Our house has a pretty cool way of tracking who spends what on groceries and household items. We have a whiteboard with three columns, one for each housemate, and as you spend you just keep a running total, like this:
+ 25 = 75
+ 40 = 115
+ 35 = 150
(We round to the nearest five dollars, as you can see.) Over time, we just try to keep them fairly balanced. If someone’s falling behind, it’s their turn to do grocery shopping. When you run out of vertical space on the board, you erase the column and start at the top, carrying over the total.
Today we ran out of vertical space and started fresh, and I took the opportunity to calculate how much we spend on groceries. We’re averaging around the $800 mark, since October 10th last year when Connie moved in. That’s about 15 weeks, so that’s $800/15 = $53 per person per week.
All the figures I can find online say that the average for Australian adults is about $100/week, but I’m not sure whether that includes eating out or not. My housemates buy their lunches most days, and I have a meal out out once or twice a week, depending on schedule, plus we each have dinners elsewhere from time to time. We order pizza for dinner a couple of times a month, so that’s another thing that’s not counted in our grocery bill. We also don’t count special/fancy/gourmet/snacking food that we buy outside of the regular grocery run, for instance fancy tea or chocolate. If we don’t count any of these, that could be part of the reason our figures are so low compared to the average.
On the other hand, we cook for other people fairly often, when they come round for meals. We also give away some of our food, especially when Emily’s baking a lot, or in the summer when we’re making lots of preserves and handing them out to anyone who comes by at the right time. Those factors probably aren’t enough to balance out the extras I listed above, but they must do so to some extent
Even so, $50-ish per head per week seems low, and I’m quite pleased with it, so I thought I’d take a look at what factors went into that figure.
We mostly eat — or at least shop — vegetarian. Our usual weekly meat purchase is a few rashers of bacon, or maybe a couple of sausages. Most of our meals rely on legumes, tofu, eggs, and dairy for protein, which are cheaper than meat. Every couple of weeks we have a bigger meat meal (like a roast chicken, or the Christmas ham that kept going forever) but the leftovers usually stretch out into multiple dishes. (I think we’re more likely to eat meat when we’re eating out, or at least I am.)
We make a lot of things from scratch. The freezer has a stack of tubs of frozen stock and a bag of scraps for the next batch, so we probably save a few bucks a week right there over people who buy those containers of UHT stock. Connie and I eat home-made muesli, made from rolled oats and whatever fruit and nuts we feel like, which is cheaper than buying it. We bake — not everything, but usually anything sweet like biscuits or cakes are made here, as are many of the bread-like things we have with our evening meals. We buy plain yoghurt in big tubs and add fruit and flavourings if we want them. We make many of our own sauces and condiments, either on the spot (as for pasta sauces or salad dressings) or canned/preserved (chutneys, pickles, ketchup, salsa). We also have lots of whole spices from which we can grind up blends as needed, so we almost never buy packets and jars of flavourings.
We buy in bulk. We’re lucky to have enough room to store a big 3L can of olive oil, 5kg of basmati rice at a time, onions and potatoes by the big bagful, and lots of big jars of beans and grains and dried things. We mostly buy our dry goods at the market where they’re cheap, minimally packaged, and somewhat fresher than the dried stuff at the supermarket. We buy spices this way too, and have our own containers for them. Typically we spend about $2 for a bag of spices that has four times as much in it as one of those little supermarket jars.
We shop locally and seasonally, in moderation. We’re not 100% anal retentive about it, but we do tend to adjust our eating based on the time of year and what’s cheap. By the time winter comes round, I’ll actually be looking forward to cabbage and root vegetables, but right now it’s all stone fruit and tomatoes and zucchini. We keep an eye out for fruit and veg that are around $2/kg at the market and focus on them, sometimes taking the opportunity to preserve or can them if appropriate.
We have a vegie garden, and we have friends with vegie gardens and fruit trees. Our own garden doesn’t do much more than supplement our weekly market run, but it’s often enough to make a salad or turn a couple of eggs into a meal. Herbs from the garden are way cheaper than buying them, of course. Yes, the vegie garden costs us money, but we include the consumable items like seeds and bags of compost in our grocery calculations. Our friends also supply us, from time to time, with whatever they have in surplus. We’ve made preserved lemons from donated fruit which, with chickpeas/tomatoes/stock from the freezer/herbs from the garden, all served over couscous, make a great meal. Over Christmas a bag of warrigal greens turned into a really amazing quiche. Giant mutant zucchini go into stews or get grated into cakes. Emily’s mum’s kumquat tree yielded jars and jars of marmalade.
We’re pretty good about food waste. I won’t say we’re great, but we’re not awful either. I already mentioned that we keep scraps and bones for stock. We also have lots of meals based on leftovers. For instance, last weekend we had friends round for a taco party, and (after a week of nachos) last night we ate the very last of the leftover beans, ground up into vegie burgers along with rice from Tuesday’s stir-fry and salsa from Wednesday’s lunch. We’re good at using the tail ends of legumes, grains, or sauces in other dishes. Overripe fruit gets turned into smoothies or baked goods, either immediately or after a stretch in the freezer. Stale bread (if it’s not too grainy or full of weird extras) gets dried in the oven then ground into breadcrumbs. Parmesan rinds get saved for minestrone. Occasionally we have to chuck something out that’s gone strange in the back of the fridge, but with so many people cooking so regularly, things don’t have much chance to fester back there, and if they do, they get fed to the worm farm.
We count our household cleaning supplies in with our groceries, including laundry detergent, toilet paper, and all that. For most of those we buy inexpensive eco-friendly brands, and we tend to shy away from uni-tasker cleaning products, preferring dish soap, baking soda, and vinegar for lots of our cleaning. We don’t use fabric softener. We use re-usable dishcloths and cleaning rags, and buy toilet paper in bulk if it’s not too awkward to carry home.
For all our cheapness, we eat some pretty nice stuff, and I don’t think we feel like we’re being self-sacrificing or particularly ascetic in our tastes. We buy fancy cheese, organic eggs, and delicious butter from an independent dairy. When we buy meat we try to go for the kind that comes from happy animals, or at least from independent butchers, and choose it based on tastiness not budget. We buy icecream and biscuits and soft drinks in moderation (lately we’ve been buying lots of tonic water that goes in G&T’s, which we buy in small glass bottles that get reused when we make our own sauces and ketchups). Our fancy tea shelf is overflowing. Our pantry contains macadamias and dried cranberries and the best balsamic vinegar we could find. We’re doing okay.
I know I’m probably sounding a bit smug, and yeah, I guess I am smug. It’s actually something I’m proud of, and that I’ve worked for and continue to work for. Between planning and shopping and making things from scratch I put a few hours a week, at least, into this. I probably couldn’t do it if I wasn’t working from home (and, previously, unemployed), or at least not to the same extent. So that’s something to be thankful for, along with the fact that I have the space and ability and support for all this, excellent food vendors nearby, and the collaboration of my excellent housemates.
In conclusion: here’s to our hippy/nanna house, and long may it prosper!
(PS: we’re looking for a new housemate. Is it you?)