First, before I offer any other advice, if there is even a remote possibility that your elderly loved one will come to live with you in the future, beef up your emergency fund. If you don’t have an emergency fund, start one now. In the first week that Dad unexpectedly moved in with us, we spent $2000 on moving costs and bathroom assistive devices. And that was just the beginning…
Food, utilities, transportation, over the counter (OTC) medicines, entertainment, etc. were costs that we hadn’t planned for because we never anticipated that Dad would move in with us under crisis conditions. By the end of the first year that he lived with us, we were around the $5000 in unreimbursed out-of-pocket costs that the average American family spends per year on eldercare. Respite care runs about $25 per hour, wheelchairs rented at zoos and fairs cost $10-$25 per day, assistive devices cost from $20-$4000 depending on the item. Medicare does not pay for all assistive devices.
So, how does a frugalista manage with these costs? Turning off the heat and lights in the winter seems a tad extreme, so I’ll focus on the costs that are easier to live with.
Housing is the largest expense in most budgets and in eldercare as well. Each family’s home and circumstances are different, but evaluating the existing home is a reasonable first step in deciding whether to move or stay. Although our 1800 square foot house is smaller than average by American standards, we resisted the suggestions that we purchase a larger home to accommodate Dad. A larger home would increase our insurance, maintenance, mortgage, and utility costs. We didn’t know how long Dad would be living with us because his illness is a degenerative disease, and would eventually require nursing home care. We decided that buying a bigger home would be a bad investment if Dad moved out 6 months afterward.
Because we were fortunate the main floor of our home had a small bedroom with attached bathroom, we were able to move Dad into it. We added grab bars, and other assistive devices to Dad’s bathroom. We also got rid of some of our own furniture and a large number of our belongings to make room for Dad. We rearranged our furniture in the house, so Dad’s could be accommodated. While our home now resembles an assisted living facility, the $2000 we spent is far cheaper than a larger home and associated mortgage. By staying in the same home we saved $50,000 to $100,000.
Food is another big expense in most budgets. With an extra mouth to feed, our food costs initially rose by a third. We also had another complication, Dad’s dietary needs were somewhat different than our own and had to be accommodated for health reasons. This required cooking 2 separate sets of meals every day. Unfortunately, Dad’s tastes have changed dramatically, and my cooking didn’t meet his standards which caused some friction in our home.
Not only was cooking 2 sets of meal daily more expensive, it was taxing energy-wise as well. In the first 4 months after Dad moved in, I lost 6 pounds. While this isn’t much for most adults, it was noticeable on my already petite frame. I began to feel stretched, fatigued, and in general more emotionally brittle. Something had to change or I would not survive.
Initially, I worked to reduce overall food costs. I wanted to do this without resorting to the diet of ramen noodles, bananas, cabbage, and beans that I often ate whilst I was putting myself through college. After a while, I was able to reduce our grocery bill by $150 per week compared to when Dad first moved in. This translates to $7800 per year.
With three people living in the house, it now made economic sense to buy staple foods and household items in bulk. I purchased an Amazon Prime membership because I noticed that they had good prices on bulk food items and free delivery. Because my husband and I share a car, I don’t always have access to a vehicle without added expense. An annual $99 Amazon Prime membership was far more affordable than purchasing a new car, or even renting a Car2Go every week for grocery shopping. In addition, some days I can’t go out shopping because Dad is having a lot of difficulty and cannot be left alone. Although Amazon is maligned regarding its business practices, I have yet to see a better alternative for my situation.
I also began making foods like bread, soy milk, and yogurt at home instead of purchasing them at the store, saving $10-15 dollars a week. Because these foods are all “hurry up and wait” items to prepare, I was able to accommodate making them with my schedule. The one exception was tofu. I tried a recipe in Joy of Cooking and it was a miserable failure. It took over 24 ours to make a batch of bitter, inedible bean curd. I decided that purchasing it at the store was a better option.
We already had a tradition of a weekly menu and shopped with a list to avoid impulse purchases. As vegetarians, my husband and I are careful to construct a menu of 3 dishes each week to be cooked in batches to save time and money. We plan eggs, legumes, and whole grains with various vegetables including dark leafy greens thrown in to ensure a healthy diet. Dad eats a more traditional diet of meat, bread, and vegetables.
We had a small vegetable and fruit garden that provided organic produce during the growing season. We also received fresh produce from other people’s gardens when they had a bumper crop. We tried to purchase in-season foods when possible. We bought dried foods because they last longer and we didn’t want to buy a larger fridge.
I read about food waste in the grocery industry and spent time when I was at a store looking for mark-downs on foods that would otherwise be deposited in a dumpster at the end of the night. I reasoned that one way for Americans to reduce food waste was to simply purchase food before it outdated and stores felt compelled to toss it for safety and litigation reasons. Dad cannot be a vegetarian for health reasons, and I wanted to purchase meat for him at an affordable price. I scored lamb shanks for him the other day that were cheaper than chicken because they would be outdating that night. I cooked them with onions, potatoes, and tomatoes and oregano from our garden when I got home.
We also reduced our restaurant meals. When we do go out, we mostly go out for brunch or lunch which is cheaper. Take-out is also a cheaper option. Although convenience foods are expensive, an organic pizza from the frozen section at the grocery store is cheaper than a restaurant meal when you are too busy to cook from scratch. Dress it up with some more ingredients at home, and you have a fairly satisfying dinner.
Finally, we found out about Meals on Wheels for Dad. This non-profit organization delivers healthy meals to disabled adults to assist families with the cost and time involved in meal preparation. Dad gets 10 meals per week from them with a surprising amount of variety. They are able to accommodate his dietary needs too. It had made a tremendous difference to have this generous service. I stopped losing weight, and nightly disagreements at the dinner table have dropped off.