Monday, July 30, 2007

Economic Survival In Hard Times

This is going to be a long post, and I think a very necessary one. This essay was inspired, in part, by Sharon of Casaubon’s Book, . Now I love Sharon and what she has to say. Most of it I agree with wholeheartedly. But there is one thing that I don’t think she, and most of the other members of the Riot for Austerity, really take into account. And that is the sheer economic reality facing most Americans today. Most of those Rioting are fairly comfortable, and so they can afford to make most of the changes necessary to lower their impact. It’s no real surprise then, that they blithely assume most people can go out and buy rain barrels whenever they want. But that’s not the case. The vast majority of American families are struggling just to make ends meet.

I’m unemployed right now and a graduate student, so I’m one of them. I also know a thing or two about poverty –I grew up grindingly poor, to the point where my childhood was spent on and off the streets. So I know and understand the hard battle for economic survival many people –including myself –are facing right now. Economic collapse in this country didn’t begin with Peak Oil last year, or last month, and it won’t begin tomorrow or last year. It began in the 1980s and has only gotten worse. More and more people get knocked down, or off, the economic ladder all the time. I want nothing more than to save the planet. That’s the honest truth. And so do many others among the working poor. But when the rubber meets the road, reality has to be faced and some hard choices made. If I have to choose between being eco friendly and eating dinner, I’m going to eat dinner. And so are a whole lot of other folks.

That’s why I decided to write this essay. It’s partly about being eco-friendly on a budget and partly about sheer economic survival. (And about merging the two whenever possible.) I’m going to talk about general ways to cut overall costs, about ways to eat well cheaply, and about low-cost (as opposed to outright low-energy) food preservation methods. Some people may know most of this stuff, but my aim is to provide knowledge to the widest audience possible to help people cope.

1.) First, find out where the leaks are. Start a record of everything you spend –and I do mean everything. From groceries to the coke at the office. Include rent or the mortgage payment, utilities, everything. You can’t see where to go until you know where you’re at. And when you realize that you’re spending $100 or more a year on cokes at work, it might make you think twice about buying the next one. I know people are busy, but this step will only take ten or fifteen minutes a week (if that) and the rewards are tremendous.
2.) Cut out the “necessities” that are really conveniences. I’m talking cable TV, high speed internet (or internet at all), cell phones, etc. If you’re really desperate, cut off the phone service. If you absolutely have to be able to be reached, get one of those cheapo pay as you go cell phones.
3.) Raise or lower the thermostat (or turn the system off all together when possible). Standard advice, but still good. Make the change incrementally rather than all at once to give yourself time to adjust. Where I’m at, each degree you raise or lower the thermostat can save you up to $10 a month. (Depending on numerous variables of course.) When the weather’s nice, turn off the A/C or heater and open the windows. Fresh air never killed anyone.
4.) Trip chain, and walk, bike, or use public transit when possible: More standard advice, but still good. This won’t work for everyone, and that’s fine too. After being on your feet all day at the diner or the construction site, you might not feel like biking to the store. That’s fine, but you can stop at the store on your way home. Gasoline is way too expensive to waste.
5.) Line dry your clothes. If you don’t have a clothesline its cold out, you can use drying racks inside or hang them on your shower rod.
6.) Shop discount stores, thrift stores, and yard sales. Big Lots, Fred’s, Family Dollar, and the like are often cheaper than even Wal-mart. Your kid might need new sneakers, but you can get them for five bucks at the thrift shop, versus at least fifteen at the store.
7.) Buy in bulk (when cheaper) and on sale. One of the mantras of frugality is “never pay full price”.
8.) Buy only what you need, and never buy disposables. You need food –you don’t need IPODS, jewelry, new clothing, DVDs, etc. As for disposables, they cost both you and the planet more in the long run. This includes even paper towels. I have three dozen washcloths, bought at yard sales that I use in place of paper towels. They work better and even when I factor in washing I’m ahead.
9.) Buy only what you need, and never buy disposables. You need food –you don’t need IPODS, jewelry, new clothing, DVDs, etc. As for disposables, they cost both you and the planet more in the long run. This includes even paper towels. I have three dozen washcloths, bought at yard sales that I use in place of paper towels. They work better and even when I factor in washing I’m ahead.
10.) Consider moving into cheaper housing. Also consider moving closer to work, or getting a job closer to home. Consider moving in with family or friends for a while, if need be, having them move in with you, or taking in a boarder if you have the room. No, this will not be comfortable, but we’re talking survival here –not comfort. And your situation might not be that bad right now, but six months from now it could be so don’t dismiss the notion out of hand.
11.) Make do, reduce, reuse, recycle: Go without if you have to. Try to find a cheaper (preferably free) alternative to buying something.
12.) Gain new skills. Learn to do something yourself instead of buying it. Also use the skills you’ve got; if you have a lawn mower, offer to mow your more affluent friends/neighbors yards for a few bucks.
13.) Ditch the gas guzzler. If you absolutely *need* a minivan, pickup, or SUV for work, make sure your work is paying for it. And the extra gas. Otherwise, ditch it anyone you can. Get the smallest, cheapest car you can find and fit your family into. (If you have to have a car.) Get something older and paid for. You might have to spend a bit more on maintenance, but the savings on car insurance and payments will definitely offset that. Whatever you do, get rid of the car payment. If you can’t sell the car, total it if you have to. I’m not advocating breaking the law here; but you do what you need to do to survive.
14.) Trash pick and dumpster dive. Don’t make funny faces –I didn’t say climb into a dumpster. Never do that. But if something good is on top or on the curb, grab it. If you can’t use it you can probably sell it. Just yesterday I got a solid wood end table off the side of the road. I could only sell it for five bucks or so, but that’s something. You’d be surprised what people throw out.
15.) Ditch the plastic. In fact, cut the cards up. (Except your debit.) Years ago The People’s Almanac did a study that showed people spend 23% more with cards than with cash. This has since been proven over and over again. If you’re in debt get out. And if you can’t get out (I know it happens, and believe me, I understand) swallow your pride and file for bankruptcy. The new laws really aren’t as bad as they make it sound, unless you make a lot of money.
16.) Never forget the mantra: SMALL SAVINGS ADD UP. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar.

This is getting harder and harder to do, but I am still managing it. Here’s some tricks that I use. I’m no expert and am constantly learning, but these are strategies that work for me. I’m going to post general tips first and then go into specifics for various categories.
General Tips
1.) Use a price book. This was first espoused in The Tightwad Gazette but it still works today. Basically, keep track of the prices for the groceries you buy at various stores in your area and shop the cheapest ones. You might have to change the prices a bit more often due to inflation, but it still works. Only use the stores on your usual routes –don’t go out of your way. If this sounds like a lot of work to you, it’s not. It only takes a couple of hours to pull one together, and then 15 minutes every month or so to update it. Mine only has 50 different items or so, and I can remember most of the lowest prices in my head. Because I have the book, I know that bananas are normally 50 cents a pound in my area. Anything over that is too much, anything lower than that is a sale. When you see a sale on something you use a lot, stockpile it.
2.) Shop loss leaders. A lot of people (me included) get store flyers weekly in the mail and there’s no way to opt out. So I go through them and mark the really good deals. This is what your price book is good for, among other things. Also sign up for those little cards some stores have. I hate them, but they save me way too much money.
3.) Ditch the convenience and junk food. And I mean ALL of it. Not just the frozen dinners; but the potato chips, the cookies, the pudding cups, the bagged and microwavable popcorn (it takes fifteen minutes to pop some on the stove, and its much better). I also mean cold cereal (save when there’s a really good sale), bakery muffins, frozen pancakes, all of it.
4.) Stop eating out. Don’t whenever you can avoid it. Eat at home whenever possible.
5.) Cook at home, from scratch. Don’t hyperventilate. Even if you’ve never cooked in your life you can learn to do so. I did. It’s not hard, it just takes practice. As for time limitations, that just takes organization. Believe me, I’m busy too. I tend to make big batches of food at once and either freeze it or keep it around for several days and eat off it. Sometimes on the weekends I’ll make a big batch of muffins or pancakes and eat off that all week.
6.) Eat simply. You don’t need a four course meal every night. Rice and beans aren’t going to kill you.
7.) Go meatless at least part of the time. There is no reason you should need meat more than 2-3 times a week if you’re eating plenty of other protein.
8.) Go easy on the dairy. You don’t need it everyday, especially if it’s conventional. The antibiotics and hormones in it aren’t exactly good for your system. BTW –and this is heresy in our society I know –I would recommend NEVER eating conventional dairy products while pregnant or nursing, and never giving them to a growing child. There’s more than a little bit of evidence that the hormones in them cause problems, even to the point of causing girls to enter puberty sooner.
9.) Plant a garden. Even if you get one lousy tomato, that’s something. And even if you live in an apartment, you can at least grow sprouts. You can also check to see if your community has a community garden and see about getting a plot. For the disabled, check and see if your community has a free garden that supplies produce in season to poor and disabled residents. Mine does; it’s by the botanical gardens and it’s tended by volunteers, most of whom are master gardeners.
10.) Only buy from farmer’s markets things that are cheaper than at the grocery store. Heresy again, but it’s not going to do yourself any good to support the local farmer if you end up half starving because of it.
11.) Preserve your own food when you can do it cheaply enough. See below.
12.) Never turn down free food.
13.) If really desperate, go to the food bank. It’s what they’re there for. I have never done this, but that’s because I’m single and childless and I figure that no matter how bad off I am there’s someone with kids who needs that stuff worse.
14.) Finally, consider dumpster diving behind grocery stores at the end of the day. Make sure the dumpster isn’t locked or monitored. (Yes, some stores monitor their dumpsters –pathetic I know.) You wouldn’t believe how much food gets tossed on a daily basis in this country. Fresh bread that didn’t sell that day. Produce they’ve had for a day (maybe two) but that’s still good. Whole cases of good stuff because one jar broke. Some stores donate this stuff to food banks, but a lot of them don’t.
Fruits and Vegetables
1.) Frozen is usually much cheaper than fresh. That this should be the case is one of the best examples I know of just how irrational our economy is. Frozen food must be harvested, washed, cut up, packaged, frozen, transported in refrigerated trucks, and kept frozen at the store. And yet a pound of fresh broccoli is often $4 or more, while a pound of frozen can generally be had for a $1 or a $1.25 on sale. Most of it is flash frozen so the loss of nutrients is minimal. You wouldn’t want to eat frozen fruit or vegetables straight up, but they’re good for cooking.
2.) Frozen juice concentrate is cheaper than the bottles. A half gallon of the cheap apple juice in the bottle is normally around two dollars. I can get the equivalent amount frozen for $0.87 or cheaper and mix it up myself. Other juices are the same. Only by 100% juice btw –otherwise you’re wasting your money on corn syrup and sugar.
3.) Potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions, dried beans, and rice are good sources of calories and vitamins and are very cheap to boot.
4.) Store bought canned good suck. But you can live off of them. Learn to, at least part of the time.
5.) The cheapest fresh vegetable (aside from those in number 3) are carrots. I can get a decent sized bag of the baby ones, year round, for $1.50-$2.00. I try to keep them around for snacks and such.
6.) Most stores make lettuce and salad mixes a loss leader about once a month. Keep an eye out for this.
7.) In season is the cheapest time to buy most fruits and vegetables. I got a little watermelon the other day for two bucks. Tomatoes and such are also cheap; buy twenty pounds at the farmer’s market and put them up for the winter.
8.) The cheapest fruits are generally bananas followed by apples. Both are good sources of nutrition for both adults and children.
9.) Only buy whole grains. The other stuff is empty calories. (Complete with bleach residues.) This is one category where the slightly higher expense is worth it.
10.) Pastas tend to go on sale roughly every other month. Keep an eye out and stock up.
11.) Dried beans are cheaper than fresh.
12.) Peanut butter is one of the best foods you can buy, hands down.
Eggs and Dairy
1.) Use these sparingly.
2.) Find out when your local stores mark down items near their expiration dates. (Most here do this on Sunday afternoons.) You can often get things half price at this point.
3.) Butter and cheese can be frozen without side effects.
I’m not the best person to comment on this, as I don’t often eat meat (and can’t cook the stuff; raw meat turns my stomach). But here’s what I do know:
1.) Chicken is the cheapest meat. Whole chickens are generally cheapest, followed by dark meat and then white meat.
2.) Ground chuck/beef/etc are generally the cheapest cuts.
3.) Meat too is usually marked down when it gets near to expiration. That’s a good time to buy it and freeze it.

There are many different methods you can use, and I’m going to list them in no particular order.

1.) Store foods that don’t need special preservation techniques. Grains, rice, dried beans, and the like will keep just about indefinitely if stores properly.
2.) Freezing. This should not be your only or even your primary source of preserving. But if you have a refrigerator, presumably you have a freezer. You’ll be surprised to find how much food you can cram into the average size freezer. Use square containers (they take up less space) and label everything. I don’t recommend buying a freezer unless you can find a used one cheap that is the right size for your family and is also energy star certified.
3.) Curing. Many foods will keep for months when properly cured and stored. These include potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions, and winter squashes.
4.) Canning. No, canning need not be expensive. Once you’ve got the equipment all you have to pay for are lids, food, water, and power. And you can still can a lot of food for less than a store bought can of the same item. All you need to can high-acid items is a water bath canner. You can even make one. For low-acid items you need a pressure canner. Both of these can generally be found used for little cost. A brand new water bath canner with rack is about $13. Jars are expensive –IF you buy them. I have literally hundreds of jars, and all of them came from Freecycle and friends. Put the word out and you’ll be surprised what turns up!
5.) Drying. Especially solar drying. You can make a solar dryer from common household items.

I hope this has been helpful. Tackling the subject of economic survival in an essay is a might task –at best, I’ve scratched the surface. Above all, remember that attitude is key: The right attitude can make the difference between thriving and being depressed (or worse.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOuld you believe coupons can make things cheaper than generic? I never did until I tried it. Ex. Brandname toothpaste goes on sale for $1.50 each. Your store doubles coupons and you have a coupon for 75c off that toothpaste. Toothpaste just became free.
I've gone through 100+ free toothpastes since I started doing coupons 6 mo ago.
All it takes is co-ordinating coupons with sales. A coupon is good, a coupon doubled with a sale is BETTER-- often free. You've got to organize your coupons, and be familiar enough with which ones you have so that when you read the store's sales circulars, you'll be able to say, "Oh, yeah, I have a really good coupon for that!"
I get extra coupon sheets from our local newspaper lady. In return, I give her a bag of freebees every week. helps me, too.


7/31/2007 6:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I say "I've gone through 100+ toothpastes..." I mean that I've given away tons to our food bank and other single mamas like me. :D
It's not only toothpaste, either. I have enough dog food to last a year (free), cleaning supplies(free), general medicines (all free)... But in addition to "free," I've gotten even more stuff at significant discounts. 50c peanut butter (big jars, brand names).

When I said it's cheaper than generic, I wasn't kidding. Generics NEVER have coupons and NEVER go on sale. Brand names do both.

...what's even more fun is when it's on sale, you have a coupon, AND there's a rebate! hahahha

I once got $70 in free gas that way....

Loving those coupons, baby!


7/31/2007 6:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

okay, last post-- I'm just excited to tell other down-and-out people this great secret: this kind of coupon shopping has been going on FOREVER!

When I was little in the 70's, Iwould see these ladies on TV on the newsshows going into grocery stores and coming out with a cartful and their receipt says they only paid $5.16!! That's ME now!

I'm sorry if I'm starting to sound like a spammer. Nope, real human here who wants to help other real humans. the web-site I mentioned is the only good free one I know. There are some you can pay for who will actually MAKE your grocery list for you. They monitor what's on sale at your local store and tell you which coupons you should have in your folder still ( is another I use-- $10 for 2 months of info, but it's been worth it!).

Okay, I'm done. Good luck to whoever joins me. It definitely takes guts to hand a cashier 100 coupons, making all your stuff free or almost-free...

I literally shook the first several times I went.


7/31/2007 6:56 AM  
Blogger RAS said...

Laura, in my experience coupons are more trouble than they're worth. Beyond that, they actually tend to COST you money instead of saving it. Why? Because most coupons are for things you don't really need: conveinence foods, fancy cleaners, and the like. You'd save more money by making the foods yourself at home and ditching the fancy cleaners. You might get a $1 off a $4 box of cereal with a coupon but that box will last about a week. You could buy enough oatmeal to last a month for $2. Therefore, you haven't saved $4 (assuming you bought a month's worth); you've spent an extra $10.

7/31/2007 8:06 AM  
Blogger Willow said...

Tightwad Gazette was my favorite read at the library for years. I learned a lot from Amy about frugal living.

I have done many of the things you recommend for years. And I agree with most of your ideas. It's good to find kindred spirits out there.

My biggest savings is not buying things I don't use. I hardly ever use coupons b/c I don't buy couponing stuff except toothpaste and cold cereal. Maybe I'm just lazy about coupons but I see my sil buy so much stuff she will never use and fill her home up-- although she is generous and she also barters alot of the things she gets and so helps her own budget and she lives on a lot less than we do.

We use a credit card for our gas and large purchases because we never keep a balance and we get a rebate on gas.

It's never easy to figure out the balance of quality food and cheap food, is it?

Honestly, right now, our biggest single expense is health insurance-- now there's a pandora's box!

8/01/2007 1:49 AM  
Anonymous chile said...

Great post, Rebecca! I agree with you that are challenges to merging frugality and environmental choices. I've touched on it briefly in one or two posts, but you really nailed it down here.

8/01/2007 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Bart said...

Nice post, Rebecca...

Another cheap-ish way to pick up canning jars is through buying pasta sauce. Several brands (Classico, Target's house brand for starters) use actual quart-sized, reusable mason jars. If you can pick up the sauce when it's on sale, you can get some decent pasta sauce *and* another jar for around $2. Since I haven't come close to growing enough tomatoes to keep my family in sauce over the winter, I managed to pick up around 20 quart jars just through my normal grocery runs. All you need is new bands & lids and you're in business.

8/02/2007 9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all due respect, some of us on 90% reduction have reached the point were we are comforatble enough to buy rain barrels because we lived the way you describe for year and years and years.


8/13/2007 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question for ya: how does one make a solar food dryer? Do you know of any websites with this information?


8/13/2007 5:28 PM  
Blogger shadowfoot said...

Excellent post!

A few notes from another 90%-er...

- We have a rain barrel, but got the barrel on Freecycle, then installed the spigot ourselves (from local hardware store we can walk to). Not perfect, but it works. We'll be taking it with us when we move to the farm -- where my FIL is interested in having a rain catchment system, if we can do it for a reasonable cost -- he's a born Yankee farmer :)

- Interesting to hear about the stores that dump food out the back. Our local store carries day-olds marked down, and sometimes the same with veggies and fruit.

- If you're a meat-eater and can afford it, some stores have 'family paks' of meat. Less $$ per pound than smaller packs, less overall packaging, and sometimes is on sale too. I sometimes buy them, then break up the pack into smaller amounts (only two people here). I did used to use some plastic wrap, but am working on using more of the little containers I already have in the kitchen.

- Simple solar food dryer. Window screen with black cloth wrapped over the top (or black board with hinges/fasteners/heavy weights of some kind). Attach screen to wood for legs or rest on stones, bricks, etc.

The idea is to have heat from the top (hence the absorbent black stuff on top), keep the bugs out, and get air circulation (so moisture can leave). You can probably put something like "How to make a solar dryer" into any search engine to get more info and pictures.

- One of the reasons we're moving is to live above the in-laws for a while, and save money. We get a cheaper place to stay, we all share the fuel expenses, and they get some extra help around the farm. All good!

.... well, we do eat out more than we should -- exhaustion after working for days on the renovations and packing tends to leave us with the desire to not make more of a mess of the house than it already is. And we get to use someone else's AC... (I have asthma, so AC has to be one during the very worst of the summer weather). But overall, we're doing most of what you have listed here. Good list!

Heather G

8/14/2007 9:31 AM  
Blogger jewishfarmer said...

Hi Rebecca - Nice post, and some excellent tips, and I think the critique is mostly fair. I will say that I think the difference between us is far smaller than you think. I was a grad student living on 8K in the most expensive housing market in the US not long ago (actually 5K for two years), and before that a desperately poor college student living in a cold water, unheated, no electric apartment, or actually homeless.

The reality is that, as MEA says, the fact that I could buy rainbarrels (I never have - mine are scavenged) has something to do with living as you describe my whole adult life. Even now my family makes about 32K for a family of six, and managed, making less (high 20s) to pay off our mortgage in 4 1/2 years, mostly by doing what you describe.

What I would say is that I think that some people in the Riot, including potentially me, are understandably distracted by the idea that all change should be comfortable, and thus that for every prior situation, there should be a purchasable alternative. That is, the idea that you have to replace everything you give up with a solar powered or non-electric or other gadget is a variation of our consumer culture's problems. Sometimes, just getting along with what you have matters.

Now the good thing about graduate student poverty is that it is comparatively temporary, and it makes whatever pittance your salary contains afterwards seem like opulence. You, like me, can look forward (I hope) to a period of comparative wealth and the chance to buy rainbarrels. And if you don't, or at least don't buy most things, you'll find that even a decade out, it all still looks like riches to you.

It is the really, permanently, unbudgeably poor people who most need solutions for them. I appreciate the ones you are offering.


8/14/2007 9:41 AM  
Blogger jewishfarmer said...

BTW, Rebecca, re-reading your excellent list, I would point out that I'm pretty sure I've posted just about every single one of those tips on my site. I may not get it ;-), but I'm not so far off.



8/14/2007 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found your blog today via a Peak Oil site and read all of it. I am very impressed.

8/14/2007 5:11 PM  
Anonymous kethry said...

the one thing not mentioned and i don't even know if you can get them in the USA (you can in the UK) and that's an allotment, especially if you don't already have a garden. You can share with a friend (share the work too!) and not only do you get free produce, its good for you - both emotionally and physically.

nice blog!

8/26/2007 9:35 AM  
Blogger Iñigo said...

I agree with you in an essential point: to reduce, to be more austere the first thing is actually reduce needs, and only then reduce by means of gadgets or whatever. Grain prices (and therefore bread, milk and meat) are soaring because of the intensive use of biofuels, instead of reducing petrol use. Thus, a possible solution becomes an actual nightmare.
On top of that, it's a shame that good, hardworking people have to scratch the bottom of their pockets every month. The acomplishment of reaganomics and further globalisation is this march of the "working poor".
Everyday, more people with good qualifications, or people who would have earned a living 25 years ago have to struggle with a job that doesn't pay enough. Trying to economise is right, but as you point out in your post, this need to save has causes.
Not only that, the neoliberal agenda is struggling everyday to reduce what is left of the social protection system. In that aspect, we are better off in Europe than in the USA.

9/05/2007 7:50 AM  
Anonymous Melinda said...

I am new to the Riot. My husband and I are not students anymore, but still paying heavily for it in loans we should not have gotten into. So we live on a student budget :).

We rent, we don't own. In fact, we're very far from owning! We certainly can't afford to reduce by buying sources for green power, and rain barrels are going to be a major purchase for us.

We're actually hoping that by reducing our electric bill, we will save enough to pay for rain barrels :).

One thing we have learned, though, is that the costs of prepping soil and planting a garden are quickly recouped. We buy VERY few groceries, now, and save a lot of money that way.

We also save a lot of money purchasing at thrift stores, and using freecycle. In general simplifying has helped us economically!

Thanks for the list - there are some things here that we haven't considered doing.

11/04/2007 1:51 PM  
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