I tried to feed my family of four on just $40 in 48 hours, and I quickly realized that when I'm not mindful of how much I'm spending, it can add up quickly.
Why did I do this? I was trying to fill a space on my bingo card.
Let me explain.
I’m participating in LCCM's Hurdles to Housing challenge, a fundraiser designed to transform perspectives of homelessness in Lebanon County and raise at least $5,000 for LCCM’s FRESH Start Emergency Shelter & Resource Center.
The fundraiser ends Friday. You can help us reach our goal!
The challenge is a 30-day event that encourages fundraisers and their families or teams to experience just some of the real-life issues that go along with families and individuals experiencing homelessness or who are on the verge of homelessness.
The challenges range from living in cramped living spaces, to going without your vehicle for a day, and finding somewhere other than your own home to sleep for a night.
The challenge that my family and I completed - well, tried to complete - was living for 48 hours on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which is also used as the basis for benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
According to the plan, my family of four, which consists of my husband and I, our 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, would need to spend the bare minimum of about $600 per month on groceries, which averages out to about $20 a day.
A report by the United Way points out some potential flaws with the methodology used to calculate that cost.
According to the United Way ALICE report (asset limited, income-constrained, employed), the cost of food
increased in Pennsylvania by 18 percent from 2007 to 2017.
The original US federal poverty level (FPL) was based on the premise that food accounts for one-third of a household budget, so that a total household budget was the cost of food multiplied by three. Yet with the large increases in the cost of other parts of the household budget, food now accounts for only 12 percent of the bare minimum budget for a family or a single adult in Pennsylvania, according to the report.
The report notes that because the methodology of the FPL has not evolved in tandem with changing lifestyles and work demands, the FPL significantly underestimates the cost of even the most minimal household budget today.
I'm inclined to believe this because I had to wait until the weekend to attempt this challenge. There was no way I’d be able to stay within budget during the week, as both my husband and I not only work full-time (I work 40 hours per week, and he works 50 hours and travels throughout eastern Pennsylvania), but we are also involved in ministry during the week and sometimes weekends.
What I’m saying is that we order take-out from restaurants - a lot.
We began this challenge Saturday morning and ended Sunday evening. Just finding two whole days to do this was challenging because we weren't home the entire time. My kids also spent the day with their grandparents on Sunday, so they ate lunch and dinner there. My husband had band practice Saturday morning, and played in the band at church on Sunday morning.
This meant that there would be a reduction in the amount of food being prepared for those meals.
I also had some food items that didn't cost anything, as well as some items that were meant for earlier in the week, but our busy schedule during the week meant bumping those meals to the weekend. Eating it during the week just didn't pan out (no pun intended).
Below, I list out the meals prepared over the weekend. I broke the cost down by package, not by portion used. I do realize that this may not provide the most accurate picture, or could determine whether I could stay within the $600 monthly budget, but the goal was to just be mindful of living within a relatively strict budget.
Here’s a breakdown:
Maier’s Italian Bread ($2.48)
Provolone cheese ($2.68)
1 quart of milk ($1.73) (only my daughter drinks the milk)
Quaker Oats Instant Oatmeal ($2.50)
Me and kids: Chicken (FREE) LCCM had some leftover chicken at the end of the day Friday, and we didn't want it going to waste).
Cucumbers in vinegar (free from garden)
Husband: Ramen and two hot dogs ($3) He had band practice and came home later in the afternoon
La Croix: ($3.38) *note: We had this left over from a meeting from the previous week
Club crackers - ($2.52)
Cream cheese - $1.62
Rotini noodles ($1.28)
Tomato sauce: FREE (from garden)
Parmesan cheese: ($2.36)
(cost noted in Saturday’s breakfast)
Chicken wings ($8.99) (we had these thawing from earlier in the week)
Ham: FREE gift from a friend
Tuna steak ($5) (was thawing from earlier in the week because we weren’t home to eat it)
Cucumbers in vinegar
Club crackers and cream cheese
Animal crackers (tub for $3.98)
(Cost noted in Saturday’s meal)
Total cost = $45.02
Not included in this budget:
Caribou coffee k-cups - $12.89 for 24-count bought in July. My husband and I consumed four cups of coffee over the weekend.
What I learned
I went over budget, but I could have stayed within budget had we planned better. However, there were some wild cards thrown into the mix, too.
We had received some free items from LCCM, from our garden and from a friend who gifted us a ham.
The items that really hurt us were the chicken wings and the tuna steak.
Both items were supposed to get cooked earlier that week, but we were busy so it got bumped to the weekend.
In my experience this weekend, however, the Thrifty Food Plan does not seem to take into account the activity in people's lives. I feel that, with careful planning, I could live within this budget - and I did at one time when we weren't involved in any activities and we only had our son - but it seems to assume a mother and/or father has ample time to cook and prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for four people seven days a week and that everyone is home all the time to eat it.
My husband, for example, travels throughout Pennsylvania, and he doesn't really know when he'll have a chance to eat or what his options will be that day in different counties. He doesn't exactly have a set schedule.
We are both active in ministry, which doesn't always fall on days that are convenient when we have less going on. This tends to fall during the week, and is a critical piece of our lives. This means one or both of us eat take-out two nights a week.
And sometimes other things just come up and we can't all make it home for dinner that night.
One day, my son and daughter will be involved in after-school activities and we'll be on the go then, too.
Additionally, the plan doesn't take into account personal care items such as diapers, wipes, shampoo, conditioner, razors, soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper and Lysol (If you can find it. Thanks, COVID!)
I used to be good at budgeting meals, as my husband and I had to live within a fairly tight budget for years, especially when our son was born.
Things had gotten better financially over the last five years, and we just stopped being so mindful of our spending. And with more going on, it's a trade off for convenience.
In the past when things weren't so good financially, I would calculate the cost of each meal in my head, projecting how long each item would last. I would look at a bag of apples and think things like ‘If I eat an apple each day, it will last for a week, but if I eat one every other day, I can make it last two weeks.’
That was how I had to think all the time. It made me resourceful, but it was limiting and exhausting. I spent so much time and energy trying to figure out how to make do with what we had that it became this all-consuming quest.
For years, I’d ration, use coupons, find free food when I could, buy in bulk, shop at discount stores requiring multiple trips to different stores, grow vegetables and herbs, and just tell myself that I can't have my favorite foods very often (seafood is my weakness!)
We may have only gone out to eat a few times a month. Sometimes, not at all.
This weekend really got me thinking back to those lean times, and I never realized the mental gymnastics that were required to stretch groceries and, ultimately, money.
I started thinking about how others may be struggling now, not just in this area, but all areas of life.
2020 has been the most collectively challenging year for all of us.
When an opportunity presents itself, let's help to lighten each other's loads.
Andrea Gillhoolley is the Director of Development and Marketing for Lebanon County Christian Ministries. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (717) 272 4400 ext. 211.