How this family saved $22,000 over four years with a simple swap

Facing bankruptcy, they decided to make a change
The Stembridge family
Scott, Angela, Emily and Ryan
  • Facing bankruptcy, Angela Stembridge and her husband were terrified about how they’d support themselves and their two children
  • To save money, they moved to a sustainable lifestyle
  • Now they make their own cosmetic and cleaning products, grow vegetables and have a medicine garden
  • Amazingly, they’ve halved their debt and saved more than $22,000 at the supermarket
  • They now teach others to do the same
  • Angela, 42, from Wanaka, New Zealand, tells the story in her own words:

Leafing through the latest pile of mail, my husband Scott wrapped his arms around me.

‘We’ll get through this,’ he soothed.

How had it come to this? I thought.

Living in a four-bedroom house in beautiful Wanaka, we’d felt so lucky. We had views of the lake and for the past three years we’d been running a cafe. But after being forced to sell, we’d been left in around $100,000 of debt and faced bankruptcy. With two kids – Emily, seven, and Ryan, five, – to feed, it was scary.

‘How are we going to support ourselves?’ I panicked.

The only option was to move into a smaller, two-bedroom rental place in a cheaper suburb.

‘It’s going to be a bit of a squeeze,’ I said, as the kids piled into their shared room.

Then we started looking at other ways we could save, like cooking our meals from scratch. Keen to keep the kids involved, Scott and I sat down with them.

‘Mummy and Daddy are going to change our habits,’ I explained. ‘We’re not going to buy junk food anymore. We’re going to make things ourselves.’

The Stembridge family
Scott, Angela, Emily and Ryan (Credit: Supplied)

It felt like an exciting challenge and we decided to start a blog and Facebook page to share our journey. We called ourselves the Free Range Family.

Instead of buying pasta sauce in jars, I made my own using fresh tomatoes and herbs. And rather than spending money on biscuits, cakes and cordials, I created them in the kitchen. I used raspberries to make a refreshing drink and lemons to make barley water.

‘There’s no sugar in it, so you can drink as much as you want,’ I told everyone proudly.

Every Sunday I baked for the week ahead.

‘What would you like in your packed lunches?’ I asked the kids.

‘Your banana bread!’ they cheered.

They love fruit, so we’d go to the local market and pick what was in season. Six months on, I came across a book by a lady who’d slashed her family’s grocery bill to $90 a week.

‘She makes all her own cleaning and cosmetic products,’ I told Scott. ‘We could do this.’

Before, we spent around $230 a week at the shops, but I gave myself a budget of $120. Using some of her tips and adapting others, I used baking soda to wash the walls and get stains off mugs. It was ideal for unblocking drains too. To clean windows, I used white vinegar.

Gaining confidence, I made bug spray, deodorant and air freshener. I didn’t wear any make-up, but made a natural lip balm. Scott was really impressed when I whipped up a liquid laundry detergent too.

‘I added some lemon essential oil to make it smell nice,’ I told him.

Our dream was to get back to Wanaka, our paradise. So in 2015, we sold our beds and couch to pay for a small van to transport our essential belongings. In our new home we fashioned a sofa out of wooden pallets and some Thai cushions that had been given to us 10 years earlier. We got second-hand mattresses and I cleared some space in the garden for a vegetable patch.

The family's vegetable patch
The vegetable patch, before and after (Credit: Supplied)

‘If we cut the stumps off of celery and put them in water, we can grow new ones,’ I told Emily and Ryan.

‘Wow!’ they chimed.

We even created a medicine garden. If the kids got a scrape, they didn’t ask for bandaids.

‘Mum, can we have some of your magic cream?’ they asked instead.

Made of coconut oil and a few other natural ingredients, it soothes stings and sunburn too. Now Emily, 11, and Ryan, eight, help me sell the products I make at the local market.

Tomatoes the family grew (Credit: Supplied)

I also post videos on our website showing how easy it is to live more sustainably. Even a small change can make a huge impact on the environment and your bank balance. Eventually, our plan is to live off the grid completely.

When I think what we used to waste, it gives me sleepless nights! Having worked in a kitchen for 20 years, I shudder to think how much cling wrap I threw away. The important thing is, we’re doing our bit now. Over the past four years we’ve saved more than $22,000 at the supermarket.

Our lifestyle has allowed us to pay off half our debt and I’m proud to say we’ve never missed a payment. Best of all, we do everything as a family.

Angela’s natural recipes

Deodorant and room spray in one:

Put a tsp of baking soda in a spray bottle. This neutralises odours.

Fill with tap water

Add a dozen drops of essential oil, I chose rose scent

Pop lid on and shake!

Magic cream for use on burns, scrapes or bruises

100g Coconut Oil

35g Emulsifying Wax

300ml Hot water

150ml Glycerine

Melt the oil and wax in the microwave

Add the glycerine to the hot water

Carefully add hot oil mixture and mix well

Add about 10 drops lavender essential oil and mix well

Let cool until it looks like moisturiser, whisk periodically for about an hour

Pour into jar, let set

 This story was originally published in that’s life! Issue 11, 16 March 2017.

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