barely scraping by.

The Beard and I will tell you that it’s worked just fine for us.

No, we’re not receiving food assistance. We just follow the guideline of $4/day/person for our grocery bill and it’s worked out fine. Of course, we also go out to eat approx. 2 – 5 times per month so it’s not an accurate depiction of the success of the SNAP rate.

I used to be a Whole Foods/Natural Grocers junky. I’m not sure how it started but I realized it was a problem when I looked over the bank statement back in 2011 and saw that we had somehow spent $525 on a month of groceries for just the two of us. Stunned, I immediately denied that any frivolous spending had taken place and joined the choir of Americans chanting the outrage over expensive food prices, poor economy, wild food industry conspiracies and shameful farm distribution practices.

Not long after, I was meeting with a client to go over her budget goals and I saw that her family of 4 received SNAP – around $515/month. This was a single mom with three growing boys between the ages of 9 – 15. I asked her what additional money from her job went to cover her food expenses and was surprised when she said that SNAP usually covered all her food costs for the month – some months they didn’t even use all their SNAP funds!

Feeling gluttonous and ashamed but HIGHLY motivated, I revamped the grocery budget to $250 – about what it would be if we were on SNAP. We stopped shopping at the nice overpriced grocery stores and also started shopping with more of a meal planning mindset instead of a “Oh this looks good, throw that in the cart” mindset.

We didn’t even feel deprived. Looking back, it’s been the easiest “frivolous to frugal” transition we’ve made. It helps that we buy meat sparingly (2 – 4 times per month) and shop at ALDI and Costco. Some months we come in at under $250 and some months we go over by $20 or so. But the baseline budget is the same.

It also helps keep perspective in limiting going out to eat. That $12 order of biscuits and gravy at the restaurant suddenly seems ridiculously luxurious and over the top when you consider that the price is THREE DAYS WORTH OF FOOD for one person by government standards.

I would highly encourage making the switch to SNAP standards. Not for the politics or the bragging rights, but just because it’s sensible grocery shopping and food preparation on a budget that works for most of America.

Now the naysayers are whining – “No! It’s not working for most of America! This is why the US has an obesity problem! Because eating healthy is way more expensive than $4/day!”

I used to just dismiss that comment when a friend gave that feedback. Now, I’m armored with this:

Does this look unhealthy?

What about this?

Do you get the idea yet?

All of these images come from THIS:

That’s right. This genius lady Leanne Brown had the revolutionary idea to create a cook book to show the naysayers what we knew to be true all along: glorious, healthy, delicious food can also be dirt cheap and affordable. Even on a SNAP budget of $4/day/person.

Even better, this cook book is FREE in pdf form by clicking the following link: https://8b862ca0073972f0472b704e2c0c21d0480f50d3.googledrive.com/host/0Bxd6wdCBD_2tdUdtM0d4WTJmclU/good-and-cheap.pdf

Yep, pretty soon all the cool kids will be SNAP budgeting their grocery bills and reaping the rewards. Trim your budget and sharpen your cooking skills!

 

 

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The Way of the Bike – Earn a Bike programs and finding The One

In my quest to live as frugally as practical and in gathering tips from other blogs like Mr. Money Mustache, I’ve decided to drive less and bike more. The only problem has been that I don’t have a bike. I once had a bike but I got rid of it b/c it was just sitting around and in poor condition. Now that I’ve realized that I can ride the bus to work for free and the majority of my regular errands in the city are easily within a 3 mile radius, I’ve decided to plan a big change in my life and only use my car when absolutely necessary…like maybe 2-3 times per month tops.

In order to accomplish this goal, I’ve been in the market for a bike and a bike trailer so that I can haul groceries and beer.  Most used bikes I’ve liked have been sensible and modest but have a hefty price tag of $170 or more – which I’ve decided is out of my price range. The most I would pay for a good solid bike would be $110, but I’d prefer to keep it under $100 or FREE!

Luckily, Kansas City is a growing bike-friendly community with at least 5 bike shops nearby. Psst! There’s even a bike themed espresso bar near my house!

So I began my search for the perfect bike. Not long after, I heard about RevolveKC – an adorable bike shop not-for-profit in the heart of the city. What makes them a non-profit? Other than recycling old scrapper bikes and making them shine again, they also offer something amazing: you can earn a free bike. Yes – FREE! Well…there’s a $10 participant fee…but after that it’s FREE! They offer two ways to earn a bike: either volunteer in their shop for 10 hours OR take a free online bike safety tutorial and then pass an on-bike skills test. What an amazing thing for children and adults alike! What a great thing for the bike revolution! Essentially, this program offers free transportation! This could help the impoverished get to work; the unhealthy could become healthy; the environment could be saved! Maybe I’m building it up too much, but I’m in love with this idea of earning a bike. Why are there not more programs like this?

I was planning on participating in this program and even visited RevolveKC and fell even more in love with them. My only problem is that I think I’ll need a multiple speed bike for all my errand running and the bike program generally offers one speeds.

So I was scouring thrift stores and Craigslist ads when I came across this in a super cheap hole in the wall thrift store.

IMG_1129 These pups usually go for around $150 retail or $100 on Craigslist. But this girl was priced at $80 and since I only had $50 cash, I negotiated down to that.  Bike trailer: $50

Now I just needed a bike to hook it up to! I looked at dozens online and in local shops but the ones I like best were all out of my price range. After weeks of searching, it felt like I would never find The One.

And then late last night I found her! A gleaming green and black classic Schwinn Varsity road bike listed on Craigslist for $70. What a beauty! I quickly sent the seller an email that I was interested and could pick up first thing in the morning and he said great! I told The Beard that I had found The One and we’d be picking her up in the morning. He was happy for me and then called me down the basement where he showed me my early birthday present that he got for free from a friend in exchange for helping fix her computer.

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Two old bikes – one for me and one for The Beard! They need some work, for certain, but I’m excited to learn about bike repair. The blue road bike is a vintage Azuki – pretty cool.

2 vintage bikes: FREE

Excited though I was at the birthday surprise, I still longed for The One. After giving it a good night’s sleep, I decided to still go after her. I know – I’m not always sensible.

In the blink of an eye, I’ve gone from not having a single bike to having three! Behold – The One!

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The One: $70

All in all, $120 is not a bad investment for three bikes and a bike trailer so that I can significantly cut down (or perhaps altogether ELIMINATE…) my car use. If all goes according to plan – and why shouldn’t it? – I will have effectively paid $120 to save thousands in fuel costs and car maintenance/repairs, the planet, and my health. Not a bad investment if you have ask me.

Garden Variety

There’s no easier way to save on fresh produce than to invest in growing your own. A raised garden bed can last years and save a family hundreds of dollars each year in a yielded harvest. Obviously the ideal time to create a raised garden bed is the moment after the last freeze of the season.

However, The Beard and I were a bit late in creating this structure.

We finally got the lumber this week and managed to squeeze it all into our little car. We were literally up to our neck in landscape timber.

IMG_1167 Lumber: $44.52

 

But finally the structure was built.

IMG_1149

And then filled.

IMG_1168  Soil: $53.84

And finally…….seeds were sowed!

IMG_1165Seeds: $23.10

Total cost: $121.46

Not exactly cheap, but it’s a great investment if it will actually yield all of the cucumbers, peas, spinach, chard, radishes, lettuce, jalapenos, and bell peppers that were planted into it today.

Bon appetit!

It Pays to be Peeved….Sometimes: Part 2

In my increasingly hypervigilant effort to decrease our household expenses, I’ve reached the point in which my attitude is “decrease this expense or I walk.” And I’m not bluffing either. I’m fully prepared to hit Cancel on current services if they don’t go down in price.

What makes my approach different than Larry’s approach is that mine actually seems to work for me. This is because I don’t necessarily complain so much as I just speak up about what I’m dissatisfied with. If the price isn’t lowered as a result of my dissatisfaction, then I have to determine whether I want to cancel the service altogether or not. And I can’t stress enough that I don’t COMPLAIN or threaten to speak to the manager or scoff or act annoyed or anything else to make the service rep uncomfortable.

Speaking up isn’t always as easy, but it’s empowering. I’ve been speaking up lately and its saving me money. Here’s how:

1. Hair cuts. Until I find that cosmetically skilled friend of a friend who will cut my hair in exchange for a homemade quiche, I go to a salon. Unfortunately, they charge $42 for women’s haircuts. It doesn’t matter that I have a super short mens-like cut, it’s $42 for my men’s haircut but it’s only $24 for the guy sitting next to me to get his hair cut….even if his hair is longer.  All I did was ask my stylist why the women are charged more even if they’re getting a men’s cut. I didn’t ask it in a bitchy way. I was, honestly, a bit intrigued as to whether it took different tools or longer amounts of time to cut women’s hair. “Honestly, I don’t agree with it, either,” She said. And before I could say anything she whispered, “Next time just schedule a trim and I’ll do kind of a heavy handed trim. That only costs $10.” Perfect!                                                                                              Money saved: $32/cut

2. AT&T cell phone service. The Beard and I recently combined mobile plans. He changed over from Sprint to the AT&T service I was on. All in all it was going to save us around $13/month at the time so it seemed like a great deal (he had been paying $96/mo for his plan and I had been paying $86/mo and the new plan would be $169/mo for both of us). It wasn’t until the second month into the new plan that the outrage set in. Why the fuck are paying AT&T almost $200/month?! So we marched to the AT&T store and asked how we could lower our monthly bill. The rep explained that if we decreased our data usage, we could save a whopping $10/month. So we did that…..but I was still peeved. I asked around to friends and co-workers and the overwhelming response I got was a shrugged “Ya, cell phones are expensive. Whaddya gonna do?” and the occasional “Verizon is cheaper. You should switch. But then you’d have to pay hundreds of dollars in Early Termination Fees.”  I finally wised up and decided that it was worth it pay the ETF and switch to something cheaper rather than wait out my contract and then The Beard’s contract. So I called them to cancel my plan.

When the AT&T rep asked me why I wanted to cancel service, I explained that it was beyond our budget and we’re going to look for something that will be generally the same service for less than $100/mo. And wouldn’t you know it…..the clouds opened up and the angels in heaven sang and the rep said she had just the plan – a brand new but very similar plan, $92/mo, that only just came out four months ago and she could switch us right to it. I was pleased to hear that but I was also a bit peeved to hear that I’d been overpaying for a similar plan for the last FOUR months. Those were the exact words I said to her: “That sounds great but I’m just a bit peeved to learn that I’ve been overpaying for the last four months.” So she credited our account by $25. Not exactly jaw dropping savings. But that’s okay. I’m only hanging onto AT&T until my contract runs up and I can make the seamless transition to Ting. I only have 3 more months to hold out.

Money saved: $67/month + $25 credit

3. Since The Beard and I crossed state lines from Kansas to Missouri last year, it’s time for me to register my car in Missouri. Funny thing about Missouri is that they required an annual inspection of your car done at a qualifying inspector’s garage usually costing about $12 – $15. I took my little Volvo into what seemed like a more lenient establishment (read: ghetto garage) in hopes that any minor issues they may find would be overlooked. Boy was I called out in that assumption when they flunked my adorable little car. They were nice about it but she took it pretty hard. They gave me a quote to fix the issues and off I went to the very affordable Volvo specialist mechanic that I use who guarantees a 2 year warranty on all his jobs. Because if I’m going to drop money to pay for something, I want the peace of mind that it’s covered for at least the next 2 years.  To my surprise, my mechanic’s quote was $40 more than the other guys. Now this didn’t bother me much because I trust my mechanic but I did mention it to him. “Ya that sounds fine, Tyler,” I said, “I’m just kind of surprised to hear that your quote is $40 more than the inspector’s place.” Tyler was surprised by it too, but he knows great customer service and offered to drop off $24 from his quote. So now I have the best mechanic in town working on my car and the repair is covered under warranty and it only cost me $16 more. Now that’s a great deal. All because I spoke up. I still had to empty my entire Car Maintenance envelope.

Don’t think that didn’t sting a little.

In any case, what’s so crazy is that I didn’t even ASK for discounts in any of these scenarios. I just spoke up. Haggling is uncomfortable for me unless I’m in a thrift store, garage sale, or farmer’s market, but I know there are people who do it all the time. Anyone remember the This American Life segment about the “nice guy discount”? It’s worth a listen. A nice lesson in how not to be.

How to Be Poor: Game Changer #1 – Transportation to work

As someone who is always scrutinizing my household’s regular expenses, I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to cut down on my commute to work expenses.

Let me start by saying that I HATE my commute to work. It’s about 25 minutes long and it accounts for the majority of my weekly driving. Which means it accounts for the majority of the wear and tear on my car. Obviously, I’ve been brainstorming how to cut costs for my commute to work.

But since I absolutely loathe driving with other people in the car, carpooling is out of the picture. Normally I could just make myself get over this peeve, but The Beard car pools to work and I’ve not been too impressed with his commuter savings.

I could always ride a bike, but it would extend my transportation time to over an hour and I’d arrive at work all sweaty.

Next, there’s the bus…

Kansas City is not exactly known for their public transportation system. In fact, it’s terrible for a city this size. When I worked as a Case Manager at a local women’s shelter, a top goal for most women and their families was to get off the KC public transport system and get a car of their own. Its unreliability made it a problem for job interviews and picking kids up from daycare.

But in spite of how terrible it is, it’s cheap transportation that will get you from point A to point B. So I’ve been struggling for the last 6 months or so about whether to keep paying the fuel and maintenance costs on my vehicle to get to work plus the $65 parking garage fee VS. waking up a little earlier, being a bit less comfortable and more dependent on strangers, and getting to work in 45 minutes rather than 25 minutes.

I decided in April that it was worth it to pay the parking fee and the gas money to get to work rather than be dependent on a flawed system that I’d have to pay $20 per month for anyway.

Herein lies the game changer:

IMG_1046

My work is now offering FREE transportation to get to work; FREE bus fare for employees. This changes the equation dramatically. Now I have to figure out if its worth it to pay $65 + gas costs/maintenance costs VS waking up slightly earlier, walking a block, and riding in a bus full of strangers for 45 minutes FOR FREE.

It’s so obvious, it’s almost difficult. Just by riding the bus, I could save at least $90/month. That’s almost $1100 per year. That’s a trip to Boston to see my sister! It’s a starter payment investment on a nice Vanguard index fund! It’s airfare to England! It’s 4 pairs of Frye boots!

I just can’t justify driving anymore. That’s right. Beginning July 1st, I begin a new challenge: Bus bound to work for 15 days. We’ll see how long I last with it.

I am “bus people” now.