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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Living below the line

You may have heard about Jack Munroe's story (from the UK) of how she found herself unemployed with a two year old son, with no food in her house. To save herself from losing her rented home, she began to sell everything in her house that she knew she didn't need, she turned off all the electricity that she felt she could do without and she had cold showers. She blogged about her life and her frugal recipes, documenting how she found food on the cheap, using the benefits she was paid until she found herself a job. 

Living do frugally is not easy, but Jack Munroe realised that with a young son to look after, if she did not prioritise and behave morally responsible, she would lose her home and no doubt her son. So she bought the healthiest food she could afford and she prepared home cooked meals for her and her son. Her story was highlighted in the BBC recently, and she has now been given a  £25,000 advance to write a recipe book. 

As I read more about her through her blog, I realised that she was motivated by her will to survive without complaining that she was not being given enough by the government to support herself and her son. I liked that about Jack: she wanted to show everyone that she was capable of standing up on her own two feet. We read a lot about people struggling on benefits, but mainly in the form of a whinge that they are not getting enough. Few people are bold enough to make public that they are trying to cope, even if it means they are going beyond the bearable. 

Jack's biggest problem was of course keeping her son and herself fed healthily on a daily basis. She was very frugal in her shopping purchases and never wasted any food. When her story became public knowledge, apart from the praise she received from some people congratulating her on her effort to make it through despite adversity, she was also castigated for her frugality, accepting a challenge to live off a pound a day on food, because many people believe that this is impossible. Sure it isn't nice, but life isn't always nice. It seems that there are some in society that take a dislike to frugal people because they are pretending to be modern-day martyrs. They even go so far as saying that frugal people who become famous for their modest lifestyle are actual;ly some form of government spy spreading state propaganda. 

When the BBC ran a series of recipes living on just £1 a day for five days, as part of a campaign by the Global Poverty Project, the article was rubbished by commentators who insisted that such a claim is untruthful because you can't compare prices between supermarkets because you won't be able to afford the transportation costs to do so, and you have to buy in bulk to eat so cheaply so you can't have spent only one pound a day but much more, and the food you buy in bulk will go offso you will throw it away, and the cooking costs are not included nor is the washing up, and so on, ad nauseum. These commentators made me realise just how prejudiced people are against frugal living which is simply not fashionable in a market-driven world where money is getting harder to come by. Excuses, excuses, excuses: maybe they don't like to hear about a person's frugal success story because it puts them in a bad light.

But that is the horrible truth about being frugal - you make do with what you have got, and you use things wisely. You don't necessarily buy in bulk and you may just chance on a frugal purchase when you are shopping. Why should food go off in the first place if you are storing it apporpriately? People who do not cook much or who have been taught to always check sell by dates are generally not well versed in home economics.

Don't we buy salt and pepper, sugar and flour, tea and coffee in bulk? Tinned and dry goods last a long time; vegetables last very well when properly stored; cheese can be stored safely too - meat and fish are the main problem, and frugal people avoid them anyway because they are the most expensive food items, or at least they eat them less often. When I'm preparing my own cheap frugal meals, they are virtually 'free' - eg eggs from my relatives, greens from the garden, frozen vegetables from our own harvests. But I appreciate that Jack Munroe (the blog writer in question) cannot do this. If I lived in an urban environment and I had those wacky supermarket offers that they have in the UK (they don't exist here), I would take a different approach to being frugal. My hosts during my recent trip to London created a good feast of a meal with organic chicken, roast potatoes in duck fat and salad for the six of us when we arrived, spending just 3 pounds - they know how to shop in the same way that Jack Monroe does. 

I'm not sure if the recipes that Jack posts on her blog could work out as cheaply for me as they did for her because we simply do not have those super-dooper discounts - but I would still supplement cheap store bought staples with my 'free' food (wild greens, herbs, fruit and veges) and my meals will cost just as little to produce. Last year, I ran a cheap'n'Greek'n'frugal section in my blog, where I proudly presented meals costing me on average 50 eurocents a serving. I was cooking for the whole family, doing just what Jack was doing: using what I had available cheaply to me to the best of my ability. 

Being frugal in this crazy money-driven world is not easy. But it can be done if you want. And if you hear of someone who tells you how they fed themselves on a home-cooked meal that cost them less than a dollar/euro/pound, they are probably not bragging: they are just saying "You can do it if you want".

Time for a blogging break so I can get over a bad case of tonsilitis and have a little rest over the holidays - I should be back by Easter Sunday.

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