5 June 2013

How to be poor

Free school breakfasts: they are coming to New Zealand schools because, apparently, enough families are too poor to give their children breakfast.

I've 'lived' poor for a few years of my life, and gathered a few tips on how to do it along the way. It's quite a fun project if you're doing it because you want to save for something, or pay off a mortgage. I fully acknowledge that it would be devoid of thrill if was done out of necessity. However, feeding your children when you otherwise couldn't would be surely be motivating.

Much of this isn't new and is what almost everyone did until a twenty or thirty years ago, I think.

This is what we did and mostly still do:

1. Eat cheap. We plan for every meal to be made at home, even if we're taking it elsewhere to eat it. Takeaways and restaurant meals just aren't part of normal life when you're in frugal mode. We learnt how to make soups, stews with cheap cuts of meat, home made bread, cheap baking (go Anzac biscuits), creative ways with mince, lentils and beans. We have lots of fruit and vegetables (but only the ones in season, because they're cheapest). A bowl of porridge costs next to nothing.

We make sure everything tastes great! We add flavour with meat and vegetable stocks, garlic and spices. Pad things out with pasta, rice and potatoes.

It relies a lot on being organised. Sometimes we inevitably arrive home late and hungry. There needs to be something in the freezer to heat up. Or pancakes for dinner is OK sometimes!

2. Alcohol is a rare treat for parties and Christmas, if at all.

3. Grow it. Winter garden bare minimum: silverbeet, broccoli and carrots. It's also possible to go all winter without growing a lettuce; we grow mizuna and rocket, which withstand frost, and if they get established in autumn they last all winter. Summer garden bare minimum: tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, carrots and runner beans. Probably cucumbers, too. And we plant fruit trees, because apart from the vastly better taste, it only costs about $20 for a tree that gives you free fruit for years.

4. Ditch advertising. Its main message is that what we've got is not good enough, and that we need to buy their product to be better in some way. It drains our cash and your happiness. We ditched the TV and put a no junk mail sign on the letterbox. (We kept the computer for watching DVDs and all the other useful trappings, some of which are money-saving and mentioned below.)

5. Teach our children well. It's possible to have an extremely rich life on a low budget by living the life of the mind, of nature and of companionship. The library ladies know us very well, and we read, read, read to ourselves and our children, and listen to talking books on CD. Then there's bush and beach walks, mud pies, tree climbing, cooking over fires etc for entertainment. And lots of talking and explaining how life works, and singing,  jokes and games. And there's usually a neighbour to have a yarn with over the fence, or friend to have a cup of tea with. We think these things matter more than movies and expensive days out.

6. Buy second hand. It's good on so many levels... for example using no raw materials, and avoiding cheap nasty stuff priced to exploit offshore workers. I don't think I need to do much persuading here: last weekend I was in a Salvation Army shop and it was packed full of shoppers. It's really caught on! Then there's garage sales and auction websites like Trademe, of course, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Even better, of course, is making do with what you've got.

7. Learn how to do sew and/or do handy-person things like put up shelves and do basic woodwork. It's great being able to fix your gear without paying anyone. On that front, it's incredible what you can learn how to do on the internet, either with instructional websites or youtube videos. I continue to be amazed! Making things is also creative and rewarding, and home-made gifts are usually much appreciated.

Our austerity has worn off slightly as we can manage it over the years - a concert or holiday there, a gelato there, and certainly pricey after-school lessons all over the place (ouch), but really the loosening of the purse strings has made us no happier.

Here's to full tummies. Best wishes to you all.

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