Saturday, October 29, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Two: One Last Look at the Cost of Eating

I recently posted our September food expenditures, commenting on our eating and shopping habits. The very best response I received came not on the blog itself, but from my close friend Katrina, who wrote in a recent letter: My mother would love your blogs about your food budget—and then she'd try to beat them so I'm glad I didn't have to see that. I turned to Warren and said "June Lofgren was a formidable cook." And she was. Katrina's words brought back a lot of warm memories about her mother and long ago times spent in their home, enjoying June's hospitality.

The same post also brought a pert rejoinder from reader Ellen Goldstein, who commented exuberantly on her own lifestyle choices ranging from parking to food. It was a great glimpse at how she approaches money and budgets, and I grinned when I read it.

All the same, I felt I was being scolded a bit, or at least challenged (as in "oh come on, now") when she wrote "Perhaps having such control over your finances gives [you] satisfaction." 

Ouch! Do I detect a hint that I am a bit obsessed and should lighten up?  

My first comment is that neither my husband nor I go to great lengths to be deliberately frugal. Neither of us hunch Scrooge-like over the ledger, counting the pennies and begrudging the lump of coal for the fire gone cold. Nor are we adopting frugality as a chic lifestyle. It is, as Warren said in response to reading the comments, "just the way we are."

My second observation is that, like Ellen, I do not hesitate to enjoy now what I own rather than setting it aside for some future day that may never come. My case in point is the complete set of gold-rimmed china that my uncle sent his younger sisters from Occupied Japan. My aunt and my mother kept their respective halves of the set boxed and untouched for decades. When I received the entire set, I proceeded to use it, sometimes daily. I was famous in my young mother days for serving toddlers on the china (they never broke a piece); I was famous in later days for hauling it out for pizza.

My third response is that there is an unspoken assumption in the gentle chiding. The unspoken assumption is that I have the means to not have to be concerned about money.

Well.

It has been a long time since I have written about our finances, but here is the short version. We have enough by any standard. We pay our bills monthly; we have no credit debt, not even a mortgage. (The lack of mortgage is because my husband purchased his house out of his parents' estates with a portion of his share, not because we were frugal and paid off a joint mortgage early.) The lights are on, we have heat in the winter, we eat well (if inexpensively), and we have suitable wardrobes.

That being said, we are not flush with extra money. Extra money? We are not flush, period. Both of us have modest incomes. Money is not so tight that spending an extra $100.00 a month on food would sink us, but we would still feel it.

As I type these words, I juggle in my head the financial landscape of the next few months. I am still in the process of replacing my car, presently relying on using Warren's when available or my dad's truck when not. Dad's truck is not a monster gas guzzler, but it still drinks heartily at the pump and my out of pocket gas expenses are higher right now. As soon as we get past the next few weeks, Warren and I can buckle down and search more seriously, but we had to get the season launched (last weekend) and have to get an out of town concert (tonight) over first. Because of jobs and treatment schedules, not to mention how I feel on any given day, our search windows are fairly narrow. I am looking at cars 10-12 years old, preferably under $2500 or, even better, under $2000. That amount will empty my emergency account and I may still end up borrowing from Warren.

Buying the car, a necessity for my job, will push a return trip to Oregon farther into the future.

But wait, there's more. December brings new insurance premium deductions from my paycheck. January resets my out of pocket and annual medical deductibles back to zero. This coming year, both the premiums and the deductibles are higher; the former modestly, the latter by quite a bit. With a trip to Mayo potentially looming in early 2017, I'll be paying some hefty amounts right out of the gate in 2017.

So our money landscape is layered and challenging.

But you know what? I don't care. We have enough. Enough is plenty. Enough means I do not feel deprived. Nor miserly. Nor miserable.

Maybe it is my Depression-era mentality. The stories my beloved Grandma Skatzes told me of raising her family through those years made a huge impression on me as a child. As my Aunt Ginger ages and tells me her memories, she has added even more details and depth to those tales. By the standards of that era, we are flush.

Maybe it is my work at court and with the Legal Clinic. In both environments, I take as a reality that many have to scrape, and scrape hard, to keep a roof over their heads and many more manage to keep food on the table only with the help of our local food pantries. That makes my "enough" look like a fortune.

And maybe it is because I have a lot bigger challenges facing me in the next few months than worrying about money.

In Matchless, a retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, "The Little Match Girl," Gregory Maguire captures what I am trying to say so clumsily: The family was still hard pressed for money, and dreamed of savory treats to eat, but they had the warmth of each other, and enough on which to live, and in most parts of the world that is called plenty.

We have plenty. We always have plenty. And sometimes I serve it up on gold-rimmed china.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-One: What's In A Name?

The co-chair of the working group kept addressing the other co-chair by the wrong name throughout the entire teleconference. The former was white, the latter was African-American. (I know this because I have met both of them.) The white woman has a Ph.D. and was addressed as "Dr. Susan" by the moderator. The African-American woman, Shelisa, is from a small Ohio county and is court staff, as are several of us in the working group.

Dr. Susan called Shelisa "Shelist" and "Shelista" and "Shelizza." Not once in the call, which lasted 50 minutes, did she pronounce Shelisa's name correctly.

I doubt that Dr. Susan intentionally mispronounced Shelisa's name. But she certainly did it carelessly. Shelisa did not correct her, but did make a point to say "This is Shelisa..."whenever she spoke during the call.

I wondered after the call whether I should have spoken up and said "Look, can you call Shelisa by her  right name?" But I was too polite and the moment and the call passed. Shelisa, without confronting the issue directly, made sure she introduced herself clearly each time she spoke. She handled the situation in her own style.

I have a saying on my refrigerator: "Speaking up is a choice. And yes, standing on the sidelines is a choice."

During the teleconference, I stayed on the sidelines. Next time I need to choose better.





Friday, October 14, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty: The Cost of Eating, Part Two

At the start of September, I blogged about how much we used to spend on food, eating out, and household items a month. At that time, it was $200.00 a month for food, plus another $25.00 a month for non-food household items. I was comfortable thinking that we were still in that ballpark, and so spent the rest of the month tracking food expenses. Here are the results.

In some ways we are still in that ballpark. On household items, which covers anything from cleaning items to toiletries to to toilet paper, we spent a whopping $13.18. As I noted in my earlier post, we tend to stay under $25.00 a month in that category and are often under $10.00, so September was pretty typical.

In edible groceries, including farm markets, we spent a total of $169.17 for the month. That included some restocking of items we purchase in bulk once a year or so (such as buckwheat flour); the restocking came to $12.50. There were other bulk purchases, but they were more routine, so they did not represent deviations from our typical purchases. For example, we bought a large pack of chicken breasts, which we cut up and froze into smaller proportions for meals. Along with a few other meat purchases in September, we will likely not buy meat again, except for Thanksgiving, until December.

The one area in which we went way, way past our typical spending patterns was eating out. In September, we spent a whopping $65.42. Now, $15.21 of that was an out of town concert Warren was playing; we ate between dress rehearsal and the performance. That cost doesn't bother me because while we occasionally brownbag that particular meal, there is no comfortable place at the theater to eat comfortably and clean up easily afterwards. $11.98 was takeout one night after work when we were both running on empty physically, mentally, and emotionally. With my ongoing treatment, there are occasional nights when cooking at home, even if it means thawing something from the freezer, is beyond me. I'm pleased it was just the one night this month. A staggering $17.98 was a meal one Sunday when we were down in Columbus and stopped at the North Market, always a pricy proposition, for takeout rather than driving home to eat. The remainder were frozen hot chocolates (my weakness, and about $14.00 of the total) and a miscellaneous purchase, such as ice cream, here or there.

Grand total on food: $234.59. If we had eliminated the restocking purchase and the North Market, we'd have come in at $204.11, or pretty close to the $200.00 mark. Of course, I had estimated we would come in under the $150.00 mark. If we eliminated the eat out category and the restocking, we'd be just about there.

When my brother and sister-in-law and I talked about the $200.00 mark, Jackie especially was intrigued at how I do it. I think we just follow some basic guidelines that seem to keep the costs down. When I went back and looked at what I wrote in early 2010, now almost seven years ago, a lot of that still holds true, so I have revised and updated my commentary on how we shop (and eat).

We don't eat a lot of meat, red, chicken, or otherwise. I probably cook meat less than once a week but we may use what I cook in several different dishes. So there is a big $$ saver right there. I make a lot of soups (bean soups, split pea) as well as stock, freezing most of it. We don't buy a lot of processed foods or "convenience" foods; we don't drink coffee; we don't drink alcohol. (All huge budget drains.)We rarely buy soda (I don't care much for it). Warren brownbags lunch; so do I. We don't eat out a lot because our schedules are often so full that there is no time for that; when we do, we almost always split an entree (and when we don't split one, we always bring home leftovers). We also don't hesitate to buy marked down food when it is something we like and can eat right away or freeze. I have no qualms about buying food with red "REDUCED" labels on it because I know that even if the milk has an expiration date of tomorrow on it, it will be fine unopened for some time. If I buy marked down meat, unless we are eating it that day or the next, I repackage it and freeze it. I have no problem letting food packaged right stay in the freezer past the recommended freezer time; this winter we will be eating the last of the 2015 zucchini and neither of us have noticed any diminishment in quality. I rarely use coupons, mostly because they tend to be for processed food items that we don't eat or they are for name brands and rarely can the name brand even with a coupon price beat the store brand price. We also never turn down offers after a meeting where there is leftover food to take home some of it!

We eat leftovers. I know a lot of people who do not or who have spouses who will not. Not this household. And we eat leftovers changed into something else: the stale bread becomes a small bread pudding on a night we need a pick-me-up. I buy small quantities of fresh produce, with a strict rule of not buying more until the first is gone. As a result, I have noticed that our food waste (what we throw away because it has gone bad) has decreased greatly, especially over the last year.

If you opened our refrigerator, you might gasp and say "where's the food?!" But if you opened our freezer and cupboard doors, you would see the makings of many meals. For the most part, we do a good job of that, even after a long day at work. We always, always have basic staples in our house, ranging from rice and frozen vegetables to flour, sugar, oatmeal, and raisins.

As I noted above, the biggest hurdle we face and one which will likely increase is how much my health will impact both our diet and my ability to prepare food. Because of the side effects of a new oral chemotherapy added this summer on top of my infusion chemotherapy, I now have to take Coumadin (warfarin) daily. As a result, I have to closely watch how much Vitamin K, which is found in EVERY GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLE IN THE WORLD, I ingest. (Yes, I am shouting because it has really had an adverse impact on my diet.) I am getting the hang of watching the K intake, but it is frustrating. Warren is watching me and trying to get the hang of it, but it is probably even harder for him since he does not have the same restrictions.

As for impacting food preparation, that impact is also increasing. Historically, I have been the primary cook and baker in this relationship, although Warren is an excellent cook. I don't work as many hours as he does, so I am often the one planning, prepping, and cooking. But my chemo schedule impacts my afternoons and how I may feel on any given day impacts my enthusiasm. On a really bad day, we either drop back and punt ("How about scrambled eggs? Oh, look, here's the tail end of that loaf of bread we bought. We can toast it.") or get takeout. I'm pleased that only one of our meals out in September was a "can't function" meal. If we can continue to hold the line at one or two a month max, I'll be pleased.

So there you have it, April and Warren's empty nester food strategies. Mark and Jackie, I love you lots and hope you find something of use in this!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirty-Nine: Chapter MCMLXVI, In Which I Am Reminded I Am Not 20 Or Even 30

When I was in my twenties and living and going to school out in Oregon, I drove cross-country more than once, setting all kinds of personal speed records. (This was back in the day when Montana and Wyoming allowed you to set your own speed limit provided it was "reasonable" for the road conditions.) With three drivers, I could get door to door, a distance of 2500 miles, in 48 hours, stopping only for gas, food to eat in the car, and bathroom breaks.

Now that was driving. But again, I was in my 20s when I did that.

I don't pretend that I am in my 20s. Or my 30s or 40s or 50s. I'm 60. I was not guaranteed I would ever reach 60, so I relish being 60. And at 60, I know my limitations, be they physical, mental, emotional, or any combination thereof.

So what was I doing driving cross-country across Indiana on US 30 at 11:30 p.m. last night, arriving home in Delaware close to 3:00 a.m. this morning?

Warren and I had the best of intentions. I was at Mayo earlier this week, we were supposed to leave Monday afternoon, and arrive home Tuesday early after a night in Oak Park. But more testing was ordered late in the day, which meant staying in Rochester a second night. By arriving early and taking a seat in a waiting area for over three hours on Tuesday, I managed to benefit from a cancellation and move my afternoon appointment to mid-morning, allowing us to leave the fair City of Medicine at noon. Great! With steady driving, we would be home before midnight, stopping briefly at Oak Park to retrieve items we had left for our return trip.

Well, that was the plan. And it held firm until we hit the worst ever traffic tie-up in west Chicago.  WORST EVER. It took us over an hour to crawl two miles. (I clocked it.) The cause was a badly damaged tanker; we saw tow trucks (plural) hauling it away. And the result was over two hours lost over a handful of miles.

We had a decision to make. Do we stay at Oak Park for a few hours, rest, and then drive some more? Or do we just keep driving? The latter won out, despite the little voice in my head screaming, "ARE YOU NUTS? ARE YOU CRAZY?" We stopped for 10 minutes in Oak Park to gather our goods, and then resumed the drive.

Goodbye, Chicago. Goodbye, Skyway. Hello, Indiana.

I drove a major chunk of Indiana, from Merrillville in the west to Warsaw in the east. That was so Warren could rest and drive the last leg into Ohio and home. To entertain myself, I softly sang show tunes, an old, old fallback from those long ago marathon drives. Once Warren took over, I fell into a numb trance, not quite awake, not quite asleep, just counting down the miles.

It is just past noon on Wednesday as I write this. I have been awake and up for some four hours, after about five hours of sleep. Warren went to work; I called off.  My body is reminding me sharply that I am not 20. Or any other age than the 60 I am.

But it is a beautiful fall day out. And I am home.