So how do we do it? How do we survive now that we suddenly have no money?
Once you take out the €240 we spend for rent, the €200 for car payment, and the €50 for cell phones/electricity/whatever other unavoidable expenses, based solely on my husband’s frighteningly reduced income (and yes, in case you’re wondering, he still has to do the same amount of work plus extra now, and there’s no chance of an increase for a minimum of 4 years, even if there is inflation) – because we are saving my puny savings for emergencies – we have about €500 per month to survive on.
There are just two of us, no pets, and we both have health insurance (even me, now, thanks to the marriage) that supposedly covers us, so we use that money for everything else: food, transportation/gas, entertainment, over the counter medicines/toiletries, household products, and whatever else we need in a given month.
It may sound like a lot, but let me remind you that things are really expensive here. A packaged frozen two-pack of chicken breasts costs €9.00.
We aren’t getting any money from anywhere else, so we really have to make this work. The following is an outline of what I’m doing to try to make this happen.
From the €500, subtract the likely extra expenses for that month. At the end of the month, we’re moving off the island (our apartment needs to be rented to tourists who pay €120/night, not €240/month, so we aren’t able to stay on the island over the summer while school is out). Moving expenses for us, all our stuff (we can’t leave it on the island in storage because we aren’t sure we’ll be coming back in the fall yet), and our car will be roughly €200 (including ferry tickets for two plus a car, train tickets, and sending a few boxes). Gas, another €100 because of the driving we’ll have to do once we’re off the island. That’s €300 out of the €500, leaving us with only €200 and we haven’t eaten a single meal.
My husband has uber-sensitive teeth and has to use some special (not covered by insurance) dental products that add up to about €60/month. I have a few prescriptions I have to use every month, even with insurance it’s still around €20/month. So we’re down to €120, or 13 two-packs of chicken breasts.
We spend roughly €60 per month on the cheapest available bottled water because of the severe health risks of using the local water. So now we’re down to €60 for actual food, for two people who are trying not to die of an early heart attack or diabetes.
€60/month is €15/week on food. I hope I don’t need to tell you that, at the end of the month, we do not have money left over to put into savings.
This is what I do:
1) Use up stores of food already in the house. We’re moving soon (at this point it’s less than 20 days away), so what better way to reduce moving stress than by getting rid of consumables? Back in our wealthier days (not so long ago) we bought things like rice and pasta and dried beans, but we ate things like cereal, fresh fruits and vegetables, and potatoes. Well, now we are eating the rice and pasta and dried beans. I have put all of our dried food stores into clear glass bottles and have lined them up on the kitchen counter. This way, I can easily see how much we have of everything. Keep in mind that it’s not that cheap to cook dried beans and rice, even if you already own the foods, because it takes so much bottled water to cook them. But I’m finding ways to reduce the water and it still saves money overall to use up stuff we already have.
2) Handmaking everything. I bought flour back in February, when we still had money. It came in a package of three 2-kg bags, so a total of 6.6 lbs of flour. I bought it because I wanted to make bread but I never got around to actually making the bread. Well you’d better believe I make bread now. I have almost seven pounds of flour to use up! Not only have I baked amazing French bread, but also homemade pasta (without a pasta machine – in fact, without even a rolling pin – I used a glass jar). I bought a bag (2.2 lbs) of whole wheat flour at some point too, and I made whole wheat pasta and also whole wheat pizza dough with that. I still have about 1 lb of whole wheat flour and 3 lbs of white flour to use! Bread is cheap to make, because the only thing you need aside from flour and a little bit of water and salt, is yeast. So yes, I have had to buy yeast (once I ran out of the yeast I bought back in February), but it’s not that expensive considering how much food you can make out of it.
3) Relentlessly seasonal shopping. I don’t care if it’s cherry season in the rest of Greece; if the apricots are cheaper per kilo than the cherries this week, we’re getting apricots.
4) Substitutions. You don’t have to use butter or sesame oil if all you have is olive oil. Just use the freaking olive oil. Olive oil burns? Turn the heat down. It’s not perfect? So what, you already have it sitting on your shelf, and you don’t want to carry it in your suitcase, now do you. This is what I tell myself when I look at a recipe that calls for something I don’t have.
5) Absolutely no meat whatsoever. Per gram of protein, meat isn’t that expensive in most places, but here on the island, I could buy about 80 eggs for the price of those two damn chicken breasts. So we eat eggs and beans, which are great sources of protein.
6) Never eat out unless someone else is paying. I hate to say this because it sounds like we’re taking advantage of others, but we’ve been invited twice this month to go out as a treat, and we accepted both times, happily and gratefully. One of those times I was able to cook a homemade meal for our friend who took us out; the other one was our landlord who wanted to treat us before we left.
7) When you run out of something, don’t buy more. I can only drink decaf coffee, and I love it, but when I run out (which will happen in the next 5 days), I’ll be switching to caffeine free teas and hot chocolate, both of which I have on hand.
8) Put water on cereal (if you have cereal – the stuff is crazy expensive but we still had some left over) because it actually tastes almost the same as milk, and I can’t even tell the difference if I don’t think about it too hard.
9) Eat all of everything. I don’t mean eat the apricot pit, but eat the peel of carrots, potatoes, and cucumbers, don’t throw away a lemon without zesting it first, and don’t core or seed anything (you can pull the green stem part off a tomato without cutting into it at all); there’s nothing deadly about the end of a cucumber.
10) Rehydrate dried fruit by soaking in warm water before eating (it will seem like more food that way).
11) Use spices liberally if you have a lot of them on hand and wouldn’t mind using them up, to make up for bland ingredients or for a lack of sauces: for example, the other day I wanted to make feta saganaki, a lovely Greek dish, but I didn’t want to use flour to coat it (too boring); I found a recipe that suggested to use sesame seeds to coat it instead. Far more nutritious, far more delicious, and how else am I going to use up a huge jar of sesame seeds in 20 days?
12) Use fresh herbs that grow nearby: we have a mint plant growing outside our house. We didn’t put it there, our landlord did, but no one ever uses it for anything. I put it in salads, in tzatziki, in whatever I think it would be good in. Not only does it taste great, but it saved me buying fresh herbs (something you absolutely can’t do on this budget).
13) Absolutely no alcohol or tobacco. My husband and I are both hard-core non-smokers, the kind who roll our eyes at each other when someone lights up 9 tables away in a restaurant, so this is nothing to us. Alcohol: I don’t drink it at all, as it makes my heart beat weird, but my husband does, so we basically just stopped buying any kind of wine, beer, or spirits. There is still some brandy in the house in a bottle, but only a little bit; he’d better finish that before we leave because I don’t want to carry that damn bottle.
14) Don’t just throw stuff away. If a vegetable looks like it’s going to go bad, use it in a sauce, don’t throw it away. I am careful not to cook too much of anything in the fear that it won’t keep (we don’t have a freezer – I’m not kidding, we have a tiny fridge that doesn’t have a freezer at all!).
15) Buy often, in small amounts, things that are sold by weight. Fresh fruit and vegetables are a gamble on this island. I have been known to buy a single lemon or a single pepper, because that’s what I needed, and didn’t want to risk the rest going bad. I can walk to a market here so there’s no added expense (gas) in doing that.
16) Buy cheese only on sale. Luckily for us, our favorite cheese, Milner’s low fat feta cheese, has had a buy-one get-one free deal going on for a few weeks. We bought two and got four. This is the basis of many of our meals lately. Feta isn’t cheap, but at half-price, it’s doable. Since we don’t do meat or fish, we really enjoy this.
17) No canned or frozen foods. Canned goods are insanely expensive here. Maybe it’s the weight, maybe it’s the fact that most people don’t buy them and prefer fresh, but a can of tuna costs the equivalent of $3-4 dollars – for a normal sized can! Since I used to buy those for $0.50 in the US, I do not like this at all. Frozen foods are also insanely expensive – even worse than canned – but I can’t buy them anyway since I have no freezer. The only exception to this rule is that I will sometimes get canned chopped tomatoes and tomato paste when the price is reasonable.
18) To save water, I’ve found that cooking fresh homemade pasta takes almost no water to boil, since they are finished in such a short time (2-3 minutes). Since I have the flour and the eggs, this one is a no-brainer.
Here’s a sample menu of what we ate yesterday:
Husband: chocolate-milk made from powder we’ve had for months
Me: cereal with water
Both of us: handmade white-flour orzo infused with rehydrated dried basil served cold and tossed with sliced black olives, small-chopped cucumber and tomato, a bit of red wine vinegar, the juice of half a lemon, a bit of olive oil, and about 10 large leaves of fresh mint, chopped.
Husband: several fresh apricots, Greek coffee (no milk or sugar)
Me: several fresh apricots
Both: the rest of the basil-pasta dough rolled into handmade penne, cooked in a light tomato sauce left over from my homemade pizza last week; a salad with lettuce, sliced olives, finely sliced cucumber, and an entire can of water-packed tuna (left over from several months ago), with a drizzle of olive oil.
Out of ALL the ingredients, the only things that had been purchased in the entire previous month were:
– milk for his chocolate milk (€0.25)
– fresh apricots (in season at the moment) (€0.50)
– the black olives (these are quite cheap in Greece) (€0.40)
– the cucumber (€0.10)
– the tomato (€0.10)
– the lemon (€0.10)
As you can see, it comes to €1.45 for both of us. Now, we really need to be spending €2.15 per day for both of us, since we only have €15 for the whole week, but it’s not easy and most days, I don’t actually make it. But I’m trying REALLY hard.
And if you think about it, yesterday we had two delicious hand-made home-cooked meals with some fresh fruit and dairy, plenty of protein and healthy fat, and it was interesting, not bland or boring.
This is really hard. The worst part is that we are living in Athens over the summer for my summer job, and it’s going to cost us a lot more money. We really wanted to save that money and get by on his salary (luckily, teachers in Greece get paid 12 months/year) but I realize that it will be impossible.
Read Full Post »