Feeding Your Family Without Starving Your Budget

To look at some of the news of late, you might be tempted to say that Britain is headed for a food crisis, and you wouldn’t be totally off the mark. It’s not just the fact that the first quarter of 2017 brought news of a serious vegetable shortage, with British supermarkets being forced to ration veggies such as broccoli and iceberg lettuce after floods and storms decimated crops across the Mediterranean. There is also the fact that food prices are rising globally due to inflation, which is predicted to push more Britons closer to the poverty line. It is easy to understand why it’s getting more difficult for many people to feed their families and still keep afloat financially.

But “difficult” doesn’t mean “impossible.” Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems, and then some of the possible solutions.

While families go hungry, food waste gets worse

A study released in mid-February 2017 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) warned that at least four million more people have been pushed below the benchmark for an adequate income because of rising food and fuel prices. The study noted that the price of a minimum “basket of goods” has risen between 27% and 30% since 2008, but average earnings have increased by only half that amount. And the cost of living could rise by up to 10% by 2020, its impact exacerbated by a freeze on tax credits and working age benefits.

As food costs rise, other bills still need to be paid, and many families are either scrimping severely on meals or are resorting to food banks where they’re available. A higher rate of employment alone is not going to solve the problem, since so many people are in low-income jobs, and many who have decent-paying jobs don’t really have job security. More jobs at a living wage, and better policies to help those who are unemployed or underemployed, should be key priorities for policymakers and businesses.

In light of the problems addressed by the JRF study it’s somewhat astonishing that food waste is still an issue in Britain. Figures from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reveal that household food waste in the UK increased 4.4 percent between 2012 and 2015, failing to meet a target to cut household waste by 5 per cent by 2015. About 7.3 million tonnes of food were sent to landfill in 2015, costing the average UK family £700 per year.

To fix the problem is going to require a concerted effort from consumers, the food industry, and the UK government. Supermarkets, manufacturers, and local authorities must unify in their efforts to put sustainability before profit. And as a consumer, you must learn to be a prudent shopper. Only buy what you need, and don’t be tempted by supermarkets’ “Buy One Get One Free” promotions or other deals that encourage you to stuff your shopping cart with far more than you’ll ever eat. Don’t throw out leftovers; freeze them for a “ready meal” another time. Also keep a close watch on all of the food in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, so you don’t end up throwing food out too soon or (equally as bad) keeping it past the point where it’s edible.

None of the food-related problems this country is facing is insoluble, but we all have to pull together in order to solve them.

Making ends meet

We Brits are a determined lot and even in hard times, many of us manage to find ways to make ends meet and keep food on the table. We’ll do just about anything in order to feed our children. We scrimp and save whatever we can, we take on additional employment, we sell some of our household items at boot fairs and online auctions. These days a growing number of people are also resorting to somewhat shakier methods such as payday loans, overdrafts, and credit cards to fill in the gaps between paychecks.

Not one of those latter tools is intrinsically bad, but they can be costly and should be used with discretion. Overdrafts in particular can be extremely expensive, and most banks place a cap on the amount of overdraft they’ll cover. And once you’ve maxed out your credit card(s), you’re stuck with a collection of useless plastic until you can pay down your debts.

Small short-term loans can be very tempting, particularly for people with spotty credit who can’t get a larger loan from a conventional lender. Indeed, a loan at the right time can make a big difference for a struggling family. However, it pays to evaluate your options before jumping-in.

Like a well-controlled food budget, when you’re borrowing money you should only borrow the amount you actually need. For the best results, carefully comparison-shop to find a lender offering the best rates and good service. And be scrupulous about paying the loan back on time. Borrowing in a responsible manner can improve your credit profile, or at the very least you won’t make it worse.

Creative solutions

Obviously a short-term loan isn’t a long-term solution to your food budget deficits and shouldn’t be viewed that way. But there are a number of creative ways you can start saving on food costs now, without depriving your family.

One woman in Glasgow, Lorna Cooper, has managed to cut down her overall weekly food cost by buying everything in bulk ahead of time (she uses an online food service, Muscle Food). But unlike impulse buyers who succumb to the above-mentioned supermarket “deals”, she plans her purchases carefully and works to prevent food waste by freezing any leftovers. As a consequence she is able to feed her family of four on about £16.60 a week. Ms. Cooper says, “I’ve definitely learnt that bulk-ordering wholesome and healthy ingredients instead of regular trips to the shop is a great way to prep ahead and make food last.” She also runs a Facebook page called, “Feed your family for about £20 a week”, sharing regular money-saving advice and recipes.

In January 2017 the Guardian reported on an experiment taking place in Swadlincote, a market town of about 35,000 souls in Derbyshire, chosen by Sainsbury’s as the test bed for its Waste Less, Save More programme to help consumers reduce their food waste and save money. The programme’s “focus families” are using new technology, such as Winnow, which is currently only used in restaurant kitchens, and Olio, a US food-sharing app. They’re also using low-tech methods such as a simple plastic device to measure spaghetti before cooking, thus cutting out large amounts of waste. Families keep food diaries and work with chefs and nutritionists to go “back to basics” in the ways that they buy, store, prepare, cook, and eat food. Some families have so far managed to cut their food bills up to £3,000 a year.

The results of Sainsbury’s trial will be evaluated by WRAP and published in spring of 2017. If it’s successful, perhaps similar programmes will be implemented throughout the UK.

The takeaway here is that careful planning and a little creativity can potentially save you hundreds or even thousands of pounds on food costs, and you’ll probably end up eating more healthily as well. Elsewhere on this site we offer tips on how to save money at the supermarket and cut down on food waste. And perhaps you can come up with some creative ideas of your own. Even in today’s challenging milieu you can feed your family well without starving your budget.

Paul graduated in 2001 with a degree in Finance. Since then he has gone on to work for several of the UK's most well-known financial institutions.

An avid blogger and a huge football fan, Paul is here to guide you through the ins and outs of personal finance and perhaps save you some money in the process!

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