In this episode, Emily interviews Jane CoomberSewell, a PhD student in Media and Cultural Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University. Jane is self-funding her PhD through several part-time jobs and self-employment as part of the gig economy. Jane and her wife embrace this lower-earning phase of life by making frugality and budgeting into a game for their household of five. They are serious gardeners with a long-term plan to become almost completely self-sufficient in their food consumption. Jane explains what she grows in her garden, how she creates standard daily meals from the produce, and how gardening helps her work-life balance.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
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- Find Jane CoomberSewell on Twitter
00:00 Jane: Financial balance is tricky. If you treat it as a challenge that it’s almost certain that you’re going to overcome and therefore it becomes a bit of a game, then it all becomes a lot more fun. And why are we here if not to be enjoyed and enjoyable?
00:27 Emily: Welcome to the personal finance for PhDs podcast, a higher education in personal finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season four, episode eight and today my guest is Jane CoomberSewell, a self-funded PhD student in media and cultural studies at Canterbury Christ Church University. Jane and her wife are avid gardeners. They have dramatically reduced their food spending by eating largely from what they produce and have a 10 year plan to become almost totally self-sufficient with respect to their food. In addition to discussing her garden and favorite recipes, Jane shares her positive attitude toward this lower income phase of life and how she makes budgeting and frugality into a game. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Jane CoomberSewell.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:15 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me today on the podcast, Jane CoomberSewell and she’s gonna take a moment to introduce herself to us a little bit further right now.
01:26 Jane: As you said I’m Jane. I’m the equivalent of a third year PhD student, but it’s a bit complicated because I’ve been part time until very recently, so I’ll be looking to submit in March 2020. I have a wife and we’ve been married for nearly eight years and in our household we have three grown-up young men, a 20 year old and two 24 year olds, all of whom are on the autistic spectrum to whom we give care. We’re trying to go self-sufficient, as much as we can, but we also have a range of jobs that we do to keep the wolf from the door and because we love doing them. My background is that I was a civil servant, I worked for the local authority, and now I work as a study skills support tutor to mainly students with disabilities at a couple of local universities. That gives you a starting point on me.
02:33 Emily: Could you say what your field is and where you attend, if you like.
02:39 Jane: I go to Canterbury Christ Church, which is one of three universities in the city of Canterbury, which is about 45 minutes drive from where I live. I come under media and cultural studies this week because they keep changing the name of the department. Might be media and design by the time we finish this. What I’m doing is I’m studying the life of a British war-time and post-war comedian/entertainer/actress called Joyce Grenfell.
03:14 Emily: Thank you. So you’re not employed by your university as what we would say in the States as an RA or TA. What is your relationship with your university and where does your money come from?
03:31 Jane: My relationship with the university, as such, is that of pure grad student. I’m counted as self-financed, so I don’t have any scholarships from any external bodies. My bio on university websites says I’m funded by the sweat of my own brow, and that’s basically how it is. In the past, when I was part time, I had up to four jobs that I was juggling along with studying, but now, because we’ve been able to secure a contract directly with disabled students allowance, it means we’ve been able to become become more stable. I’m actually better paid per hour, so I can cut my hours back and be full time on my PhD. But I also do all sorts of portfolio career and gig economy work. Whatever it takes to keep a roof over my boy’s head and keep funding. But yes, it’s my bank account that my fees come out of every month, not anybody else’s.
04:36 Emily: Right. That sounds like a very busy lifestyle. Full time on your dissertation, part time work, full time parenting of multiple children.
04:46 Jane: Yep, never bored, never bored.
04:49 Emily: Can you share with us what is your household income?
04:55 Jane: Okay, so it’s actually quite difficult to work out. Our household income is low enough that of the last seven years, we’ve only actually paid income tax twice so that indicates that in pure earned money, we’re earning less than £26,000 a year between the two of us, who as such, are heads of the house hold. But because of the boys disabilities, they get a variety of other income streams which works out to not huge amounts, but the impacts on the sort of total household income, about another £12-15,000 pounds a year. That’s all. So if you put that together, you’re talking, you’re still talking under £40,000 pounds. Not quite sure what the dollar conversion is but I think that would be about $60,000 for five of us.
05:53 Emily: Yeah, that’s a pretty tight of income to work with. Can you give us broad strokes how you’re making that work at a really high level?
06:04 Jane: Okay, so at a really high level, we treat it as a game because if you treat it as stress you would probably go a bit kabloo-y. So everything is a game. When the boys were younger, it was about challenging them. How quickly could they turn off all the switches so nothing’s on standby except the freezer and the fridge. Everything is a game. Everything is about how low can you get the costs for the necessities, so then you’ve got a little bit of money left over for fun, but also how much fun can you have for free. That’s basically how we treat our total income. We’ve very lucky we don’t have a mortgage, because in past years we earned more and we were able to get rid of the mortgage when we got married. We’re also very lucky because we live in a beautiful part of Kent in the Southeast of England. We are less than a mile from a beach and well, if you want some entertainment, go outside.
07:11 Emily: Yeah. I love that attitude of keeping the necessities down, leaving room to spend money on fun, but then also just maximizing the amount of fun that you can have for free. I love that.
Food Spending and Starting on the Path to Self-Sufficiency
07:23 Emily: So, specifically what we’re going to be talking most about in this podcast is food. Food spending and generating —
07:29 Jane: My favorite subject!
07:31 Emily: Yeah. So please give us kind of a sketch of how food works in your house.
07:37 Jane: So how food works is the two biggest boys, who are husband and husband — one is our grandson, so the other is our grandson in law — they have an apartment down the side of our house and they have part time jobs, so they generate their own money for food, or nearly generate their own money for food and they’re responsible for their own shopping and their own cooking. As I said, they’ve all got disabilities, but hopefully by the time they’re in their mid thirties, those two will be completely independent. When I’m talking about food and budgeting and I’m talking in the context of three people. Now the first thing to say is that, bless him, the youngest, the one who’s still most dependent on us, he has some food issues with his disabilities and he doesn’t eat any homemade food. He will only eat ready meals. So of our, approximately £40/week food budget, about £12 is for Ruki’s food.
08:43 Jane: After that, one of the ways we do it is that, my wife’s gone vegetarian. That’s for health reasons, but it has benefited the budget. I’m a bit cheeky, I only eat meat when I’m at my mum’s so she can pay for it. Or you know, if it’s a treat. Going vegetarian isn’t to everybody’s taste, but if you’re careful and you like veggie food, it can save you a lot of money. We are in love with beans, pulses and lentils and things like soya mince. Cooking is one of the things I’m best at, so I’m really good at flavoring things so they don’t taste boring. But we also have a Costco card and a Booker’s card, because it’s a similar cash and carry type thing, and we’re really good at stretching that out when they’ve got deals on.
09:49 Jane: But we’re also going self-sufficient. So until very recently, unfortunately I’m between flocks at the moment, but until very recently we had six chickens. We were producing our own eggs. And we have an enormous garden. My wife’s a lot older than me, so we have raised beds so that as we get older we can still garden and we are probably seven years into a 10 year plan to go almost entirely self-sufficient. We’re not quite there yet, but very nearly. We grow all our own, particularly potatoes, tomatoes. Then big crops at the moment I’ve just planted 240 sweet corn, or corn on the cob. We have three freezers and as long as you run them full rather than empty, they’re very cheap to run.
10:45 Emily: So when you say self self sufficient, is that the term that you used?
10:49 Jane: Yeah.
10:50 Emily: What does that mean?
10:51 Jane: Okay. So within as far as we can without actually starting a small holding, we’re trying to produce as much of our own food and to an extent later on, I want start adding so herbal medications as we can. We’re also beginning to try to be kind to the environment, so we try to keep, not only to keep costs down, things like single-use plastics out of the house as much as possible. We’re not quite there yet and realistically, I’m never going to own a cow and make my own cheese, but as much as you can in an ordinary domestic, suburban street, it’s about having as much in-house as we can.
11:46 Emily: Yeah. I’m glad you added that detail of the kind of place that you live. So it is a suburban environment? You have like sort of a back yard, we would say here.
11:55 Jane: Yes. When we talk about yards, we tend to think of something that’s concreted over, but yes, we have a very large garden. It’s 50 feet wide by a 100 feet long. I’ve got enough room to have — I mean my chickens are so spoiled. They don’t have a coop, they have a whole summer house that I’ve adapted and they have an 8 foot by 10 foot run, plus a mobile run on wheels. We have a greenhouse, and basically apart from one area that I let one of the boys have to plant flowers, if I can’t eat it, I don’t grow it.
12:35 Emily: Gotcha. So it sounds like, for your 20 year old, that’s most of the grocery budget you said, which was about £40 a week which is a over $50 in US. That’s almost all supporting him, is that right?
12:53 Jane: Well, no. I would say considering, considering that he’s one person, about half the budget is being spent on him, but even then, one of his disabilities is a very bad relationship with food. And if he doesn’t finish it, it supplements the chicken’s feed. As long as it’s nothing that can harm a chicken, I have a bit of a thing about feeding chickens, chickens, but apart from that, there’s very little things chickens won’t eat. So if Ruki can’t finish it, then either the chickens get it or the cats get it. Nothing, nothing is wasted. We have a lot of composting. It’s not only about how little you can spend, but it’s also about how far can you stretch it.
13:42 Emily: Yeah. So then the other half of the grocery budget is for you and your wife, but really mostly you’re eating out of your own garden and you’re cooking at home, it sounds like exclusively vegetarian meals.
13:57 Jane: Almost exclusively. At the moment we’re about 50% self-sufficient. We’re not quite to growing entirely out of the garden. I’m not sure whether I’ll ever crack the volume of beans and pulses that we would need to last us all year round, but certainly for six to eight months of the year where we’re pretty much eating out with the garden. And eventually I hope to make that all year round.
14:26 Emily: Well, yeah, I’m glad you mentioned seasonality. So how does that work there? Is your actual money you spend weekly on food, higher in certain seasons and then lower in others and how do you handle that?
14:39 Jane: I think it’s certainly lower in high harvest. We do a little bit of bartering as well. So among neighbors, friends and family, if I’ve got a glut of rhubarb, I’ll happily swap it with a neighbor for some green beans if mine haven’t been very good this year. And the wonderful thing about the barter economy, of course, is you can’t be taxed for it. But yeah, our fresh fruit fruit, veg, and salad bills are a lot cheaper in the summer than they are the winter. But as I said, I have three freezes and as harvest time approaches, everything has to be finished from last year, so we can start fresh and really stock them up.
15:31 Emily: Do you do any other food preservation, like canning or anything like that?
15:35 Jane: We are practicing. I don’t think we’ve quite cracked it yet and I’m very fortunate in that I have a very — they live a ways away but I have a very efficient mother and I’m not very good at things like jams and jellies, so I will turn up with the fruit, the sugar, the pan, and the jars and she will give me back the jam and the chutneys. I am very lucky from that point of view. I think the big thing with going self-sufficient — gardening, cooking — is you never stop learning. I think that’s maybe that’s one of the reasons why I love it so much. At the moment, I could honestly say I’m really good at making fruit syrups to go on ice cream, but my jam never sets, but next year I might crack it. I’m going to keep trying.
16:22 Emily: I liked that attitude as well.
16:25 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. Through my business, I provide seminars and webinars on personal finance for graduate students, postdocs and other early career PhDs, for universities, institutes and conferences, associations, etc. I offer seminars that cover a wide range of personal finance topics and others that take a deep dive into the financial topics that matter most to PhDs like taxes, investing, career transitions and frugality. If you’re interested in having me speak to your group or recommending me to a potential host, but you can find more information and ways to contact me at PFforPhDs.com/speaking, that’s P F F O R P H D S.com/speaking. Now back to the interview.
Long Term Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency
17:14 Emily: So you mentioned that you have a ten year plan and that you’re seven years into it, I was just wondering how you have managed to make that plan, and to plan for that kind of long term time period? And you said at the end of it you want to be nearly self sufficient, but what’s changing between now and then?
17:36 Jane: I think part of it is about getting the boys as independent as they can be. The more independent they are, the more time I have to spend on the garden. So the reason why I say seven years of a ten year plan, originally it was a five year plan. We bought this house seven years ago, August coming, and it was a very different house to how it is now. And at the time we had a little bit of savings. So what do you do when you find the perfect house? You rip it to shreds and reconfigure it. The first two and a half years were about making the house how we wanted it. What is now the boy’s apartment had been the office of the previous owners. So that was a big part of it. We knew for the first two and a half to three years that the garden would be on the back burner and we really weren’t self sufficient then, but it was always part of the dream. Then, we were on track and we had a really bad year. We lost my mother in law. Ruki came to live with us having been in a very desperate house situation. He’s another grandson. He’s the one who we have to buy most of the food for. Also, another of our grandsons was murdered. It was a hell of a year and it was also the year I started my PhD, and that’s when your relationship with the university becomes really important because several times they offered me an interruption and it took me quite a lot to persuade them that actually, doing my PhD was my solace and what was actually keeping us going because it was the one part of my life that wasn’t wrapped up in all this chaos. That, and doing a bit of gardening, so that’s one of the things that slowed well.
19:46 Jane: I think we’ve always wanted to go self sufficient and be as independent as we can. I think the plan has developed and I think any plan that doesn’t develop and isn’t organic is just a document. Ours is a document, it’s on pieces of paper and backs of envelopes, but it is a working document. Every few months we’ll go out in the garden, we’ll say, “You know what, that crop isn’t growing there on the plan of our garden, next year we’re going to grow it in raised bed — they’re very originally titled raised bed one, two, and three. It’s not growing in raised bed one, let’s try it in three next year or it’s not growing under the cherry tree. It’s too much shade. Let’s try it next to coop where there’s full sun next year.” And so I think one of the big things, whether you’re planning a business or anything that you’re planning to develop yourself, you have to keep revisiting that plan. And I’m hoping it’s not going to turn into a 12 year plan or a 14 year plan. I’m hoping that by 10 years the garden will be fully productive and every year it will just be about giving it that first seasonal weed and getting the crops in, or indeed, not even having a seasonal weed because it’s productive 365 days of the year. My big dream this year is having spuds I’ve grown myself for Christmas dinner.
21:12 Emily: How much time are you devoting to it?
21:21 Jane: Well, an ideal day for me looks like getting up around seven, being in the garden by eight. This is obviously if it’s not throwing it down. Doing a couple of hours and if Joyce is free to come with me too, so much the better. And then spending the rest of the day either studying or earning money. In an ideal world, I literally do that seven days a week. When you have a portfolio career like us, there’s no such thing as a working week. Every day has the potential to be a day off or a day of work. That’s why we also try and only do things that we love because then it never feels like hard work. You might be exhausted at the end of a day of heavy digging or of working very hard with students who nearly got what you’re trying to get across them, but they’re not quite there, but Joyce says if it doesn’t move, touch and inspire you, you can do without it in your life.
22:29 Emily: Yeah, I love that. And I relate to it very much, as well, as a self employed person. It never stops, but if you’ve chosen what you love to do, then that’s great, because it never stops. It sounds like you’re trying to have, maybe not work-life balance in the sense of hard weeks versus weekends, but just the daily “I’m doing what I love, I’m doing what’s rejuvenating, what’s refreshing” right away after you get up and then you can tackle the rest of the day.
22:56 Jane: Yeah. And I think particularly for trying to create a balance between study or an external job and growing even some of your own fruit and veg — lots of people go to the gym first thing in the morning, I go and garden. And because I have to put the chickens to bed, they don’t have their own little beds, I wish they did, I’m also out in the garden probably for the last 20 minutes before I go to bed, or before I start getting ready for bed. That starting and ending the day, even if it’s just time to have a walk round and see where I’m at, really helps set my mind up. Especially with one of my part time jobs, it’s all a bit stressful at the moment. Just keep it in perspective sometimes. Actually, just don’t do anything for a day or two, wait, see what develops, and the garden could really give you that message.
23:54 Emily: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Frugal Food Recipes
23:57 Emily: I asked you to prepare to tell us a few different recipes that you like that are both inexpensive, and you mentioned earlier that you are great with seasoning, so I want to hear how you’re doing with that because I am not so good with seasoning the food that I create. What are some of your favorite low cost recipes?
24:13 Jane: Okay, so really simply, you asked me t0 think about each meal of the day. Nine times out of ten, we’ll have — okay, mandatory translation — porridge or oatmeal for breakfast. So this time of the year, that might be in the form of overnight oats or Bircher where I’ve taken the fruit, we’ve grown ourselves. Yesterday we had our own strawberries. We have a microbiotic drinks that we buy, one of the few things I will never be able to replace, called Actimel. So it would be, oats, this microbiotic drink, and the strawberries. Goes in the fridge the night before and just get it out the fridge next day.
25:03 Jane: Lunch. Our favorite is always some kind of salad, which at the moment is very much from the garden. We are also quite fortunate that one of the boys works part-time at a local salad packing factory and anything that they’ve decided is not appropriate to sell, they’re allowed to bring home to supplement their wages, and he’s not a salad boy, so he passes it all onto us. So yeah, we have a lot of salad, often, as I say Joyce is vegetarian, with a boiled egg or with a little bit of grated cheese.
25:40 Emily: And then what about a dinner meal?
25:43 Jane: Okay, so a a dinner meal. I’m a big fan of, as I said, lentils and pulses, and also, soya mince. But supplementing it with as much fresh fruit and vegetables as in season as I can. I’ve almost got what I would refer to as a soya mince base that I can then get a tub out of the freezer. That’s what I’m going to do tonight. Tthen I add to it to turn into, so it’s a bit like, again, post-war Britain or post-war anywhere really. You would often have the stew on the stove that you added to every day. My absolute classic one is the equivalent of a can of tomatoes, half cup of lentil, any lentil, normally red in this house, an ounce per person of soya mince and whatever small vegetable, for example peas, sweet corn, mushrooms, onions, peppers, that you’ve got available, chopped up, really small. I make a vat of it in the slow cooker, and then I will portion that down. And then today we want something akin to Shepherd’s pie or cottage pie, so I will take out enough for the two of us I’ll add more vegetables that probably need using up, yet more mushrooms, yet more whatever. And we’ve got some potatoes that need using up, so I’ll put a top on it, but then next week I might get out the same base add some red kidney beans and some chilies. I’ve even managed to dry and caramelize my own chilies now. And that will be chili. Joyce’s mom was always teased because she could take mince, add different flavorings and turn it into anything. But actually if you’re imaginative, especially if you’ve got access to fresh herbs in the garden — right now my rosemary bush isn’t doing very well at the moment and we grow rosemary at university, so every time I’m on a break at uni, I go around and pick some rosemary from the university garden. And I’ll bring it home and dry it. I make rosemary biscuits.
Jane: And really if you’ve got those core mixes that you can cook very quickly and have available — we do a lot of batch cooking — then it being a good cook doesn’t have to be standing in front of the stove for another two hours when you finished your day’s work. It also doesn’t have to be having things sent to you in a box with a recipe card. When you said to me, what’s some classic recipes, it’s actually really hard for me because I am very much a “this is what I’ve got available” type of cook. How much have I got? Chuck it in! My boy Jason, the eldest, he says, you know you’re a good cook when you can open the fridge. Go damn, there’s nothing there. I know what I can make from that!
28:59 Emily: Yeah, very good point. I’m really, really glad that what you shared with us basically is what you’re eating on a daily basis. You have patterns in what you eat every day, and I like that because, of what you said. When you have more or less the same mix of things available or at least things that you can sub out, like this is going to work or that is going to work, depending on the time of year, you can be really efficient with using up everything you have. And it doesn’t take a lot of mental energy to figure out what you’re going to eat every day because it’s more or less a variation, it’s the same pattern.
29:36 Jane: It’s also, both budget-wise and health-wise — I mean I’m not exactly wasting away here and I’m trying to lose a few pounds –if you plan it will become sort of easy. Normally, Friday is shopping day for us. The boys have to be taken to the shop because neither of them have passed their driving license test yet. On a Thursday evening, while Joyce is watching the news, because I know everybody should be interested in current affairs, but I’m not, I will write the menu for the following week and then every day I will check, so I’ve got out what I need.
Tips for Starting Your Own Garden
30:16 Emily: As we conclude, we’ve talked a lot about like cooking tips, which I think is awesome, but do you have any tips for let’s say another PhD student or busy person, busy PhD, who’s interested in maybe dipping their toe into gardening? Not doing the full ten year plan that you have, but where would you get started? Maybe even for someone who just could do container gardening for example?
20:41 Jane: People would say start with the simple things, like potatoes and tomatoes. I would say yes, they are great things to start with, but don’t just grow things because they’re easy. Grow things because you like them. Okay. If all you’ve got is a window sill and you like spices, grow ginger and garlic. You can grow ginger from just planting a knob of the little head of ginger you buy from the supermarket. And if you’re patient and you water it, well, it will grow. I suppose my big thing for gardening is, as with everything that we try to live by, only do the bits you love or start with the bits you love until you get the bug.
31:38 Emily: Thank you for that suggestion. I don’t do any growing of my own food or anything right now. I live in an apartment so it’s inherently challenging, but I do love garlic and so I really liked the idea of having a little container in the window sill and having fresh garlic because I don’t really buy fresh garlic right now even though I love using it. It’s that you just use a little bit at a time. So, thank you for that suggestion.
Living a Frugal, Yet Enjoyable Life
32:00 Emily: Anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?
32:04 Jane: I think I’d go back to what I said earlier which is that I was a very serious person before I met my wife. I’m very lucky in that she will always see my funny side. Financial balance is tricky. If you treat it as a challenge that it’s almost certain that you’re going to overcome, and therefore it becomes a bit of a game, then it all becomes a lot more fun. And why are we here if not to be enjoyed and enjoyable?
32:43 Emily: Yeah, I do like that shift, because really, if you’re living on, let’s say a fixed, fairly low income, like you said, there’s certain challenges or certain realities to that, but your attitude towards it goes so far to make it bearable, enjoyable, horrible, whichever way. It can really go a lot of different directions just depending on how you approach it.
33:10 Jane: And however busy you are and however passionate you are about your studies, because we are after all dealing with PhD students or people who are maybe doing a postdoc even, try and put something aside for another passion, whether that’s playing the guitar or walking your neighbor’s dog or whatever. Anything you do that you’re passionate about, will benefit the PhD as well.
33:43 Emily: Thank you for adding that. I think PhDs can, some of them can get caught in this trap of 100% of my effort has to go towards my studies. And as you said, having some balance is good for you. It’s good for your work. You can’t be so 100% into that. It’s not healthy.
34:02 Jane: I sometimes get accused of telling people to abandon their responsibilities and that’s not true. I have very high sense of duty, but actually, if we don’t love it, especially if we are serving somebody else like helping to try and bring up the boys or doing some charity stuff, if we don’t love it, we’re not blessing the people we’re serving. So the more we love what we do, the more we’re not only blessing ourselves, but we’re blessing well the people around us. And I try to live like that. It’s not always easy because I’m not a naturally positive person, but I’m really lucky in that I have a wife, and who particularly around the boys, who is almost always positive. And you know, if you’re not surrounded by positive people and you need that positive energy, go and find somebody who is.
35:04 Emily: Yeah, thank you for that. Can you share with us your Twitter handle or where else people might find you so that they can get some doses of that.
35:12 Jane: So my personal one is, I’ll just spell out, is at J A N E, capital C, O, capital S, E. So @JaneCoSe and our business one is @CoomberSewell. But I have said the business one is slightly neglected because I’m so busy trying to finish this PhD at the moment.
35:32 Emily: Okay. Well, thank you for sharing that with us and thank you so much for joining me today.
35:36 Jane: Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s been lovely.
35:39 Emily: Listeners. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. PFforPhDs.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. There you can find links to all the episode’s show notes, a form to volunteer to be interviewed, and a way to join the mailing list. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you want to support the show and my business, please go to PFforPhDs.com/helpout. There are plenty of ways to sell without laying out any of your own money. See you in the next episode, and remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it doesn’t hurt. The music is Stages of Awakening by Poddington Bear from the free music archives and it’s shared under CC by NC.