Food Budgeting and SNAPs

Dear Youngsters,

First, allow me to apologize I have been dreadfully ill the past few weeks and I haven’t made much progress on anything. Infections are my big drawback and can knock me to the ground without a chance for fighting. Be happy if you are graced with a strong immune system and generally healthy out-look on life—there are some of us struggling to battle even the most pathetic and benign bacteriae that inhabit our bodies…and the spores and pollen in the air that cause such infections. Anyway, here is our quick tid-bit from that lesson we will get to later: it pays to have health insurance—it pays even more to have two-lines of coverage. If you are under 26 it is likely that your parents will cover you on their health insurance. If you are equally employed, it is also likely—in this time period—that you have insurance by your employer. In some cases your employer will allow you to ‘remove’ such a perquisite and will compensate you with an increase in wage or salary, what have you. In other cases the option is not available as the group membership under health-care insurance will stipulate participation regardless of your other coverage. This more or less means, you can still say you don’t want the coverage…. but they aren’t going to pay you anymore for declining—so why wouldn’t you take the coverage? If you are in this nice special case you have two lines of coverage, a primary line and a secondary line. What are the benefits? Well besides the fact that it is one of them most enjoyable things in the world to see insurance companies fight each other and an even rarer one in the case that you get to be both the beneficiary and a semi-neutral third party (one of them has to pay, so you just get to watch them bicker about it) they usually* will cross cover the others deductible. In many cases this can go a long way if you have a high annual deductible on your employer covered insurance plan. Once that limit has been reached—hell go see your doctor weekly: you are good to go.

If you are in the other scenarios, well we will get to that in more detail later but 1) you now legally need to have insurance 2) preventative medicine is FAR less expensive than treatment medicine. When you visit your GP, or in the worst the ER, because you are already sick, you are practicing the massively more expensive “treatment” style medicine. In this vein they try and manage symptoms and mediate or correct the imbalance that has launched your system out of homeostasis—whatever the cause may be. You get drugs, sometimes happy pills, doctors slips for days off work, and the collective feeling of “feel better” from your friends and family and a nice little deductible re-imbursement expense on behalf of your insurer either at the appointment or sometime down the line which can range from as little as 25 to as much as 100 or more.

Preventative medicine? Take your vitamins, increase Vit. C & D in the winter months. Taking a vacation… yes, this is in fact preventative medicine…exercise and choosing to maintain a healthy weight and diet plan will all certainly reduce both the probability and in all likelihood the severity of set-backs when and if they do happen. This is high-school biology and general medical awareness; however, despite the fact it’s pretty much written into compulsory public education curriculum many of us never take heed and revert to dealing with it when it happens. This is not a cost deminis solution, I advise you for the good of your current and future health to remain on top of this particular item, there are few things in investing that provide such a surety and substantial return on investment. Anybody questioning this fact, take the time to think about workable hours, efficiency and indeed the number of years one can continue to be gainfully employed as a healthy individual versus a sickly one. Alas if you are genetically pre-disposed to be sick (welcome to the club, we have anti-biotics not cookies.) do your best—it’s still better than the alternative. One last note: while there is a wide range of opinion about the amount of meat one should consume, let’s be frank—steak (red meat) nightly, while heavenly I am told, is not only environmentally irresponsible it is detrimental to your own health. While I don’t actively advocate vegetarianism, although I have been a pescetarian for quite some years now, it is generally a healthy choice to reduce the amount of red meat in one’s diet. Careful, I did not say stop eating meat or to reduce the amount of protein. I said red meat. Also, being skinny does not absolve you of this. Many, many, many medical journal articles will kindly stipulate that even a ‘healthy’ (and by that we mean low BMI) waist line can be just as detrimental as an obese one. Being so-called ‘skinny fat’ does no one any good. Skinny does not mean healthy, and, for the record, a few pounds over the social-perfection does not mean unhealthy. This realm is perfectly suited between you and your doctor or nutritionist if you have one, but it never hurts to take the conservative road: “everything in moderation”. You can have too much of a good thing, even water can kill you.

All righty, today we get to start talking about budgets. While I won’t actually have you set out a full budget today, because I’m much too lazy right the moment to make the darned excel sheet presentable for publication, I would like to talk about an often politicized and difficult topic that is at the heart of all family budgets. One we need to address. It is at the same time a fixed cost and a variable one, because you simply cannot stop consuming it but the cost does vary with how much and what quality you consume—that item is of course the food budget. Why is it politicized: well we want to be mindful of the politics surrounding those families and individuals who simply CANNOT afford to eat, and we want to explore the oft overlooked fallacy in the argument that $30 a week per person on food is enough (as would be the assistance average on food-stamp programs give or take a range of error).

As a die-hard cheap living is good living proponent, I often balk at the grocery bills of those in-line ahead of me at whatever market it is I’m a patron of that month. So much so I once had to make an Instagram photo of the disparity between my grocery list and bill and the couple ahead of me.

Groceries

The story is a short one: the couple ahead of me had a massive cart full of goods, mostly canned, homogenized, processed good ol’merican heart-land delectables that many have become accustomed through child-hood and adolescence to consuming. Perhaps out of personal choice, lack-of-knowledge in cooking, or socialization as to what their parents’ consumed—and we largely tend to do the same.  I don’t know for how many they were buying so the number may in fact be reasonable but let’s imagine that they were in-fact buying for two—if they were buying for more we may need to consider the lack of actual nutrition in the diet they were consuming [sic: preventative medicine]. Their bill came to a whopping $243.56, the man nearly died and nervously fumbled for his wallet to swipe… you guessed it, a credit card. That’s somewhat okay, this is in fact how credit-cards are meant to be used, for this every-day budgeted expenses that you immediately pay-off but reap the benefits of cash-back or rewards (sky miles anyone?), but this—we can imagine with no far leap—was a not so planned expense. Frankly the couple made a few mistakes. They didn’t preplan the trip. Evidence? I am never shocked by my bill. I pretty much know what the number will be before I step foot into the store. And it doesn’t take that much devotion to come up with a weekly or monthly menu and shopping list—my father has proudly displayed his on the family refrigerator since I was a mere infant. If there is one thing ALL of you are quite capable of doing it is planning ahead.

This simple act has the power to save you bundles. Not only does it help curb impulse buys—print/write out the shopping list and shop only what is on the list—but it requires you to record the item. If the price isn’t as advertised you can remove it, or complain … that’s what I do but I generally get a kick out of making trouble for other people… because I’m evil. Recording the item and the cost gives you a very detailed and direct understanding of your costs. The late Baroness Thatcher was known for her need to economize her grocery expenditure even after having obtained substantial wealth and power. Your status does not dictate your grocery bill—your diet and the scarcity of food and the prices do.

What was the couple’s next mistake? Well perhaps not visible from the picture but they bought 3 individual cartons of eggs in those nice little 2-dozen blue-Styrofoam packages. Rookie mistake. Unless you HAVE to have those supple extra-large we could just buy ostrich eggs massive embryos, you can save cents per egg by buying in BULK! (Look in my basket it’s the nice big box labeled large eggs). For those of you who want a quick idea of how to know which is cheapest when the quantity varies and so does the price, take a look at the price tag. There are two numbers there of interest. In Wally-world, the orange one is the ‘per-unit’ price, the yellow one is the face-value. Most of us see face-value, get shocked and buy it anyway at the cheapest face-value. You, my friend, have been duped. If you have the cash-flow and can afford to delay the recognition of consuming your foods inventory (eggs really take quite some time to go bad in the refrigerator is what I mean) you should be buying off the orange number. The lower the orange number the cheaper it is per-egg. This is how manufactures buy raw-material goods to lower the direct materials cost, it is also how YOU should be lowering your direct materials cost.

If you don’t think you can consume that much or that it will go bad and effectively make you worse off than if you had simply bought the marginally more expensive less-bulk item in the first place, then sure by all means buy the cheapest yellow tag. This is where your discretion comes in, and practice does make perfect. Over-time you learn what works and what doesn’t. My grocery bill for what amounted to approximately 3-whole weeks of food, and some carry-over items into the next month, inclusive of cosmetics and sundry items: $81.

This has brought me to a nasty conclusion: many people spend an exorbitant amount of their income needlessly on food. Point in fact, unless you must consume some rather expensive items (guess what! I still buy organic…), you could deal with some good Thatcher style economizing. If the reason for your gross-excess is because you don’t cook or lack the skills how. Buy a cook book and READ it. It will teach you how to cook. Men… get in the kitchen. I don’t know why for years we have come up with social ideal of a women in the kitchen—for centuries men have been chefs, for many more years than the present females were not even ALLOWED to be professionally employed as chefs. Not to say women are not fine masters of the art of cooking themselves—just to point out that there is no shame in making a damned delicious pie as a man! Also, nothing is sexier than a guy who can make a perfect omelet. If you still believe it’s not manly to cook: Gordon Ramsey.

Now then, the final topic. Just how much should we aim to spend on food? Well this is largely your own decision. I know some people who live and die by a good meal. These bon-vivants can and will spend an egregious sum on quality and rare ingredients, that is fine if that gets you to your happy spot. Remember we want to do what makes us happy, so I am by no means suggesting if that is your thing to cut back your food budget. My personal conviction, and I like a good meal myself, is that you should not spend more than $30 dollars a week per person on food. It just shouldn’t happen. If you manage your expenses, plan the meals and acquire quality ingredients at good prices, this should be ENTIRELY do-able and perfectly nutritious with the stipulation that you are in America (probably not going to fly in Tokyo guys…sorry). How do I know this? Well, I do it, and I have friends scattered all across the nation who do the same.

“But Jonathan, if that’s the case then food stamps should not give more than $30 dollars a week in assistance.” No. Stop. Your logic on face seems direct but there is a flaw. While people on food stamps can plan—in fact most have no choice but not too and in much greater detail than you or I would ever need—the main benefit you and I have to lower our costs is to buy in bulk. “Well they can buy in bulk too it’s not hard anyone can do it.” Physically, yes, it’s not difficult anyone can buy in bulk and our high-school education system at least attempts to make it so you can crunch even the basic numbers to do so—nobody is questioning this fact… the issue is cash flow.

While you and I can go buy food in bulk costing whatever the amount may be $120 in one trip if we so desire on a bunch of food that can last us all month easily and rather fatally filled, this is not so possible on $30 dollars a week stipend stamps: even if it is assistance. There is a cash-flow issue that makes this not possible. Buying in bulk is cheaper PER ITEM, that’s why it’s a successful measure for middle-class and wealthy individuals to drive down costs, but the yellow tag price (the face value) is higher: mechanically, it must be—you are buying more of a good. That carton of eggs alone cost nearly 10 dollars. Yes, it lasts all month and probably then some and I eat eggs daily, it’s a bargain. But how in the world is someone who does not have such cash-flow abilities to survive on 30% grocery expenditure on a box of eggs? You don’t, not nutritiously anyway. So they are forced to buy individual low yellow-tag priced items because this is the most effective means of diversifying types of food to obtain the modicum of nutrition while remaining in budget. In reality, the poor are often much more efficient optimizers and cost reducers than you and I—they have a much greater incentive as well—nobody likes to go hungry, and opening up an empty pantry is a deadening feeling….especially with kiddies to feed. (Imagine the cost of baby food which is much too costly per jar to actually purchase on such a cash-flow strapped budget jar by jar… and our often proclaimed solution is for the parent(s) to make the baby food themselves…which makes total sense because if we couldn’t afford the cash-outlay to purchase the baby food we can totally afford the food processer and raw vegetables and fruits item by item to make it ourselves.)

Unfortunately this is the trite logic espoused against food-stamp programs. The dark reality is that they are not abused programs and they serve an immense purpose to those in need. There are very few (Ha! None) poor congressmen. Many do not understand the reason that the poor cannot simply make due. A retaliation is that the poor have to spend more of their income on food than the rich. Absolutely true—nobody can deny this fact. But this doesn’t get at the crux of the problem. The poor are not enabled to succeed by the sheer nature of the structure of the program. In our attempt to ensure there will be funds and the funds are not overspent or misappropriated for certain expenses we have clutched the very mechanism that would allow the appropriate cost-reducing and proliferation that allows individuals to make ends meet while on food-stamps.

Well anyway, the more you know. So what is your job from this post? Consider your food expenditures. Consider how much you spend on food and adjust accordingly. PLAN for the love of θεός! Plan your shopping trip! It’s not difficult. Buy in bulk when applicable. Be kind to those who need it–they have enough on their plate… unfortunately food is often not what’s there.

In Deepest Regards,

Yours and C.

Mr. Fluharty

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