Monday, February 15, 2010

Money Monday: February 15, 2010

Some expenses, you can eliminate. Some you can trim. Some you can merely defer, knowing full well that eventually you’re going to have to step up and pay for them.

For example, when I decide I’m going to ‘cook from my pantry’ – remembering that I am an uber-bulk purchaser who tends to buy meats by the whole animal and beans in sacks you need a wheelbarrow to carry – I can go for a pretty long time with grocery bills that don’t go over thirty or forty bucks a week for three squares a day plus snacks for all six of us plus friends and family that stop for a visit.

For a while.

But inevitably, there comes a time when I go out into the garage and am confronted by rows of empty bins and canisters; a time when there are no more dried tomatoes, no more powdered milk, no more flour or sugar or beans, when the freezer renders up one badly crystallized cut-up chicken and a stack of Swiss steak and nothing else.

That’s about where I am right now. The freezer is running extremely low (although thanks to a ludicrous sale on chicken we are set for that particular dietary staple for another month or even two), the garden is just barely starting to show signs of life while meanwhile what little I did manage to freeze or can last year is long gone…

So this week when I made up the menu plan, it felt like there was a lot more on the ‘supermarket’ list than on the ‘pantry/freezer/backyard’ one. Meh.

Then when I got to the end of the shopping trip and the perky cashier told me my total was $102.88, though, I had a minor crisis. A hundred bucks? Seriously?!

I know that’s hardly an earth-shattering amount to spend on groceries for a family this size. And there was a restocking of the cold-n-flu medicines in there, which have a way of adding up.

It’s just that, having spent the last six months or so cooking largely from the backyard and pantry, I’ve gotten kind of spoiled.

But it wasn’t eliminated spending – merely deferred.

Which is not always the wisest way to go about things. A large part of what makes bulk purchasing work out well financially is that it is also opportunistic and ongoing. You see something being offered for a good price, and back up the old truck to buy extreme amounts of it – storing what you’re not going to use immediately for the longer term.

It takes a certain amount of finesse, doing that. You have to understand not only the bargain itself, but the aftermath – where are you going to put it, how long will it last, how much will you reasonably use and how does that compare to the shelf life of what you’re about to buy?

The best of bargains turns into a bad deal if you end up throwing it away because you couldn’t use it before it spoiled.

It takes some time (in my experience, anyway) to work up to a level where you can pull it off well. There’s always some loss along the way, and the occasional Mega Disaster – thirty pounds of ground beef that didn’t get cooked, or a bushel of corn that went to the maggots in the garage while you were trying to scrape together the time to deal with it. Moths in the dried beans, maggots in the wheat germ…food storage can become an epic adventure when you’re shopping not merely for the next week or two, but the next year at one time.

Not to mention how often you’ll pull triumphantly into your garage loaded down with, say, a case of soap you got for a song, only to discover that…oh yeah…you kinda already had fifteen cases of soap laid down…oops

But once you’ve got the groove, it becomes a way of life. You become accustomed to things just sort of always being on hand; just about every day, I’m prying the lid off some pickle tub or other so I can dip out another twelve cups of flour or rice or whatever into the “inside” container.

And when you grab that canister and it weighs nothing, it’s…weird. When I’m down to the last five pounds of rice, I usually start watching for a good price on the next 50# sack…so to actually run out is, like…well, it’s like…dude…wait, what? Seriously? I’m out of rice?

No. WAY.

When you let your storage bins go empty, you can find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having to buy what you need at whatever price is on offer – when you’re really running low on food, you don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for a really good deal on something.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t let that happen. And on the staples, like the rice / beans / flour stuff, I haven’t. But everything else, things like canned corn and beans, frozen peas and carrots, I have let dwindle down to nothing-or-next-to-it.

It feels really, really weird. I can’t tell you how often I’ll find myself standing out there in the garage, peering into the empty, dark cabinets going, “Wait…really? I’m out of corn? Seriously? Isn’t there just one more can in there, somewhere…?”

This week, we’ve really kind of hit bottom. Just about anything that isn’t a grain of some kind, I’m going to have to buy at the supermarket while we wait for the garden to start producing again – which made for that painful jolt at the register.

But, all for a good cause. As we head into the warmer months and start growing more and more of our own food, I’ll start working on how best to preserve it. Hopefully around this time next year, I’ll still be pulling our own produce out of the pantry and freezer, instead of having to buy someone else’s at the supermarket. So there, nyah.

This weekend, we did a tiny bit of weeding and a lot of grow tray planting – over two hundred tomato seeds are now safely tucked in their little dirt beds, ready to start growing inside for transplanting outside in a few weeks. There’s also a tray of peppers, jalapeno and bell.

In another week or so, I’ll do some direct seeding of carrots, more peas, bush beans, bok choy and lettuce. Our last frost was “supposed” to be last week, but that’s one of those things that I just don’t trust. Most of the time, we don’t get an overnight frost after February 6. Sure. But we also don’t usually get them before December, and this year we had them in early November.

I love Mother Nature, but I don’t exactly trust Her when it comes to paying attention to human calendars. Even if the whole point of the calendar is to track Her behavior.

Sometimes, I think She does this stuff on purpose, just to mock us.

Well. Suppose I ought to go cook something now – it’s a school and daycare holiday today, which means that I am home with the Denizens instead of at work today!

…wait…which is ‘work’ again…?

(They want waffles and bacon for breakfast. Heh. So would I, if somebody else were making it…)


Steph B said...

The fact that you plan the way you do just boggles my mind. I'm one of those people who can spend five minutes just deciding which socks to wear for the day (pathetic, I know). So the concept of planning your grocery consumption not just days, but weeks or even months ahead? DOES NOT COMPUTE! Simply thinking about it makes the room spin and my stomach heave. Seriously, some day I'm going to fly you to MI for a week and just follow you around like a lost pup, 24/7. Maybe then some of your management mojo will rub off on me. OR maybe you'll just have a restraining order written up, I don't know. But it's worth a shot! :-)

PipneyJane said...

I don't shop on your scale (I wish I had the storage space), but I do experience similar problems with the handful of goods I buy in bulk: "OMG, what do you mean we're out of basmati and we only have 3kg of easycook brown rice left?". :o)

At the moment, we only bulk buy rice (in 10kg sacks) and flour (again, in 10kg sacks). Dried beans come in 2kg bags which last us anywhere between 3 months and 2 years depending on variety. We could bulk buy a lot more, if we had the space and if we could find a good price (for most things Costco isn't as cheap as our local supermarkets). What is highly entertaining is that most of our friends think we're "amazing" bulk shoppers just because of the things we stock up with on a monthly basis. :o)

Still, my kitchen renovations are scheduled for April, so I should have some serious storage space soon.

- Pam (daydreams of the day when the rice bin gets stored in an actual cupboard)