How four families survived lean times
Because I couldn't meet my self-imposed cash budget of $500 in the month of October, I had to use other sources to meet our overage. But despite having lived under tight financial circumstances throughout some periods my life, I have always had enough to get by and things haven't been (well, usually they haven't been) too stressful for me. But I wanted to talk to people who had difficulty finding ways to pay when they went over their budget, so I reached out to my friends to get their perspectives and see what I could learn from them.
Frida (not her real name) was the first to respond and wanted to specifically mention that her family's problems were self-induced. She says, “We made a couple of financial mistakes about three or four years ago and we're still paying for those mistakes, literally and figuratively.”
To compound their financial problems, Frida and her family are farmers; so their income comes in November, January, and March. She says, “The stretch from March to November is the worst. It's not only the longest stretch between major checks, it's the time of the year with the biggest expenses (real estate taxes and quarterly estimates on income taxes).”
To help make it through the lean months, Frida sometimes had to borrow from her children's savings accounts, put groceries on a credit card (normally they keep a zero balance), or both.
Angela (also not her real name) was not a farmer, but she and her husband were young college students when their first child came along. Even with Pell grants and loans, they were struggling to make ends meet.
“Sometimes,” Angela admitted, “if an unexpected bill came in, we had to make a choice between diapers, or food for the baby, or food for us.”
Another friend, Jo, recalled her childhood: “My parents were buying our house on contract with one annual payment. We always knew when the payment was coming up because we ate things like saltines and peanut butter, so we could scrape together enough money.”
I also interviewed Jo's mother, Donna. Like Frida, Donna also raised her family on a farm about 30 years ago and it was tough.
We all have to eat
No matter what the circumstances are, we all have to eat. To keep their food budget in check, Frida watches grocery ads and tries to buy only what is on sale, especially meat. She says, “I've found that, many times, chicken is actually cheaper than the better ground beef. I don't buy cheap ground beef, because more of it gets thrown away by way of the fat content.” Along with watching her meat consumption, she has made a conscious effort to buy more beans.
Also, some members of her family have to eat a gluten-free diet. “Gluten-free eating is harder to do cheaply, but when you have to, you have to. Fortunately beans, rice, and garden produce are all naturally gluten-free.”
Donna also watched sales. “We didn't eat much meat. I used some in casseroles, but decreased the meat and increased the cheaper ingredients.”
She continues, “I created menus from what I had on hand, and I bought food on sale. I tried not to waste anything.” She also did some math. “We participated in a lot of potlucks, so I calculated which dishes were less expensive to make. For instance, because of the food I had available to me, an inexpensive dessert to make was pie.
“But our budget was never a determining factor for whether we had guests or not. Somehow we always had enough for us and to be hospitable to others. I also figured out the cost of a serving of cold cereal versus a serving of eggs. That meant I didn't buy cold cereal unless I could get it for less than $1.50 per box.”
Sometimes they fed their families with food that wasn't purchased. Frida and her family have a large garden, so their cost for produce is mainly the labor involved. They also sold produce at farmer's markets to earn more money.
But it wasn't an easy way to earn extra cash. “I finally took a part-time job this spring, which makes far more than the produce has. Next year, we will most likely scale the garden back a little more. Honestly, I'm tired. It's time for other people to either grow their own produce or buy it from someone else.”
Angela didn't live on a farm when she and her family were going through their tough times, so they survived another way. “We made it by having a super poor diet. Ramen noodles, high salt, super processed foods.”
Financial stress takes its toll
But Frida and Angela's financial stress impacted so much more than just their food budgets. There are regular bills to pay too.
“I have to prioritize my bills,” said Frida. “I usually put them in order by due date and pay them in that order. There are some exceptions based on interest, late payment penalties, etc. For example, if a credit card company has a hefty late payment fee, I will at least make a payment on time and hope to pay off the balance shortly after. The additional interest is considerably less than a late payment fee.”
Financial stress also affects relationships. And Frida is first to admit that. “The first thing that usually happens is either a) I get grouchy (my husband takes the brunt of this) and/or b) I don't sleep well which causes more grumpiness. It then becomes a vicious cycle, because I not only wake up worrying about paying bills, but then I think about how I've treated my husband, and then … yeah, you get the idea.”
Angela also experienced the vicious cycle. “We just weren't sure where the money was going to come from and our checks would usually be gone before we got them. Credit cards were usually maxed out or closed. That resulted in unmanageable credit card debt that we finally paid off. There was a repeating cycle of stress and depression. Untreated depression!”
As I listened to their stories, I saved what I think was my most important question for the end: How did you find the courage to keep going?
Frida responded, “I don't really see any options.” They can't sell the farm or their house, for a couple of reasons. Besides getting a new part-time job and driving older vehicles, the only option she mentions is to keep plugging on.
She says, “I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that's SUPER encouraging.”
In your toughest financial times, how did you keep the lights on and food on the table?