I’ve always wanted to be a queen of thrift. Well, no. That’s not exactly true. I’m pretty sure at various points in my childhood I wanted to be a fashion designer, a movie star, a member of the A-Team and a boy, but since I’ve become a full-time mum, I’ve aspired to get really good at saving money. I suppose I want to earn my keep. I’d love to save so much money by making miracles out of rice and tuna that we would have EVEN MORE to spend than if I’d been working – that’s how clever I would be with the budget. I pore over websites like Simple Savings and Cheapskates for tips on making a single income look sexy. I see it as a kind of sport. I have friends who are also trying to save money and I’ve noticed a subtle sense of competition making its way into our conversations. It’s like the Frugalympics.
“I can make a million things with mince meat!” I boast
“That’s nothing! You should taste my spam-burgers!”, says one friend
“You mean to say you guys can afford meat?”, the other friend exclaims in smug triumph.
Whenever I make an extravagant purchase like movie tickets, cappuccinos, décor magazines or disposable baby wipes, I try to keep a lid on it. If news got out amongst the other frugalympians, I’d lose points for sure.
Having said all this, I’m not deluded enough to think I’m in any way poor. I’m talking about first world problems here. I won the birth lottery in a big way. Australia has an extravagance of riches compared to the majority of the world’s population. I wash my clothes and my dishes in fresh drinking water and, while I might agonise over which school to send my children, I never have to question whether they get an education.
I suppose part of this comes from a desire to resist a culture that has become rampantly consumerist. I’m sick of getting told I need to put my marriage under pressure and outsource my mothering to an institution so that I can afford stuff I don’t need to impress people I don’t like. I would much rather be frugal (and I appreciate that not everyone is in my position and I am attacking the pressures placed on working mothers, not working mothers themselves, please don’t write me angry letters, end disclaimer)
Grocery shopping has become a military operation. I take stock of the freezer, pantry and fridge and try to incorporate it into my meal plan. I write my meal plan, making allowances for any events or meals out planned for that week. I look at the meal plan and any shopping list notes and make a master list. On this master list, each corner of the page represents a corner of the shop. I write the items according to their location in the supermarket (as Aldi really only has two major aisles, this is not quite as impressive as it sounds). I pay close attention to the two “red zones” – the sweet biscuit and lolly section at the front of the first aisle and the meat section at the back of the second aisle, where everything is at toddler height. I need to have a clear idea of what I need from these red zones and move through them at lighting speed as she who dawdles is lost (and buried under a pile of grocery suggestions from her helpful son). Pay attention! There can be no doubling back in this jungle. But if you’re good you can get a vegemite scroll at the end.
Last week was a good shop. Both Harry and Annie were enjoying their weekly ritual with cheerful enthusiasm. Harry didn’t toss too many items into the trolley and Annie didn’t toss too many items out of it. I stocked up on meat and even bought a whole chicken to roast (I’d read all about how you can make three meals out of one roast chicken and was longing to try it to boost my frugal credentials). When I got to the end of the shop there were free fresh flowers on the packing bench (too old to sell, but still good). I grabbed a bunch to brighten up the house and sailed home feeling unutterably smug.
I packed the groceries away, putting the bulk meat in the bottom drawer of the fridge to be divided into portions and frozen. Then I got to work on the roast chicken. I stuffed it with onion and half-eaten-apple, rubbed it with oil and salt and herbs and cooked it into a culinary masterpiece at only five dollars a kilo. My smug levels rose ever higher.
After dinner I got to work stripping the chicken (for stirfry meat) and inspecting the carcass (for soup stock). While there wasn’t nearly enough chicken left for another meal, I stuck it in the fridge for sandwiches and pulled out my phone to search for instructions on turning a roast chicken carcass into a delicious winter soup. I was met with a bewildering variety of opinions on how to do it involving all manner of ingredients and equipment I didn’t have. I drudged back into the kitchen only to find that Mr Knightley had tossed the carcass in the bin whilst cleaning the kitchen. I hugged him in relief.
“What’s with all the meat in the fridge drawer?”, that worthy personage asked casually.
“I’m buying meat in bulk now. It’s more economical, don’t you know” I gushed enthusiastically.
“You should probably put it in the freezer”, he said, filling the roasting pan with water.
I treated him to one of my best eye rolls. “Of course I will! I just have to separate it into portions first. It’s all under control.”
Later that week, after I posted my Sticky Tape Pudding recipe, my levels of smugness had reached epic proportions. Oh look at me – the mother who bakes with her children and makes it to the bottom of her laundry basket! I’ve finally got the hang of this parenting malarkey! Just call me Captain Awesome and be done with it!
And then it hit me all at once – the meat!
I scrabbled to the bottom of the fridge drawer. Surely it hadn’t been that long? Surely it was still good? I sought the fateful use-by date. It was two days ago. My bottom lip started to wobble violently.
Mr Knightley walked into the room to find me wailing amidst mince meat and sausages.
“How can I manage a family of six,” I hiccupped, “if I can’t even manage basic foodstuffs?!”
I may have been just a little hormonal. Mr Knightley knew it and wisely chose not to say “I told you so”, but instead steered me to the couch and allowed me to sob tempestuously whilst he cast furtive glances over my shoulder at a repeat episode of Futurama.
In the commercial break, Mr Knightley gave my shoulder a squeeze, “Some women”, he said, barely managing to suppress a twitch playing on the corner of his mouth, “blow the budget on shoes or cigarettes or designer clothes. You’re the only one I know who splashes out on budget meats!”
At Mr Knightley’s suggestion, I tried to find a dog in the neighbourhood to benefit from this tragic situation, but it would seem every dog in the area is on a special sausage-free diet. So it came to pass that the sausages and mince stare up at me reproachfully every time I open the outside bin (along with the chicken carcass).
But I’ll be fine, really.
I just need to work out a way to keep the IFC (International Frugalympics Committee) from inspecting my bins…