The Big Lie: Money Can't Buy...

Health. Family. Quality Time. Happiness.

You know the story. These are the things that money can’t buy.

Except it’s not true. Money buys food, shelter, and free time. It buys counseling, doctors, tests, and treatments. It buys opportunities to garden, exercise, and travel to visit family.

Money buys natural building materials, mattresses, and cookware that doesn’t contaminate your food. It buys filtered water, phthalate free containers, and organic produce. It buys meat – healthy, pastured, organic meat from people you meet on farms you can visit.

The difference between enough and more than enough money doesn’t change your happiness. But the difference between not enough and just enough makes a huge difference to your quality of life. If you don’t have enough for all your needs, you know the choices are difficult.

When we started GAPS, that’s the position we were in.

Real Food & Your Budget

One of the biggest challenges of real food is the sticker shock. $15/gallon for milk? $7/dozen for eggs? $8/lb for ground beef? It’s enough to send most budget-conscious people running back to the bread isle and factory farmed meat.

I used to write the high cost argument off as an excuse. After all, there are lots of ways to save on real food.

If you were eating out a lot and buying pre-packaged convenience “foods” prior to making the switch, real food can cost about the same as eating the SAD (Standard American Diet). But if you were frugal to start with, real food is likely to double your bill unless you get creative.

GAPS is worth the financial cost!

GAPS is worth the financial cost!

Transition to a grain-free diet like Paleo or GAPS and it gets even more expensive. You can’t rely on vegetarian meals to save money. You can’t stock up on bags of flour or pad meals with potatoes and rice any more.

In our case, we went from spending about $400/month for our family of four to averaging closer to $1100/month when you count in all of our bulk buys throughout the year. We’re not extravagant people, and our bill nearly tripled!

(Our costs were less when our garden was going strong, we had backyard eggs & meat, the kids were smaller, and we were seriously underemployed. Time is money, you know. But we were still paying about double the original (frugal) food bill.)

That is a huge difference, and let’s get real – the money is not necessarily made up in health care costs.

People who are able to stop their prescriptions will save a lot. People who don’t have coverage for doctor or hospital visits will probably save as well. But health doesn’t always improve overnight.

In order to deal with the higher grocery bills, we had to change our definition of food. Just because other people see the $1 menu at McDonald’s or a Costco pack of muffins as food, doesn’t mean it’s food.

Food is fuel for our bodies. It’s nourishment. That SAD stuff is poison. I don’t care how cheap it is, I’m not quieting my kids’ hunger with poison. Rice and beans are real food, but if your body can’t properly process them, they won’t nourish you. It only counts as food if it improves your health and fuels your body.

Don’t compare what you spend on real food to what someone else spends on the cheapest SAD poison they can find! Instead, recalibrate your sense of what food really costs, and cut back in other areas.

You Need A Budget

Whether you have plenty of money or are still in the red with a SAD eating style, you can plan for your real food spending.

YNAB is a budgeting tool that has helped us immensely. Basically, it is a digital envelope system. You can create all the categories you like. Then you spend according to your categories rather than your account balances.

When I am at the grocery store, I can look at my smart phone (data plan turned off!) and see how much is left to spend that month. If I buy household things in the same purchase, I can record that, too, by splitting the transaction. As soon as the information syncs up, TinyHands can see the change in the category amounts, too.

Every month, the amount left in a category rolls over to the next month. We can then choose whether to keep saving, make a purchase, or move that money to another category.
Here’s a video that explains it briefly. I’ll share our food budget below.

This is what our “Food” master category looked like in November, December, and January. The category names have our spending goals for each category in them, so we can plan our savings more easily.

The first column is what we budgeted, the second is what we spent, and the third is what’s remaining in that category at the end of the month.

November YNAB Budget

November YNAB Budget

As you can see, in November we overspent what we’d budgeted for in Groceries. This is because we made a big trip on the last day of the month. Since we knew TinyHands’s paycheck had cleared and we’d already budgeted for next month, we didn’t worry about reconfiguring our budget. Instead, we just let the overspending carry into next month’s category.

You can see we listed out all our planned bulk purchases for the year. These are foods that we know we will save a lot of money on by buying in bulk. If we don’t buy beef in bulk, we’ll pay at least double over the course of the year! So it makes sense to save up for it rather than buy that in the store. In November we finished paying for a half-cow we’d paid a deposit on in October.

Since we hadn’t had the full amount saved for the beef, we had to rob the other categories to fund it, which is why most of the other bulk categories were empty.

December YNAB Budget

December YNAB Budget

We’d been averaging about $800/month in the store when we were out of frozen meat. Once we bought the beef, we were able to bring that down to about $700. We contributed to the bulk categories to the best of our ability, based on our savings goals and other expenses (not shown). By looking at trends in your spending over time, YNAB will also help you determine which bulk purchases were worth it.

January YNAB Budget

January YNAB Budget

In January, you can see that our bulk categories are starting to fill up. $526.45 of the money in our checking account is earmarked for future food spending! We don’t have to worry about accidentally spending that money on something else, because the rest of our expenses are also funded by category.

Each month we will continue to contribute what we can to those categories.


Update!!! Once we had a full year of data on our spending, I decided to run some reports. Here is a chart YNAB created showing our food spending from July 2013 through July 2014. You’ll see some of our categories have changed a bit since I posted the initial budget screenshots. That’s ok! You can edit YNAB categories as often as you like without losing any of your data! Click on the report to see the full thing.

YNAB lets you customize reports. This shows our food spending, including going out and treats, by category, for the past year.

YNAB lets you customize reports. This shows our food spending, including going out and treats, by category, for the past year.

Our monthly average including extras like alcohol, ice cream (fresh ice cream is *not* GAPS legal), going out comes out to $1033.30 – a bit better than I thought! Without the going out and alcohol it’s $989.06/month. We expect this year to be less, since we have been saving up for bigger bulk purchases. We’re getting a whole cow in just a couple months and have frozen and fermented a lot of produce this summer.

Here is the current state of our food budget. This shows July and August 2014.

July and August 2014 YNAB Food Budget

July and August 2014 YNAB Food Budget

Transitioning to a Real Food Budget

So how do you justify possibly tripling the food budget, even when you are careful with your meal planning and bulk buys? How do you make the transition?

The key is to set your priorities. Dave Ramsey is a debt-hating financial guru who talks a lot about the “4 Walls” – Food, Shelter & Utilities, Clothing, and Transportation. Yes, he also talks about eating lots of beans and rice. The concept is that while you are in debt, or when you don’t have enough money, you cut back where you can. Well, to us, “beans and rice” is “ground beef, carrots & kraut.”

When we started GAPS, we were actually living on student loans. We’d blown through most of our savings, and were underemployed. Slipping further into debt each month was scary… but not as scary as dealing with preventable problems like losing bowel control in public or watching my kid hobble around in pain.

We lived a very modest lifestyle, but still didn’t have enough. We made a plan to increase our income, and accepted that in the meantime we would be digging a financial hole. Doing what we could to improve our health was our top priority.

If you’re desperate for more income, working to bring in more money is a lot more doable when your health is good, by the way! Budgeting with YNAB will help you set realistic goals for what is needed and how much more you need to bring in.

Eventually we were able to take drastic measures that included moving for a job to a city with a lower cost of living. We made the most of our newfound income by getting on the same page with our budget, using YNAB! Now we are making quick progress on our debt, and we can actually afford to buy the food we need!

All the money in the world won’t solve some health and relationship issues. But a bit of money well-spent can dramatically alter your family’s well-being. To pretend otherwise is a huge mistake.

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5 comments to The Big Lie: Money Can’t Buy…

  • Sheena

    Great post!! Thanks

  • Jeanie

    I would love to hear others’ opinions on this: I am an extremely low-income single mom of 2 young boys. I am on food stamps, which are a true life-saver, and enable me to purchase much of the healthier ‘real’ food that I choose to feed my family. We own chickens, and grown some of our fresh produce when we can. I agree with all the arguments against cheap ‘food’ – including GMOs, animal abuses, and so much more. And I am willing to pay more for real food. BUT… Here it is… WHY does real food cost SOOOOO VERY MUCH more than conventional stuff? Is it just that suppliers CAN charge so much more so they do (the good old supply-and-demand), or does it REALLY cost 5-10 times more to produce the real food? I could swallow double or triple prices, perhaps, but it just seems that suppliers (even my favorite local farms and famers’ markets) are charging excessive prices.

    • Hi Jeanie. I’m sorry you are struggling. I have been in your shoes. When the kids were little I was a single mom and did receive food stamps at times. This was before we went on GAPS, so I did use grains and beans which saved money. But I also did the gardening and bought at farmer’s markets at the time. I won’t say I always kept food spending within the SNAP amount. But those SNAP dollars sure did help!

      It really costs more. Especially at this time of year. In the middle of the summer prices for what can be grown more locally will drop dramatically. The reason is that our government SUBSIDIZES FACTORY FARMING AND GRAIN PRODUCTION. The costs of natural foods are not artificially high, the cost of the cheap stuff is artificially low.

      This article and the related links might help with perspective on that: The “Inefficiency” of Local Food

      I am now a landscape contractor and I help people garden for food. Because of this, I am very aware of the real costs of labor and materials. I also got my eyes opened when we raised our own rabbits and chickens. I’ve known people who started their own CSAs and have seen what it costs and how they lose money when they try to lower prices. There are a million hidden costs of production. It’s not the small farmers that are the problem. It’s our system of subsidizing the giants and the problems of wealth inequality in the world at large (exploiting lower wage workers in other countries & pricing out low income consumers in the US) that are the big issues.

  • J. Ann

    I am also on food stamps. Many other websites talk about buying in bulk or buying from local farmers—which is something impossible when you have only 47$ per week—in food stamps—for food—period. That $47 has to cover everything including spices, herbs, meats, fats, etc. It’s also a challenge when you can’t eat eggs often due to borderline allergy to them (eggs are a wonderfully cheap complete protein).

    Organic foods are generally at least 2x the price of “mainstream grocery” foods (even raw produce is frequently more costly than pesticide-laden mainstream produce). I think that getting adequate protein is the biggest challenge—grass fed beef, free range chicken and wild caught fish are incredibly beyond reach for those with a small food budget. I think the bottom line for low income foodies is to choose your battles: buy organic if it’s on sale that week; keep the “dirty dozen and clean 15” in mind when shopping for produce. (The clean 15 don’t have to be organic).

    I live in the desert southwest—can’t really grow my own food without incurring a huge water bill. No rain means you have to water your garden daily from your backyard hose.

    • I agree region can make a big difference, and being on food stamps is tough. I’ve been there, too. I do want to push back a little on the idea that what the government gives you must cover all the food you eat. When we were using SNAP, we often found we needed to budget some of our cash money to food as well, in order to get our needs met.

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