Tracking Abundance in Our Grocery Budget

Photo credit: Stacy, CC BY 2.0.

My partner’s aunt has a large vegetable garden down in Eugene, and word has it that she’s picking ten cukes a day during this harvest season. A glut of them has come to us, but there are only so many ways you can use a cucumber! We’ve made chilled cucumber soup and cucumber tea sandwiches and cucumber salad and quick Chinese pickles… but enough is enough. Part of me wants to start refusing the cucumbers, while another part of me would never dare to say no to a gift. That part of me is still in awe of the abundance of riches August has brought us.

Our kitchen has been overflowing with food this month: pounds and pounds of cucumbers, a bag of green beans, a bag of sugar snap peas, some Chinese broccoli, tomatoes of all kinds, two jars of strawberry jam, 80 dumplings in the freezer, four cherry plums, ten Italian prune plums, a crock of vegan mac and cheese, two fat pears, and an unidentified leafy green.

We’ve received all of the above, for free, from various friends and family members in our community.

I’ve started tracking these freebies in my budget, creating a line-item for everything we receive that costs $0 — and it’s helping me change the way I think about my budget overall.

My partner and I track our expenses in a shared online spreadsheet, and it has all the normal categories you might expect: rent, utilities, house stuff, transportation, joy/community, and of course food. We allocate $200 per month for food and are pretty good about sticking to that, with an average deviance of about $30 give or take, since we cook nearly all of our meals to eat in.

Here’s our typical spending from the last six months:

  • March: $251.08
  • April: $169.33
  • May: $219.64
  • June: $184.45
  • July: $170.76
  • August: $144.32

Over the years, we’ve built up the muscles that allow us to take advantage of all of the free stuff we’ve been receiving. First, we have a “use it up” mentality in our household. Second, we always try to “shop our kitchen” before a grocery store run. These are exercises of going through our fridge and cabinets to inventory what we have, and that list informs the shape of our menus. It means we sometimes discover new recipes for an unlikely pairing of ingredients (Tanzanian coconut red bean soup is delicious). It also means that we haven’t had to go to the store very much this summer.

Here are the number of trips to the grocery store we make each month, averaging eight trips a month:

  • March: 10
  • April: 8
  • May: 10
  • June: 9
  • July: 7
  • August: Just 4!

The funny thing is that once I started tracking and noticing what was coming into our home for free, the more that seemed to start arriving synchronistically.

A friend who works on a farm texted us while we were out, saying he had just dropped off a grocery bag full of blueberries on our doorstep. Another friend arrived for lunch with a Ziploc full of cherry tomatoes given to her from her neighbor’s overflowing plants. This same friend was trying to find a home for three pairs of trousers, so my partner took them since he was in the market for some new work pants. I was taking a walk around my neighborhood one day and saw a free box near someone’s vegetable garden, so I came home with a beautiful, fat yellow zucchini. My partner brought home a bike rack and an overdoor pull-up bar he had found at a worksite. We passed along the pull-up bar to an out-of-town guest who had had one on his wishlist for years.

As Lewis Hyde says in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, true gifts must keep moving.

Tracking free things as a budget line-item reminds me that there is more than one way to get one’s needs met in life. It shifts my thinking from “how can I afford to buy a piano keyboard?” to “how might I acquire a piano in my life?” With a little bit of patience, it opens me up to the possibilities of finding something for free on the streets… or maybe rescuing an object from gathering dust in a friend’s attic… or borrowing it from a community resource center… or being able to trade or barter for it. In this specific case, it turns out a friend of mine was thinking of selling his used keyboard for cheap.

We won’t always live in Oregon, in summertime, on the receiving end of such abundance. But we will always welcome it in when it does. It’ll make it easier to get through the leaner winter months when we spend more on groceries and more on our power bill. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you stop by our house for a shared meal and leave with a bag full of cukes.

Christina Tran is a writer and artist living in Oregon. You can find her online at or in her backyard tending a tiny vegetable garden in the hopes that someday she’ll be able to share an abundance of eggplant with friends.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s grocery budget series.

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