One thing that Peg Bracken recommends, in The I Hate to Housekeep Book, is a tiny little thing in her A-to-Z for the new bride but it’s a concept about which an entire book could be written, or at least an essay of a few hundred words. The piece of advice is this: When buying groceries, you slip one “luxury item” into the shopping cart along with your more run of the mill items. If you add one small splurge to each cart of groceries you buy, eventually your pantry will wind up with several nice little things that you can use to jazz up your otherwise-boring, regular meals.
I remember absorbing this tip in the days when I had a daily food budget of $3.00. I spent (in retrospect) a whole lot of time figuring out how I could make that money go farther. I started clipping coupons, and paying a lot of attention to what the weekly specials were at the supermarket. If I got lucky, and I had a coupon for something that was already on sale, I could score deals like getting a four dollar jar of marinated artichoke hearts for one dollar. My best friend and I used to write to each other copying out our shopping lists and our receipts. We’d explain what was on the original list; what we actually came home with; and we had a system for annotating them to indicate what items had been on sale and what items we’d had coupons for, and we’d gloat to each other over how little money we’d spent. We were agreed that if you snuck one luxury item into a shopping trip — or every other trip — it benefitted you in the long run, because you never felt like you were breaking the bank, on any one trip, but you wound up with things in the house that made you feel ready and secure.
I realize you now think my best friend and I were crazy people, but I don’t care. It was a subject that was important to both of us, and we weren’t doing anyone else any harm.
Now it’s twenty years later and I find I still do this kind of thing. What’s more, I have developed an amazing ability to unconsciously keep track, roughly, of how much money I’m racking up as I walk through the supermarket. Over the summer, we spent a week housesitting for someone out of town, and had to buy groceries. I had a mental budget of $100 and as we walked through the Stop and Shop, my husband threw things into the cart as he saw fit, my daughter suggested items and we ignored her, and I also added to the cart. When we got to the checkout, my husband sighed and said, “This is gonna cost an arm and a leg.” I said, “Well, it’s a lot, but it won’t kill us, it’ll be about $100. Maybe a little less, even.” “Oh, yeah?” he said skeptically, bagging the groceries. When the cashier announced the total, it was just over $98. My husband looked at me and his eyes were wide. “How’d you do that?” he said. “You can’t have been keeping a running tab — you can’t do math.” “No,” I said, “I’m just good at grocery shopping.”
Interestingly, if you take that $100 worth of groceries, and divide it by 7 (days of the week) and then divide that by 3 (the number of people in our household who require feeding), to find out how much was spent on food to feed each person each day, the number is $4.76. (I figured this out using a calculator just now, because, as we’ve just said, I can’t do math.) This is more than the $3 I allotted for feeding myself every day twenty years ago, but not as much more as one might expect. It might even be explained away by inflation — I’m not clever enough to figure that out, though I guess an online inflation calculator would do the trick.
What I do know is, I can bring the number down by making splurges last. A jar of good capers can be pricey — but if you use those capers carefully over a matter of weeks, the $3 purchase (“that’s a whole day’s worth of food!” I’d’ve said in 1995) is less painful to absorb. As Bracken says, it’s a mental trick, this kind of thing. But it works, and it means you can add to your meals in a good way without feeling you’ve bankrupted yourself.
I think I might pull out one of the recipes I used to cook a lot in 1995 and serve it for dinner this week. It was from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest. You boil pasta and make a sauce by sautéing an onion in the oil from a jar of marinated artichoke hearts. When the onion is cooked through, you add the artichoke hearts (I used to chop them into smaller pieces to make them go further) and then carefully mix in about a cup of cottage cheese (inexpensive protein!) and maybe some sour cream if I had it. Drain pasta; combine with sauce; douse with Parmesan.
It’ll be a problem that my daughter doesn’t like artichoke hearts, so I’ll have to serve this with a side dish she likes. But it sounds really good to me.