Monday, December 30, 2013

Food doesn't have to be expensive

In my recent budget breakdown I didn't spend very much money on food. In fact I only spent $1600 in 9 months. I excluded the 3 months in New Zealand because I was too lazy to go through my holiday expenses even though I did record it all using a mobile phone App called Trail Wallet. I'll do a more detailed post on the NZ trip budget at some stage.

$1600 is a bit of an underestimate, as there are a few other hidden costs which I haven't included in that figure, which I'll explain later. I also didn't included cash purchases, like at the markets. Since I'm unable to differentiate my food purchases from them, I've added my total ATM withdrawals, which brings my total food budget to $2800 over 9 months. That works out at just over $10 a day.

How the hell did I do it? Am I living entirely on noodles? Of course not, though I am very partial to a good noodle soup!! I'm eating healthy home cooked meals with lots of vegetables, some fruit, and lots of grains and pulses. Huh? Doesn't eating healthy cost lots of money??

Nope, not if you bring your supermarket to your home and reduce your food miles radically.

WTF does that mean?

It means
  1. purchasing as much of your dry goods as possible on line, in bulk and having them home delivered for a price less than it would cost you to go to the supermarket.
  2. planning your shopping. Never make a special trip to the shops for one or two items, plan to do shopping as part of another trip, e.g. on your way home from work. If you haven't an ingredient, make do with something else, or change the recipe.
  3. cooking your own meals from scratch. No shortcuts, no bags of crisps. Home cooking the way grandma did it.
  4. not eating out all the time and taking your lunch to work
  5. growing your own food
  6. value adding
Food miles is not just an environmental term to indicate how much carbon dioxide is released getting your food to your table, it's also an economic idea. Popping down to the shops in the car uses fuel, which costs a lot of money. Getting food home delivered saves you heaps, especially if you buy in bulk. Planning your shopping expeditions, combining the trip with other chores, never running out of the basics and having a well stocked pantry, and not getting takeaway, all save you money, and food miles!

I purchase almost all my dry goods from 2Brothers, who provide home delivery for $3.50. Yep, from Perth to my door for less than it costs me to drive in to town. That's flour, grains, nuts, seeds, coffee, dried fruits, milk powder, spices, beans, pulses, canned tomatoes, the list goes on. I buy my few Asian ingredients that I don't grow myself from a small shop run by the local Cocos Island community. It's on my way home from town/work so isn't out of my way. 

I grow my own vegetables and fruit, and get fairly creative with what's seasonally available. I supplement my home grown veges with a trip to the Sunday Farmers Market every one to two weeks, where I can also buy locally grown produce like eggs, goats feta and haloumi, olive oil and organic seedlings for my garden. I don't have my own chooks since the last lot got annihilated by foxes.

I don't eat much meat, but do buy from a local butcher who is also on my way home. I will happily buy in bulk, portion into meal sizes, then freeze till needed. I no longer buy poultry as I am concerned about the use of chemicals and hormones in the industry, and the utter disparity between what I consider free range and what the chicken farmers do. It's an ethical choice that saves me money. My protein sources these days are occasional red meat, eggs (from a local farmer whose flock I have visited), seeds, nuts and a rather worrying addiction to chick peas. I gave up lentils due to an unacceptable wind problem...

I eat out at a local restaurant once a week with my friends Sally and Sheridan, although I wasn't doing this consistently earlier in the year. I usually eat meat or seafood. This costs me about $100 a month. Yes, you do the math, eating at home doesn't cost much at all does it?

I value add. This means I make milk from milk powder and yoghurt as well. If I want bread, chapatis, pizza, arepas... I bake them. I make my own natural muesli from grains and seeds bought in bulk. I make dips and sauces from scratch and have recently learnt how to make yummy polenta snacks. Many of these recipes not only are simple to make, they are so delicious you wonder what the hell is in that packaged food everyone's buying. As long as I have the basic ingredients on hand, I never run out of staples and don't need to pop down the shop for them either.

Home cooking makes such a difference to a food budget. Only purchasing the basic ingredients and cooking from scratch saves you 10% GST already! Have a look at your grocery bill next time you go shopping. I doubt the current government will keep this GST loophole, but whilst it's there, why not use it.

Growing your own veges saves even more money. A packet of seeds costs less than $2 and can potentially feed a family for a couple of years. Of course you need more than one packet but if you collect seed from your crop you may never need to buy seed again. Sure you need to water, feed, mulch, weed and nurture but if you enjoy gardening it isn't work. Spending time pottering in a vege patch is as good as a mental health session with a counsellor. And gives you your daily Vitamin D quota as well!

Which gets to those hidden costs I was talking about before. Establishing garden beds takes time, but doesn't need to take much money. A shovel and a few bags of manure and blood and bone can get you started. My entire garden is made from items I have repurposed, from cut down water tanks, to old pavers, to old irrigation hose. Compost can be made yourself from scratch, or purchased cheaply. Manure can be accessed from friends with livestock, or again quite cheaply from local suppliers. You can make your own seaweed tea if you live near the ocean and can forage for a bucketful of weed. Otherwise, it's pretty cheap to purchase as a concentrate.

Water, at least in Australia, is expensive. I invested in rainwater tanks and so far have managed through the last 18 months with daily hand watering from harvested rain. I use an electric pump, so there is a small power usage, but otherwise my water is free. If I were to add up the costs of purchasing the tanks I'm not sure when my investment would pay off, but given how expensive water is here, it probably wouldn't be long. I remember I once got a rebate back from the WA government for one of the tanks, sadly an initiative no longer.

I add compost and manure to my garden once or twice a year. This costs about $80 annually. Otherwise I feed with seaweed tea. I am currently trying to add clay to my soil to improve its water retention. Cost so far: $4.00

The real key here is flexibility. Grow what you can and then work out how to eat it. Recipes can be found on the internet for just about any ingredient, it's then up to you to experiment and come up with yummy satisfying food.

In a future post I'll do a day by day breakdown of my meals to illustrate how I do it. Let's just say I eat a lot of greens!!


  1. G'Day Naomi,
    Really enjoying this series on budgeting especially the food bit. Our grocery bill comes to about $5000 per year for two of us, which is higher than double yours. This doesn't include buying much meat as most of ours is home kills. We supplement with a small vege garden and contra deals with the local community, which usually keeps us in eggs at least. Our nearest decent supermarket is 100km away and being regional the prices are probably higher than the city and the fresh produce not as fresh. We don't eat out often, unless we are on holiday in which case we splurge but living on an isolated farm tends to make most meals start from scratch. Am wondering if 2Brothers would deliver to Coolatai? :)

    1. Thanks. I feel like I am over consuming still, even though I recently read that the average car costs $12000 a year to run and my diesel guzzler only cost me $5G.

      2Brothers use Australia Post and deliver all over Australia though unsure whether still for $3.50. We suffer from ridiculous grocery prices here too, what with being regional and the inflation of a mining boom but the farmers market really saves the day as far as lovely fresh veg goes. The supermarket veg is pretty ordinary.

      I'd love to have my own livestock for meat, not possible on a suburban block, but have been entertaining the idea of trapping the feral pidgeons...