Making Frugal Cool

Retrenchment turned her life upside down, but also gave Jody Allen a kickstart towards good health and financial freedom.

By Melody Tan

"I don’t like cheap people,” Jody Allen declares to me during our  phone conversation. Thankfully, she isn’t referring to me. The founder of the website, Stay at Home Mum, one of Australia’s biggest mothers’ networks and built on a philosophy of living frugally, is simply explaining to me the difference between being frugal and being cheap.

“Being cheap is being a tightwad, but I’m being frugal because I’m working towards something, and that makes a big difference,” she tells me. 

Being frugal was not Jody’s forte to begin with, but in 2009, she was made redundant from her job. It’s devastating news even in the best circumstances, but Jody’s was a little different: she was pregnant with her second child, who would be born 12 months after her first baby.

“For about four years, we lived from pay to pay,” Jody recalls. “I had no food in the house, except for the very basics, and we had to make do to keep our house. It was really hard to do. I was so used to spending $250 a week on [food] shopping for two people and all of a sudden, we’ve got two little children and only $50.”

Desperate to stretch her dollar just that little bit further, Jody turned to Facebook for help, asking for the community’s money-
saving tips. One website, four books and a successful business later, one could say she found more than she bargained for.

Jody’s latest book is The $50 Weekly Shop: Weekday Dinners, and it’s full of helpful, practical, money-saving advice, from a list of must-have cheap pantry staples, affordable substitutes for expensive ingredients that taste just as good, to ways of getting more out of your food. There’s even the unexpected benefit of better health.

In an age of smashed avocados and kale salads, Jody is adamant we can eat healthily on a cheap budget and believes superfoods are simply marketing. “Quinoa is really expensive and it doesn’t even taste nice,” she says. No wonder she promises one won’t find it (or kale) in her book. Oats, according to Jody, are just as tasty and best of all, cheap. “Oats are not just for breakfast. You can use them in smoothies or as breadcrumbs on rissoles.”

Another cheap, healthy eating tip is to regrow vegetables from scraps, and in her book, she has dedicated a whole chapter to frugal gardening. And you know the plants she suggests will be easy to grow since the advice is coming from a self-confessed “brown thumb who kills everything”. (Jody also says she can’t cook and thinks she’s still a really bad one, which hasn’t stopped her from writing a recipe book—which is what The $50 Weekly Shop essentially is. As she says, “It’s a cookbook for people who don’t like to cook.”)

Her days of living from pay to pay are certainly over—and they’ve nearly paid off the mortgage on the house—but Jody still believes in being thrifty. “Frugality is in every aspect of my life. It’s more to give us financial freedom these days,” she says. All the furniture in her home is secondhand—Jody jokingly mentions a gorgeous 150-year-old church pew that she’s sure is gaining in value—and she has a network of friends who would hand down their children’s clothes.

“For me, everything is about home and family, and if working hard and going without a few things mean my family are happier and healthier at home, then it’s worth it. I want to make sure I own my house, I don’t have debt, I can sleep well at night because I know my bills are paid and my family will eat well.” 

There is also a certain paradox to Jody’s “going without” because by doing so, she can actually “now afford to do the little things for the kids. And I don’t really want for anything. The more you have, the more you want”.

In a society where we’re constantly marketed to with the latest and the best, where almost everything is disposable and where even the economy is dependent on consumer spending, Jody’s message is highly countercultural—and deeply relevant: In Australia, average household debt has almost doubled over the past 12 years and in New Zealand, private debt is more than four times’ worse than public debt.

“I have found freedom through not spending. My husband and I don’t fight or worry about money.” It’s a family environment many of us would probably love to have.

Jody still only spends around $80 a week for groceries but as her boys will be teenagers soon, she’s well prepared for those days to soon be over. 

“I’m aware spending $50 a week is not for everyone,” she says. “My book is about showing people that they can save money. Every family is different, but even if it’s just saving $10 every shop from using my book, I’m happy because it means you’re putting some things into practice. It’s just about getting better at it and thinking about food and ways to substitute where it can taste just as good. Have lots of veggies—there are ways to cook the same but use cheaper ingredients, and that’s what I’m trying to teach people.”

According to Jody, her adopted lifestyle has also made her a better cook, a better mum and a better money manager. Saving money on groceries essentially means buying less processed food and more raw ingredients. It has meant spending more time in the kitchen (“There’s always a payoff.”) and it forced Jody—who didn’t really know much about cooking when she moved out of home—to spend more time in the kitchen, learning from old Country Women’s Association cookbooks.

I don’t really want for anything. The more you have, the more you want. 

“Being in the kitchen, my kids were always at my feet, so I got to spend a lot more quality time with them,” she says of how frugality made her a better mum. As for being a better money manager, “When I only had $50 to spend a week, I had to make sure every cent was accounted for. With every other dollar that we earned, it had to go to a certain area, so I had to know where each dollar was going every week.”

Not every cent however, is created equal, according to Jody, who also tries to promote social consciousness when it comes to spending (or saving). In her book, right in the first chapter on how you can get started to reduce your grocery bill, Jody has a section titled, “Remember that some things are worth paying for.” By that, she means “doing the right thing”: buying locally grown or produced food.

“I live in a rural area. A lot of my friends are farmers. You have to be socially responsible when you can,” she says. “Don’t buy cage eggs, that’s just cruel. I’d happily pay extra for milk because just down the road, the money goes towards the kids. Because I see it first hand, I know the people who I’m buying from, it makes a difference. I really am passionate about supporting rural communities.

“It’s not just about saving money, but to help someone by spending—if you can afford it. If you can only afford to buy the $3 milk, I’m never going to make you feel bad about it. If you need to feed your family, you do that, but if you can, great, I do encourage it. Some families can’t and I would never want to make them feel bad about that.”

What Jody is working hard towards, however, is trying to make everybody understand the benefits of living a simple life.

“I’d like to make frugal cool. I’m working on it,” Jody laughs. “It’s hard. There’s still a stigma associated with being frugal but when you see the benefits that come with it—you live happier and healthier, you have so many less worries—it’s actually a really nice lifestyle.” 

The way Jody sells it, it’s a wonder not more of us have adopted frugality as a way of life.         

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