Friday, August 21, 2009

Generation Gap?

My 'costing' out thing stemmed from trying to find a way to make cooking interesting. Initially I couldn't cook 'properly' at all, so meals were basically plain meat and two veg, or beans on toast sort of thing. Nothing to set my pulse racing. Running out of money meant I was forced to cook just about everything from scratch and this I found extremely hard work at first and not all that interesting, so it was necessary for me to find a reason to keep on cooking once the money flowed (or rather trickled) back in again. For some reason decided to turn it all into a game and began to 'play' at "how much can I make for 50p" or "make a 3 course meal to feed six for £1.50. To do this I needed to find the cost of every ingredient, and then use the cheapest possible for the dishes being made. This turned out to become a real obsession once I realised how cheap some basic ingredients were, and also realising we had begun to eat far better meals of high quality yet it worked out at half the housekeeping money previously spent. Since then, never looked back.

A Victoria sponge cake would be bought from the supermarket, and ingredients to make that cake were weighed and costed out out to the price paid for the original cake. When the cake batter was made/cooked this not only made the same sized cake, but one dozen fairy cakes and a Swiss Roll. When I bought 6 Scotch Pancakes (aka Drop Scones), the money paid for those made 36!

And so it went on, the more I costed the more I discovered how much cheaper it is to cook from scratch, and still I get a thrill discovering how much money can be saved making items that most of us still prefer to buy.
Admittedly I began to be very selective in what I made. How I felt about using convenience foods depended upon the price. Sometimes it really did work out cheaper to use a packet mix than make something from scratch, but to discover this was by trial, error and always costing. In 99% cases it is better to make from scratch rather than use a packet mix, but there are times when it is more convenient, and especially when every penny counts we need to know both the best way and also the cheapest way to make something and they are not always the same thing.. Even now I often use a packet mix, but usually only half a packet if that is all I need (closing the part-used packet tightly and, if not needing it for some weeks will then store in the freezer).

If cooking isn't the be all and end all of our lives, and we have another hobby we prefer to stick with, we can still turn this into a money-making concern on the 'make something then sell it for a profit' basis. This money can then be spent on more materials to use which will bring in even more money.

An example, written about previously and now again, describes the time when I wanted (actually really NEEDED) a knitting machine so that I could keep our four teenagers, not to mention my Beloved, in 'woollies'. Previously I used to knit by hand and it took AGES.

Not having any spare cash other than 5/- (25p in today's money), it was not possible to pay a down-payment on a knitting machine to be bought through a catalogue, although could afford the much smaller weekly payments once the depost had been paid.
So I spent the 5/- on fine knitting wool and knitted a lacy christening shawl (took me all of four days/evenings furiously knitting between other chores). This I sold to a craft shop in the Dales who asked for more, so with the profit bought more wool and knitted more shawls. Very soon I had the down payment for the machine and enough money left over to buy wool/yarn. It was a punch-card machine so I could design my own patterns and immediately it arrived set about using it. Within a week I had mastered the beast and set about knitting up tank-tops (in fashion at that time and I could knit several a day) and these were taken by the craft shop that had sold my shawls.
Throughout the week, when time allowed, the machine would be usde to knit all sorts of things for the family and also for sale. Every week enough money was earned for the the weekly payment and for more yarn and once the machine had been paid for and I had plenty of wool and yarn in stock, I stopped selling and knitted only for the family. After several years, when the family had left home, the knitting machine was sold, so I really ended up with a profit.

Some well-known man (might have been Jeffrey Archer) - when a young lad - used to go round waste bins in the street taking out the empty cigarette packets and removing vouchers that were in them at that time. When vouchers were returned to the manufacturer they would send back a free ball-point pen (these being fairly new at that time so sought after). Over time this lad collected a goodly amount of vouchers and so gained many pens. These were then sold to the boys at his school and so a budding business man began to sprout. Believe Alan Sugar took a similar route. Like cooking, it is not just what you do with what you've got, but also see the potential.

In today's world, almost any skill is worth its weight in gold. In the past, home-made was looked upon as second best working on the assumption anything home-made was only for the poor as they couldn't afford to buy the same thing 'ready-made'. Now it seems all things 'home-made' (usually foods) and 'hand-made' (term given to non-foods) command the highest prices. We should take advantage of this when we can but need to be careful about what we make. With the credit crunch, things that sell well will be 'useful' products not something pretty to sit on a shelf (although there are fairly rich people that will still buy these - and these are best sold through a London store).

A good way to sell things is to make up samples then take them to a shop on a 'sell or return' basis. This way the shop lays out no money, you can agree the selling price and the amount of commission you will pay them. After an arranged amount of time, unsold items will be returned, but they can always be taken to a different shop. If certain products sell well, then almost certainly the shop will order more and pay for these - at the original price - but may sell them for a higher price to make more profit. The way I see it, any sale brings in money, so beware of over-pricing. As long as the money earned covers the cost of materials, and to a certain extent the labour (although if a hobby, it is more a labour of love than anything else), if money is what you need, then try to be satisified with a smaller amount that you should, as I always work on the basis that ten things sold at a fairly low price will bring in more money than one sold at a higher price. Otherwise you are left with nine things unsold and probably remaining unsold unless the price is dropped considerabl. . It was a fact I did under-price my craft-work, but did need the money so badly at that time, and as 'craft-work' was never intended to be a 'business' it served its purpose.

Because cost-cutting seems to be my 'reason to be', it remains important enough for me still keep within a budget, and the lower the better, just to see if I can keep control. There are, it has to be said, better things to do than spend all our time thinking and writing about food, but then food is not just to keep us alive (although I suppose this is the cheapest way to look at it), meals also help to keep the family 'togetherness' when eating around a table, and when life is bleak, a good meal makes us feel so much better. I could just fancy an ice-cream as I write.

Come next week should see me back on the cost-cutting trail again. Not quite sure what will be learned from it, maybe how many pancakes can be made for 50p. That could be worth knowing. There are those who will say it is so much easier to buy pancakes, and the pennies saved by making them ourselves will not be worth the effort. My suggestion might then be - find a way to double the money saved, double it again, then you will find out whether it is worth it or not.

Too often we become a bit half-hearted about what we do. We may manage to cut corners and save a bit, but that seems to be all we want to do. Keep throwing yourself a challenge now and again. Maybe save £1 (doing this 'deliberately' is more fun), and (just one suggestion) with this £1 buy a pack of lettuce seeds. Maybe there will be a hundred lettuce seeds in one pack and over the years each could grow to a full-size lettuce. And how much would they cost to buy? Even small boxes of assorted baby salad leaves cost a lot when bought them over the counter. It has now become the fashion to eat the young shoots of a wide variety of salad plants to pick and scatter over salads so producers are making money out of this. Young pea-shoots are another 'fashionable food', and chefs seem to delight in scattering a few 'micro-shoots' over many dishes shown on TV.

The best way is to get a book (maybe an old unused diary) and write down the money you save on one page, and on the opposite what you have spent it on. If the money spent is on vegetable seeds or plants, then leave as space to write down how much money has been saved through growing your own (check the retail prices in the supermarkets). Whenever possible write things down, for this spurs us on to keep making improvements, saving more money, having proof that making a small amount of cash actually WORKS to our advantage.

A kitchen 'diary' can be begun at any time of the year, any day of the week, any time of the day. Just get your book, keep a pen with it (tie it to the book if your pen starts to wander - as mine do), then write it all down. You will begin to feel far more professional. and learning how to budget and control expense can stand everyone in good stead when they are seeking new employment, for every boss wants someone who can help with ideas to control expenditure. What better place to learn than in our own kitchens.