This article is by staff writer April Dykman.

I spend a lot of money on food. (More than I spend on my mortgage.)

Part of it is need, of course. But much of it is want, because I’m both an enthusiastic cook and a health nut. I view food as a cross between health care and hobby. And I know I’m fortunate to be in a position to buy things like freshly pressed olive oil and porcini mushrooms. I know that not everyone has that option. For some people, food is about survival. They have to stretch their food budget as far as they possibly can. Sometimes they go to bed hungry.

Being realistic

From time to time, I read GRS comments asking for advice for people who are struggling just to make ends meet. They can barely afford to eat, let alone save a six-month emergency fund or open a Roth IRA.

Comments like those always stay with me, but I’ve shied away from writing about those topics because I feel awkward doling out advice on something I know nothing about. I don’t know what it’s like to struggle to put food on the table. I’m not a teacher or a social worker who witnesses struggles like that.

And I certainly didn’t want to repeat McDonald’s blunder, when it created an unrealistic sample budget for its minimum-wage workers, inadvertently proving that its workers couldn’t live on a McDonald’s salary. The budget estimate didn’t include line items for heating or child care, so you know it was just a little out of touch and completely unhelpful to its minimum-wage workers.

But last weekend I came across an article about Leanne Brown, and I immediately knew I would share her story on GRS.

Eating on $4/day

Brown moved from Canada to New York to pursue a master’s degree in food studies. While volunteering with food access programs, she noticed that people in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were eating a lot of processed and unhealthy foods.

“It really bothered me,” she told NPR. “The 47 million people on food stamps — and that’s a big chunk of the population — don’t have the same choices everyone else does.”

Part of the reason why they don’t have the same food choices is that the average SNAP benefit per person is $133 per month for food. That works out to roughly $4.30 per day.

Another problem is that to feed a family on $4 a day, you have to cook. And you have to cook in a way that most of our grandmas used to cook, knowledge that many people didn’t inherit. For instance, cooking an entire chicken is more cost-effective than buying individual cuts, especially if you use every bit of the bird, even making stock from the bones. But when I started cooking, I had no idea how to cook and carve an entire chicken let alone how to make stock. My education came from copies of Cook’s Illustrated and lots of trial and error. And before I taught myself how to cook, I didn’t know how to really use up all of my groceries. For instance, I used to throw away stale bread. Now I know how to make like an Italian grandma and throw it in some pappa al pomodoro. But of course, I have leisure time to cook, and food is my hobby. Some people don’t have time for hobbies. Instead, they have two jobs and kids to raise.

Finally, another big problem Brown noticed is that the recipes already out there for eating cheaply didn’t look or sound very appealing. She described them as “photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very inspiring.”

So Brown set out to create a solution to these problems, writing Good and Cheap: How to Eat Well on $4/Day, a cookbook for people on a tight budget.

Eating well, on the cheap

Brown’s book features recipes and ideas for eating well on $4 a day, with each meal priced by the serving.

It also offers advice about how to stock a pantry with meal-building basics like garlic and dried beans, how to use leftovers, and options for substitutions, especially when it comes to produce. “I’ve gotten so many emails — heartwarming, heartbreaking emails — from people who tell me what this would have meant for them, growing up, to have guidance like this,” she told National Geographic’s The Plate.

And, it’s a nice-looking book, with recipes like vegetable jambalaya and savory summer cobbler. You know, stuff that real humans would actually want to eat.

But how do you get this resource out to the people who need it most?

Crowd-funding for a great cause

Brown first made her book available as a free PDF. “I created this book at the capstone project for my MA in Food Studies…” writes Brown in her book. “After I posted a free PDF on my website, it went viral on Reddit, Tumblr, and elsewhere — almost 100,000 downloads in the first few weeks!”

Realizing she was solving a real pain point for a lot of people, Brown started thinking about how to reach more of the people she was writing for. For instance, someone without a computer or Internet access can’t download and cook from a PDF.

So Brown created a Kickstarter campaign to help fund printed copies. “The expensive part of printing books is the initial setup; the cost of each additional copy is fairly low,” she wrote on her campaign page. The more books people bought, the more she could donate or sell at a huge discount to organizations that support low-income families on SNAP.

The result? Her $10,000 campaign ended with $144,681. That translates to more than 26,000 copies for nonprofits at $4 per book, plus more than 6,000 additional copies donated by her Kickstarter backers. The books will ship in September, according to Brown’s site.

So in conclusion, Leanne Brown is my newest food hero. And although the Kickstarter campaign is over, you can still download her free PDF, donate money, buy a print copy, or buy a copy and donate a copy at www.leannebrown.ca/cookbooks.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said the average SNAP benefit per family was $113 per month.  The correct figure is $133 per month per person.

This article is about Food, Frugality, Planning

There are 51 comments on this post.

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This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

The school year comes around every year, so it shouldn’t surprise parents of school-aged kids when August (or September) hits and the brilliant white tennis shoes hit the newly-waxed school floors. Since I’ve had my eye on the start of school for a few weeks, I am not surprised either. But I was surprised to learn that families of school-aged children spent over $630 in back-to-school expenses.

This number from the National Retail Federation includes clothing, shoes, school supplies, and electronics. While clothing is the largest expense on average, the other categories are significant too.

Saving for school

For instance, registration fees and school supply lists are a little bit different from the days when I french-rolled my jeans and used a lot of hairspray (please tell me I am not alone). As schools face budget cuts, more is expected from the parents. And we have registration fees and technology fees to manage as well. If your kids don’t need a scientific calculator or an electronic device, your fees will be lower. But still, let’s explore a few ways to save.

Clothes

Let’s talk about the biggest expense first: clothing. While I haven’t purchased any clothing for our kids yet, I plan on using methods I have talked about before.

  • Barter with other parents
  • Accept any offers of hand-me-downs from my friends/relatives
  • Shop during the 49-cent sale at my favorite thrift store
  • Check our kids’ closets and create a list for what is actually needed to fill the gaps in their wardrobes
  • “Shop” at a friend’s free clothing extravaganza she holds twice a year
  • If I must purchase new clothing, I will use the coupon codes from online retailers that are already starting to fill my inbox
  • And I’ll start the online shopping experience by starting at ebates.com to get a small percentage back.

Strategies to save

In general, budgeting for back-to-school, as I mentioned, shouldn’t be a surprise. However, it’s not a monthly expense, so it is easy to overlook.

A simple way to have enough cash when August rolls around is to figure out how much money you’ll spend, divide by 12, and save that amount of money each month.

I give you nothing but earth-shattering tips, eh?

Again, tip number one: Figure out what you’ll spend, divide by 12, and put that much money aside each month. Wow. And it’s a lot easier to save $50 per month than to it is to come up with $600 at once.

I have two kids in elementary school, so we had two school supply lists. I took both of them (along with our new baby) shopping for school supplies yesterday. By myself. Between bouncing the baby, juggling a bottle, consulting two school supply lists, and barking out directions to the kids to look in the different supply bins, I was a little frazzled. Okay, maybe I was more than a little frazzled, since I wasn’t paying attention to the cost of the supplies. My plan was to just get in and get out without losing my mind.

My second tip is to bring along another adult, if possible, or leave the kids at home. This decreases the frazzle factor.

For the first time, our school district had online registration, so I had paid our registration fees in June. (By paying them early, I got a 10 percent discount. Um, yes, please!) Along with paying our registration fees, I also got our children’s school supply lists early. That gave me a chance to watch for sales and coupons. I don’t usually do coupons, but there are school supply items like a specific brand of kitchen trash bags that do use coupons. Third tip? Don’t forget to check store sales and coupons.

Tip number four: Reuse supplies. On the last day of school, my kids came home with bulging backpacks. I took all their unused supplies (scissors and pencil boxes) and put them away so we could mark a few things off their school supply list.

If you want to be really prepared, use my fifth tip and buy the season’s leftover supplies (read: cheap) after the school year begins. And save these commonly used items (Crayons, markers, and the like) for the next year.

Tip six: Give your children useful presents. Each year, before one of her grandchildren starts kindergarten, my mom buys them a really nice backpack for Christmas or their birthdays. Can you give practical gifts that also double as back-to-school needs?

For the seventh tip, if your state offers tax-free shopping days, shop then. Also, see tip two again. But remember that these shopping days are bound to be busier and crazier than usual, so plan accordingly.

For my final tip, you may join me, if this applies. When the bus picks up the kids, I think I will enjoy a few minutes of solitude and a cup of steaming coffee (even if it’s still really hot outside). I will be celebrating the return to a more consistent schedule.

I am not the only one celebrating, though. My kids have already packed their backpacks with their new supplies. They’re ready to spend more time with their friends and maybe even enjoy the opportunity to learn a few things too.

Anyone ready to rename the back-to-school season as the most wonderful time of the year? Do you think $630+ on back-to-school shopping is accurate? What are some of your strategies to save? Or is your strategy, like mine, just to survive the shopping experience?


This reader story comes from long-time reader and commenter Bill McFadin, aka Cybergeezer, who commented that he had submitted a story months ago that never ran. We asked if he would resubmit the article, which he kindly did. Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. Want to submit your own reader story? Here’s how.

I have been retired three and a half years, and my current income is more than I was earning on the job before I retired. How? Well …

I never made big money; I exceeded $50,000 in gross earnings in just one year, and that was only with some massive overtime. And when I looked at various retirement calculators, it was disheartening; I would have needed to save more than I made to have enough to live on, it appeared.

So instead of looking at how much I needed according to some unrealistic chart, I looked instead at what I was saving, projected that out to how much I would have saved by my retirement date and looked for ways to generate the highest income from that total.

Because of heavy saving in my 401(k), I was taking home less than I could have; but I had some additional income that would not be affected by leaving my job, as I explain below. The Social Security website showed me that, based on my age and the gross benefit minus withholding for Medicare Part B and income tax, I would net nearly what I was taking home from my employer.

There are plenty of rules of thumb out there on how much of your former income you need to replace in retirement. What have you read — 100 percent? 80 percent? More? Less?

I have detailed information on only one person who has crossed over from the working life to the leisure life, so let’s use his (that would be my) numbers as an example.

My plan — and my assumptions

This is what I do. So if you decided to follow this for yourself, I assume that you would not be working at all in retirement. You wouldn’t be generating any additional earned income or paying any Social Security taxes. I assume that you would have paid all debts by the time you retire, including your home mortgage. (You never really pay off your house because the taxes and insurance go on forever.)

The principal and interest portion of my house payment totaled 24 percent of my gross income while I was working. In addition, I was putting 25 percent of that same gross into my 401(k) savings. (Earlier, before a cutback in hours and income, I was able to put away 40 percent because, as a single man whose child support payments were long behind him, I had only one mouth to feed.) My Social Security tax, which would not be paid in retirement so long as I had no earned income, was 6.2 percent.

So, adding the house (24 percent), retirement savings (25 percent) and a tax I wouldn’t pay without working (6.2 percent), I was putting a total of 55.2 percent of my gross income into things that I would not be paying in retirement, meaning I was living on 44.8 percent of my gross before income taxes and my employee health insurance was withheld. I have always felt that gross income is much less important than net and I am now netting, or taking home, more than I was while working, i.e., more than that 44.8 percent minus taxes.

Medicare, currently at $104.90 per month, is very close to what I was paying for health coverage at work as a single person. In retirement, I use a Medicare Advantage plan with no premium, so my health insurance costs are limited to the Medicare Part B payment. Co-pays so far have been the same as, or less than, what I paid while working. Income tax is harder to predict; but Social Security, as well as such things as dividends, interest and annuity payments, are reported to the IRS on a Form 1099. And, if you remember, one of the issues in the 2012 presidential election was that those of us in the “1099 economy” have a lower income tax rate than that paid by people whose earned income is reported on a W-2 form. In addition, I live in Florida where we have no state income tax.

The annuity

For additional income — I know some people have a blind spot about this and simply turn off their minds when they read the word — I found some unique annuities. They are neither the standard fixed nor the variable variety, but have a set percentage of increased payments each year on the anniversary of their purchase. I currently have three, with 2 percent, 4 percent and 5 percent annual raises, plus a future annuity that begins paying in 2016. That one will have a 3 percent annual raise. As for those dreaded fees, each of the four annuities I have purchased had a one-time fee of about $325, a total of $1,300 (about one-half of 1 percent of the money I invested).

Some dislike annuities because we are in a low-interest period right now, but I didn’t have 20 years to wait for rates to get a lot higher or even 10 years for them to get a little higher. At the present time, with the annuities already paying me, I am getting about 5.7 percent on my investment, much better than the 0.41 percent I earn, for instance, on the money market account that is holding my liquid funds.

While I think there must be other companies offering similar annuity products, these are the only ones I have found with this specific type of increase that is not tied to either the stock market or the rate of inflation. They are sold by New York Life.

I started the first two annuities in 2008, so I had some extra income to help fill the gap when my overtime was sliced and, later, my hours and base pay followed. At the time I retired, my Social Security plus annuities amounted to about 92 percent of the total income I was making while working. Today, my income before the annuity I added in 2012 is 102 percent of what I was making and my total income (counting that third annuity) is 110.5 percent of my final total while still on the job.

It will be even better (I’m roughly figuring about 131 percent) when the fourth annuity kicks in in 2016, even with the recent minuscule annual Social Security cost-of-living increases.

I am certain no financial adviser would sanction my do-it-yourself thinking and execution, but it has worked for me. I am living at the same level I was while working. I travel, add to my savings and thoroughly enjoy my retired life.

Just taking an honest look at my money and future and not buying into either “something will come along to save me” or “I can’t save anything and I’ll have to work forever” has worked well for me.

[Editor’s note: Bill mentions that “some dislike annuities because we are in a low-interest period right now”; but annuities are complicated investment products that, along with their benefits, may also have some drawbacks.]

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. It can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are. Unduly nasty comments on readers’ stories will be removed.


This article is by editor Linda Vergon.

When Donna Freedman tackled the subject of teaching our children about money last week, GetAGrip challenged the premise that parents teach and children learn:

“All sounds pretty, teach them all this information and they will use it, right?
“I’m not advocating not teaching, but just don’t be surprised if they somehow seem to ‘forget’ much if not all of what they were taught and run up the credit card, take out a car loan, and do a host of things that freak your 40+ year old frugal self out.”

Donna responded that of course a lot of what we teach our kids “may or may not be used once they leave the house,” an exasperating fact that every parent has to come to grips with in some form or fashion. “The point of what I wrote is that you must offer the information no matter what.” She went on to describe “a new field of study called ‘emerging adulthood’ [that] indicates that some people simply don’t process the information until sometime in their 20s.”

I haven’t taken the opportunity to read up on emerging adulthood yet, but I see evidence of it all the time – just not necessarily from the standpoint of age. I’m well past my 20s, but I haven’t reached financial independence yet – so, heck, I consider myself to be an emerging adult too. At every stage of personal finance, there are things to learn and things to master – and there seems to be a personal calculus that governs when and how that all comes together for each individual. I want to understand that.

Take Caleb, the young man J.D. Roth encountered in Portland last May who was facing a $900 dental bill but had no means to pay for it. The conversation J.D. described of the young man reaching out for advice and then not accepting any of it was maddening, and it left me shaking my head (like everyone else, judging from the comments). He simply wasn’t ready to learn.

Kristin Wong, on the other hand, has been identifying and navigating all sorts of situations and attitudes that affect her finances for a number of years now, and she recently shared that she’s been moving into the third stage of personal finance. What makes her so ready to learn that she took on the job of moving through not one, but two stages of personal finance in the span of a few years?

Just yesterday, Honey Smith explained the personal calculus that governed her decision to buy a house. Some readers applauded her progress while others took issue with her pace (in the sense that taking on a mortgage would slow down her ability to reduce her debt).

When I read GetRichSlowly, I’m struck by how different each story is. And yet each story seems to resonate with a certain part of my own personal calculus in a way that changes me. In my experience, progress is made incrementally, but if it happens rapidly, it’s much more uncomfortable. The interesting part is that, with practice, I have actually become accustomed to making larger strides.

What stage of personal finance have you achieved, and what do you think governs your progress? How do you decide what to learn, when to learn it, and how fast to learn it?


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