6/7/2011 12:07 PM ET|
3 meals plus snacks for $4 a day
Slash grocery bills with a little planning and careful shopping. And no, you're not doomed to eat ramen at every meal.
Worried about your grocery bill? You should be. Food prices hovered near record levels in May, the U.N. reported, rising faster than they have in three decades.
That's the bad news. The good news: Food is the area of your budget with the most wiggle room. You probably can't negotiate your rent or your car payment, but you can slash grocery costs with just a little planning and careful shopping.
You're not doomed to live on ramen, either. To prove it, my editor proposed a 14-day grocery experiment with a budget of $53.86 per week: the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) benefit of $33.34 per person per week plus $20.52 for the 9.8% of net income that the average American spends on food; in this case, the income is 130% of the federal poverty line, the level that qualifies a person for SNAP. (Want tips on eating well when money's tight? Read Liz Weston's column.)
Almost $54 a week sounded like a lot to me. And it was: In two weeks I spent just $48.39 from the imaginary food-stamp budget, plus about $7.91 of my own money (i.e., food I already had).
That works out to $56.30 total, or $28.15 per week -- about 52% of what I was allowed to spend. Since I didn't use up all the ingredients I bought, the money technically went even further.
Your mileage may vary, of course. But here's how it shook down for me.
Rule No. 1: Make menus based on sales
Sounds elementary, I know. But many people just grab whatever looks good.
Be sure to scan every page of the store ads, because the best prices aren't necessarily up front. One supermarket circular had a coupon for 10 pounds of potatoes for $1.50 on Page 5; as soon as I saw it, I knew I'd be eating spuds.
Here's what I bought and took from my cupboards and freezer:
- Produce: several pounds of "reduced for quick sale" apples, 2 pounds of carrots, two oranges, one onion, nine bananas, 10 pounds of potatoes, five 12-ounce bags of plain frozen vegetables. (I provided dried plums and apricots.)
- Canned goods: tomato sauce, salsa, two cans of tomato soup, two cans of diced tomatoes, one can of tomato paste, two 5-ounce cans of chunk light tuna. (I provided canned fruit, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.)
- Protein: Package of 10 chicken thighs, 2 pounds ground beef, one dozen eggs, one 8-ounce package of cream cheese. (I provided 2 cups dried pinto beans, peanut butter, 1 ounce jack cheese, ham and a "reduced for quick sale" steak.)
- Miscellaneous: Multigrain bread, oil, sugar, pretzel sticks, 4 ounces Greek yogurt (for starter to make my own), one Butterfinger bar, 2 cups bulk cornmeal, 1½ gallons milk and cookies. (I provided: Wheat Thins, bagels, tricolor pasta, flour tortillas, tea bags, oatmeal, Sweet'N Low, various store-brand spices, M&Ms, dried coconut, vanilla, butter, rhubarb and pickles.)
Note the absence of fresh greens (expensive and sporadic during this experiment) and fancy-schmancy ingredients. I eat the kind of food my mama fed me -- plain home cooking on a tight budget. Like her, I make food stretch; for example, that package of 10 chicken thighs became two chicken dinners, a stir-fry, a batch of chili, two chicken salad sandwiches and, finally, a pot of soup.
Rule No. 2: Shop strategically
One-stop shopping is easiest but, cherry-picking the deals at multiple stores could save you a bundle. I visited five nearby stores. Not everyone has that many choices, or that much time. Do what works for you and what makes sense -- don't drive 10 miles out of your way to save a dollar.
Think outside the supermarket, too. The Sweet'N Low for my iced tea cost nothing thanks to ink-cartridge trades at Staples. I hit sales and used coupons to get bagels at Target and cream cheese, eggs, pretzels, sugar and clearance taquitos at Walgreens. (Yes, Walgreens sells frozen foods. Taquitos aren't the healthiest thing in the world but, a 38-cent serving now and then won't kill me.)
I've even bought pasta, canned goods and other items at estate sales, where everything -- including the contents of the kitchen cupboards -- must go.
Here's what I ate
|Oatmeal and tea, daily|
|Scrambled eggs with diced ham, bagel and cream cheese, banana|
|Tuna sandwich, carrots, pickles, coconut bread pudding|
|Chicken-vegetable stir-fry, carrot sticks, orange, yogurt with homemade jam|
|Tomato soup, bagel with cream cheese, banana|
|Chicken salad sandwich, pickles, carrot sticks, banana|
|Ham, fried potatoes, peas, banana, two cookies|
|Homemade spaghetti sauce over tricolor pasta, steamed carrots, canned pears|
|Roasted chicken thighs (two), rice, peas and carrots, orange|
|Chicken, rice, vegetable and bean stir-fry, orange, two cookies|
|Taquitos, pinto beans with salsa/yogurt sauce, applesauce, M&Ms|
|Meat loaf, baked potato, corn, dried plums, Butterfinger bar|
|Scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, toast, banana, two cookies|
|Pinto beans with salsa/yogurt sauce, cornbread, dried plums, rice pudding|
|Meat loaf, fried potatoes and onions, corn, dried apricots|
|Oatmeal and tea, daily|
|Homemade chicken-vegetable soup, crackers, banana|
|French bread pizza, peas and carrots, homemade yogurt with rhubarb|
|Chicken salad sandwich, corn, carrot sticks|
|Ham, potato salad, corn, canned pears|
|Tricolor pasta salad with tuna and vegetables and yogurt-dill dressing, fruit cocktail|
|Chicken-vegetable soup, cornbread, banana|
|Egg salad sandwich, carrot sticks, dried plums, M&Ms|
|Tuna sandwich, carrots, pickles, banana, rice pudding|
|Meat loaf, potato salad, peas, banana|
|Scrambled egg sandwich, carrot sticks, dried plums, bread pudding|
|Chili over rice, cornbread, dried apricots|
|Steak, baked potato, corn, canned peaches|
|Chicken-vegetable soup, cornbread, dried plums, rice pudding|
|Chili over rice, flour tortilla, canned peaches, bread pudding|
Rule No. 3: Cook strategically, too
I baked a slow cooker full of potatoes and turned the leftovers into potato salad and fried potatoes. The spuds were fried in chicken fat skimmed off the soup stock. If I hadn't done that I'd have needed some other medium, but this was free (and there's still some in my freezer).
The stock was made overnight in the slow cooker from the pan juices and bones from the roasted chicken plus some vegetable-cooking water from my freezer. It became four servings of soup with the addition of less than 50 cents' worth of pasta, beans, frozen veggies and spices.
Canned stock can be expensive -- and salty. This was free, i.e., made of things that might otherwise have been tossed. You can also save odds and ends of leftovers to make "garbage soup."
A soup supper is a cheap supper. Cornbread (one bowl, easy) or biscuits will stretch it quite nicely, so make a double batch some weekend and freeze it in dinner-sized portions.
Rule No. 4: Cook once, eat a bunch of times
I also cooked two cups of dry pinto beans in the slow cooker. That's about 57 cents' worth, bought at a warehouse club two years ago (they've since gone up to 68 cents a pound).
The resulting five cups of beans were used three different ways:
- Added to the soup and stir-fry.
- In a pot of chili the second week (frozen until then).
- With a sauce of homemade yogurt and salsa, once as a side dish and once as a main dish.
Meatless meals are usually much cheaper, so why not institute a Meatless Monday at your place? Do an Internet search for recipes, using keywords such as "fast," "easy" and "vegetarian."
Meat doesn't have to be the centerpiece the rest of the time, either. Serve a playing-card-sized amount along with a couple of sides (e.g., potatoes, quinoa, beans, vegetables, salad). Make chili with half a pound (or less) of meat. Rather than put a chicken breast on every plate, use just one in a stir-fry with rice and your favorite vegetables.
Speaking of vegetables: I promise you will not suffer serious malnutrition if you choose frozen corn over the "fresh" green beans (which may have been picked 10 days ago). Look, I love fresh produce. But when it's more expensive than meat, my fallback positions are frozen vegetables and dried or canned fruit.
Two more produce tips:
- Pre-bagging is an inexact science, so weigh a few bags if you have time. I wound up with 2.25 pounds of carrots that way, i.e., 12.5% more for free.
- Look for "manager's specials." Slightly overripe bananas are great for smoothies or banana bread. I turned a 99-cent bag of apples into almost five cups of applesauce.
I mention rice a lot because I eat it a lot. At a nearby Asian market it's $2.50 for a 5-pound sack; easier for me to store, and still only 5 cents per serving. The dollar store might sell it in smaller bags but at similar discounts.
What about snacks and desserts?
I didn't end every meal with a sweet, but I could have. My frugal dessert hacks:
Candy. Thanks to drugstore sales and stacked coupons I got 14-ounce bags of M&Ms for a dollar. Post-holiday clearance tables are another place to find cheap sweets. Chocolate freezes well.
Coupon cookies. Nabisco introduced a new variety of Oreo with a dollar-off coupon. A nearby supermarket doubled the Q, so I paid 69 cents, or about 2.5 cents per cookie.
Old-fashioned puddings. Rice pudding cost me about 5 cents per serving. I also did a coconut bread pudding with part of a 50-cent baguette from a Jimmy John's sandwich shop, for less than 10 cents per serving.
Homemade yogurt with fruit or a little jam (see below).
You can have snacks, too. Among my between-meal nibbles during these two weeks:
- Hard-boiled eggs (10.75 cents apiece).
- Crackers with peanut butter (on-sale-with-coupon Wheat Thins, about 6 cents per serving; scraping of peanut butter from a 99-cent jar, practically nothing).
- Dried plums or apricots (16 cents per serving).
- Pretzel sticks, with or without mustard (8.5 cents or less, depending on how many I ate; the mustard was free with coupons).
- Yogurt with fruit or jam (27 cents or less per serving).
These treats were much healthier than chips or cookies -- and much cheaper, too.
The yogurt, made in a slow cooker, was hands-down my favorite treat. Remember that milk may be cheaper at the drugstore or mini-mart than the supermarket. For breakfast cereals, consider buying whole milk and diluting it with water.
Note: When you see a super deal on milk, buy it and freeze it. Watch for close-dated milk -- I've paid as little as 99 cents per gallon -- and either stick it in the freezer or make pudding or yogurt.
Look for the day-old breads in supermarket bakeries, too, and see if sandwich shops in your area sell the previous day's rolls. After making bread pudding, I used the rest of that 50-cent Jimmy John's baguette as toast with jam for a snack, and as pizza bread (lightly toasted and then topped with a spoon of homemade spaghetti sauce plus a sprinkling of "reduced for quick sale" cheese.)
These are not fancy meals. But they were tasty and filling and allowed me to eat for just over $4 a day. I still have leftovers in my freezer and unused ingredients in the cupboard. I could have spent considerably less if I'd eaten the same few dishes over and over, but I wanted to feature a variety of meals.
It took a little work, but not that much. If you're willing to put in a few hours a week reading ads, maybe collecting coupons, making menus and doing some basic cooking, you can weather a rough financial patch or tighten your food budget and send those extra dollars elsewhere.
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Quite aside from the fact that even unemployed people have other things to do with their time than all this food prep, you start with an incorrecf premise. You say that $33.34 is the average amount of Food Stamp assistance that one person receives per week at 130% of the poverty level [that means 30% OVER the actual poverty level in income]...and then you throw in an extra $20, for reasons that are rather unclea,r in order to give yourself $53.83[ or therefore $215.44 per month] for a food budget....which is still pretty pittiful for even the just one person you are talking about.. Without bothering to examine your stretching techniques (and I did read the whole article), let me inform you that your dollar figures are inaccurate regarding dollar amounts and also the povery limit, and thus what a person has to spend on food, let alone on how much money a person has to spend on other things and therefore cannot supplement the grocery budget with extra money...
I am a person who lives BELOW 100% of the poverty level, not just at 130% of the level, Your theoretical person is gettting $33.34 per week [times 4 weeks is $133.36 per MONTH] in Food Stamps. I, the person who actually lives just below the 100% poverty rate....in other wordsI has LESS money...though that may not sound accurate, take my word for it and do some research on the meainngs of the figures....I who have even less money to live on, receive only $74 dolllars per MONTH in Food Stamps. After the first two weeks of the month, I'm on a starvaton/ malnutrition diet. I become very creative, too, and I also frequently have a daily diet of 8 saltine crackers and 2 slices of American processed cheese with water to drink, and that is my only meal that day.. Not every day is like that. Sometimes I get to eat two hot dogs....if the hot dogs or the bread have not run out.. (You are correct that all fresh fruits and vegitables are out of the question, but you have to have a pretty large freezer portion in a standard size fridge to be able to freeze enough meat to go with frozen vegetables and a few frozen dinners, some frozen fish, etc, chicken, hamburger and so forth.)
In other words, blow it out your ear; you don't know what poverty is like and you don't know what food stamps and poverty level income are like. Until you have actually been there, don't write about it.
A Hungry Person In America...(.65 years old and disabled but with a post-graduate degree)
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