Friday, August 29, 2014

Living the Wage: wrap-up

DAY 7 (Thursday):
Rite Aid: $2.94
Total spent: $2.94
Total remaining: $21.49

So, as you can see, I made it through the Live the Wage challenge with money to spare. My only expense was the bottle of vitamins I decided to go ahead and buy at the Rite Aid after initially hesitating over the purchase on Tuesday. And as it turned out, they cost me only $3 rather than $5, because I had a two-dollar reward that I'd forgotten about ready-loaded onto my Wellness Plus card (the Rite Aid store loyalty card). So in the end, I had nearly one-seventh of my $154 budget for the week left over, and I didn't refrain from buying a single thing that I would have bought under normal circumstances.

Our experience on the Live the Wage challenge was clearly not typical. Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois says she "didn't quite make it" through the week when she tried the challenge, and she concluded that it was "impossible" to survive on $7.25 an hour. Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio ran out of money on day 5 with the purchase of a bag of trail mix. And former Ohio governor Ted Strickland ran out on Thursday evening, despite having made such sacrifices as walking to a meeting a mile from his home and eating from the McDonald's dollar menu.

So why was this challenge so easy for us when it's so hard for most people? I think one major reason is quite obvious: we're a married couple with no kids. That meant we had $77 for each person in the household, which gave us a lot more wiggle room in our budget than Strickland (who had only $77 for himself) or Ryan (who had to support a family of five on a $154 budget). As I've observed before, it may not be true that two can live as cheaply as one, but it's certainly the case that two people together, sharing the cost of housing, food, and all sorts of incidentals, can live a lot more cheaply than two people apart. Yet having kids can easily eat up all that extra income and then some; Ryan's biggest budget-busters during the challenge were $25 worth of "vitamin D drops and other incidentals" for his newborn child and "summer camp for his 10-year-old daughter."

Clearly, though, being a childless couple wasn't our only advantage. Schakowsky was in exactly the same situation, with $154 to support herself and her husband, and she still exceeded her budget for the week by $4.47. CBS also quotes her as saying that on a budget this strict, "There’s no way that you can stop into a Starbucks"—even though Brian and I did exactly that on Sunday. So what did we do that Schakowsky didn't?

Her account of her experience gives a couple of clues. First of all, she notes that one of her biggest expenses was "Driving 140 miles round trip to my granddaughter’s birthday party," even though she counted only the cost of gas and tolls and not car maintenance or insurance. Brian and I, by contrast, drove our car only once during the whole week, when we made our big grocery-shopping trip on Friday. The rest of the week, the car sat in the driveway as Brian took his bike to work. Admittedly, this is an unusually small amount of driving even for us. Our usual Thursday-night dance practice was canceled due to low attendance, so we didn't have to make a trip down to Princeton for that. We also didn't drive up to Morristown for the Minstrel concert on Friday night, which we typically do at least once or twice a month, and we were fortunate enough to have a whole week of sunny weather, so Brian didn't have to drive to work even once. But even if we'd done our usual amount of driving, it's unlikely we would have had to buy any gas, since we'd just filled up the tank on the 20th, and a full tank usually keeps us going for around two weeks. And even if by some chance we'd started the challenge with a nearly empty tank, we could still have gotten by with only a few gallons—about $13 worth—to get us through the week. That wouldn't have broken our budget.

Schakowsky also observes in her account that "pets are luxury," saying "Our family dog Lucky is disabled and his needs quite expensive." Well, we also have a pet, but we didn't need to purchase anything for her during the week. A big bag of her favorite dry food costs only $25 from the PetSmart and lasts her for months; a bag of her new cat litter (which I'll tell you about sometime) is around $20 and is also good for several months. If we had to take her to the vet for some reason, that would be a significant expense that would almost certainly put us over our $77-per-person budget, but typically, all she needs is a yearly checkup, which is an expense we can plan for. Adding up all the costs of caring for our cat over the course of a year, I find they come to around $1,086, which works out to $20.88 per week. So if the Live the Wage challenge were spread across a whole year rather than compressed into one week, the cost of pet care would definitely be manageable. Of course, our pet isn't disabled like Schakowsky's, so it's not surprising that her needs are less expensive, but I think an equally big factor is that she's a cat, and as these figures from the ASPCA show, cats are cheaper to own than dogs in general.

Finally, Schakowsky notes that on the Live the Wage challenge, "We didn’t have enough money to pick up our dry cleaning, nor could we do our laundry in the coin operated washer and dryer in our D.C. apartment building." We, by contrast, did two loads of laundry in our very own washer and hung them on the line (though one of them ended up getting caught in an unexpected shower and had to go in the dryer after all). The cost of both loads, factoring in detergent, water, electricity, and gas, was almost certainly under a dollar, and most of that is covered under utilities anyway, which aren't part of the $77 budget. As for dry cleaning, in general, we just don't do it. I think the only garment we actually own right now that requires dry cleaning is Brian's good suit, which hasn't been worn in over a year.

So, to sum up, here are my rules for making it through the Live the Wage Challenge, along with some ideas for how they could be applied to real people trying to survive long-term on the real minimum wage:
  • Challenge Rule #1: If at all possible, do the challenge as part of a couple. That way, you can split the costs not just of housing (which isn't counted in the budget) but also food, Internet service, medicines, household goods, and to some extent, transportation (since you only need to make one trip to the grocery store rather than two separate trips). What this means in real life is that, if you're a single person living on minimum wage, your ideal living situation is to either live with family or have a roommate and share your living expenses as much as possible. (This piece in the New York Times tells the stories of minimum-wage workers who live with their parents, share a home with a significant other, or rent a room in a friend's house to save money.)
  • Challenge Rule #2: If you drive, have an efficient car that's cheap to maintain—and then don't drive it that much. It's best to avoid making a 140-mile round trip if possible, but if you have to, you're definitely better off making it in a car that will take 3.5 gallons of gas to go that distance than one that will take 7. Biking to work, as Brian does, will help if you're in an area that allows it; so will carpooling, if you can find someone to ride with. And in real life, if you live in an area with a good mass transit system, you might be better off not owning a car at all (though as I noted in this post, if you already have a car, you won't save much, if anything, by using transit instead).
  • Challenge Rule #3: If you have pets, stick to smaller ones. Obviously, if you already have a dog (or several), you're not going to get rid of it for the sake of a one-week challenge. You probably won't even want to get rid of it if you're suddenly forced to live on minimum wage in real life (though you may be forced to eventually). But if you're only thinking about getting a pet, it's worth giving some thought to how much it will cost, not just to buy but to care for on a year-round basis. Cats are cheaper than dogs, and smaller pets, like a mouse, bird, or fish, are cheaper still. If you're trying to get by on a low wage, this is definitely a big consideration.
  • Challenge Rule #4: Wear low-maintenance clothes. Avoid anything that requires dry cleaning; you'll be doing the environment a favor, as well as your wallet. If you work at a job that requires you to wear a suit every day, then you're almost certainly doing this challenge for one week only, and not as a way of life; you can probably manage to get by for the space of one week wearing the same jacket every day, or going with a more business-casual look. And if you're a real-life low-wage worker, then wash-and-wear clothes are probably the most practical for you anyway. Of course, if you're an apartment dweller, then even washable clothes can be a bit costly to care for; according to my records, when we were living in an apartment, we used to spend between $6 and $23 at the laundry every month. But this is another area in which sharing with others will help keep your costs down. Two people do not produce twice as many loads of laundry as one; more likely, they'll just do two large loads per week rather than two small loads (whites and colors). At a laundromat, where smaller loads may cost just as much as larger ones, sharing your laundry could cut the cost in half.
And finally, here's one rule that doesn't work for a one-week challenge, but does work in real life: plan ahead. The politicians who took the Live the Wage challenge talk about being derailed by "unexpected" expenses, such as health care. When you only have $77 to get through the week, having a big lump of that go for a doctor visit or medicines can break your budget. But in real life, you know that you're bound to get hit by this kind of expense at some point, so you can plan for it. You can budget a certain amount each week for health care, knowing that most weeks you won't use it, but when you do, you'll go through several weeks' worth at once. If you set the money aside as you go, it'll be there when you need it. This is a strategy that nearly every budgeting expert recommends, yet it's one that you can't reasonably follow during a one-week challenge, when it's largely a matter of luck whether you get hit with an unexpected expense or not.

This just brings me back, full-circle, to my biggest gripe about the Live the Wage challenge: doing it for one week simply isn't realistic. In one way, it's too easy, because you know it'll only be a week, so you can just put off large, expected expenses like the cable bill (or pay for them ahead of time). Yet in another way, it's too hard, because you can also get hit by large, unexpected expenses, and you don't have any time to plan ahead for them. As a test of your ability to live on the minimum wage, I think the simulator at NYTimes.com is actually much more useful.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Living the Wage, Day 6

DAY 6 (Wednesday):
Stop & Shop: $1.00
Stop & Shop: $6.05
Total spent: $7.05
Total remaining: $24.43

On Wednesday, our only purchases were a few additional grocery items to supplement the big shopping trip we made on Friday. In the morning, I stopped by to pick up a couple of liters of seltzer after discovering that the last two cans in the case I bought at Shop-Rite had dented and gone flat. Then, in the evening, we made a second trip out there for some ice cream and, while we were there, grabbed a bottle of orange juice and a box of raisin bran. (Both of these are items we normally get at Aldi, but right now the Stop & Shop has them on sale for less.) Altogether we spent $7.05, which makes our total grocery spending for the week $53.93—almost exactly the amount that I initially estimated it would come to based on our experience in the Reverse SNAP Challenge.

So, with one day left to go, we're down to $24.43, which is just slightly over the $11 per person, per day allotted by the budget. At this point, I think there's no doubt we'll succeed in meeting the challenge. Thanks to the good bicycling weather this week, our car hasn't been driven since Friday, so there's no need for us to buy any gas; we don't currently need to repair any part of our house, our car, or ourselves; and the activity we have planned for tonight is a live radio play at our local library, for which admission appears to be free of charge. (The listing for the event says it's "sponsored by the Friends of the Library," which technically means I've already paid for it with my annual dues.) I'm even inclined to go back to the drugstore and pick up those vitamins I didn't get on Tuesday, just so I can say I made it through the challenge without making any changes in my normal spending habits.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Living the Wage, Day 5

DAY 5 (Tuesday):
Total spent: $0
Total remaining: $31.48

Tuesday was the first day in my Live the Wage challenge when I deliberately refrained from spending money. Up until then, I'd just been spending normally, loading up with groceries on Day 1 and even indulging in a Starbucks Frappuccino on Day 3. However, after the monthly cable and Internet bill ate up most of the cash left in my budget on Day 4, I started to wonder if there was actually a chance I could run out of money before the week was out, and I became a bit leery of buying anything I didn't have an immediate need for. Such as, for example, a bottle of B vitamins at the Rite Aid.

I came across a recommendation for B-complex vitamins on a health forum while searching for information about headaches related to shifting hormone levels. A follow-up Google search turned up several sources indicating that B2 and B6, in particular, had shown good results in preventing migraines. I wondered if they might also help with my acne, which also seems to flare up at "that time of the month," and sure enough, a second Google search turned up several sources suggesting that they might help with this problem too (though results on this score seemed to be more mixed; some patients found it actually made their acne worse). That was enough evidence to convince me they were worth trying, and under normal circumstances, I'd simply have dropped by the Rite Aid, checked the prices on the racks, picked up the cheapest one, and given it a try. But this week, knowing my budget was down to $31.48, I got as far as identifying the cheapest bottle on the rack—and then hesitated. Sure, it was only five dollars, but did I really need to spend that five dollars now? I was almost through with this cycle anyway; wouldn't it make just as much sense to wait until next month to give the B vitamins a try, and not spend money on something I didn't actually need right away?

Even at the time, I realized I was probably being unreasonable. After all, there were only three days to go in the challenge, the bills for the month were all paid, and we weren't expecting to make any more shopping trips after our big grocery stock-up last weekend. It was highly unlikely that this $5 expense would actually break my budget. But, well, wouldn't it make just as much sense to wait, just to be on the safe side? Or at least to wait until the last day of the challenge, when I could be pretty well certain I wasn't going to go over budget? Even if these pills did help with my symptoms—and of course, I had no guarantee that they would—would it really make a difference if I waited a couple days more before trying them?

I think it was that last "if" that finally made me put the bottle back on the shelf. If I'd been suffering from a headache right that minute and I had no ibuprofen in the house, then I wouldn't have hesitated to spend the money for immediate relief. But the B-vitamin remedy was mostly a shot in the dark, something I thought might help in the long term. That's something I wouldn't hesitate to spend $6 on when I have plenty of discretionary income, but when I'm on a strict budget, it becomes a splurge item, something I can indulge in if I have the money left at the end of the week.

So I guess I can say I did learn at least one thing from the Live the Wage challenge: it only takes a few days on a really limited budget to adjust your ideas of what separates a necessity from a luxury. I guess for Americans earning minimum wage, this is the kind of line you have to draw on a regular basis. (Fortunately, most people in this category are teenagers, so the small amount they earn probably isn't their sole source of support. But for the adult workers struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage, it's easy to see how a $5 bottle of vitamins could become an expense you have to think twice about.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Living the Wage, Day 4

DAY 4 (Monday):
Total spent: $62.89
Total remaining: $31.48

After Sunday's dilemma about how to handle a utility bill, I ran into another version of the same problem on Monday with my phone bill. Or to be more precise, my phone/cable/Internet bill, since we pay for all three services together as part of a bundle (which is cheaper than buying just phone and Internet separately). The bundled bill comes to $96.56 per month, which is more money than we had left in our budget for the week, so paying it would mean failing the Live the Wage challenge instantly.

However, I'd already determined that "utilities" were included under housing for purposes of the challenge. So if my phone and Internet service could be considered utilities, then this bill, like my gas and electric bill, shouldn't count toward my $77 budget. But should they be? I tend to think of landline phone service as a basic utility and cable TV as a luxury, but broadband Internet service seems to fall somewhere in between. WebProNews argues that Internet service should be considered a basic utility, as does tech policy expert Susan Crawford in this Time magazine article—but the very fact that they have to make the argument suggests that it isn't universally accepted as such.

A search on "Live the Wage phone bills" provided no help. None of the various articles available online about the Live the Wage challenge addressed the topic of phone or Internet service in any way. However, my search led me to an interesting page at NYTimes.com, which is basically a virtual, interactive version of the Live the Wage challenge. This version of the challenge addresses most of the problems I identified with the real version. You use the minimum wage for your state, rather than the federal minimum; you use your actual expenses for housing, rather than some ill-defined "average"; and you calculate your budget over the course of an entire year, rather than just one week. However, like the real challenge, it's designed specifically for "a single childless worker," making it hard to figure out what your expenses should be if you share a home in real life.

Out of curiosity, I decided to fill in our expenses on this virtual form and see how we did. For most of the categories, I simply took our actual household expenses and divided them by two, since if we were both working minimum-wage jobs, we'd each be contributing exactly half of the household expenses. Since we don't currently pay for our health insurance out of pocket, I used this calculator from the Kaiser Family Foundation to estimate the amount we'd pay under the Affordable Care Act, then added in the maximum amount we'd pay with such a plan for out-of-pocket expenses. To estimate our taxes, I used the average weekly amount thoughtfully provided on the Live the Wage challenge page. I also adjusted our charitable donations down to 10 percent of our new imaginary income.

Based on these figures, it looks like Brian and I could squeak by on a minimum-wage budget without cutting our current expenses, but it wouldn't leave us much wiggle room: just $854 a year in savings (or $1,708 for the two of us). However, if we cut back to the bare-bones budget that I worked out as an emergency backup plan (which includes other forms of government aid, such as heating assistance and a free emergency cell phone), we could manage to save as much as $7,420 per year. So it looks like in the real world, Brian and I could do okay if we were both earning minimum wage, with the help of some judicious belt-tightening and a little help from our Uncle Sam.

None of this, however, was any help in figuring out how to deal with the immediate problem. Should I count my phone/cable/Internet bill as a utility expense, which is covered under housing, or as a discretionary expense, which comes out of the $77-per-person budget? Or should I just put off paying the bill, which isn't due until September 5, until the challenge was over? Technically, the notice I'd received from the bank wasn't my actual bill; ironically, my Internet provider is the only company I deal with that still refuses to send my monthly bill in electronic form, so in theory, I could just wait until I received the actual paper bill in the mail before paying it. Perhaps by then, the challenge would be over and I wouldn't have to worry about it. But that just felt like sidestepping the issue.

In the end, I decided that the fairest thing would be to cut out the portion of my bill that was for phone service, which everyone seems to agree is a true utility, and count only the cable and Internet portion against my minimum-wage budget. The total for those two services came to $62.89, so after paying it, I have only $31.48 to get through the next three days. All of a sudden, this challenge is starting to look like a real challenge.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Living the Wage, Days 2-3

DAY 2 (Saturday):
Hulu Plus: $7.99
Total spent: $7.99
Total remaining: $99.13

On Day 2 of the Live the Wage challenge I ran up against a slight snag. My to-do list said it was time for me to do my monthly giving, making contributions to various causes. (Some people do this once a year, usually in December, but we prefer to spread our donations out over the year.) However, the amount that we give in a typical month would eat up our entire budget for this challenge three times over. Obviously, if we were really living on minimum wage, we couldn't afford to give nearly this much—but cutting back on our giving didn't really seem in tune with the spirit of the challenge, which is meant to promote empathy with low-wage workers. By the same token, it didn't really seem right to put off my monthly giving until the challenge was over and keep these worthy causes waiting for their money. So I decided to go ahead and do my giving on schedule, but not count it toward my budget for the challenge.

On the other hand, I did count the $7.99 fee for our monthly subscription to Hulu Plus, which automatically renewed on Saturday. Normally I don't count this item as part of our expenses, since it comes out of my PayPal account, which is funded with survey reward points. However, I figured that was a resource not everyone would have, so I treated the $7.99 as if it had come out of my actual wallet. That was our only expense for Saturday, so we're now down to $99, or about 64 percent of our budget for the week.

DAY 3 (Sunday):
Starbucks: $4.76
Total spent: $4.76
Total remaining: $94.37

On Sunday, a new wrinkle arose in the Live the Wage challenge: my monthly utility bill arrived, with a balance of $64 due. Paying it right away, as I would normally do, would leave me with only $35 for the rest of the week, which wouldn't be impossible by any means, but it would certainly mean we'd have to watch our spending carefully for the next four days. Of course, the bill wasn't due until September 9, so I could have simply delayed paying it until the challenge is over, but that kind of felt like cheating.

To complicate matters further, I wasn't really sure whether I ought to count this expense against my $77-per-person budget at all. As I noted when I first introduced the challenge, it's not clear whether utilities are supposed to be counted as part of your housing expenses. I tried Googling "live the wage challenge utilities" and eventually turned up this article in Time that says the $77 budget is for "all their expenses, not counting utilities and rent." This was the most definite answer I could find to the question, so I went ahead and paid the bill but ignored the cost, just as I did with my monthly giving on Day 2.

The only other expense we had on Sunday was a trip to Starbucks. Yes, that's right, Starbucks—the very definition of a frivolous expense, the first thing most people would assume they needed to cut in order to get by on a strict budget. Financial guru David Bach has even coined the term "latte factor" to refer to all the little mindless spending habits that add up to big money over the course of a whole year. But for us, a trip to Starbucks isn't a mindless habit; it's a special occasion. Since our nearest Starbucks is about a mile and a half away, taking a walk there and back is a good way for the two of us to enjoy a pleasant late-summer day together—and by making the 3-mile round trip, and splitting a Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino rather than each getting our own, we take some of the curse off this highly caloric treat. And we also keep the expense of the whole excursion under $5, which may be high for a snack, but isn't bad at all for an entire Sunday outing. And since happiness economists say that most people get more enjoyment out of an occasional treat than they do out of a routine expense, spending $5 or $10 a month this way maximizes the happiness bang for our buck.

Moreover, in most cases, the $5 or so we spend at Starbucks doesn't even count toward our monthly budget. That's because I pay for it with my Starbucks card, which, like our Hulu Plus subscription, gets funded with survey points via my PayPal account. But once again, I decided that since most minimum-wage workers don't have this source of bonus income, I should count our Starbucks splurge against my limited budget. So the $4.76 we paid for our Grande Frappuccino was our sole expense for Sunday.

Tallying up our expenses over the first three days, we've now spent $59.63 of our $154 budget. If you break down our $154 budget to $22 per day, then our budget for the first three days was $66, which means we're now back on track and under budget after our high spending on Day 1. If the rest of the week goes like the past two days, we should have no trouble meeting our $154 goal for the week.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Gardening surprises

Sometimes it seems like every time you solve one problem in the garden, you create a new one in its place. Our asparagus bed is a case in point.

Problem #1: Asparagus prefers a sandy soil, and most of the dirt in our yard is heavy clay.
Solution: Plant the asparagus on the south side of our house, the one spot that has a fair amount of sand.
Problem #2: The asparagus planted in this location has a tendency to flop over when it gets to its tall, ferny stage, obstructing the path from front yard to back.
Solution: drive a stake into the ground on the near end of the asparagus bed, and run several lengths of twine across from that stake to the fence on the other side to hold up the ferns.


Problem #3: The end of that stake is rather sharp, posing the risk of injury to someone who slips and falls onto it.
Solution: Stick an old tennis ball on the end of the stake to blunt it.
Problem #4: Wasps have built a nest inside the old tennis ball. 
Solution: Um....


We discovered this newest problem when Brian pulled the tennis ball off to try and tighten the twine and suddenly there were a bunch of wasps buzzing confusedly around. When he picked up the tennis ball to put it back, he hastily dropped it, seeing that the wasps' nest was actually inside it. (The odd thing is that the wasps, with their home displaced from its usual spot, don't seem to know where to go. Several of them came to rest on the end of the stake where the tennis ball used to be, as if they couldn't quite grasp that the nest wasn't there anymore.)


Brian's idea is that we should just leave the tennis ball where it lies for now, then come back tomorrow and see whether the wasps have decided to go elsewhere. If so, we can just stick the tennis ball back on the stake and forget about it. I'm not optimistic about this, but I have to admit I don't have any better ideas. I don't want to kill the wasps with nasty chemicals (especially since they prey on other insects that are much bigger pests), but I also don't want to go sticking my hand into what they consider their territory. We may end up just having to leave the tennis ball lying there until winter kills off the wasps, at which point we can safely replace it.

Of course, not all surprises that the garden throws at you are unpleasant ones. Shortly after we discovered the wasps' nest, Brian found some Irish moss growing in the cracks of our front walk where he was weeding. I'd bought a couple packets of seeds for this stuff a year or so ago, that if I planted it the cracks of the driveway and sidewalk, it might eventually crowd out the weeds and save us the trouble of pulling them. The instructions on the packet said to "sow seed in cell packs or flats," and then transplant them, but I couldn't figure out any way to transplant anything into such a tiny space, so instead I just did my best to sprinkle the teensy-weensy seeds directly into the cracks. When no green stuff popped up after a few weeks, I assumed the seeds just hadn't taken. And now we discover that some of the stuff actually took root after all. (Of course, the fact that Brian discovered it while weeding means that it hasn't actually crowded out the weeds as I'd hoped it would, but maybe over time it will take over more of the area.)


One thing you can definitely say for gardening as a hobby: it never becomes routine. One way or another, a garden will always be full of surprises.

Living the Wage, Day 1

DAY 1 (Friday)
Farmers' market (apples): $5
Shop Rite: $12.44
Aldi: $29.44
Total spent: $46.88
Total remaining: $107.12

On Day 1 of the Live the Wage challenge, we bought nothing but groceries, but we bought a lot of those. In the afternoon I stopped by the farmers' market and picked up a big bag of apples for $5; there weren't any sales on fresh fruit in this week's supermarket fliers, so that looked like the best deal I could get. Then, in the evening, we went out and hit two supermarkets. First we stopped by Shop-Rite to pick up a few sale items: block cheese, flour, and whipped cream. The sale on whipped cream was so good that we actually got two cans, so that's an extra $2.79 that we didn't strictly need to spend—our first real "indulgence" on our minimum-wage budget. However, I opted not to drop $1.49 on a bottle of sale-priced coffee creamer, so that sort of balances out. Total spent at Shop-Rite: $12.44 (including our 5-cent discount for the reusable shopping bag).

Next we went to the Aldi to stock up on some staples we always get there, including oats, milk, butter, canola oil, peanuts, potatoes, graham crackers, and shredded mozzarella. In addition to these basics, I decided to pick up a container of facial cleaner. I've been using ordinary store-brand cold cream, but they just changed the formula to include parabens, an ingredient I try to avoid due to the health risks. (What happened, apparently, was that Pond's Cold Cream changed its formula for the first time in decades, and the store brands changed theirs to match.) When I searched the racks at Rite Aid for an alternative, I couldn't find anything that was non-drying, paraben-free, and not tested on animals. So when I checked the ingredient list on Aldi's Lacura Hydrating Facial Cleanser and saw no parabens or other ingredients of concern, I thought it was worth $2.66 to check it out. (That's for an 8-ounce bottle, so it's actually cheaper than the cold cream, so it'll be a good deal if it works.)

The other non-essential item we added to our shopping crate was a couple of bags of hot dog buns for a party we're throwing next weekend, since they're cheaper at Aldi (89 cents) than anywhere else. I could have put off buying these until after the challenge week was over, but since I would normally buy them at Aldi if I had the chance, I decided not to skew my results. As it turns out, however, we actually ended up paying more for the buns than we would have if we'd bought them for at the Stop&Shop, because our checker had billed us for three bags when we'd only bought two. Normally we keep an eye on the tally as the items run through the checkout, but this checker was tossing everything into the cart so fast (once again, not giving us a chance to use our reusable crate instead) that Brian had his hands full transferring everything to the crate, and I was stuck at the other end of the line where I couldn't see the register. So that's an extra 89 cents out of our limited budget gone completely to waste. Total spent at Aldi: $29.44.

So as you can see, we've gone through nearly a third of our $154 budget in one day. On the other hand, we've now done the bulk of our grocery shopping for the week, and groceries are the biggest expense we have during a typical week. So I maintain that, even if we spent a lot at the beginning of the week, we'll still come out ahead at the end.