Living on a Low Budget
If you’re just starting out, suddenly find yourself with less income, or merely want to save money, we’ve got the tips to help you out! Having lived on an extremely low grocery budget for several years, my husband and I came up with many money-saving ways to still eat healthily and diversely. We hope you find something here that helps you out too!
KISS – My Time-Saving Plan
Keep It Simple, Silly
One thing I’ve learned while working with a limited food budget is that I have to keep our food reasonably simple. That doesn’t mean it’s flavorless, boring, or unhealthy. It just means that recipes with 1,000 ingredients are not feasible.
Keeping meals simple also applies to meal planning in general. I’ve about lost my mind in the past in attempts to make complicated meals fit into a tiny budget. Sometimes, I spend half a day working on our food budget – seriously.
Some of the ways I’ve tried to “Keep It Simple” are:
– Giving myself some guidelines. Instead of starting from scratch each week, make a basic list of inexpensive meal types to choose from. They could be pasta, rice, breakfast for dinner, pizza, and sandwiches. You could also do crock pot, meat and three vegetables, vegetarian, various cultural cuisines, or soup. You don’t have pick all your options in one week and could even do one more than once. They are just a base ingredient to start planning, but it’s helped my sanity a lot. (I’ve been doing at lot of small crock pot roasts lately. They are budget-friendly and make a lot of food for the two of us.)
– Within each type, write a few meal options – nothing fancy. Basically, with the pasta, I’ve listed some simple sauces and with the pizza, some one-topping options we like.
– Each week, pick some options from these guidelines.
– We’ve started having a Friday Pizza Night each week. This checks off one meal and makes leftovers for the weekend. I make an inexpensive homemade pizza dough, and I pick one topping from the list of ingredients we’re buying that week. If I make meals with ground beef or sausage, I save some of the meat for the pizza. We actually buy a large jar of spaghetti sauce for the sauce, which is quite good and cheaper per unit than pizza sauce, and try out different cheeses which we shred ourselves. The dough is very basic – flour, water, oil, salt, yeast. I keep all those ingredients on hand. It’s a fun meal to prepare together and budget-friendly. [Colby Jack cheese has become our new favorite over Mozzarella.]
Real Food on a Budget
All ideas on this page are given with the desire to encourage you to cook without always turning to Hamburger Helper and other prepared meals in a box, which are more expensive and less healthy anyway. In the long run, preparing meals from scratch is cheaper and healthier, at least in my experience, not that I have anything against Hamburger Helper now and again!
45 Ideas for Stretching a Dollar and a Meal
Plan, plan, plan! Make a meal plan for the next week with your desired budget in mind. When I make a plan and a list, I am much less likely to make impulse buys. You can do as I do and plan based on what you have and what you want to eat, or if you live near a good grocery store for sales, you can plan based on the upcoming sales.
Instead of making impulse buys, I make a mental note to find a recipe for something I found interesting or to add it to the list for next week. This also keeps those “what am I supposed to do with this?” items out of your pantry and refrigerator.
Use what you have first. Before I even think about my meal plan, I check my fridge and pantry to see what I already have. I usually base my meals off of those ingredients before planning completely new meals. This helps me avoid wasting food and keeps my grocery total low.
Pay attention to serving sizes. Almost every food item (minus un-packaged produce) has the servings per container written on it. While some people require more or less, most of us can get by just fine eating the recommended serving amounts. It’s also a great way to prevent giving out too much food, which is then wasted. If you or a family member require more food per meal, take that into account while planning.
Take leftovers for lunch instead of buying sandwich stuffs or going out. I make many meals that serve 6-8. Yes, you saw right! For two people, 8 servings provides 2 lunches and 2 dinners. It’s actually cheaper to buy the ingredients to make a larger meal than to buy ingredients for multiple smaller meals.
Make meals that serve 6-8. As I said in the previous bullet, buying the ingredients for a larger meal is actually cheaper than buying ingredients for smaller meals. Here are two reasons why: smaller-sized containers are often more expensive per ounce, and you waste less food by using it all at once. You can also freeze extras for another week if you do not want to eat the leftovers immediately.
Use coupons, but only use them for items you plan to buy anyway. Coupons are made to tempt you to buy products you might not buy otherwise. If you start buying extra items just because you have a coupon, you’re not really saving any money.
Give the store brand a try. While there are some name brands I prefer for certain food items, usually the store brand works just fine. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it next time.
One way I budget for more expensive meals is to fill in the rest of the week with really inexpensive meals. For example, if I really want to have a nice meal one week, such as one with chicken breast or steak, I plan the rest of the meals to be something like breakfast tacos and pasta with tomato sauce. I usually at least try to make the nice meal provide us with a leftovers-lunch the next day.
Have breakfast for dinner. Many breakfast foods are pretty inexpensive. Eggs, for example, are cheap and provide a great source of protein. I have also found that pancake mix, biscuits, and other breakfast breads are easy to make from scratch if you have a recipe. Making them from scratch saves you money and is often healthier. You can also add fresh or frozen fruit and a little meat if you desire. Sausage is moderately priced and full of flavor.
Use only one meat a week. As meat is only one source of protein, check out your other options. Beans and eggs are great sources of protein and are much cheaper! If tofu’s your thing, it’s also a good source of protein. If you find a good sale on meat, buy a few packs and freeze them. Just make sure you use them before they get freezer burn. If your family loves meat at every meal, look for less expensive cuts and make the most out of what you have by stretching it throughout the week.
A really good meat-free option is Black Beans and Rice with Scrambled Eggs – basically, make my seasoned rice recipe under #15 with corn instead of peas and carrots (if you prefer, or just leave the veg out and serve as a side). Then, top with cooked black beans seasoned with cumin, bay, salt, and pepper and cooked scrambled eggs. Really delicious! You can also add red pepper flakes or hot sauce for a little kick.
Substitute ground chuck with breakfast sausage (not the Italian links type.) Sausage is full of flavor and makes a great addition to pasta sauces and soups. It is also about fifty cents to a dollar cheaper per pound! I don’t do this often, however, as sausage is more fatty than ground chuck.
Stretch your meat. Many of us eat way more meat than we are supposed to because we’ve never learned the proper portion sizes. One chicken breast can feed two people in one meal if plenty of veggies and starches are provided. I hardly ever serve a hunk of meat. It’s usually cut up or shredded for distribution throughout a meal.
In order to stretch some hamburger meat for burgers, I added some smashed black beans I had cooked earlier in the week. They turned out great. One half pound of meat and about a cup or a bit more of cooked, drained black beans, along with egg, seasonings, and bread crumbs, made 4 good-sized burgers.
We enjoy this recipe which used thin beef steaks which I slice into strips. I seasoned them with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and pan-fried them with just a little oil in the skillet to keep them from sticking. I serve them with sliced mushrooms and onions which I cooked after the meat. We add a little cheddar cheese to mimic a type of Philly cheese steak without the bun. It makes a hearty 4 servings from just 2 steaks, 8 oz of white mushrooms, and 1/2 an onion! We also eat veggies and some type of bread with the meal.
Buy dry beans and cook them yourself. It takes a little more time and effort, but you have more control over the ingredients in your food this way. Also, dried beans are tons cheaper than canned ones.
Give them a pick through and a good rinse before you quick soak your beans. Low boil them in water without salt for an hour, all the time monitoring the water level. (If I am cooking black beans, I usually rinse them and add more water before adding the seasonings due to their black dye, especially if I am adding them to soup.) I add salt and seasonings, and then continue to cook them for 30 minutes. They almost always turn out great. (I’ve been known to burn a batch, so watch your water level! I keep a 15-30 minute timer going to remind me.)
I usually substitute about 1 cup of dried beans for one 15 oz can, which I think is a bit much but it works out well as 1/4 cup of dried beans is one recommended serving size. Also, if you are planning on using the whole bag during the week, cook them all at once at the beginning of the week. They will keep well in the refrigerator for the week.
You may also cook them in a crock pot. They soften better in my experience if they are soaked first (either quick-soak or overnight). I add beans, water about 2 inches above, salt, pepper, and other seasonings. Cook on low for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-5 hours. You’ll still want to watch the water level, but if you add plenty of water, it should be okay.
*Quick Soaking Method: Boil your picked-through and rinsed beans for 2 minutes. Cover and let sit for one hour. Drain and rinse before cooking.
BUDGET (VEGETARIAN) PINTO BEAN SEASONING: Instead of using salty meats to flavor dry pinto beans (and many other dry beans as well), I use one to a few DRY BAY LEAVES. The bay flavor is delicious with beans, and it is much cheaper than bacon or salt pork. I also add salt and pepper. [I guess this makes sense because pinto and bay are also colors of horses. They just go together! 🙂 ]
Buy rice in bulk. Rice is a great dollar and meal stretcher. One cup of dried rice is the equivalent of 4 servings as it doubles in size during cooking. While I like white and brown rice as is, they are also the perfect base for all sorts of other flavors. I particularly like to cook mine with spices, herbs, and frozen veggies. One way to add extra flavor to white rice is to cook it for a couple of minutes in butter before adding the water and seasonings. I rinse it well before I do this. (It’s also a decent gluten-free substitute for crackers in meatloaf.) I do agree with one reader that rice is not super filling, but ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ sometimes. I have found brown rice to be more filling than white rice.
My Seasoned Rice Go-To Recipe: (4 servings)
I always have these ingredients on hand! It’s a tastier alternative to plain white rice.
Heat 1 tbsp butter in a saucepan on medium heat. Add 1/3 cup of finely diced onion and cook until translucent but not browned (about 5 minutes). Stir in 1 cup of RINSED and DRAINED white rice. Saute the rice until it is ever-so-slightly browned and coated with the butter (about 3-5 minutes). Pour in 2 cups of chicken broth (or 2 cups of water and 2 chicken bullion cubes). Add 1 tbsp dried parsley, 1 tsp garlic powder, and 1/2 tsp salt. Stir in 1/2 cup of frozen peas and carrots. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer on medium low for 20 minutes. Make sure the rice is always simmering or it will not cook properly. Fluff with a fork and enjoy!
Pasta is a great dollar-stretcher as well since it costs around a dollar a box. One box of pasta, if you use the recommended servings, will make 7-8 servings. Whole wheat pasta is packed with nutritional goodness. Semolina is just yummy. Often, I make all the sauce at once and just enough pasta for dinner that night and lunch the next day. For our next pasta meal that week, I cook the pasta fresh and heat up the sauce.
Gluten free pasta is about 2x the price for 2 less servings, but it still isn’t that expensive in the long run. It also has a good flavor. I find that the varieties with corn and rice flour are more like wheat pasta in texture and taste over rice flour-only pasta. If you have a family member who is sensitive to gluten, you could buy both GF and wheat and cook them separately. I wouldn’t recommend this in a household with a member who is allergic to gluten or wheat.
Another inexpensive and healthy base ingredient is potatoes. At our local store, we can get 5 lbs of Russet potatoes for about $3.50. That’s a lot of potatoes, but they last fairly well in the darkness of our pantry. Some easy ways to cook potatoes are baked, mashed, fried, baked fries, and casseroles. They make a great addition to soups as well. Another favorite potato of mine is the baby red potato. I find I can stretch a bag fairly well over several meals. They are great for roasted herb potato side dishes, and since you don’t have to peel them, they are easy to prepare.
Don’t forget your veggies! While some vegetables are expensive, inexpensive and very healthy ones exist.
For instance, sweet potatoes are packed with nutrition and pretty cheap. My favorite way to enjoy them is to clean them, rub them down with oil (which helps them release their skins), wrap them in aluminum foil, and bake them at 425 degrees F for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. By then, they are tender, sweet, and delicious! I just add a little butter and salt. No need for marshmallows or brown sugar!
Another tip for veggies is to buy them in season. If they are expensive right now, try looking for the frozen ones (if you are going to cook them). They are just as healthy and, as they are frozen, will keep longer if you don’t need the whole amount that week. Frozen veggies are also reasonably priced. My staples are frozen corn, peas, peas and carrots, and broccoli. They make great additions to just about anything.
Some fresh veggies that are versatile and inexpensive year-round are carrots, onions, potatoes, and whole white mushrooms.
Kale makes a good and not-soggy addition to soups. It isn’t too expensive either and stays a bit crispy, which we like.
I’ve also found that small sweet peppers are often cheaper than bell peppers if I can substitute then. My grocery has them in a hefty bag for about the same price as a couple of bells.
Buy fruits when they are in season. If you pay attention to prices, you’ll notice that some fruits are more expensive at certain times of year than at others. In winter, your best bets are apples and oranges. In the summer, the prices of peaches, apricots, strawberries, grapes, other berries, plums, and melons drop a little. I can’t help you with bananas as I can’t stand them, but I think they are always a good buy as well. Canned fruits in their own juice (with no added sugar) are also healthy and normally a good buy. Frozen fruits (or frozen by you) can also be good options. Frozen blueberries are particularly good in pancakes.
Choose inexpensive breakfast foods. Oatmeal is a fantastic dollar-stretcher because it is inexpensive and comes in large containers. You can also use the oats to make cookies or muffins. I buy the quick-cooking kind and have had no trouble using them in recipes. Granola bars are also not bad on a budget for warmer days and on-the-go breakfasts. Just be sure to buy ones that are not loaded down with sugar. You can also make your own.
Grow a garden if you can. Although our small garden does not dramatically reduce our grocery budget, it is fun growing veggies to add to our meals. Some easy plants we’ve grown in the past are squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, Habanero peppers (hubby likes spicy foods), and watermelon. Many other options are available to suit your resources and tastes. For some, this seriously helps out with their budgets, so it’s worth a try. Herbs can also be grown in pots and brought indoors in the winter. Herbs make good indoor plants as well. Many fruit and vegetable plants, such as tomatoes (which I know are really a fruit,) can be grown in containers and by other non-conventional methods. The internet is full of ideas.
Be creative! Recipes are great, and I love searching my cookbooks and the internet for new recipes. However, I often find that one recipe will end up maxing out my budget. One way I handle this is to substitute some of the ingredients with cheaper versions or with foods I plan on buying (or already have) and will have a surplus of anyway, such as sweet onions for green onions. I sometimes substitute the type of meat, the vegetables, or the starch ingredients. (I don’t buy green onions because I find them unnecessary. I also don’t buy celery because neither of us care much for it. I just leave it out of all the soups that call for it. It’s okay to leave out or add ingredients.)
Step out of your comfort zone. Most of us grew up eating a set group of meals. Here in the Southern U.S., many people were raised on meals consisting of a sizable portion of meat, at least 3 vegetables (mac and cheese counts as a vegetable), and a roll or cornbread. This is generally a healthy-style meal for a hard-working man just coming in from the fields. When I go to a “meat and three,” I can’t eat half of what’s on my plate. Anyways, the point is, back then that was inexpensive because most of the food (including the meat) was grown on the farm. Nowadays, it can get pricey. Instead of always sticking to what you are used to, try to branch out and find new cuisines. I often find many Asian and Mexican dishes to be budget-friendly. Also, there’s always pasta from Italy (or originally Asia, I’ve learned)!
Don’t buy tons of snacks and prepackaged goodies. They are expensive and often do not add any nutrition to your diet. It’s best to keep more nutritional snacks, like almonds and fruit, rather than cookies and chips. I also like to make our meals filling enough that we aren’t constantly searching for snacks. I make all of our cakes, cupcakes, and cookies from scratch when we want or need them. However, sometimes it’s okay to splurge on a bag of corn chips with their salty goodness!
Cut out desserts (some). You don’t have to have a dessert after every meal. Trust me! If sweets are making you go over budget, cut back on them. It may also be cheaper to make your own. Another alternative is to enjoy a piece of fresh fruit or a square of dark chocolate from time to time. I don’t have a heavy sweet tooth, so this isn’t too hard for me. I do love good dark chocolate though! Yum!
Block cheese is often cheaper per ounce than shredded. If you have a grater or food processor, you can shred it yourself as needed. You can also pre-shred some for use in a later meal. Just put it in an air-tight container. Block cheese also seems to grate up into more cheese than the same ounce bag of pre-shredded. Kind of odd…
Bake your own bread. It’s easy if you have the time, desire, and good recipes. We almost never buy bread, rolls, or anything similar at the store, which saves a lot of money. It is also healthier, as I can control the ingredients. Homemade bread also freezes nicely in my experience if you want to bake a few loaves all at once.
One way to bulk up ground meat is to add diced mushrooms (and onions for more flavor) as you are sauteing the meat. I do this a lot if I only want to use 1/2 a pound of ground chuck.
You can also stretch cuts of meat in a meal by cooking some whole mushrooms seasoned in the same way as the meat. Serve the two together as the meat course. I like doing this with grilled skewer meals like Souvlaki – Greek-seasoned grilled meat and veggies on skewers. I cut the amount of meat in half and grill a bunch of marinated mushrooms. Cubes of pork loin, whole mushrooms, and squares of bell peppers and onions marinated in a mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, soy sauce, dried oregano, and garlic like this recipe are delicious and make quite a few servings. They can be served with either homemade or store-bought naan, rice pilaf, or more grilled or steamed vegetables. You could also substitute the pork with beef or chicken. TIP: I marinate the meat, peppers and onions, and mushrooms separately. I also grill the mushrooms on a separate skewer from the meat and vegetables. I only use 1/2 the onion as one onion makes for a ton of squares! My indoor 2 burner grill pan makes this meal an easy fix year-round.
Check prices. The store brand isn’t always the cheapest. Compare the price per unit to get an accurate idea of which is really cheaper. I’ve noticed that some of the lesser known but still quite good brands can be cheaper than the store brand. For example, Luck’s canned beans have been cheaper than the Walmart brand in the past.
To add flavor, use a lot of your favorite fresh and dried herbs and spices. If you look for the cheaper brands, they are reasonable, and most of the time, I think they are fine. You can also grow herbs rather easily in small pots inside your home or on your back porch.
Corn tortillas are much cheaper than flour ones. They are also a great gluten-free option, just check the ingredient warnings. Some store brands are made in same area as wheat products.
You can also make your own flour tortillas, but I’ve not had much luck with it.
Another way to bulk up ground meat is to add cooked beans after you brown the meat. For example, we ate breakfast sausage and black bean corn tortilla tacos for dinner with green beans as a side this week.
I find that in some recipes it is worth it to pay a little more for extra flavor, such as Del Monte’s diced tomatoes with chipotle peppers ($0.98) instead of store brand regular diced tomatoes ($0.68) in Mexican and southwestern dishes. We love this in chili.
Vary meals by week rather than day, but not necessarily every week. For example, one week I purchased a 1 lb bag of black beans. I cooked and seasoned the whole pot on Monday. We included black beans in all of our meals that week. Most of our meals will be Southwestern-inspired, such as a black bean and corn tortilla casserole, black bean and sausage tacos, and black beans with Mexican rice. I am also including veggies with each meal as sides.
Instead of buying bottled water, we bought a Brita pitcher with a filter. We replace the filter every few months. It’s a much cheaper option if you feel like you need to filter your tap water for drinking. I use tap water for cooking without filtering it.
One reader mentioned they buy those large refillable bottles at the store and refill them as needed. They said it was an inexpensive option for them. Check it out if it sounds like something you’d like.
Don’t give into buying a lot of soft drinks, drink mixes, or artificially flavored drinks. Save them for when you go out to eat or for special occasions. If we ever have any at home nowadays, it is due to our parents’ generosity. I’ve really become accustomed to not having them and tend to prefer water, milk, or juice at home most of the time. If you really need something else, iced tea bags can be reasonably priced. Next, a Kool-aid tip!
When they first came out with the little drink mix packets, I compared the prices to the large containers. The large drink mix containers were much cheaper, and I figure they still are. In college while living in a dorm room, I purchased Kool-Aid powder in large containers, portioned it, and used a funnel to add it to my bottled water or reusable water bottle. If I wanted to carry the powder with me, like we did for our Gatorade mix on a mission trip, I put each portion into a snack sized bag. When I was ready to use it, I snipped or gently tore off the tip of the bag (as if I were using it for icing) and used that to funnel the mix into the bottle.
Bullion cubes are a good alternative to store-bought stocks. I’ve had trouble in the past with store-bought chicken stock going bad before I could use the whole container. This was usually when I needed an amount in between the available sizes and had extra left over. Also, bullion cubes are cheaper than stock per unit (you are really paying a bit extra for the water in the stock). Some prefer to make homemade stock, which is great if you do, but if you don’t have time or desire, bullion cubes are a great option. Just monitor how much extra salt you add if you are watching your sodium intake.
Decide for yourself regarding organic and no GMO products. Do your research. General animal keeping and crop farming practices have greatly improved over the years in a wholesome direction. I choose to buy products which are not organic most of the time as I cannot justify the cost, but if I can, I prefer to buy local eggs from a friend and meats which are from ‘humanely raised’ animals. (Just do your own research before giving in to “news hype.”)
Keep chickens if your area allows it and if you have the desire, knowledge, and time to care for fowl. The eggs from home-raised birds are fresher, tastier, and often healthier in my experience than the store-bought eggs. Or, if you can’t, buy them from a friend or a local. If not, the store eggs aren’t terrible. Note: The darker the yolk, the greater the nutrition. You may also choose to slaughter the birds yourself or have your birds slaughtered elsewhere. I just couldn’t slaughter my pets (which is what they’d be for me). I have it on good authority that home-raised birds can be a little tougher as well. (My husband and I want to do this, but it hasn’t worked out just yet. The outset cost can be a little high, but the maintenance costs can be very low.)
Soups are a great budget-friendly option! Most soup recipes make 6-8 servings and can be easily frozen. The options are just about endless: vegetable, potato, cheeseburger, tomato, pasta, chili, stove-top, crock pot, etc. Literally thousands of recipes exist for soup on the internet and cookbooks. Here’s one we are enjoy (although we modify it a little with sausage (more flavor) and only Parmesan cheese): Italian Wedding Soup.
A note on eggs: Eggs are a great, healthy, and cheap option. If you are watching your cholesterol, just eat the whites which are almost pure protein. The yolks are packed with nutrients and some tasty fats.
I’d like to also take this opportunity to remind you that there is no nutritional difference between white and brown eggs. Really. The difference in color is due to the fact that white chickens lay white eggs and colored chickens lay brown, green, cream, or blue eggs. It has to do with the pigment in the chicken’s body. Oftentimes, homegrown eggs are healthier not because of the color of the egg but the diet of the chicken. Free range chickens also get to eat bugs, worms, dirt, and all sorts of wonderful things. So, remember: the darker the yolk, the more nutrition inside. (And why do chicken keepers generally choose colored chickens? Well, have you ever seen a white farm chicken? They always look dirty. Colored feathers hide the dirt!)
We buy white eggs because they are cheaper. I have noticed the yolk colors seem to cycle throughout the year. However, most of the time, they are a nice deep yellow. So, no problem there. 🙂
Look for sales on meat, even at stores you may not be accustomed to shopping. I’ve found that a bargain store in our area has much better prices and quality of meat than the big box store. I try to stretch it as much as possible.
A friend of mine has a food saver vacuum gadget which she loves and recommends. If you have one, this tip is even better. You can buy meat and save it much longer this way.
*Sometimes* (sometimes) the deli counter meat is less expensive per pound than the prepackaged deli meats. For example, the cheapest prepackaged pepperoni in our grocery store was $2.28 for 6 oz on a visit. That’s $0.38 per ounce. The deli counter has their (better) pepperoni at $5.98 per pound. That’s $0.37 per ounce. That doesn’t seem like much, but…drumroll, please…THE BETTER PEPPERONI WAS CHEAPER! Just do some simple calculations to figure the per ounce cost. Also, at the deli, you can get as much or as little as you need, and you can have it sliced at your desired thickness.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need quick and cheap meal options rather frequently, here are a few suggestions which we’ve been using during the summer months:
+ sandwiches (with homemade bread, if possible)
+ pasta salad (here’s my go-to recipe)
+ cheese quesadillas (microwave or stove-top, which we prefer)
+ green salad
Some more options to consider are:
+ freezing single portions of homemade soup
+ freezing single portions of pasta sauce (tomato-based works better than cream-based) and buying quick-cooking pasta shapes like angel hair or thin spaghetti
If you are just starting on a LOW grocery budget:
Keep in mind that it may take a few weeks to build up your pantry and refrigerator staples if you haven’t already got them. If you keep at it, though, it will all fall into place.
How do you stretch a dollar or a meal to feed your family?
I’d love to have your ideas!