Is sticking to a budget, amping up savings and knowing the little swaps you can make here and there on your to do list for 2021? Food writer Jack Monroe shares the tips to make this all happen.
Let’s face it, we’re all clinging on to anything that sparks some semblance of joy right now. Non-essential shops are closed, along with beauty salons, hairdressers, pubs and hotels. So, what’s left for us to enjoy? Food, of course.
No matter how tight restrictions may get, how small our worlds might become, there will always be a supermarket nearby to peruse treats galore. My indulgences tend to sway on the salty side: crunchy crisps bought in bulk. But like all pleasures, it’s different for everyone.
“Not being able to go out for dinner means one thing for me: takeaways. At least once a week I now order from my local Chinese or pizza place,” says *Naomi Smith, 24. “Even though it’s not that expensive, I still feel guilty after buying it. I want to feel better about making these purchases.”
For others, online shopping has taken a hold. “Since the start of lockdown three, I’ve been ordering clothes from ASOS almost routinely,” says *Emma Taylor, 24. “I’d love to save more during this time but getting packages in the post is literally one of the few things that brings me joy right now.”
It’s safe to say we all deserve a treat right now, but that doesn’t mean we should be waving contactless cards with wild abandon. And herein lies the ultimate question: can we really feel in control of our finances without sacrificing some of the things that make us happy?
Food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe knows a thing or two about this balancing act. “Being frugal and thrifty is a full-time job,” she says. “You’ve got to keep on top of so many things.”
Long before the pandemic, Monroe was a single parent on benefits, with no other choice but to carefully manage her finances and occasionally make some tactical sacrifices along the way. She then poured that knack for thriftiness into being an established food writer of budget-friendly cookbooks including Tin Can Cook: Simple, Store-Cupboard Recipes and Vegan(ish): 100 Simple Budget Recipes That Don’t Cost The Earth.
In an effort to find some solutions to our ever-growing money concerns, Stylist spoke to Jack over Zoom from her home in Essex. Here she shares her expert tips for budgeting, saving and spending smart. Notepads at the ready.
Many people are struggling financially right now. How did you manage your money in the harder times?
“There were a lot of little things that I would do. I kept all my finances in a spreadsheet that was coloured green and when it went into a negative balance, it would turn red. On the spreadsheet it would have columns for the name of the benefit payment, where it was coming from or where it was going. I based it on a typical bank statement. I had my income (child benefit, child tax credits, housing benefits) come in one day and bills go out on another day. And because benefits were often delayed, short or suspended, I had to keep a stringent check on when every penny came into my bank account and when every penny left.”
Now that your circumstances have changed, do you manage your money differently?
“You know, there’s not as much money in writing books as people think there is unless you’re a really big name, so I’m still pretty careful with money. I get paid the living wage and I’m pretty stringent with my food shop – old habits die hard. I spend an average of £20 a week for me and my son, sometimes posting my ‘haul’ on Twitter or Instagram. But also it’s the small things like going around the house switching the lights off, cutting open the tomato purée or toothpaste tube and squeezing out the paste that’s left, watering down the washing up liquid and not wasting any food.
I have severe ADHD, which means I can be impulsive at times, so at the start of this year I physically put my debit card in a locked cash box and unhooked it from my online accounts. I still meander around my favourite websites imagining all the nice things, but it’s a surprisingly effective deterrent. The other thing about ADHD is having constantly mislaid keys, so even if I did convince myself something was absolutely essential, it’s not worth the epic quest of finding the safe place I stashed them in.”
When it comes to getting some savings behind you, what are your top tips?
“Well firstly you need to have something to save. And for a long time the idea of ‘savings’ was completely alien to me, a different language, because I was rock-bottom scraping by. Now things are better (although as a self-employed freelancer, I’m still not stable enough to breathe easy) the habits and frugal quirks I acquired through hard necessity mean that I can start to tuck a little bit away. It feels completely exhilarating and quite a relief to know that if everything gets that bad again I’ve got a small emergency pot to draw on.
I’ve never had that level of security and it really does change a lot day to day when you’re no longer using so much emotional energy and mental labour just surviving on the margins. So my top tip is not to feel guilty or like a failure if you don’t have any savings or anything to cut to make them at the moment – concentrate on taking care of yourself and that’s okay too.”
I think a lot of people will relate to that. Is it important to balance indulging and budgeting in the pandemic, and how do we actually do it without feeling like we’re skimping?
“Everyone’s got the right to have the little luxuries they want if they can afford them. If you spend your whole life shopping in the basics range at the supermarket, even just one day being able to pop the slightly nicer biscuits into your basket, or a yoghurt with actual flavour feels like a victory.”
So, when it comes to budgeting for food, how can we better manage what we’re spending?
“Knowing per gram where some things are cheaper to buy fresh, canned or frozen really helps. I love canned fruits because they’re easy to use and nutritional. Fruits and vegetables are canned quickly after picking so they don’t go through the natural deterioration that fresh fruit and vegetables can. I don’t think everyone knows that the freezing and canning process actually preserves the nutrient value of foods which means they’re a great value option.
When I’m in the supermarket aisles, I’ll usually keep a mental tally of how much I’m spending too and choose cheaper brands of food, or the best quality I can afford, but there are a handful of things I prefer not to compromise on if I can help it. I prefer getting Del Monte’s canned fruit over supermarket own as I feel it’s better quality and just a few pence more. If you can afford better quality, go for it.”
Do you think it’s helpful to have financial goals – eg an amount you’d like to have saved in a year’s time?
“I think it helps to have a goal if you’re in a position to, but everyone’s goal will be different. It’s also important to be flexible though because life happens and some things are out of our control. Sometimes you can even pick up that goal further down the line and recognise it’s not something that’s possible in the moment. It’s all about small changes if you’re able to make them and letting those add up.”
Finally, we’ve seen so many awful stories about food deprivation and children’s lunches recently – are there ways we can help?
“Absolutely. Long-term change is important because food poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s a symptom of overall poverty. So if someone is unable to afford food, they’re probably struggling with a lot of things including heating bills and clothes for them and their children. As much as I despise the casual nationalisation of food banks in this country, they are a lifeline for literally millions of people. In terms of things you can do right now: feed the people. Donate food to local food banks or money to Magic Breakfast, Khalsa Aid or any other charity offering immediate food aid and hunger relief.
In the long-term, we need to examine the need for a universal basic income, raise the living wage and make sure that the voices of people who are experiencing poverty are heard in this discussion. I first spoke in Parliament about the need for a decent living wage in 2013 and the fact I’m still doing this eight years later feels like nothing changes except the statistics for deaths and the number of people using food banks grows larger.
I really admire the way that Marcus Rashford is using his platform to raise awareness of food poverty and to campaign for real change. The government seems to listen to him, which is fantastic, because what he does very well is centre the people who are currently living in poverty at the heart of his discussions.”
Jack Monroe is working with Del Monte to highlight the many and varied benefits of canned fruit.
Images: courtesy of brand.