A Squash And A Squeeze

How shopping and eating on a budget really works at the moment.

When you are on a tight budget you figure out what you have to spend on essentials each week. You basically allocate set amounts for rent/mortgage, energy, household bills, and then food. These are fixed amounts and rarely deviate from week to week.

Let’s say a large energy bill arrives (as has happened for almost everyone in the past 3 weeks) and it puts your entire budget into chaos. The trouble is that you still have the same budget and income. You can’t reduce your housing bill; that’s not how renting or having a mortgage works. You’ve also consumed the energy over the Christmas period and have to pay for it or risk getting cut off down the line. Your wiggle room is your grocery budget which is already pinched because prices have been on the increase.

To save money so that you can pay your essential bills you take a look at what you are spending your money on. The first thing to go is meat; it’s always meat. It’s probably the most expensive part of a tight shopping bill. Cut back to eating meat three times a week (or give up altogether). You bulk up the rest with eggs and beans. Cooking from scratch is better for your diet but not for your energy bill; also requires your time and skill resources to prepare and cook. A tin of beans on toast made from a shop-bought sliced pan is ultimately cheaper than baking your own bread and making baked beans.

For fruit and vegetables, you’re probably already picking up all the special buys for 49/50c in the supermarket every week. Somebody suggested that you should shop around the supermarkets for the best value on the radio the other day and you nearly threw something at the radio in fury. When time and money are tight you go to one supermarket. You don’t move from shop to shop because you have precious time as it is, nor do you have fuel to burn.

Once the kids have a roof over their heads, are warm, well-fed and loved, then your job is done they say.

That’s not a job. That’s a delicate balancing act. As a parent, you will do anything you can to make sure that the kids never go hungry or feel the cold, so much so that you probably feel the cold and the hunger more yourself.

It’s a squash and a squeeze with those on a tight budget stuck in the middle; feeling pulled in every direction and stressed out beyond belief.

Farmers are unhappy. They say that they are often not paid a fair price for their produce. They’re also unhappy that retailers use their products as ‘loss leaders’ and sell their products below cost price to attract customers to their store. The difficulty with this practice is that customers get used to products at a cheap price: When Irish produce is sold at regular price in a supermarket customers are less likely to buy it because the customer believes that the products are overpriced.

For many, these special-buy fruits/vegetables/meats are the difference between buying fresh produce or not.

Retailers are unhappy. The cost of distribution, Local Authority business rates (which were reviewed and increased in the past 3 years), energy in stores, and staff costs have increased. This puts a squeeze on their margins. Retailers say that this leaves them with no choice but to increase their prices and that has been happening incrementally over the past couple of months.

Will the Government’s energy rebate and cost of living measures help those who are pinching their food budget? Ultimately because those on a tight budget have less cushion against the price increases in energy (fuel, heating and electricity) along with supermarket increases the answer is that it’s not enough.

I don’t have the answers. I do know what it’s like; what the juggle and squash feels like and how that rising anxiety feels when you are caught by an unexpected charity day in school or somebody needs Calpol.

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