When I got my first job, I was pretty clueless about money. And, unlike those mythical people I hear about who are clueless about money and end up acquiring credit card debt along with their trendiest purchases, I was determined to spend as close to no money as was possible. Austerity measures were the order of the day, years before the recession or credit crisis or housing bubble burst. I was going to live on less than 1000 dollars a month on the North Shore. I wasn’t going to buy new clothes. Even though I took that cookbook out from the library every couple weeks I wouldn’t buy it. And when I went to the supermarket I wasn’t going to spend more than 30 dollars.
Add to this a serious case of shopper’s anxiety about prices, miles traveled, taste, and ethical considerations, and a startling inability to cook. I was a 22 year old who could have been bundled off to the Danvers State Hospital, were it still functioning, each time I left Stop and Shop. There was one particular day where I called my best friend in front of the eggs, asking her, what should I do? Free range? Organic? Vegetarian? But “regular eggs” are only 1.79! She, thank God, gave me some advice along the lines of “You need to chill out.”
30 dollars, moreover, is not really enough money to ever get anything that isn’t strictly a food item. Lots of things, you may have noticed, which are purchased at the grocery store are not food items. Flour. Jalepenos. Lemon Juice. Cumin. That does not make a tasty stand alone meal, but it’ll easily run you ten bucks.
Also, since shopping was such a stressful endeavor, I tried to put off doing it as long as I could, and do it as fast as I could. So, if I bought cereal one week, I would try to make it stretch for another as well. I often ended up with too many shelf stables and not enough fresh produce. As you may surmise, I ate quite a bit of tasteless food, and peanut butter sandwiches (no jelly). These two things don’t fall into the same category for me, but for others, they might. Furthermore, I often ate bean burritos for breakfast, and lentils (remember, so spices, or broth to flavor them) with tuna as a dinner. Looking back on this, I laugh, but at the time, I took myself deadly serious.
After about four or five months of this, I began formulating what would become one of my adult lessons. See, it got tedious to eat the same things (rice and beans, pasta and canned sauce) over and over. And when I ran out of cereal and milk, eating pasta for breakfast felt, well, odd. So I would stop at Dunkin Donuts for an egg and cheese bagel and what-the-heck-might-as-well medium cup of French Vanilla coffee. After all, I couldn’t go shopping until the end of the week, and that was, hmm, 3 days away. There were also the days that I looked in the cupboards and saw that rice and beans wasn’t what I wanted to make (thirty minutes of cooking! NO WAY! I’m Starving) and went to the Chinese take out around the corner.
You’ll note, that about three days of breakfast this way, and a night or so of takeout, would have been half of my food budget for the week, but I thought of it as another category of spent money, so it was okay. Until I realized money was money whatever “category” in which I might be placing it. I added another piece to my adult lesson. It stands thus:
Within Reason, Buy what you want at the grocery store; Under Regular Circumstances, Don’t run out of food in the house.
Trying to skimp on groceries is really a recipe for disaster. Its expensive, tasteless, and worry inducing. There are exceptions to the rules, but adult lessons aren’t really about the exceptions, since they always exist, they are about the regular and the reasonable. I have since also learned a great deal about how to shop, and how not to make myself crazy. Also about what I like to cook, and how to have ingredients on hand which will lend themselves to experimentation, or lightning quick meals.
(These are the pictures now, of my refrigerator and cupboards when I think, okay, it’s time to shop, we’re down to only one or two meals.)