The Cost of Living

Photo of vegetables growing in raised garden beds with in-garden worm farms. Captions read: "Vegetables grow in a small space."

The Cost of Living

Blog post by Iris Carden

Now that iceberg lettuce is more expensive than gold, and you need to sell your soul to buy a tank of petrol, there’s a lot of people out there giving advice on how to live on less.

A lot of this advice is things like: quit smoking (utterly useless for that largish number of people who never smoked), sell your car and buy a smaller one (which works if you have a new enough car that it will give you the money to buy another one), downsize your house (assumes you have a house which will get you have the money for another one), or the one I really struggled to understand: don’t buy things in bulk. (I can only guess that they mean don’t buy perishables in bulk, because buying some things in bulk is the way to buy cheap.

Much of the advice floating around comes from people who obviously have never had to watch their spending, and hence what they say is as impractical as that advice that millennials could afford to buy houses if they cut down on avocado toast.

For most of my life, I’ve had to be very careful with money. Here are some tips that actually work in the real world.

  • Don’t assume the best prices for fresh fruit and vegetables are at the supermarket (even the one that advertises on having the best prices for fruit and vegetables.) Check you local greengrocers. Some charge about the same prices as the supermarket or even more, but some are much cheaper, and still have good quality produce. Shopping around can save you a little bit for a single shop, but once you know who consistently has good prices, will save a lot in the long-term.
  • Don’t buy perishables in bulk – buy only what you are sure you can use before they go bad.
  • Do buy cleaning products, toilet paper, other products with long shelf life in bulk if you can find them cheaper that way. (Compare prices carefully – bulk doesn’t always mean cheap, but it sometimes does.)
  • Work out which things will last longer if you buy the better quality. For example, I buy good quality locally-roasted coffee beans. I’m addicted to coffee. The expensive beans I buy are more expensive than supermarket beans. However, because the taste is much better I use much less. So a kilo of freshly roasted beans lasts me a month. A kilo of supermarket beans lasts me less than a fortnight. The more expensive product works out cheaper simply because it’s better and has more flavour. The same rule applies with furniture: something really well made and solid will last much longer than something made of chipboard and held together with glue and tacks, so if you buy the best quality you can afford, it will last longer and that will save in the long-term.
  • Some things you can make at home for much cheaper than you can buy them, and they work just as well. You can get a lot of ideas for this at a website called The Cheapskates Club. One of their best-known recipes is for Washing Powder, which is not only cheap, but also works and doesn’t affect my sensitive skin.
  • If you aren’t sure where your money is going, try writing down everything you spend for a week, or a month (from one pay to the next). I do this every now and then when I seem to be going through money faster than usual. Paying attention helps get control of spending.
  • Eat before you go to the supermarket. It’s amazing how much unnecessary stuff you can buy if you shop while you’re hungry.
  • Growing your own food isn’t necessarily hard. I have always grown some fresh herbs in pots. A couple of years ago, I invested in some fruit trees for the back yard. I went for dwarf and miniature trees so I could fit more in the space. I could only afford one tree at a time, but that gave me time to get one established before getting the next. This is a long-term thing. My trees are due to start producing fruit any time soon.
  • Buy gifts throughout the year, so you can get things when they’re on special. This applies especially for things like Christmas gifts when you’d otherwise be buying for a lot of people at once.
  • Vegetables don’t take as much space to grow as you might think. I grew up with the idea of big vegetable gardens, but more recently, I’ve been reading about growing vegetables in small spaces. You can fit a variety of vegetables close together. (The photo with this post shows my veggies in raised garden beds.) I have never been able to grow things from seed, so I bought seedlings – a tray of seedlings is much cheaper than the vegetables they will produce. Oh, and don’t pick a whole lettuce. Pick the leaves you want and leave the plant to grow more.
  • If you had parents or grandparents who said, “Waste not want not,” they were more right than you might realise. Many things can still be useful after their normal life is over. Worn out towels or even tee shirts can be cut down to make cleaning cloths. Fruit and vegetable scraps can go into a worm farm to provide nutrition to your garden. (In the photo, each of the raised garden beds has an in-garden worm farm in it. I throw scraps in the worm farm, the worms eat it that waste take it back through the garden bed while they process it.) If you’re putting high acid peels (such as citrus) in a worm farm add a pinch of bi-carb soda. Worms don’t like acid very much. Even shredded paper can be used to mulch a garden.
  • Think ahead. When you can afford them, buy things that will help you save money long term. When I bought this house, I also bought solar panels, a rainwater tank and ceiling insulation. Those things help save money now. If I could afford them I would get solar batteries, and an electric vehicle, which would both ensure long-term savings. Many of the things we do to be kinder to the environment have the added benefit of saving money.
  • Be wary of debt, don’t borrow money unless you are absolutely certain you can pay it back.
  • Save small amounts regularly. It’s easier to put aside a small amount each time you get paid, than it is to find a big amount of money in a sudden emergency.
  • Books like Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor can help you manage money and save for the future. Pape’s book has very down-to-earth advice, some of the others seem to be written for people who are starting with millions. Carefully assess as you read, whether what you’re reading is of practical use to you.
  • Cooking at home is cheaper than a restaurant or takeaway. It’s not all or nothing. If you don’t have time, or you’re sick and don’t have energy, to prepare food from scratch, the supermarket freezer section has a compromise of food that’s basically prepared and just needs to go in the oven or microwave to be ready. Some of those taste horrible, so it’s trial and error to find what you like. That’s still cheaper than buying prepared food.
  • If you’re struggling to pay bills, be honest with your creditors. Some will let you take longer to pay off the bill if they know you are trying and have a plan to get them paid.
  • Be critical when you look through lists of ways to save money. Some tips will be very useful. Others will be impractical, or will not suit your lifestyle.
  • If it’s all too much, go and see a financial counsellor.
  • For really reliable, and non-biased, tips on anything to do with your money, ASIC’s Moneysmart website is very helpful.
  • Oh and if you ever find yourself needing help from a foodbank or a financial counsellor, or any other service related to poverty, don’t worry that those people will judge you. Everyone who works with poverty knows it can happen to anyone.


By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.

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