Monday, October 14, 2019

My Thoughts on the Article: Why Budget Cooking Tips Are Useless For Low-Income Families

A friend of mine sent me a link to this article entitled "Why Budget Cooking Tips are Useless For Low Income Families" and asked me what I thought about it.

So, here it is.

And I know it probably will get people on both sides of the coin frustrated with me, but I'd like you to hear me out anyhow.

I've had arguments on Facebook with people about this article, because they say that the whole purpose of it is to talk about people in abject poverty, not just "very low income" families. And that as the last paragraph says:
'Ultimately, it’s important for us as a society to stop insisting that timely, efficient and budget-friendly cooking is possible if you just try a little bit harder, Bowen and Elliott said. It’s unfair and puts a lot of responsibility on people to overcome problems that are, at their core, systemic."
I don't disagree with the fact that issues with poverty are systemic, that people who say that if you just worked hard you can "pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get yourself out of poverty" are wrong, that there are so many factors working against people dealing with poverty, whether its disability, classism, racism, lack of opportunities, etc... and that many of the poorest people work freaking hard every single day of their lives and still are dirt poor. And that as a society, we have an obligation to fix things, instead of just telling people to "work harder".

But if the goal of the author of this article is to share that message, as some of my friends are claiming, the authors did a really poor job of it. Because they get someone like myself, who supports that cause, who agrees with them, to just shake her head at every single paragraph in this article, and say "I don't agree, you're wrong."

Now I will acknowledge my privilege here and say that as a white person, I've not dealt with racism that contributes to this issue. And I'm also fairly intelligent which is another privilege. I'm educated relatively well (ok, only one year of college under my belt, but I'm the type of person who pursues education even outside of school). And I have access to the internet and the support of a community, which further increases my privilege. I also live in a place with pretty decent public transportation, which is further privilege. My body works properly most of the time; I don't have much by way of physical disabilities. I'm quite a strong woman. And I've never been homeless, or had housing insecurity. I will acknowledge that I am blessed in these ways, and am more privileged than many.

But as someone who has been blogging about frugal living and extremely frugal living for the past ten years, I've definitely heard comments like this blog title. And I think there's some truth to it that some "frugal bloggers" are completely not living in the same world as many low income people. Like the idea that people just "buy fewer lattes" to save money, when most of the financially struggling people that never do that. Many "frugal living" tips are basically irrelevant and pointless for the "average poor person" because they're assuming people have much more disposable income than they do.

That is why when I started my blog, I wrote about extreme frugality. Frugality for the people who were really struggling, who were already not spending on extras, and still were having a rough time making it. Tips to lower your electric bill even more, not just how to manage without AC, but how to manage without a fan even in the summer, or how to do without heating or the barest minimum heating in the winter. Really, really, extremely frugal stuff. Because I know what it's like to be there.

But when I was arguing with certain points in this article, I got some people saying "Oh, you don't really know what it's talking about, you aren't the "poor people" this article is talking about."

I really hate that. I really hate the "gate-keeping" that is involved with this discussion of poverty. Who is actually "poor enough" that they get to give tips to poor people on how to manage?

I didn't share this when I was going through it, but all those times I did those "pantry challenges"? It was because I had absolutely no money to spend on groceries, and just had to make do.
I had weeks where I literally had 5 dollars to spend on groceries, so I bought dry beans, white flour, and cucumbers, and that's what we had: homemade bread, baked beans, and cucumbers.
I started foraging and foraged intensely when we didn't have money for a variety of produce but still wanted to feed my family nutritiously. Oh, and in a similar note to this quoted article, I wrote my response to an article called "Can Urban Foraging Actually Feed Poor People", in which I shared my experience with that, based on my experience.
When I started my blog, I paid 10 dollars for my domain name. And even those 10 dollars were 10 dollars I didn't have. I was completely flat out broke.
So I get it.

Don't tell me that I don't know what it's like to be really poor.

I was. I know what it's like to go 10 years without going to a dentist, and trying to ignore the pain in our teeth, because you can't afford to get your cavities filled.

I know what it's like to go without a stove, because you ran out of gas for your stove and you didn't have enough money to pay for a gas balloon delivery.

I know what it's like to look at all these articles about how to save money and say that you're already doing most of them and still can't manage. I know what it's like to want to do certain things to save money, but you can't afford the equipment necessary to do those money saving tips. That's why I wrote my article on basic equipment you need in your kitchen to be able to cook for your family, and yes, it included the very, very, very basic.

I know what it's like to live without a car, and reliant on public transportation and the goodwill of others, because I've been doing this for the past 14 years.

But... for the past while, I've had people say that I don't get it. That my frugal tips aren't applicable for most people, since they don't have as much time as I do. That I'm privileged to be able to be home with my kids, and my tips definitely don't work for full time working people.

Guess what? For the past year plus I have been a single mom, full time working 6 days a week, then with my kids after school hours, (and for three months, they didn't see their dad at all other than once a week for an hour when I brought them to meet their dad for visitation, so I was with them every single hour of the day that they weren't in school), dealing with my own significant mental health issues, dealing with two of my kids special needs...

And I still say that I don't agree with this article's claim. Budget cooking tips are not useless for low income families, even ones that are working, as the article puts it:
"[] shift work in retail, fast food and other service jobs that many low-income parents hold usually comes with an erratic and unpredictable schedule that often isn’t finalized until the week of, which makes planning especially hard."
Even when you're busy. Even when you're full time working. Even when you're in a really bad situation, there are choices. Yes, everyone is different, and everyone has their own unique life circumstances. But I still think there are choices people make.

I'm in therapy, something I realized I am privileged to be in (I spent many years suffering silently, because I couldn't afford even the discounted 20 dollars a week for the discount therapy places), and one of the things my therapist and I talk about is taking ownership of our choices and our life.

We may feel like we're entirely victims in our life, that so many bad things happen to us that we have no choice about. But even within that bad situation, we have choices. I will not judge someone for the choices they make, no one has the right to judge someone, when they're not in their shoes.

But they still are making a choice. And once you realize you're making that choice, it's empowering to know that you aren't a victim but have the power to decide how things will be for you. At least in some areas.

For example, the article mentions:
"Bowen pointed out that many mothers in the study didn’t have cars or easy access to a grocery store. They would either take the bus to the store and a taxi home with all of their grocery bags, or they would rely on another friend or family member to drive. For this reason (and to keep closer track of their budgets), many women participating in the study shopped just once a month, which meant they could purchase fewer fresh foods and more inexpensive convenience foods like boxed mac and cheese."
I get that. Been there, done that. Living without a car and I travel usually an hour to an hour and a half by bus to be able to get to the grocery store. Often that means getting home later than my kids and needing to pay for a babysitter for them while I'm gone.
Even in such a situation, there still are options.
Even if you're in such a situation, there are ways to cook healthy foods. For example, buying healthy shelf stable dry goods like flour, grains such as rice and barley, legumes like lentils, beans, split pea, etc... All these last more than a month. TVP works as a meat substitute and also is shelf stable and super cheap. Canned goods like tomato sauce, and canned veggies like green beans, peas and carrots, mushrooms.
And in terms of fresh veggies, even if you can only make it to the grocery store once a month, there is some fresh produce that will last a month. Root vegetables like beets, onions, potatoes, turnips, radishes, and carrots, as well as cabbage can easily last a month in the fridge. If you can only go shopping once a month, especially if you're having a friend of family member or taxi drive you, stock up on these things and store them at home for the month. There are other options besides for boxed mac and cheese that are healthier, just as cheap, and will last all month.

Someone may not want to do that, may not like things like lentils or beans as proteins, might not like root vegetables, or they may not want to be filling their fridge with that. Their kids may complain and may prefer boxed mac and cheese, and you know what? That is ok! But its a choice they're making. Its not that they have no other option, they do, but they're making a choice. Take ownership of that choice instead of saying you're a victim of circumstance!

Speaking of shopping for the month, I remember reading about people bulk buying to save money and then being really depressed because I had no extra money to bulk buy. That's why when I finally figured out how it was possible to bulk buy even without extra money, I wrote this article on how to do it so others can hopefully do the same.

When I talk about bulk buying, I have people tell me that it's not just about the money, but they have no storage space to put anything bulk. Let me tell you, I was living with my family of six in a 484 square foot apartment, we had no room for a couch because our apartment was that tiny, I didn't have room for beds for my two youngest so they slept in mine and Mike's bed, there wasn't room for my boys to sleep side by side in the tiny little "half a room", nor was there room to have a bunk bed since the ceiling was so low, so we built a loft bed so that we could fit both boys in there.
And we still bulk bought. We chose to store bulk food in our house. We dumpster dove a small shelving unit and an old desk like piece of furniture, put it in our hallway, and stored the bulk food there, as well as on the nearby steps. This meant we narrowed our ability to walk through the hallway and stairs. We had more bulk stuff stored above our refrigerator and above our kitchen cabinets. We even had some bulk stuff stored in our bedroom. Yes, this made our home look even more terrible and made us look like we were living in the show hoarders, but we managed to store bulk foods to be able to save money on groceries. Yes, its a choice that many people would choose to not make, and I don't fault people for not making similar choices, but there still are options.

People were saying that most of the frugal tips blog posts have don't apply to people living in a food desert. Someone was talking to me about a food desert not so far from where I grew up. She was telling me that if you live without a car, and you live in such an area, you can't really buy food from a regular grocery store, so that's why people go to fast food places instead.
Honestly, I did some research, and found bus routes that would take people from said food deserts to grocery stores (that weren't too expensive) and it was at most 30 minutes, but in many cases only 15 or 20 minutes by bus. Even if someone lives in food deserts, it may be possible to get to grocery stores where you can buy fresh/healthy groceries.
Before writing this piece, I did some googling about the worst food deserts in America. From that article:
"Typically, food deserts are defined by: 1) the lack or absence of large grocery stores and supermarkets that sell fresh produce and healthy food options; and 2) low-income populations living on tight budgets."
Also in that article on food deserts it says
"In a typical Black neighborhood in Chicago, the nearest grocery store is roughly twice as distant as the nearest fast food restaurant. The study also found that Black Chicagoans travel the farthest on average to reach any type of grocery store (0.59 miles)."
From what I'm understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, its not saying its impossible to get to a grocery store to buy healthier food, but that you have to travel farther. I mean, yes, I get that its annoying to travel far, but those aren't impossible distances. I regularly travel to a grocery store that is over 6 miles away (via public transportation) and the grocery store I regularly shop in is 1.5 miles away. The fact that fast food restaurants are easier and closer to get to than grocery stores doesn't mean that you can't get to a grocery store, its just more annoying and less convenient, so people make a choice to get fast food instead of groceries from the store.
Again, its a choice. And I'm not saying what choice someone should be making, only pointing out that people are making that choice, and not to say its impossible to eat healthy in a food desert but that its not so easy, and that's why people make the choices that they do.

Another disservice this article does is make extreme examples that aren't even realistic, and I hope are meant as hyperbole, but all it does is make this article turn off people like myself.
"Even ‘chop a bunch of vegetables’ assumes that you have a sharp knife, a cutting board, a working oven."
If that's the case, if someone doesn't have a sharp knife or cutting board or working oven, there are ways around it. Dollar stores sell knives and cutting boards, thrift stores are all over and many of them also have pots and pans and crock pots and toaster ovens. Even if you can't get thrift stores, online things like Craigslist or Freecycle often have them for free or very cheap. Amazon has toaster ovens for as low as 15 dollars and crock pots as low as 13 dollars, and Walmart has them for similar pricing. Counter top burners for as low as 10 dollars new.
Not having a fridge is definitely harder, and I've been in the situation where my fridge died and I had absolutely no money to get a new fridge, so I looked on a local Freecycle equivalent and got a fridge for free. Having no money to pay for a moving truck, we ended up bartering work to get them to drive our fridge here. I'm not saying these things are always possible, but they might not be as insurmountable as one might think.

There's also this claim from the article.
"There’s also the issue of brainstorming and planning meals that will work for a given family... Anyone who feeds a family can likely attest to the fact that a lot of work goes into cooking before you turn the knob on the stove. Much of the research and advice surrounding time spent cooking doesn’t really grasp the full picture... the invisible labor: planning meals and grocery lists, thinking about less expensive substitutions, knowing what you have at home."
Yes, this type of thing is hard. But the article starts off basically blasting frugal bloggers like myself for writing money saving kitchen tips, stating that they are unattainable for most poor people especially low income parents and caregivers.

The very thing they're complaining about, brainstorming and meal planning and research and less expensive food substitutions, that't exactly what bloggers like myself are doing and getting blasted for.

Like see this two week inexpensive easy to prepare meal plan I shared. I have many, many meal plans I've shared on my blog as do many other super frugal bloggers, and many of them are easy to prepare. Also I've posted things about frugal food substitutions many times.

Yes, there is the issue of lack of access to this information, but the fact that people are posting these helpful frugal living articles online is already limiting who has access to that information, the people with access to the internet. If you want this information spread to more people, then wonderful, do that. Work on educating people who want to be educated, so they have more choices and therefore more options. But don't say blogs with budget cooking tips are useless. They are not.

Time wise, I get it. As I mentioned, single mom here. I've been run ragged to the bone, and yes, there have definitely been many meals where my kids ate cereal and milk or toasted cheese sandwiches for supper because I didn't have the energy. But if I wanted to, I could also spend a little less time playing on Facebook or watching movies and prepare healthier meals for my kids. I don't always choose to, but again, that's a choice I make.

The article talks about parents also feeling guilty about needing to spend time with their children, so they do that instead of cooking from scratch, but I don't like that it's written as a zero sum game, that either you spend time with your children or you cook healthy meals. In fact, some of my children's best memories are cooking with me, and it's a wonderful way to do both. Grocery shopping with kids can also be a great bonding experience, and a way to help teach your children valuable life lessons. I haven't taken my children grocery shopping recently, and they told me how much they missed it.

I know, I know. Much of what I said smacks of privilege to some of you. And I have acknowledged my privilege. But also know that I've been in worse situations than many people, and I've still found a way to do things that other's say they can't.

Educate people about their options. Share the information that I've put together in countless blog posts to help people in such situations. Then let them choose what they want to do with that information, if they want to change their cooking, shopping, and eating habits, or stick to what they're doing. But give them that choice. And let people take ownership of their choices instead of saying "I am helpless, nothing can be done to change my situation."

And one giant, big last caveat.

I am NOT talking about people that are homeless, have housing insecurity, or disabled and unable to do most frugal things because of that. And I'm not saying that by working hard enough you can just "improve your finances". There are so many things society needs to fix, and you can't blame individuals for their life circumstances.

But within their circumstances, educate people about their choices. The most frustrating feeling in the world, in my opinion, is to feel powerless, that you have no choices. Empower people so that they intentionally make their choices and feel good about the choices they make (even if that choice is to continue to do exactly what they were doing before! Their life, their choice!). Help people take ownership of their choices and their life instead of knocking people like myself who are trying to help.


  1. Excellent points, Penny. I'm just sorry you feel such pressure to justify your ability to offer help to those who are in extremely tight financial circumstances. There are certainly those who seem to delight in shooting down anyone who offers a counter-example to their narrative of woe. I like your paragraph about how you agree with the point of the article, while still offering a different perspective.

    I have enjoyed reading about frugality ever since I was a kid, and happened upon the Foxfire books. People are endlessly creative, and I applaud their (and your) ingenuity in the face of difficult circumstances.

    Thank you for writing.

    Followed your link from the Facebook group Tightwad Gazette Fan Club.

  2. good article but too long
    should divide

  3. <3 this!!!!! I also find so many "excuses" for poor people by wealthier people who won't understand that as a previously poor person I do know of what I speak!! We all have choices to make and the consequences of our choices, for good or ill. I grew up as the child of a single mother in extreme poverty, as in not having enough food to last the month. And when there wasn't enough food our mother just wouldn't come home for days on end until she got paid again. I guess she couldn't face us on those days. I saw the choices she made that contributed to our continued poverty, instead of making choices that *could have* made a difference. Thanks for addressing this!!!

  4. Great writing and excellent opinions, thanks for sharing. I agree that it is all about choices we make. I see too many people with their left hand out and a cell phone in their right. I have several family members who choose to get free food from Food Shelters knowing that the food is processed and such and use their food stamps to buy even more crappy food instead of eating properly and buying fresh. Not saying that every person who is financially strapped is doing that, but the ones I know of do that. Being poor may not be a choice to start with (who would choose to be poor?) But along the way, the choices they make determine if they stay on that path rather than try to improve their situation. I decided not to be poor anymore and found a great job that I can retire from (with a pension...whoo hoo.) I may not like my job or what it represents but I can live with it knowing it will get me where I want to be. That's sacrifice for my family and for my financial well being.

    BTW Penny, if you ever decide to move back to the states, you could make a fortune giving Foraging classes. I've seen $30 to $50 a person for a 2 hour walking class.

    1. Ugh, FFS, stop it with this idea that cell phone is a luxury. It's not, not anymore, in this day and age. For many people, it is literally their only connection, their only source of Internet, their only way to find work, the only way they can pay bills. Where I live, everything is done online. If you don't have at least a phone, you can't do banking (there are very few branches, and only in large cities), you can't pay your bills. You can't plan long trips by bus or train (you can try, but if there's a delay you won't be able to find out until it's too late). Soon, you might not be able to take public transit without the right app.

      For another: a cheap mobile phone is hardly an extravagance. My latest one cost me 120 euros, and has twice the RAM and storage of my last one, which I paid 2X as much for.

      The point is, if you're going to grumble about people wasting money, grumble about name-brand shoes and expensive purses and fancy coffee. Phones are basically like indoor plumbing these days.


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