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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My First Brew – Ready to Taste

So I’m a little late in posting the results of my first brew. It sat for two weeks in the basement where it stayed at a fairly constant temperature of around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

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It had a rotten fruit yeasty smell – it was about as nasty an aroma as one can imagine juice sitting in the basement for two weeks might smell but with a lingering yeasty scent. In a word, it was off-putting. And not in some kind of delightful “I’ve made jug wine!” kind of way – it smelled closer to moldy tennis shoes than to wine.

But I persevered and stuck on the spigot and plastic tubing for the transfer.

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Transferring the liquid is necessary b/c there’s A LOT of frothy yeast in that jug and I don’t want to drink any of it. Rather than go through the mess of a cheesecloth and funnel, I’m going to siphon the liquid into a sanitized brewing bucket, leaving the clumps of yeast behind in the jug. Then I’m going to clean out the jug and siphon the liquid from the bucket back into the clean jug. This process serves two important functions: 1. Filter out as much yeast as possible from the juice and 2. Use the jug as a pretty and practical container for keeping the juice refrigerated and easy to pour.

The other side of the tube goes into the brew bucket for the transfer.

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Now the tube just needs a little bit of suction to promote the siphoning from the jug into the brew bucket. It was pretty tough to do this job with how gross the concoction smelled. I really didn’t want to end up with a mouthful of clumpy yeast juice.

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Don’t I look nervous? It’s a scary job.

Alas, the siphoning began! And I managed to avoid tasting the stuff.

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And then it was siphoned back into the jug.

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The second transfer is definitely important. Look at how much stuff was still left at the bottom of the bucket.

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And now the pretty jug of juice wine! I decided to let it sit in the fridge for a few days to help it carbonate just a little.

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When I first tried it, I was pleasantly surprised that it actually tasted like wine in spite of its initial off-putting aroma. But it tasted very dry and not so flavorful.  Like church wine….kind of.

So I let it sit for another week and a half in the fridge to experiment with the taste differences of bottle conditioning it for a bit longer. Mostly I just didn’t want to drink it again for a while.

Tonight, I decided to give it another try. There is no off-putting odor anymore. It’s slightly carbonated, which is nice. (Takes another sip) Still dry, though. Very dry. Like a slightly sweet, very dry rosè wine with teensy hints of blackberry. I think next time, I’ll just do straight up apple juice although something citrusy might be just perfect – like grapefruit or mango.

All in all, though, it was a fun experiment in easy, frugal home-brewing fun.

Cheers!

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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.

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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!

My First Brew – an $8 gallon jug of fermented fruit juice aka wine

About 10 days ago, I learned about Mr. Money Mustache and my life has been forever changed. It’s a great blog that perfectly articulates a wondrously frugal philosophy about money, happiness, and life in general.  After binge reading the entire blog, dozens of frugal ideas and inspirations surfaced from those articles. Ecstatic to try them all, The Beard and I jumped all over the Frugal yet Fancy Homebrewing article which details how to make an easy fruity alcoholic beverage.

The premise is simple:

1. Buy a gallon jug of preservative free juice and an envelope of champagne yeast.

2. Pour the champagne yeast into the juice jug.

3. Fit with an airlock stopper that has sterilized liquid in it.

4. Set aside for two weeks in an area of minimal temperature fluctuation.

5. ??? SCIENCE ???

6. Two weeks later……amazing fruit juice with an alcohol kick.

We gathered the necessary supplies. Luckily, because The Beard is a skilled home beer brewer, we already had a gallon jug with a cap, cleaning/sterilizing supplies, and an airlock stopper.

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The juice combo is from Trader Joe’s: Blackberry juice cocktail and apple juice.

It’s important to sterilize all the equipment, which takes longer to do than anything else.

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Using either a kitchen funnel or a very confident hand, pour the juices into the jug.

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Next comes the packet of champagne yeast. Then put that stopper on! We used white rum as the sterile liquid in the airlock. No need to stir the yeast in, science will pull it down into the brew over time.

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See those little granules sitting at the top – that’s the yeast.

And now, an hour later:

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Frothy goodness! Now we’ll just set it in the cool basement for 2 weeks. Since we used a bit more yeast than perhaps necessary (ahem, in our overzealousness we dumped the whole packet rather than measuring out 1/2 teaspoon) we’ll probably have to transfer the mixture into another container once it’s ready to drink. Don’t want a big yeast cake at the bottom of our beverage jug now do we?

I’m hoping we didn’t add too much yeast….we’ll see in two weeks. Or sooner if the jug froths up too much over the next few days.

Our total cost was only $7 for the juices and $1 for the yeast. I’ll post an update as to how it turns out.

 

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.

The Dog Days of a Fiscal Fast

A few days ago I declared a Fiscal Fast for 7 days.

I pretty much said it just like this:

 

It’s not much of a money challenge so I decided not to post it as such. It’s just that every once in a while – not often – a perfect storm  between automatic withdrawal for bills and some kind of unexpected expense (or a series of!) arise to totally wipe out our checking account a week before payday.

It’s not that big a deal. All it means is that there is absolutely nothing allowed to come out of checking. Envelope monies are okay to use, when appropriate. But that’s it.

When people who don’t realize they’re poor find themselves in our temporary situation, they may transfer money from savings or whip out the credit card. But not us, not anymore. We fiscally fast our way through the rough patch.

Unfortunately I realized yesterday that Zelda the dog is almost out of dog food…..like almost completely out.

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Now, we love our crazy pup. Although I’ll buy the off brand hot pockets for me and The Beard, Zelda gets only the best. She eats the gourmet, grain free, sensitive stomach, organic Blue Buffalo dog food. It’s only fair, really, since that’s all she gets to eat.

So tonight…this poor misunderstood girl…..had to eat some of the cat food.  Luckily, she was thrilled at the change. And although I know cat food is not good for dogs, I think she’ll live for a few days on the stuff.

She’s not complaining.

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Aw, the dog days of the fiscal fast. It’s actually quite liberating to know that you can’t spend out of the checking account. In fact, earlier today one of my favorite blogs Little House in the Suburbs posted a greatly discounted knitting pattern book that is right up my alley (20s 30s knit slouchy romance styles – oh my!) and I just had to shrug and pass at the deal. It felt pretty good. Maybe I’ll start declaring fiscal fasts more often.