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Sandra Reynolds talks budgeting, blogging and broccoli

Published on May 5, 2015 8:11 am, by

Don’t believe the hype! You can drink and dine without blowing all your dollars. Author Sandra Reynolds tells us how

Q: An interview with a foodie who understands that you don’t need to pay $19 for 100g of coconut flour to eat well!
This is going to be good … But before I get ahead of myself, I guess I should start with the introductions right …?

A: My name is Sandra Reynolds and I’m the creator and author of The $120 Food Challenge, a website for foodies on a strict budget. I write for my website, am in the middle of writing another cookbook and write freelance articles, as well as recipe development for clients.

Q: Let’s backtrack a little … how did the $120 Food Challenge come about?

A: I left my job after a shitty day at work and thought I would move into another job immediately. That was five years ago. Instead I slumped into unemployment and it was while I was on unemployment benefits that I had to resort to food vouchers from a local charity. I had just $60 a week with which to get all my groceries for myself and two hungry teenagers. When my friends found out what I was doing, they asked me to write about it and share some recipes. I literally Googled, ‘How to Start a Blog’, followed the prompts and emptied out the contents of my head. It got an immediate response.
Three months later, a TV crew called in to feature me on a national current affairs show. The day after it aired I got a call from Julie Gibbs, head of Lantern imprint at Penguin. She could have any chef or cook in her stable and she wanted me. I signed a book deal just six months after I started the blog and I have been at pains ever since to tell people that this sort of overnight blog-to-book success just doesn’t happen.

Q: I’m imagining a life spent eating chocolate muffins on a professional basis (you know, in the name of research), but feel free to burst my bubble and describe a true typical day for you…

A: I get up quite early, a hangover from my days as a single mum. I do some meditation, some yoga stretches and, if it’s a lovely day, I go for a 45 minute walk. I come back, make a cup of tea and start writing by about 8am, sometimes earlier. I write two recipes or articles a day, and sometimes more if I have a tight deadline. I cook during the middle of the day, making notes and adjustments to the original recipe draft. I photograph the dishes late in the afternoon for the lighting.
In between I answer emails, comments left online, schedule posts and edit photos. I schedule, plan and write out lists. I’m a tremendous list-maker.

Q: In five words describe your current relationship/values with your finances

A: Coming back from the brink.

Q: Sounds optimistic..  what happened?

A: I am the cautionary tale of what happens when you make a couple of poor life decisions, or when a couple of big life events conspire against you. I started out to be independent in my financial transactions and in my savings, but coupling up and taking time out to raise a family put a lot of those good intentions out to pasture. By the time I was in my early forties I was divorced, working part-time, a single mum of two teenagers and effectively I was starting over. Then I was retrenched, then I shifted into a casualised workforce, then I lost my marital home in the divorce, then I spent my divorce settlement on my children over the next ten years. I never got back to that point of feeling secure.
The last five years have been instructive, let’s put it that way! When you are left with nothing, you have only one choice: to let it define you (‘I have nothing’) or to make it a starting point (‘I will rise from this.’). For the sake of my mental health I simply had to let the idea of perfection go…

Q: So can we safely assume you and budgets are buddies?

A: Oh yes, I can’t survive without one. It’s incredibly small. My children now live independently from me (they are in their early 20s now) and I houseshare with another woman my age to save costs. I don’t have a car. I buy in sales, use layby, Gumtree, eBay and op shops. I proudly shop in Aldi every week. I’m in tremendous debt right now, but I’m not defeated. I will pay off every cent I owe. What matters is that I apply lateral thinking and creative approaches to the challenges I have before me. I’ve stumbled across a latent creativity I never knew I had and my work inspires me to get up and give it another go every day. In terms of improvement, I’m always on the lookout for ways to value-add on that work, to create new income streams. Every bit helps.

Q: We’ve all got our spending weaknesses, so do you want to make me feel less guilty and tell me yours ?

A: I’ve had to really fight against the need to spend on myself to brighten my mood. I struggle daily with the whole emotional spending pattern that’s so embedded in me. The offset is that I now hoard every cent I save and I agonise over spending decisions. I have to remind myself that a little frivolity is allowed. I’m worried I might forever have an acute poverty consciousness. Financially, my goals are to pay off my debt. Save for my retirement. Invest. In five years time I want to be debt free, first and foremost. I owe to friends and family. At the rate I’m going, it will take me another two years. After that, saving, saving, saving for a retirement. Not that I have any plans to retire.

Q: What worries you most about your financial future?

A: My biggest concern is homelessness in old age. Social Services and Housing Associations here in Australia say that the biggest increase in homelessness is in middle aged women who just haven’t got the means to secure long term tenancy in the private rental market. I’m worried.

Q: If Siri could share some words of wisdom for your 10 year younger self what would she say ?

A: Sandra, if I were to tell you, you’d never believe me anyway, so let me just say this: Investing in everyone’s needs EXCEPT yours is not good for your health. The biggest lesson in your life comes down to trusting yourself. No one will back you until you learn to do so.

Q: So there’s no point talking to a foodie if you’re not going ask the big questions. Let’s start with this one … From kitchen to supermarket, what are your top 3 tips for saving on your food budget?

1. Don’t buy anything until you’ve used up what’s in your fridge or pantry first.
2. Make a menu plan for a week – it doesn’t matter when you eat it, just have an idea of what you will make that week before you buy something else.
3. Consider at least two meat-free meals a week. Seriously, it won’t kill you!

Q: Paleo; gluten-free, air-as-meal-replacements … Healthy food is having a (very expensive!) moment. How is it possible to eat on a budget without resorting to bad-for-you- food?

A: Shop with a list. Shop around the outsides of the supermarket first and fill your trolley with fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, deli items, bread. Only go up and down the aisles if you have dollars left over. Finally, the more processes you do in the kitchen, the cheaper your food costs will be.

Q: What “daggy” but dollar-friendly food would you love to bring back in fashion?
A: Liver. Let’s hear it for offal.

Q: Time to talk trends … What’s your opinion on sometimes expensive “superfoods”. Fact or fad?

A: I heard the other day that McDonald’s is introducing kale to its menu, so I think we can safely say that kale has jumped the shark. We do fetishise food to a degree and we forget that so-called superfoods have always been around, but without the price tag. I love sardines, which at $7 a kilo is one of the cheapest superfoods around. Likewise spinach, lentils and broccoli. And bone broth by any other name is just a very well-cooked stock.
Perspective, please. Just eat whatever locally grown food is in season, have a couple of meat free meals every week, avoid any product that has a TV commercial or has a 97% fat-free label on it (it will be loaded with extra sugar and salt to compensate) and try to have your largest meal as early in the day as you can.

Q: I’m sure there’s an old proverb about wasting and not wanting … What says you about this sage piece of advice? …

A: Stand next to your wheelie bin and throw about $40 into it. Do this every week. Or, use up the 20% of food you would otherwise throw out every week. Take last night’s dinner to work for lunch. Freeze an extra portion for a freezer meal that actually looks respectable. Also, learn to portion out food. A 500g packet of dried pasta will serve six people, not four. Stop making such huge meals in the first place.

Q: How does one learn to love leftovers? (we’re talking the deep emotional connection usually reserved for a tub of gourmet ice cream here)

A: Stop being so indifferent to them. I took some leftover roast lamb and roast vegies, shredded the lamb, mixed it with salad leaves and pomegranate seeds, drizzled it with lemon-flecked plain yoghurt and some mint salsa verde and added the roast vegies to a bowl of couscous. All on the table in 20 minutes.

Q: Do you coupon?

A: No, and I don’t do flybuys or customer loyalty cards either. I’d much rather save money by getting the cheapest I can find at the time and not be guilt-tripped into spending more on items I don’t need, for discounts I might never use.

Q: Wow ! We’ve been talking for ages … I’m getting peckish … Inspire me …. What’s your favourite recipe!

A: Lemon Delicious. It’s a family favourite and one I always make whenever my children are with me. It reminds me of my kids and of their laughter. It doesn’t get better than that.

Inspired to try? Here is the website. 


Q: What is your biggest spending regret?
A: Cheap items that break down too quickly. I’m too poor to buy poor quality. These days I save and save and invest in items I hope will last me a lifetime.

Q: What can’t you live without?
A: A well-made pot of Earl Grey tea.

Q: What do you never leave home without?
A: A pair of reading glasses. Sadly, it has come to this.

Q: Do you have a money motivation motto?
A: It’s never too late.

Q: What would be you money-is-no-object dream buy?
A: A house with a kitchen and a garden big enough for all my friends and family to gather in. At this stage I’m unsure which would be larger.


*Headshot / Sandra Reynolds
*Book cover shot / Rob Palmer, courtesy of Penguin Viking