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since June 19, 2001


Tips on how to get by


You have fallen on hard times or you feel that your household expenses are so large that there is always too much month left at the end of the paycheque?  Examine your expenditures a bit to find out where your money goes. 
    I can't recommend how much money you should spend on various things, but I do know that the large majority of us spend far more than we need to live on, regardless how hard-up we feel we are.  Experience makes me say that.  I lived in Germany during and after World War II and experienced for about four years what a starvation-level diet is like and what it means to live with no luxury goods of any kind. 
    It was at age 12 when I ate my first bananas and oranges or had my first cup of coffee made from ground coffee beans that had rounded ends (the stuff must be poisonous, because I broke out in a cold sweat after I drank just one cup of it).  In addition, I'm the survivor of the financial devastation of a divorce and have been there where I had to juggle bills and had to cope with having my wages garnisheed by my own lawyer to the extent that I had no more than $60 left on my paycheque at the end of the two-week pay period. 

It is worth anybody's time to determine where the money goes that he brings home.  If you read this on a screen and you don't know why you always run out of money before the next paycheque arrives (even if you believe that you do), then most likely you have no one to blame than yourself. 
    The most amazingly powerful tool that was ever invented to track your expenses with is right in front of you.  There are cheap software packages on the market (perish the thought that you should use one that a friend gave you) that permit you to track your expenditures with extremely little effort. I used Quicken for years to do that with, but before that I used an accounting ledger that can be bought for very little money at any stationery store.  I'm not talking about budgeting — I know, many people abhor the thought of living by a budget — I'm talking about doing nothing more than to simply track what the money coming in is being spent on. 
    Once expenditure tracking and logging of all purchases (including beer, peanuts, cigarettes, coffee and video rentals), is being done item-by-item, it is amazing what that will do to cure some of the spending habits of the individual doing the tracking. 

Certainly, much of the economic bind you are in isn't your fault.  You may have lost your job because you have a criminal record, perhaps because of false abuse allegations, or because you defaulted on child support payments, which is now increasingly likely to be a criminal offence.  Whatever the reasons, you have to make the best with what you've got left.  In many cases people are simply failing to consider alternatives from which to choose the one that gives them the most value or the best comfort for the least amount of money. 

Most of all, don't ever think that you are entitled to a treat of any kind, no matter how much you like it.  Make your own treats.  You have that privilege and don't be too proud to use it.  The reality is that you must learn to live without many luxuries and that many ready-made things are luxuries that you could produce at a far lower cost to you if you were to make the effort.

How to save on food

One of the largest expenditure categories in any household is food.  It's also the one where, believe it or not, we can exercise the largest amount of discretion on how much money we can waste or how much we can save.  The choice is ours.  For instance, it may be a choice between buying packaged foods and bulk foods.  The rule of thumb for that is that the more a food has been processed, the more expensive it becomes.  Bulk foods are almost without exception cheaper. 
    With packaged foods, many producers try to sell a cheap commodity at processed and packaged food prices.  A couple of examples: It is far cheaper to buy sugar by the bag than to buy it in a cereal box.  It is also far cheaper to buy water from the tap than to buy it in a package of frozen meat or ina can of soup. 
    Many meat packers take advantage of the food regulations that require them to keep their products in ice water at all times during processing.  They have allowances for that when they sell their packaged poultry and meat products.  They are allowed to have these packages contain as much as 15% water.  You bet that many processors make sure that the extra water is in their packages — I'm sure that you noticed.  The meat departments in the grocery stores must add ice to the meat they grind, to prevent the latter from heating up in the grinding process (ever wonder why some of the hamburger you buy shrinks so much when you cook it?).  So, make sure that you don't buy water at meat prices. 
    There are many ways by which the consumer can be fleeced.  All of them are being used.  Watch for them! 

If you are on a diet, you are a prime candidate for being fleeced.  General Foods (Safeway) have a whole division that will sell you all kinds of foods in all sorts of packages for more than double or triple of what it is worth in the worst of times, only because the packages carry the label Weight Watchers.

Ruth and I are not vegetarians, but Ruth is less likely than I am to recognize the importance of large volumes of vegetables in our diet. 

Any diet that contains a large proportion of vegetables is ideal for anyone who likes gardening.  Both Ruth and I believe it to be a sign of our times — of a society that is generally too well off — that few people who could are actually growing a vegetable garden (if many people were truly starving, we would see far fewer well-manicured lawns and more vegetable gardens).  The worst indication of that we saw on TV an while ago, in a program on people that use the food bank.  The reporter asked one of the women who were selecting items to take home, why she passed by the container with the fresh green beans without taking any.  The woman replied that she wouldn't know what to do with them. 

In our case, the garden and what it produced made it possible for us to spend a very small fraction of what other families spend on groceries, and for us to live healthily in the process.  For three of us, Ruth spent in three successive years no more than $1,200 and as little as $740/year on groceries.  That is what other families easily spend in one month.  Largely that was possible because we didn't have to buy milk and meat.  We ate between two and three yearling sheep (the best mutton) per year and drank all of the milk we wanted to drink, with liberal amounts of home-made cheese. 

Home-made cheese

The cheese could be made by anyone who has access to a source of fresh milk.  If the cream isn't skimmed off, the lactic acid cheese that can be produced from fresh milk can be frozen in small containers and thawed as required.  It will spread well after it is thawed, however, if it has been made from skimmed milk it will not spread well but rather be crumbly although it'll still taste good.  It tastes great when spread on sour rye-bread, with a liberal helping of home-made strawberry freezer-jam.  It tastes somewhat like strawberry shortcake but is considerably more delicious.  Four slices of bread with that can be a breakfast that keeps a man going well until noon, even when he does a fair bit of physical work.  I like the taste of it so much that I never tire of it.  If I had the choice of a single type of breakfast for every day of my life, that would be it. 

We got the idea for that type of sandwich from a staple food available in Europe that I grew up with, lactic acid cheese (called quark in some European countries) on sour rye, with sugar sprinkled on it.  It was a very common source of protein for families who found it difficult to afford meat products for their sandwiches. 

Sorry, the cheese can't be produced from homogenized milk available in North America.  Pasteurization as executed according to health regulations here destroys the qualities of the milk that make the cheese (quark)  production possible.  In some European countries, pasteurization involves heating the milk to only 80 degrees Celsius.  That way the milk is still technically fresh, and not boiled milk.  In North America, pasteurization involves boiling the milk, not only that, but in times of over-production of milk the dairies store excess milk in the form of milk powder and are permitted to add as much as one third of reconstituted milk to fresh milk for sale in times of low milk production.  That is one of the reasons why fresh store-bought milk sometimes tastes like it is boiled milk.  The taste comes primarily from the reconstituted milk that is added by the dairy (1/3 reconstituted milk to 2/3 fresh milk) before it fills the cartons or jugs for sale. 

Making your own sausages

The cheese and milk we consumed held down our consumption of meat to around 40 to 50 lb. per person per year.  We simply didn't have much of a desire to eat much meat.  However, we did buy some bacon and sausage, when we didn't make any of our own.  Every once in a while we would convert a whole sheep into sausage meat for the production of frankfurters, after we trimmed off all of the fat.  There is no doubt that the fat in sheep sausages, when they are eaten cold, can be objectionable to some people.  It's not the taste, but the texture.  It can be tallowy (less likely to happen if the slaughtered animal is just a year old).  However, even though we liked the sausages, we don't make them anymore.  They are too expensive to make to be an economic alternative to store-bought sausages. 

Make use of your freezer

If you do your own cooking for the sake of saving money, cook meals that can be frozen.  There are many things, such as soup stock, or meat sauces, that can be cooked in large batches and frozen in containers, either reusable plastic or disposable milk cartons.  Milk cartons have the advantage of making the best use of deep-freeze space.  It is more efficient to cook large batches than to make many small ones. 
    Freezing many smaller portions will prevent you from having to eat the same food on successive days. 
    If you want to store food in plastic bags for freezing, put each bag inside a square container before filling, with the top hanging over the sides of the container.  Insert a drinking straw between the bag and the container wall.  Fill the bags with the food, close them and freeze them still in the containers.  Once the food in the bags is frozen, the containers can then be taken off more easily on account of the straw that will let in air when you attempt to pull the bag out.  The container can then be re-used. when you freeze your next batch of food. 

Use aged produce

For a good source of cheap vegetables when not having access to a garden, consider talking to the manager of the local grocery store.  They have daily routines.  One of those is to have a cart in the back of the store in which they collect vegetables that were removed from display and are slated to be tossed out.  The carts often contain also day-old baked goods and even other items such as dented tins and busted sugar bags.   The vegetables and fruit on such carts can often be had for free.  Don't be too proud to take advantage of that. 
    Even old wilted lettuce can make a good salad when you peel off the outer leaves.  You just may have to use two our three heads instead of just one to make a salad for a meal.  Unsightly fruit can be cleaned and processed into jams. 

Salad dressings

Make your own salad dressings.  My basic recipe is as follows (sorry, can't give you exact quantities. I do it by the seat of the pants): 
    Take a shaker. 
    Put about a quarter of a cup of sugar into the shaker. 
    Add half a cup of vinegar. 
    Add about a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper (buy pepper as whole seed in large quantities and grind them as needed.  It tastes much better and is far cheaper than ground pepper in small containers). 
    To that you add anything in the way of spices and herbs that you desire.  Experiment! 
    Shake it all up and then add oil, about one third of the volume. 
    Shake it up again and use it. 

If you make a salad from sliced cucumbers, this type of dressing tastes good when you add dill weed and some milk.  The milk will thicken the dressing. 


If you like pickles, make your own.  Other than the cucumbers, you need only for each quart jar a tablespoon each of salt (non-iodized or pickling salt), sugar, vinegar and in addition spices (a teaspoon of whole spice will do), a couple of cloves of garlic,  one or two bay leaves. 
    Put all of that into each jar, cover with boiling water and seal.  You don't have to use heat to seal.  Simply screw on the lids and put into a dark place.  The pickles will ferment in the jar like sauerkraut.  They are not the tastiest pickles that Ruth makes, but for many years they were the only ones she made, because they were by far the cheapest.  However, they are still tastier than many store-bought varieties.  Only one thing:  be careful when you open a jar.  Do it over the sink; just in case the contents will start to fizz when you release the pressure. 
    These pickles taste best right after the jar is opened.  Keep the unused pickles in the jar tightly closed.  They go flat when the CO2 bubbles out and don't taste their best anymore.  They'll lose their bite. 

If you need pickling jars, buy them at auctions.  Sometimes they go for almost nothing — in the range of one to three dollars for a box of two dozen.  If you buy instant coffee, buy no-brand coffee and make sure you pick jars that can be fitted with canning lids. 

Buy in bulk

Buy staple items such as sugar when they are on sale.  Don't buy them when they are in high demand, such as during the Christmas-baking or canning seasons.  In the off-season sugar is often on sale for a small fraction of the regular price.  That alone will save you much money you can't afford to spend. 

Bread can be bought at about half of the regular price as day-old bread from bakeries.  All bread freezes well.  Buy enough to last you for a month.  That way you'll make the trip worth-while.  When you open a bag of frozen bread, shake out the frost.  If you don't do that, it will thaw and make portions of the bread soggy.  Even after a month, frozen bread will taste freshly baked when thawed.  If it doesn't, toast it first. 

Save the bread bags and use them when needed for sandwich bags or for freezing vegetables. 

Freezing vegetables

When freezing vegetables, blanch them first.  They'll take up less space in the deep-freeze, especially after you have sucked out as much of the air in the bag as you can.  Store them in portions no bigger than you need for the smallest meals you make.  To save on bags, flatten the bags after you filled them and press ridges into the contents so that you can break off required portions without having to thaw the whole bag. 

If you like green peppers, buy them from the cart with the disposed vegetables, take them home and clean and slice them.  Then freeze them fresh.  Don't blanch them, but use the method of partitioning them in the bag that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. 

If you need a deep-freeze and have the space for it, don't buy a new one, buy one at an auction, but make sure that it is operational.  If it is plugged in and has frost on the walls, it's working.  You should never pay more than half the price of a new deep-freeze.  That way you leave yourself a margin for repairs that may be required and still break even.  We have got three deep-freezes going and paid no more than $50 for any of them.  Rather than repair any of them we buy another one to replace the one that is faulty.  We had to do that only once during the last 16 years.  The freezers will eventually be needed by one or the other of your children.  We keep buying them primarily to pass them on to someone who needs them. 

Left-over turkey (or any other left-over meat)

Don't be afraid to cook a whole turkey.  It is often the cheapest meat available.  Of course, you can't eat all of it at once, but you can freeze the left-overs. 

Trim all of the meat off the bones.  (Make soup stock from the bones.  It will make delicious soup with a good body to it)  Grind the trimmed-off meat and put it into freezer bags.  When you need sandwich-spread or want to make a salad, you can thaw it as required. 
    For sandwich spread, add some mustard, mayonnaise, and salt and pepper as desired.  Mix it with chopped onions and, presto:  some of the best sandwich spread you ever had.   You don't even have to wait for it to thaw before you prepare it.  Just take it out of the bag and mix it with the other ingredients.  It will thaw as you mix it.  The same principle can be used for left-overs from other meats you cook.  Cooked meat that is ground up and prepared like that will stretch farther than to slice it and use it that way on sandwiches. 

By the way, you can use the same basic principle to mix up a tasty sandwich spread with chopped boiled eggs, or with a tin of herrings in tomato sauce.  Just add a bit more mustard with the herrings and season to taste.

The mayonnaise will work fine for a potato salad, too.  To make the potato salad a bit more interesting, add a few other things, such as finely diced dill pickles, a finely diced apple or two or a bit of finely diced green pepper (and don't forget a finely diced onion).  If the potato salad doesn't have enough zest, stir in a bit more mustard.  The potato salad will be best if you store it in the fridge for a few hours before eating it.

Mayonnaise too is far cheaper to make from scratch than to buy in jars, but it is a bit of work, mainly because of the cleaning up after you are done.  If you have a blender,  a batch of mayonnaise, about a pint, can be made for about $0.60 or maybe a little bit more, depending on what brand of oil you buy. The oil is the most expensive part of the recipe, but the price of eggs keeps going up, too.

¼ cupvinegar50ml
2 tsp.granulated sugar10ml
1 tsp.salt5ml
1 tsp.dry mustard5ml
1/8 tsp.paprika0.5ml
1 ½ cupsvegetable oil375ml

Important: All ingredients must be at room temperature!

  1. In a blender carafe, combine egg, 2 tbsp. (25ml) vinegar, sugar, salt. mustard and paprika.  Blend on low speed to combine ingredients.
  2. While the blender is running, slowly add 1 cup (250ml) oil, then remaining 2 tbsp. (25ml) vinegar.
  3. Again, while blender is running, slowly add remaining ½ cup (125ml) oil, just until it begins to layer on surface. (mayonnaise will be the proper consistency.)  Cover and store in refrigerator.

Source: Versatile Vegetable, TransAlta Utilities

If you don't have a blender, you can still make the mayonnaise.  Make sure that all ingredients are at room temperature and use a mixing bowl that is at room temperature as well.  Follow the same basic sequence identified for making the mayonnaise in a blender, with one important difference: 

Combine the ingredients identified in step one but add vinegar and oil alternately just a few drops at a time.  Stir well each time until everything is well blended and then add a few more drops of vinegar, stir again until well blended, add a few more drops of oil, stir again until well blended.  Keep repeating that until the vinegar and oil are all gone into the bowl and completely blended each time.

At each repetition of the cycle the mayonnaise will become stiff.  That is when you add either vinegar or oil again, whatever come next in the cycle.  After a few repetitions of that you can become progressively a little more generous with the small amount you add each time, but you have to be careful not to overdo it.  If you add too much at once, the mayonnaise will not work out for you.  It won't stiffen, regardless of how hard you try.

The disadvantage of doing it by hand is that it takes a little more work.  The advantage is that it is much less work to wash a mixing bowl than to clean a blender.

The mayonnaise will keep well in the fridge for about a month.  You'll notice when its taste changes.  Make a new batch then or when you run out, whichever comes sooner.

Soup stock

Soup stock can be made from any bones.  Ask your local butcher for some.  They often throw the bones out.  However, even if you haven't got a source of cheap fresh bones, save the ones from your roasts, steaks, and poultry you cook — in your deep-freeze — until you have enough to fill up a canner and can make a big batch of stock.  Soup stock made from bones that were already roasted or fried tastes better than stock made from uncooked bones.  Many recipes call for browning the bones first.

If you use fresh, uncooked bones, wash the bones.  Put them into the canner, cover them with cold water and bring to a boil.  Let simmer for about a couple of hours. Skim off the foam frequently.  Strain.  Pick off the meat from the bones and add to the soup stock.  Add salt to taste.  Put into freezer bags and freeze. 

If you have never used soup stock as the base for any soup, you'll be surprised what a difference it makes in the taste and texture of soup.  Few restaurants can match the quality of what they serve with that of a soup made from soup stock you made.  Most of all,  by having your own soup stock, a few spices, and vegetables that may come out of your freezer ready to use, you'll make a soup from scratch in little more time than it takes to make one using the contents of a can.  You'll have a soup that's absolutely delicious, cheaper, and far healthier to boot. 

I'll add a few more tips from time to time if there is enough demand. 

If anyone would like to find out about how to make use of a surplus of cucumbers and tomatoes, so that you can enjoy fresh-tasting batches all year, let us know and we'll tell you. 

I'm 6' 0" and weigh normally around 186 pounds.  I don't watch how much I eat and eat whenever I'm hungry.  My weight has been as low as 161 lb. and as high as 196 lb..  It depends on the season and on how much physical work I do, and that varies quite a bit over the year on account of us running a farm.  I guess that I weigh about 180 lb. right now but haven't checked my weight for the last eight years or so. (Just checked yesterday — 181 lb.)
    Ruth is not quite as active as I am and is liable to be padded a bit better, but, more than anything else, it's a genetic flaw with her, she is female.  :-) 

That's all for now.  Enjoy, —WHS

For more tips, to find out how much other families spend on food and what they do to save money on food and still eat well, check the following thread at a discussion forum.  The thread got started after a woman wrote in and asked for advice.

Help! My grocery budget is out of control!


Saving on clothing

Don't be shy to go shopping at places like Value Village or Twice but Nice.  You can't afford to be choosy.  There is no stigma attached to being poor on account of being exploited.  Get to know your clothing sizes, and if you find anything you like, make sure that the cuffs and collars show no obvious signs of wear.

1999 06 02
2000 11 26 (corrected typos)
2001 01 31 (format changes)
2004 01 08 (added recipe for mayonnaise and link to Help! My grocery budget is out of control)
2005 08 11 (added link to tips on have to control spending and debts)