Thursday, August 30, 2012

No-Car Update: Grocery Shopping

I apologize for the long post here, I crammed too many of my thoughts in it, but I'm not motivated to trim it down.  If I could give you a prize for making it start to finish, I really would.

But anyway, here we go.

returing home with a full shopping trolley
Skeptics of our no-car plan (about 90% of people we talk to) usually bring up one or both of the following issues:

  1. Difficulty shopping, particularly stocking up on groceries and supplies
  2. Limited options/convenience for travel and special outings, "doing stuff" on the weekends, etc.

(Surprisingly, no one mentions transporting kids to the doctor in case of middle-of-the-night-but-not-ambulance-worthy-medical-emergencies, which is the part that does worry me.)

I will share how we're adapting to #1, but before I go on, I'd like to quickly address two principles on which we operate:

  1. A car is a convenience.  It is not a necessity, provided that you have intentionally arranged other aspects of your life (i.e. work, choice of location/climate, etc) so that it's not.  Just think of how many people and families all over the world survive without a car.
  2. There is no law that says you HAVE to buy in bulk or get the cheapest possible groceries in existence.  You don't HAVE to do massive stock-up trips and buy bulky/heavy amounts that require a car to transport.  We canceled our Costco membership years ago when we realized that a slow-and-steady, low-inventory system was much more our speed.

Pete coined a saying a few years back which I think fits here: "Other people are not malfunctioning versions of yourself."  I suppose people have their set way of doing something and often can't see doing it another way.  So when they say, "But how are you going to stock up on groceries every week/month?" or "But how are you going to go to France/Germany every month/week to get the cheapest groceries?" they are thinking of how they would do their own system without a car.  And the answer is, they wouldn't - they would have to make a new system.  Or live somewhere else.  Or even just be someone else in the first place.

The challenge this summer has been working the shopping trips around my time with the kids, which is of course, all the time.  I learned quickly that one trip per week with the kids is quite enough for me.  There's just that higher level of stress and inefficiency associated with managing the groceries and buses and walks and weather and random hiccups that ALWAYS occur with kids that I'd rather keep to a minimum if possible.  While this aspect of shopping will be much easier when the kids are in school, I will be trading my independence for cold, rain, and occasional snow.  But as of right now, I'm still naively confident and figure I'll cross that snow-covered bridge when I come to it.

Anyway, here's my current system.

2 shopping trolleys, 1 small insulated bag that fits inside about half a shopping trolley, 1 ice pack.  Eventually, umbrella and/or waterproof gear.

Overall Plan:
I/we shop 3 days a week.  I plan 2-3 days of breakfasts, lunches and dinners at a time and shop only for these upcoming days, plus stocking up on a handful of non-perishables each trip.  I go to the store that's on the closest bus route to our place and is also my favorite (we do have one within reasonable walking distance, but with limited selection, higher prices, and fewer open-hours)

If Pete gets home from work by 6:30, I have enough time to eat a quick dinner with the family and then head to the grocery store on the bus.  The store closes at 8pm.  The whole grocery trip from leaving the apartment to getting back takes 1-1.5 hours and I quite enjoy it when the weather is decent.  If Pete has to work late, I just buck up and go on Tuesday morning with the kids instead.
I take the kids on the bus.  This is probably a 1.5 to 2 hour round trip.
Pete or I go alone, or Pete takes one or both kids (walking to the local shop or busing to whatever store seems appropriate)

We recognize that we are making some sacrifices and trades in this system.  We give up the general convenience of the car - which could save us on number of shopping trips, total time spent, and provide more flexibility and shelter from the weather.  We could also conceivably save money buy buying large amounts or traveling to France or Germany for groceries and supplies that we've heard can cost about 30% less (but, there goes some of your convenience and gas money).

But, we feel we can counterbalance these sacrifices by saving money in other ways, such as:

  • no car insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs, not to mention cost of car purchase (and we don't do car payments, period)
  • carefully budgeting for food and sticking to the budget
  • meal planning and sticking to the plan
  • knowing and using what we have, not overbuying or wasting food
  • perishables here spoil quickly - coincides with frequent small trips and not wasting food
  • eating meat only about two times per week, which is enough for us anyway
  • living a generally simple and frugal lifestyle in other areas, thus creating more room in the budget

Plus, the system fits well with our values and lifestyle:

  • eco-friendly travel method
  • increased fresh air and exercise
  • sense of gratification in being resourceful - using pre-existing transportation and "my own two feet," as well as thinking outside the box(car).
  • tangibly passing these values to our kids as they participate in the system
  • a small fridge, minimal storage, and generally minimalist/small living fits perfectly with small grocery trips
  • we're not too busy or over-scheduled with activities, so time is available for grocery shopping and household tasks
  • each shopping trip is simple and relaxed, not overwhelming or marathon-like
  • we're big weirdos anyway, so, yeah.

Oh, and regarding our grocery budget, we'll be tweaking it as we go, but we're averaging around 120-140 Euros per week on strictly food (not household/personal supplies like shampoo, toilet paper, etc) with hardly any eating out.  From what I've heard so far, that's actually relatively low for a Luxembourg family of four.  We have also set aside a budget for a monthly stock up trip for bulky/heavy household supplies (we're starting with 100 Euros), possibly with a rented/borrowed car.  Yet, we could probably manage fine with a couple additional bus trips, or the four of us going together one time a month with the two shopping trolleys and a couple additional carried bags.

This month a friend loaned us a car and I went on a stock-up trip, spending around 70 Euros.  Frankly, it was not an enjoyable experience.  I can only handle a certain amount of time at a huge supermarket (especially where many products/labels are still unfamiliar) before I'm just done with buying stuff.  Maybe that makes me lazy, but then I remember principle #2 from the ages-ago-beginning of this post:  there is no law saying I have to do it!  I find it's also easy to get carried away and go off-script when you're in that stock-up shopping mode as well.  A mentality of "Well, I might as well grab one of these while I'm at it!" takes over.  It's like the old running joke form the US about not being able to visit Costco or Target without spending at least $100.

I will eventually try shopping in France or Germany to see what it's like - maybe a friend will be kind enough take me and provide moral support.  I'm sure I'd find some great deals.  I'll reserve final judgement until then.

Well, again, sorry that was so long, but at least now when someone looks at me with disbelief and asks a "but how?" I can say, "You know, I wrote a blog post about that once, would you like the link?"

Too obnoxious?  Probably.


Anonymous said...

We have this little problem in America - it's mileage. The houses are all in a clump and so far away from the shops which are all in a clump. There are very few mixed use communities, so that's why people do their shopping at Costco in the car. We just don't realize other countries aren't like that. We're a bit insular in that way. But you'll rid us of our parochial ways, Rosie! Keep up the good work, Girl!

Pete and Rosie said...

You are right, the necessity of it does depend on where you live, and how much flexibility you've had in choosing exactly where. And besides, "city life" is just not what many people want. Here, "city life" is quite posh and "easy" compared to a lot of places, so we're fortunate.

But actually, it's mostly "my fellow Europeans" who think we're odd. I suppose many people from the US might assume that in Europe everyone gets by on walking and public transport, or at least the majority. Here, there are many single people, even couples without kids that opt out of a car. But every family with kids we've met so far here have 1 or 2 cars (even in our own building I think everyone's got 2). Many families here have also chosen to live farther from the city or a city because they can get a house and a yard for the same money - and then a car IS necessary. But that was not a priority for us.

It's not to say we'll never get a car here, but it's a fun challenge for us to attempt the alternative.

fiona lynne said...

I LOVE this post! I think it's funny how "green" Americans seem to assume Europeans are but we're pretty ungreen, just maybe in different ways to how American are ungreen.

We have the car but rarely use it honestly. Waling, bikes, the bus... the car gets pulled out for my grocery trip but I could get the bus if I needed too. We use it for long trips back home to DK and UK but again, could just hire a car for those trips.

I think until you start thinking about all the things you do in your life critically, you can do so many of them just because that's how it's always been...

You and I need to hang out more so I can rediscover the eco-friendly passions of my youth!

Willard C. said...

Good for you guys to keep at it without a car (and for viewing it as an adventure and not a do-or-die thing). Sadly for us, we now have THREE cars (but one's for sale at least). Thanks for posting!