After reporting and writing about how so many New Yorkers struggle so hard to stay in the middle class, or to get there and get out of poverty, the last thing NYCityLens want to do is to be facile about that struggle. Or to suggest that it is in any way easy. But, that said, we hope the following tips for surviving on a limited income might be useful to some people in the city.
EATING HEALTHY ON A BUDGET
Healthy food is much more expensive, says Michelle Friedman of the New York Coalition Against Hunger . People on limited incomes “buy what is cheap and filling, not necessarily what is healthy,” she says.
And indeed, fresh fruits and vegetables “tend to be expensive,” says Melissa McGowan, a certified health education specialist at the National Institutes of Health. But, “There are ways around that.”
The coalition runs a program of community-supported agriculture. It collaborates with farms and brings produce to the Bronx, West Harlem and Central Brooklyn. Anybody can sign up to be a member of the program to purchase the produce.
As for the grocery store, McGowan offers a few tips for a healthier and cheaper experience:
Fruits and vegetables:
What’s in season?
“Think about buying fruits and vegetables that are in season,” McGowan says. When produce is in season, stores tend to have a larger supply of them, and often they are at a lower cost. McGowan suggests buying the fruits and vegetables in bulk when they are in season and freezing what isn’t consumed right away.
If fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find or the price range is still too high, “canned and frozen vegetables are good alternatives,” she says. They have a lower cost and a longer shelf life.
What to watch out for:
It is imperative that shoppers look at the nutrition fact labels. “Make sure that fruits and vegetables are frozen by themselves and not with additional sauces and salt,” McGowan says. Canned goods can also be higher in sodium, so she says to look for the cans that label ‘no sodium’ or ‘no salt added.’
“If you want to really stick to a budget, think about beans as a great protein source,” says McGowan, “That’s a great alternative.” Whether they are canned or dried or fresh, beans have good nutritional value—and they are filling.
Grocery Store Benefits
Although this one seems obvious, signing up for the grocery stores bonus cards “can save quite a bit of money,” McGowan says. Look for store brands, too, she adds. They tend to be less expensive.
What’s on sale?
Budgeting is also about looking for the best price. Sales of non-perishable goods should be taken advantage of. McGowan suggests buying larger quantities when items are on sale and storing for future use.
Stick to the plan
Eating healthy on a budget is a challenge, but it can be done, she says: “It just takes a little bit of planning, thinking about what you want to prepare, what meals you want to cook for the week. And then sticking to it when you go to the store.”
Where to get help
There is a group that runs a grocery store tour: Share Our Strength is an organization that targets hunger in kids. It’s online tour of a grocery store provides help in selecting items with more nutritional value for a lower cost and how to shop on a budget and stick to it. The tour also takes a look at a typical store layouts to see which aisles might be the ones with the best bargains. The tour, which also has tips on cooking, is a virtual one; anyone can download it from the site’s webpage.
Advice and support
For the Child Development Support Corporation, childcare affordability comes second in consideration. The first concern is the best quality within your price range. “Even if you are looking for care that you can afford, you still have to understand what quality you can afford,” says a spokesperson for Child Development Support, which works with the NY State Office of Children and Family Services and NYC Department of Health.
“Should quality care be affordable to everyone? Yes, but is it? No,” the spokesperson said.
Child Development Support’s focus is to help parents navigate the childcare system, figure out what standards of quality they want for their child, and to take a look at the child’s specific needs in order to find the appropriate care. “What are you looking for? Services close to home? Close to the office? With early and late hours?” she says. “What other amenities do you want?”
Then once the needs are assessed, cost comes into play. The center will discuss subsidized childcare—which is a city service that people can apply for. It is temporary though, and comes with conditions.
Some childcare centers even provide a sliding-need scale: those who can afford it pay the full price and those who can’t pay what they are able to.
If a family does not qualify for assistance, then the group will consider advising alternatives— for example, perhaps training a family member that does not work. “Is grandma at home?” the spokeswoman says. “Is somebody around that can help you figure out a solution?
The Child Development Support Corporation is part of a statewide program geared towards providing anyone with free consultations and information for childcare resources and referrals.
But often, the needs extend beyond childcare. Some call the organization because they have kids but also have questions about other types of assistance, according to the spokesperson. For instance, for school uniforms. “We can connect you to community resources to help you get a discount or half price,” the spokesperson says. “Or connect you to a local pantry that is offering secondhand uniforms.”
Others call because they are dealing with domestic violence, and need a safe place for their child, the spokesperson says, or because they are looking for a way to apply for food stamps. “Sometimes that’s what people need, to walk with them and guide them through the whole process,” the spokesperson says. “Its an easier way to start the conversation.”
The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs provides three brief steps for managing your finances.
1. What is your monthly income?
This includes the amount that is left from your paycheck each month after taxes and deductions, cash benefits from Social Security payments, and temporary assistance for needy families, according to the department for consumer affairs. Benefits from other public assistance programs as well as additional earnings from alimony payments and a part-time job should also be included.
2. How much do you spend every month?
The department recommends keeping a spending journal to record every purchase made or bill paid for the month. It is easier to do this than try to remember what you bought in the past month or go digging for old receipts.
They also recommend splitting the expenses into two categories. Fixed expenses include items that are paid each month, such as rent, car payments, heat and utilities, etc. Flexible expenses encompass spending that changes from month to month, like going to the movies, shopping for clothes and food, etc.
3. Figure out what is left over.
After subtracting the total spending for the month from the total income received monthly, a decision can be made based on the amount leftover. The department of consumer affairs suggests if there is money left over, save it in a bank account. If the expenses are greater than the income, spending must be reduced or income increased. The department provides tips on spending and ways to increase income on its webpage.
New Yorkers having trouble with their finances can have a one-on-one consultation with a financial counselor at one of the city’s 30 Financial Empowerment Centers, according to a spokesperson for the consumer affairs department. They can arrange this by calling 311.