Sunday, June 03, 2007

cheap living

A friend pointed me to an article America’s cheapest family. Here it is. A family of 7 spends $350 per month on groceries. $3400 is their budget for the month—1/3 of which goes to charities.

While this is amazing, I am sure one can do even better. I hunted down a Mennonite critique of mainstream budgeting at

This woman claims to have fed her family of 8, with $1 per head in the poor days. That is $240 per month. She critiques Oregon’s $3 per head, per day, family food stamp allotment. In this state the, one with the poorest food stamp program, lawmakers and the governor were challenged to stay within this food budget for 3 weeks and she quotes their published comments about the experience. She’s not really impressed.

I also remember poor days. I remember $100 food budgets per month, while my father worked an extra job in the winter in addition to maintaining a dairy farm so we could pay the mortgage on the farm, during the farmer depression of the 80s. There was a lot of hot milk soup and hamburger from the cow that broke her leg and was of no value to the slaughter house. Many other farmers around us went under. My parents simply down-sized to practically nothing and they survived. They didn’t live on credit. They didn’t buy clothing. They didn’t use any technology outside of what was absolutely necessary for their business. These folks do well but one could do better.

Now, I understand, that Good Morning America, could have just snagged the first Amish or Mennonite they encountered and the figures would have been even more surprising. But that wouldn’t have done anything for their viewer audience. “Of, course the Amish live ridiculously cheaply, we always knew they were from another world.” It wouldn’t have done anything for convincing the average viewership one can survive off less—a lot less.

As a GenXer living in the shadow of the Boomer from a culture I never banked on living so closely to, I agonize with my fellow Xers, whose budgets chaff painfully with the habits of abundance many learned from their parents or peers. It’s incredibly difficult to down-size. It’s even more difficult if down-sizing requires one to radically change habits and move cultural pillars. Yet the opportunity for growth in humility and abandoning one’s self into God’s purging abyss makes the soul a much more effective soul. I say so only because I’ve experienced it numerous times in my life. At first I agonized loudly. The story of Hudson Taylor, in his college days, challenged me to chaff silently. It was his goal to move man through God solely through prayer. So, when someone chose to pass a buck my way, pay for my dinner, I had lots of reason to be grateful to the one who clothes the lilies. I knew without a doubt, God’s hand was on my life.

Economies, cultures and social structures collide and miss in the patterns of feeding their own. God help us learn from each other.

In Dorcas’ comment section, an anonymous reader mentions that this housewife has a garden and folks with foodstamps who live in urban areas may not—this being a said advantage toward cheaper living. Again, people somehow think, if it grows out of the ground, it’s somehow like manna in the wilderness and doesn’t cost anything! On the contrary, it costs quite a lot: labor, time and money for the seeds and starter plants. Only after a sufficient crop, can one harvest seeds for the upcoming year.

As for space to grow, almost every neighborhood in the city has gardening green space. The Hmong in the Twin Cities especially have large gardens and often till their entire lawns for growing vegetables. My grouchy neighbor keeps calling the city on the Hmong across the street, who keep on planting an immaculate garden on a ridge that is not owned by them but is unused space that nearly hangs into their property. I’ve benefited from the seed that blows from their garden into my back yard. A few years ago when I drafted my sister to help me clean up the local community garden two blocks from my house, I was the only available gardener in the area. My sister looked around the tumble-down neighborhood and assumed poverty. “Well, if they are poor,” she asked me, “why don’t they plant a garden.” Planning, time and care. Concepts I struggled to teach the little boys that come to hover with me over the plants I was growing—“Waiting all summer for a red tomato, cummon! Can we have hamburgers?” they would say. I tried to complete the cycle for them by making fried green tomatoes with them and then hooking it in to their own reality by watching the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

In my college dorm days, when I signed up for meal plans, I was not allowed to select the cheapest option for food service dining because my dorm only had one kitchen for 200 women. The meal plan was designed for those who lived off campus. It gave the student 350 meal dollars to spend per quarter. I requested an exemption from this requirement, because I knew how to cook, would cook, and wasn’t going to go bulimic on anyone. They said, no, requiring me to purchase the smallest meal plan at least, which was 10 meals a week for a little over $1000 per quarter. The 20 meals per week plan cost nearly $2000 per quarter; currently it costs nearly $3000. I bemoaned the ruling but then happened on an idea. I could just submit the dining election of my choice and unless they cross-referenced with the housing office, I could slip through the cracks. That year, I was always to be found cooking and studying in the abandoned kitchen. I used my dining dollars for lunch on the days I had class. And I cooked enough good food to share.

What is the advantage of growing your own food? It teaches the gardener the cycle of sustenance and the value of food, guarding against wastefulness and lack of appreciation for the production of good food. These principles “pay off” when integrated into an entire lifestyle. Try coming to my mother’s table and leaving for waste half a serving of the fresh peas she just picked, cleaned and prepared. Remember, this is the woman that rescues the twice thrown away. When one of my roommates couldn’t resist devouring my freshly harvested and frozen sweet corn from the refrigerator, and offered to replace it with corn from the store, I told her the corn she ate and the corn from the store were two vastly different things and I don’t eat the later. The only thing that would be suitable replacement is if she traveled to my parents and helped my Mom harvest, clean and put away corn for a day.


Anonymous said...

It strikes me that getting by on less (or even thinking of growing a percentage of your own food for that matter) is a matter of practice (in the MacIntyre use of the term see: ). We practice certain ways of getting our needs met and different practices meet with different consequences. Whatever the consequences we get "better" at whatever strategy we employ every time we use it. Perhaps the strategy is using "the system" to meet your needs, perhaps it is making do with less, maybe it is theft. Regardless it forms our worldview and once in that worldview it is very difficult to get out. I am a redneck who was raised within a worldview that gave violence redemptive value. Today as as someone who reads the Bible from an Anabaptist perspective I am stuck. I am no longer a good redneck because I do not think Jesus wants me to kill people. I am not a good Mennonite because my (redneck) instinct still says, "Some people just need to die."

I don't know if I have a point. It does strike me that your last three posts have an odd commonality. If you do attempt the transition from one perspective to another you will walk through a lot of tall grass. I for one have a lot of crap in my shoes as a result. No one comes to your rescue really. Most see you as odd (if they are polite). So there one stands... standing in a forest of competing meta-narratives trying to find a way to understand the odd ecosystem in which their mind works and finding all of the "off the shelf" answers do not work... one must write their own programs, so to speak.

Sometimes this leads to a superfluous mounding of metaphors from which one cannot redact themselves free. So I will shut up , thank you for the posts and go build some tomato cages.

espíritu paz said...

Ah! So you see a theme throughout this mess?

Worldviews and social systems and their consequences. I hope it gets better than this. The trouble is simply that one cannot live redemptively alone. Otherwise I'd do it or die trying. "We all sin together." is another of my mantras. I identify with the angst.

I think I have a post in the making which is a schema of the conversion process.

Appreciate the out-loud musings.