For some, the cost of living crisis means cutting back on little luxuries – wine with dinner, sourdough bread, fancy ice-cream for dessert. For others, it’s more serious. We can’t fix the big issues here. But the good news is that, for many of us, there are all kinds of ways to not only keep household costs down but keep spirits up, our families and communities strong, and to live well – or at least better – on less.
How to eat well on a budget
A University of Wollongong study found that eating healthy, nutritious, fresh food is more cost-effective not just than junk food, but than the average Aussie diet. So it pays to buy fresh food, but there are tricks to it.
The Weekly’s Food Director, Fran Abdallaoui, is a big fan of eating seasonally, not just because the food tastes better and is better for the environment, but because seasonal produce is almost always cheaper.
And don’t be too worried about the way produce looks. A recent Guardian Australia survey found that the imperfect ranges are the least expensive way to buy fruit and veg – plus they stop all that food from going to landfill.
The same survey found that it pays to shop around. Don’t assume the big retailers have the best prices. A lot of veggies are actually less expensive at Asian and other independent grocers.
Fran suggests replacing some fresh vegetables with frozen when they’re out of season. “Nutritionally,” she says, “fresh and frozen are almost identical and when the budget is tight, those frozen peas might mean you can splurge on some extra fresh fruit.”
Cut back on meat
Beans and pulses are an economical protein source – easy to add to and extend meat-based casseroles, bolognese, soups and stews. And who doesn’t love Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food? They’re all full of flavoursome recipes for vegetable proteins.
“Embrace grains as the foundation of your meal,” Fran says, “then embellish with meat and veg. There’s a reason Italians love pasta, and Asian cuisine is grounded in rice and noodles. They’re economical and delicious.”
For the rusted-on meat eater, Fran recommends getting creative about cuts. Look for less expensive cuts of meat and explore new ways to cook them. “And a whole chicken is cheaper than buying fillets,” she adds. “Invest in a sharp pair of kitchen scissors and learn to cut up a chicken.”
“Making big batches of a stew or soup and popping that in the freezer is handy for the days when you’re so tired you can’t be bothered cooking,” says Kirsten Bradley, author of The Milkwood Permaculture Living Handbook.
“Those are the times in our household when we tend to get takeaway. But if there’s something in the freezer that will just take a few minutes to heat up, that can make quite a difference to the weekly budget.”
Use every bit of food
Kirsten also recommends “using every bit of the fresh produce that you can get your hands on. Learn to make carrot-top pesto, or herby croutons out of leftover bread. Make a commitment to use every bit of the food that comes into your kitchen. That will shift your thinking on how much food you actually have. In times of less, it’s easy to get into a scarcity mindset and worry that there’s not enough, but there’s often something interesting you can do with the food you’ve got.”
Organise your pantry
Fran says that developing some good habits and routines in the kitchen can also save money and prevent waste. “Knowing the basics of good food storage is a great place to start,” she explains.
“Have an organised pantry and freezer, and only buy in bulk if you have room to store it properly and are sure you’ll use it. Label and date all the cooked food that you freeze, and make a conscious effort to eat it within a few weeks.”
Grow your own produce
There’s a backyard veggie patch renaissance going on, “and it started in the COVID era,” says Toni Salter, also known as ‘The Veggie Lady’. “I think it petered out for a little while when everyone went back to work. Then suddenly we realised we needed to make savings, and people returned to their veggie patches. Interest is really picking up again.”
Toni is a horticulturalist who holds gardening workshops and tends her own very impressive vegetable garden in the suburbs of Sydney. She believes that growing even a few well-chosen veggies can save money, avoid food waste, and increase the quality of the food we eat and our enjoyment of life.
“Start small,” she says. “Start with a few containers of herbs and some salad greens. And I always make room for tomatoes because once you’ve tasted home-grown tomatoes, you can never go back. You can use found pots or ask your greengrocer for leftover foam boxes so there doesn’t have to be a huge cost outlay.
“And to make real savings, grow your plants from seeds. Buying seedlings at the nursery is quite expensive. When we sow our own seeds, we’re paying as little as $2 for a packet and we might get 20 seedlings from that. Then you learn how to collect the seeds from season to season, and you don’t even have to buy the packets of seeds anymore.”
Composting and backyard chooks
Toni also recommends investigating compost bins, worm farms and even backyard chooks, so you’ll be self-sufficient in fertiliser as well. Joanne Evans, from Evans Chickens in Sydney, says that since COVID and then the cost-of-living crisis, there has also been a resurgence of interest in keeping chickens.
“The big thing about having backyard chickens is that the quality of the eggs for the cost is just so much better,” she explains. Joanne estimates that a dozen backyard eggs, taking into account top-of-the-line chicken feed and maintenance of your chooks and pen, will cost about $3 per dozen.
You will also need a properly kitted out pen to protect your chooks from foxes, stray dogs and the elements. And someone needs to be at home to collect the eggs and let the chooks out to peck in the yard for at least a few hours every day. But if you can do all that, they’re not a bad investment.
“And there’s the satisfaction you get with being self-sufficient,” Joanne adds, “and the relaxation and enjoyment that comes from them too. There’s something very calming about watching a chook pecking around the yard.” Joanne has supplied chickens to community gardens and even to communal gardens on the roofs of city apartment blocks.
Join community gardens
Kirsten, Toni and Joanne all recommend joining community gardens – for the shared knowledge and garden space, and for the companionship. Once you start growing some food, they also recommend tracking down your neighbourhood produce swap (Crop Swap Australia) or starting your own. You can do the same thing informally with friends and neighbours.
“For me,” says Kirsten, “growing a little bit of food – whether it’s herbs in a pot, sprouts on the windowsill or a fruit tree in the yard – is a great way to save money, improve your nutrition and, most importantly, make your heart swell. If things are tight and you’re living simply, that’s not always the most relaxing place to be, but seeing those little bursts of life and being able to pick them and eat them … it brings back some joy.”
Some extra tips from Fran:
- Each week, plan at least a couple of dinners that you intend to cook, and shop ahead so you can limit your trips to the supermarket, because there lies temptation towards impulse purchases.
- Always check the price per kilo or per piece – don’t be fooled by misleading labels about special bargains.
- Home-baked cakes and biscuits are far cheaper (and fresher!) than store-bought, and baking is a fun family activity.
- If things are looking really tough, organisations such as OzHarvest, Food Bank and other charities from community organisations such as Good in the Hood in Sydney’s Inner West can help. You can find them online.
Upcycle and DIY instead of ‘buy-buy-buy’
The ‘make and mend’ trend is massive at the moment, its popularity fuelled by an impulse to reduce waste and care for the environment, as well as to save money. “To decide to repair something is to call it worthy of repair,” says Kirsten, to appreciate both its monetary and emotional value.
She recommends starting with simple projects. “Luckily, there’s a whole internet of people who would love nothing more than to show you how to sew that button back on or cross-stitch the front of your jeans.”
Many towns and communities also have repair cafes and tool libraries, where people with knowledge volunteer their time to help you mend anything from an overcoat to a toaster. And you can borrow the equipment you need for bigger repairs.
You can also save by making some of your own cleaning products. Cleaning-grade vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and citric acid are dirt cheap and will clean almost anything around the house. Our very own Home Hints is a good spot to check regularly for tips. And we love Nancy Birtwhistle (a Great British Bake Off winner and author of Clean & Green and The Green Gardening Handbook) who shares a wealth of knowledge on her Instagram page (@nancy.birtwhistle).
“The skills I’m passing on were honed more than 80 years ago during tough times,” she wrote recently in Good Housekeeping, “but it turns out they’re also exactly what we need now, and I believe they’re helping us pave the way for a better future for everyone.” Life was simpler, she says, in days gone by but that doesn’t mean it was joyless. And that holds true now too. Living with financial pressure is stressful, so it’s important to grab as many moments of happiness as you can and share them with the people you love.
Save on energy bills
Now it’s time to tackle the big-ticket items. The challenges they pose can seem insurmountable but there are substantial savings to be made in areas like housing, energy and transport.
The Weekly’s finance columnist, Effie Zahos, suggests taking a careful look at where your money goes – either by examining your transaction records or simply writing down everything you spend for a month – and working out where you could make savings. There’s always somewhere.
Water and electricity
Perhaps it’s your water bill. Remember the water-wise lessons we learnt in the drought: Take shorter showers, fix dripping taps, install a low-flow shower head and re-use dish and clothes-washing water on the garden. It’s worth reminding ourselves of some common energy-saving tips too. Choose the eco or cold-water setting on the washing machine. Turn down the temperature on the hot water and turn up the temperature on the fridge.
Switch appliances off at the powerpoint when they’re not in use and make sure everyone in the house switches lights off when there’s no one in the room. Only boil as much water as you need. As far as possible, run the washing machine with full loads, and as the weather gets warmer and El Niño kicks in, give the tumble dryer a break.
Reverse cycle air conditioning is the most cost-effective and energy efficient form of heating and cooling, but it needn’t always be on. On winter nights, sometimes it’s just as cosy to put on a jumper and wrap up in a blanket. In summer, if you live near the coast, unless someone in the house is frail, elderly or unwell, you might only need air conditioning on the hottest days of the year, if at all.
Effie suggests comparing utility providers and checking you’re getting the best possible deal on energy, internet and phone. The same goes for banks. “Most of us know that when it comes to home loans, loyalty usually doesn’t pay,” Effie explains. There could be savings to be made by refinancing your mortgage – either with the same lender or by moving to a new one. Though you’ll need to take a careful look at the fees you might incur and make sure the numbers stack up. The mortgage switching calculator at moneysmart.gov.au can help.
When it comes to transport, walking, riding a bike, or choosing public transport, rather than taking the car, will always save money, as will shopping around for petrol. If you need a new car, an electric or a hybrid model might be a wise investment, and a second-hand hybrid won’t cost the earth.
Need more help?
If nothing you do seems to make the numbers add up the way you want, there are places you can turn to for help. Speak to the hardship team at your bank, utility provider or local council (if the rates are an issue). They can assess your situation and work with you to create an achievable payment plan. The National Debt Helpline is also a great resource. It’s a free, not-for-profit financial counselling service which you can reach on 1800 007 007.
Finally, when times are tough, it’s good to remember that we’re not alone, and to keep an eye on friends, family and neighbours who might also be struggling. “It’s really important to think about the people around us,” says Kirsten. “If we’re feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis, and if our household has realised we have to do more with less, then chances are that’s happening all along the street.”
She suggests checking in on friends and neighbours, and also donating time, money or food to local charities if we can. “It all comes around. It’s a big circle,” Kirsten says. “That’s the kind of thing that creates stronger communities, which we all want to live in, and which we need to nurture when things are tougher. We need to look out for each other a bit more. It does make a big difference in other people’s lives, and you’ll find that it ripples back to you in all sorts of beautiful ways.”