Necessity is the mother of invention. And necessity was the reason I ended up living on $50 a week. I had a good job before I got pregnant after three years of expensive IVF, and accidently fell pregnant naturally only seven weeks after my first son was born.
That was shocking enough, but when I was made redundant a few months after that, everything changed. See, before the babies were born, my husband and I enjoyed the privilege of living on two wages. I didn't think about how much I spent on groceries. I bought whatever I wanted and just put it on my credit card.
So my shop would have been anywhere between $150 and $400. We ate well, but we ate a lot of takeaway. Convenience foods cost a bomb. So did fancy cheeses and wine, which we consumed regularly. I bought lots of microwave meals as we were working long hours.
When all that came crashing down, we had two children younger than 12 months and we were in the middle of building our own home, renting as we were building.
If we wanted to keep what we had worked so hard for, we'd only have $50 to spend on groceries each week. I was a tad hysterical. It couldn't be done, or so that's what everyone said.
I quickly realised crying and falling in a heap wouldn't solve anything. I wanted to keep the house – it was our dream home. We'd kept a picture of what we wanted to build for 10 years on the fridge.
I put half a cow on lay-by with a local farmer and paid it off before winter.
I had $50 cash a week to work with. I HAD to make it work. My world depended on it. My kids and husband depended on it. It was up to me to make it happen.
First, I cut up my credit card. I then took stock of what I had in my pantry, fridge and freezer. I was shocked at how much food I already had in the house. I found eight tins of cream of pumpkin soup – and I don't even like pumpkin soup. It was crazy.
Apart from bread and milk, I did no shopping at all for the first four weeks and just used what I already had. But that only got me so far.
I had to get creative with foods I didn't like – so I got in the kitchen and started experimenting. By adding a couple of cups of flour to soup – I made pumpkin scones. Winner!
I then realised, flour is cheap but it is even cheaper if I buy it from a discount store. So I shunned the big supermarkets and started shopping at cheaper places. I borrowed my mother's old CWA Cookbook, and started cooking very basic meals using staples. Flour, sugar, spices, pasta. I made everything from scratch. I had a basic vegetable garden, and my mum has chickens and a lemon tree so I had free eggs and lemons.
I learnt all the tricks to save money at the supermarket – not buying anything from the middle shelves, looking at the sticker to make sure I got the cheapest per gram and avoiding the centre aisles. I bought a kilogram of cheese and grated the whole lot by hand (it was a good upper-arm workout). I even started making my own bread because it was 25c a loaf cheaper – and every cent counted.
I discovered there's nothing in this world like freshly made bread, and the kneading is so therapeutic.
A few months down the track, my husband commented on the quality of our meals and that we had never eaten better. He'd even lost a few kilograms. We had a lot more fresh fruit and vegetables in our diet because I bulked out every meal with tomatoes, carrots and zucchinis. I substituted half of our mince with lentils, and no one noticed. My pasta sauce was full of goodness and made a super cheap, easy and delicious meal.
I put half a cow on lay-by with a local farmer and paid it off before winter. We had loads of slow-cooked casseroles with the cheap cuts of meat.
As I saved money, I became more creative. It was fun. I made a game out of it to see if I could beat last week's record.
Knowing where my money was going, and knowing what exactly was in our food, was a very empowering feeling. I felt in control. I learnt all the tricks supermarkets use to try to get us to buy, buy, buy.
By focusing on the best sales (the ones you find by the door), and shopping around, I was able to save even more. I started finding good deals in other places, too.
I shopped at the local markets at closing time and could pick up a whole tray of tomatoes or onions for a dollar or two. I picked up slightly bruised fruit and turned it into "crumbles" or purees for the boys, or fruit muffins or ice blocks.
Not a single thing was wasted. Every item was used.
Six years down the track, I'm still pretty frugal with my food shopping. I invested in an upright freezer for my yearly half a cow. I cook in bulk and freeze for later. I make all my school lunches on Sunday so nothing goes to waste.
If I can do it, you can too. You just have to think about how badly you want it. Maybe you're saving up for something or maybe you just don't have much money this week, but you can still eat well.
The food world is full of schmancy recipes and glossy cookbooks with ingredients I've never heard of. They might be beautiful but they are useless if you're living on a budget. Get back to basics. Cook like your grandma would have done. Get in the kitchen and experiment.
My biggest tip for anyone living on a strict budget is to have a goal. And to put a picture of that goal in a place you will see it all day, every day. Then you will work towards it.
I'm in my dream home. I haven't paid it off yet – but it's a goal. So is a pool – that's on the fridge!
Jody Allen is author of The $50 Weekly Shop (RRP$24.99, Penguin Random House)