The ethics of frugality

Thrifty and frugal blogs are now the trendiest and popular sort of lifestyle blogs about. Some are borne out of necessity, like Jack Munroes‘, others have a target like clearing debt or a mortgage like Frugal Queen’s, whilst some (a lot) are nice respectable middle class people having a stab at what they consider thrifty living, with tips like buy a £30 Costa voucher for £20 when it’s on special offer or phone up Sky and threaten to cancel your package and they’ll give you a 50% discount for 3 months. Personally I can’t help but think Munroe is now in a Catch 22 situation. The position she is in has given her fame, a book contract and media work, which presumably ameliorates her financial situation to some degree. Good luck to her though, I hope she manages to stay in the spotlight and work her way out of the abject poverty she’s found herself in.

I’ve got no beef with anyone, I should say that. I suppose thriftiness should be contextualised by the baseline of your normal expenditure. For some, knocking a third off their coffee shop bill will be a big contribution to reducing their outgoings. I don’t tend to do posts like that myself, not least because I’d take a Thermos of coffee with me rather than wince when I walk into a coffee shop. Although we have to watch our expenditure carefully, there are only a few areas where I feel confident to cut corners- we don’t have contract phones (we spend £19 a month in total on our two mobile phone contracts) and we don’t pay for subscription TV services or have foreign holidays. I think we’re lucky to be able to go on holiday fullstop, I know plenty of people that can’t afford it. I believe it’s all in proper budgeting myself and I have concerns about food ethics too.

After your rent, utilities and rates, food tends to be the biggest regular expenditure if you have a family and is arguably the one you have the most control over. Okay, you could chose to move house but it’s easier to cut the food bill in a practical sense. This is something we don’t do. Our food & household goods bill is usually between £120 and £160 a week for the five of us. For those of you mathematically challenged, that’s somewhere between £110 and £150 more than Jack Munroe spends on food but to be fair, I probably eat more in terms of quantity and calories than her and her son put together.

We buy a lot of fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, none of which are cheap. Fruit wise we buy apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, melons and more with regularity. Vegetables include the humble potato, carrots, parsnips, aubergines, broccoli, cauliflowers, sprouts, radishes, cucumber and tomatoes. It’s a matter of pride that most of our kids will eat most of the fruit and veg. But it isn’t cheap and meal planning doesn’t help reduce the fundamental cost, even if buying Class 2 over Class 1 does save a few pence here and there. If you didn’t know, the only difference between the two is mostly cosmetic, Class 1 fit the supermarkets size and shape definitions for a “superior” product and that’s it, Class 1 is no fresher or better in any real sense.

A lot of our cost goes on buying organic meat. You won’t find us availing ourselves of a two chickens for a fiver offer, in fact the chickens we buy usually cost over a tenner and do us a couple of evening meals. With the exception of lamb, most of the meat we buy is organic rather than free range because it’s treated better. Even free range hens often have their beaks trimmed to stop them pecking each other to death in over-crowded environments. It’s better than intensively farmed chickens, who aren’t even cleaned out during their short lives, but as chicken keepers ourselves, we strongly feel we should pay the extra to eat chicken that’s not lived in misery.

The Soil Association have a lot to say on the welfare of chickens, pigs and cows/sheep, which in practical terms means we don’t spend money elsewhere so we can spend it on decent quality meat that’s been ethically raised. We’re fortunate enough to have enough money to do this but it is an either or situation; there is usually something else not purchased because of the extra we spend on the food shopping. Of course it’s not just the ethics of the meat that I think are important, it’s the quality of it, and to a degree I think the two go hand in hand.

If we went to the frozen food aisle and stocked up on nuggets, bites, pasties, prepared joints, and other processed foods, we could massively reduce our shopping bill. Fresh, un-fiddled with food, is more expensive than processed stuff unfortunately.

There is another aspect to ethical food shopping though, and that is the treatment of the suppliers by the supermarkets. We’re not well off enough to be able to buy all our meat from farmers markets, or farm shops without making more sacrifices than we’re prepared to (like not having a family summer holiday level of sacrifice) so we also have to consider the level of price pressure put on farmers by the supermarkets. Food prices might be going up (4.5% in the year to Feb apparently) but they’ve been artificially low for a long time as the major supermarkets have a stranglehold on pricing and have made big big profits, mostly from squeezing the supply chain. If you hold a two for a fiver chicken in your hand and really think about it, how can that bird be raised, slaughtered, transported and sold to you, at a profit, without corners being cut somewhere. It’s not like a box of cereal, it’s a living creature.

Of course it’s the same in a lot of other areas outside food- the mills and factories of Victorian England have been replaced by overseas factories making our clothes in conditions that aren’t that different as recent events in Bangladesh have shown. We have a large Bangladeshi community here in St Albans, about 4-5,000 and our MP is the head of the all party working group on Britain-Bangladesh. The UK suppliers using those factories should be ashamed of themselves but it’s consumers demand for cheaper than cheap products that drive them to use these places in the first instance.

Even one of Apple’s main suppliers, Foxconn, have a litany of human rights complaints against them, you only have to google Foxconn human rights scandal to see stories about child labour in China, suicides and whatever. It’s all around us. I find it depressing because it’s pretty much impossible to avoid it all. I think the parent blogger community spends too much time giving Nestle a hard time to the detriment of a lot of other businesses but that’s a post for another day.

At the end of the day though I’m definitely not trying to undermine people who have to live frugally. There have been times where I was glad that the bread wars meant I could buy a white loaf for 7p, and a packet of economy sausages for under 60p. Together with corned beef, soy sauce and rice, those staples saw me through a protracted period of unemployment after I graduated. Needs must when the devil vomits in your breakfast, as Blackadder once said. There is a cost to it though and I suppose in the end, it’s a cost we’re lucky enough to have a choice in whether we accept it, unlike many.