WHEN I committed to trying to get my grocery bill down to $50 a week, I didn't know what I was in for.
Although I was definitely keen to spend less, I imagined it would be grim; an endless cycle of white bread and tomato sauce sandwiches and getting zits and scurvy from a diet devoid of fresh fruit and veggies.
So when an advance copy of The $50 Weekly Shop - Weekday Dinners arrived in the mail, I was pleasantly surprised. It's essentially a recipe book and there was lots more variety than I'd expected. In fact, chowing down on pumpkin and feta omelets, Laotian larb, goulash, Mexican beef chilli and Mongolian beef stir-fry was appealing.
There was even a vegetarian section prefaced with the assurance of being "non-boring" (my favourite is the sweet potato toasties).
I should have had more faith. The stay at home mum blogger Jody Allen is the author of four money-saving books and has a lot of lived experience. After being made redundant while pregnant with her second child, the author's family in Gympie lived on $50 for four years.
WEEK ONE: FAIL
However, I still couldn't fathom how spending $50 per week at the supermarket would be possible. Failure seemed inevitable, which made me cranky.
So I decided to heed the book's advice to implement change gradually, after first working out my average spend by going through receipts and tracking extras like coffees.
In my two-person household, we were spending in excess of $230 every week. Appalling! But when I asked my Facebook friends what they spent, I realised we weren't freaks.
My friend Steph, who has three kids, spends $350. According to ASIC data, these figures are well within the average for Australian households.
The first change I made was to stop buying what I call 'potentials' - items that were either discounted or new and could theoretically be part of a nice meal, but were more likely to languish at the back of the cupboard.
Even so, when I started the self-checkout service, I was astonished by how quickly my bill racked up to $100. I mouthed a silent goodbye to the rest of the items staring up at me from the trolley, and slunk away like a naughty school kid.
For the next few days, I kept forgetting what I had and hadn't bought and would start to prepare something, only to realise I was missing a key ingredient. By Wednesday, I was sad about the lack of fruit and veggies and was turning to things far less healthy. I rebelled and spent $33 at my local greengrocer. I've never felt so guilty about buying blueberries.
WEEK TWO: GETTING CLOSER
By the following week I was more clued up, because I'd read all the tips for slashing grocery bills. I took to substituting ingredients in earnest, which is a key part of her approach to being frugal.
Each of the recipes has notes underneath about how to make them cheaper. Allen also recommends doing a daily fridge reshuffle: put everything close to expiry in a basket to use as a priority and prevent food waste.
Something clicked. Yoghurt was fine as a substitute for mayonnaise, sour cream and even cream cheese (had I'd bought those items individually, it would have cost around $10). The jar of mint sauce that had been sitting in the fridge for ages turned out to be almost as good as fresh mint leaves, spaghetti was used instead of noodles and peanuts stood in for cashews. And the pumpkin I'd neglected for an almost fatal amount of time finally became soup, which took care of my lunches. My grocery bill that week was $109 and I didn't do any follow-up shopping.
WEEK THREE: SO CLOSE!
The recurring advice I got from Facebook friends was to steer clear of major supermarkets (or go to ones further away from the city).
So I popped a dollar into an Aldi trolley and strode in with a well thought-out list of the ingredients I needed that week. I didn't allow myself to deviate from it.
While I didn't buy every single ingredient featured in the recipes, having some at home already, I did buy the majority. And my bill? Just $69! No one was more surprised than me.
JODY'S TOP TIPS AND TRICKS
I still had a burning question for Jody and was looking forward to our chat, now that my road-testing was complete.
Can a family of four really survive on $50 a week? That's just 57 cents per person, per meal.
"I lived on $50 a week for four years so I know it is possible," she said emphatically.
"We ate really, really simply. And we have a veggie patch, we gets eggs from Mum; things like that. I show you how to get a good deal at the market too - it's about thinking outside the square," she explained.
Allen also lay-bys half a beef from a local farmer at the start of winter, and divvies up the 400kg for storage in her massive freezer. This brings the price down to around $5 a kilo - and she likes that her money goes straight to the farmer.
These days, Allen says her family lives off $80 a week, which is still a modest amount - especially considering her business is now worth millions of dollars.
"My book isn't saying you must spend only $50. If you want to go to that extreme, I've given you all the information you need. It's about getting your bill down to a manageable amount - every family is different," she said.
The $50 Weekly Shop Weekday Dinners by Jody Allen, published by Penguin Random House, will be available from October 30, RRP $24.99
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