I've had a challenging budget goal for groceries every month since May of this year. Could we spend no more than $50 per month for our food? I've made regular reports on my attempts to meet this challenge. But I thought I'd sum up my findings and thoughts in this post.
Everyone's constraints and advantages will differ when approaching such a tight budget. Our constraints were that with few exceptions I buy organic, especially where meat and dairy products are concerned. I also try very hard to support local agriculture by shopping at the farmers' market. Could I get cheaper milk and fruit? Of course. But I personally wouldn't feel good about eating it. If our financial situation were truly dire, that preference would become a luxury we couldn't afford. But we're not there yet. Also, neither of us was prepared to subsist on ramen noodles. We weren't going to eat an unhealthy diet just for the sake of meeting this goal.
Our advantages were several. We have laying hens and a huge vegetable garden, a chest freezer with plenty of meat, fish, and homemade bread, and a well-stocked pantry with lots of shelf-stable cooking ingredients. Also, we only had to feed two adults. And I didn't have to include the meals my husband ate when he traveled for work, which was a significant part of the time.
I failed every month at meeting my own self-imposed grocery budget. But am I going to let that stop me from giving advice? Heck, no! Having made the attempt, here are my thoughts on how to go about feeding yourself if you need to cut back radically.
1. Stop eating out. This should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway right off the bat. No lattes, no fast food, no deli sandwiches. Unless you have a coupon or gift certificate that makes food from a restaurant completely free, eating out is out of the question on this budget.
2. Shop your pantry/freezer/garden. The first and most obvious thing to do is to use up what you've already paid for. If you have food sitting around the house, now is the time to get creative and prepare meals using what is already available to you. This is how we were able to get even within striking distance of our budgetary goal.
3. Glean or forage. Never turn down free wholesome food. If someone offers you something edible - be it an overgrown zucchini from their garden or groundfall apples - accept it graciously and then use it. Learn what wild foods are available in your area and learn to appreciate them. Nuts, fruits, roots, wild greens - there's a whole world of edible food out there. Check Euell Gibbons' classic Stalking The Wild Asparagus out of the library. If you haven't already read it, it'll surprise you. If you see a fruit tree in your neighborhood with fallen fruits all over the ground, politely approach the owners and ask if you might collect the fruits. (Be aware of the risks with groundfall fruits however.)
4. Buy only cooking ingredients, never prepared foods. With very few exceptions, there's no way to meet such a strict budget while buying any sort of convenience food. So skip all prepared foods. Buy rolled oats instead of breakfast cereal and dried pasta instead of Chef Boyardee. Forego snack foods, alcohol, single-serving anything, and any purchased beverage other than milk. Stick to the produce aisle, the aisle with the canned and shelf-stable goods, and the frozen vegetable section.
5. Shop the loss leaders. Most chain grocery stores have a weekly advertisement about their sale items. Oftentimes these prices are so good that the store will not make any money on them, and will even take a loss. That's their decision. Your decision is to be one of the smart customers. Let another customer fulfill the store's expectation that the impulse buys and unnecessary purchases will cover their costs. Buy what they're promoting, and nothing else but what you really need to cook cheap but healthy meals.
6. Stop wasting food. On such a tight budget, there is no room whatsoever for letting food go to waste. Keep track of what is in your refrigerator and your fruit bowl. Pull any perishable items out to the front of the shelf where you will see them everyday. Make it a high priority to use stuff up before it goes bad. Also reconsider every scrap of food that you would otherwise throw away. Maybe you don't like to eat chicken skin. But did you know that the fat in it can be rendered down? It's called schmaltz, and it's used a lot in Jewish cooking. That's a few tablespoons of fat that can replace butter or cooking oil in another dish. Waste not, want not. So start thinking outside of the box when it comes to your food.
7. Produce your own food: garden, raise animals, fish, or hunt. This one is going to be a tough sell for those who don't already raise some of their own food. But there's really no way that I can see to come close to living on $50 worth of purchased food per month without directly producing some of my own food myself. Eggs and vegetables that are "free" to me have been the cornerstone of many, many meals for us during these months of the challenge. All of these options require lead time, effort, an investment in tools and/or licenses, and they're all easier to do once you've gotten some experience. (Who was it that said, "Experience is something you get after you need it.") You can't snap your fingers and have a productive garden or a starter flock of laying hens. If you don't have the tools or the permits needed to hunt or fish, you probably can't afford them if you need to live on $50 worth of food per month. But you can make long term plans to do these things. Or make friends with someone who already does. Gardeners often have extra food, and they nearly always have weeds to pull and work that should really get done if only they could find the time. (Trust me on this one.) Some hunters have extra meat that they'd be willing to barter for. Offer to trade a little labor for some food. You may also pick up some skills or tips to help you do it better yourself when you can. And by the way, chickens love kitchen scraps, which helps enormously with #6.
8. Eat less meat. Unless you're practicing one of the options mentioned in #7, other sources of protein are usually cheaper than meat. Eggs, dried beans, and tofu, and sometimes even dairy are all fine, protein-rich alternatives. I'm not saying you need to become a vegetarian. But unless you hunt, raise animals for meat, or have already stocked up on a lot of meat before you begin trying to live within this budget, meat is going to have to play a small role in your diet. Get past the idea that a proper lunch or dinner must include a large serving of meat. Instead, think of meat as a garnish or a flavoring ingredient. We often put a few slivers of parboiled bacon on our homemade pizza. The whole rice-and-beans idea sounds pretty dismal, I admit. But have you tried Cuban black beans lately? Or the combination of lentils and basmati rice with some sauteed onions and herbs? Give it a try. You may surprise yourself with how good these cheap alternatives can be.
9. Learn to cook. If you already know how, you're well situated for this budgetary challenge. If not, then learn the basics. This is not the time to try to master chicken Kiev or beef Wellington. Learn to cook pasta with fresh or frozen vegetables and a few pantry staples such as canned tomatoes and olive oil. Learn to make potato-garlic soup. Learn to bake bread - it's a lot easier than you may think. Turn to the library for solid cookbooks on the basics. I recommend Joy of Cooking, The New Best Recipe, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. All of these books will give you clear instructions on how to prepare simple, healthy foods.
10. Have a meal plan and a shopping list. Inventory your pantry and freezer, then sit down with a pen and paper to create a meal plan for the week. Build on what you already have. Then look at those store fliers and see what you can add without spending much money. List the meals you will prepare from those items and plan for leftovers wherever you can. Create a shopping list of what you need to buy and then stick to it like glue when you shop. Unless you see a spectacular unadvertised deal that you know you can incorporate into your meal plan, shop for only what is on your list. Don't go to the store hungry, or with hungry kids.
11. Skip the coupons. This is going to surprise many people. But when you're on a very tight grocery budget, coupons are rarely a good strategy. Few coupons are available for the most basic cooking ingredients. You may save a dollar on that frozen dinner, or that over-processed, over-packaged snack item. But you're probably better off spending the same after-coupon amount on potatoes, beans, or pasta. A large banana and a mug of tea brewed at home will be about as much as one serving of frozen orange juice. By sticking with basic ingredients you'll avoid the chemical additives and preservatives as well. Coupons will save you a little money if you insist on paying the premium for processed foods. But it's nearly always the better route - financially and health-wise - to buy basic ingredients and prepare the food at home. Now coupons for TP, those are worth using.
I'm not saying that doing all - or even any - of this is easy. Nor am I saying that this will guarantee that you can feed two adults on $50 of purchased food each month. After all, I failed every time I tried with this Challenge, even with all the advantages I had. Living on so small a grocery budget will require discipline and effort. If you plan carefully enough, know how to cook, and have some sources of "free" food (either from storage, gleaning, or your own production), this should be doable.
Finally, a serious note. I've written all of the above from the perspective of someone choosing this strict budget as a voluntary challenge. If you're reading this because your immediate financial situation is so dire that this is not an option but a necessity, then seek help from a foodbank, a church, or any charity that will help you put food on the table. This is not a time to stand on pride. My understanding is that it takes months to be approved for the foodstamp program, so you may not be able to rely on it in the short term, but get the process started as soon as possible. By the time you're approved, you may not need it and you can graciously decline the aid. But better to give your future self that option than ignore a valuable resource that may make all the difference. If you are looking ahead to serious longterm financial constraints, then you should seriously consider every possibility of growing or raising your own food.
May Challenge report
June Challenge report
July-August Challenge report
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