Friday, April 27, 2007

Frugal Fridays- Eating Well On A Very Small Budget

Updated on 1/30/09: We were able to eat for $100 a month for about 6 months in 2007. During this time, we experienced some unexpected financial difficulties. By cutting expenses wherever possible such as the grocery budget, we were able to save for these bills and pay them off without me needing to work full-time outside the home. Keep in mind that we started with a well-stocked pantry and freezer and utilized lots of free garden produce during this time. God is good! Although I currently spend around $250 a month on food, I still use many of these principles in my cooking and food shopping. My hope is that this post will encourage you to always look for new ways to save and to stretch the resources that God has given you to work with.

Today, I will be sharing some of the ways I have been able to feed the two of us for $100 a month or $25 a week. I have only been doing this for two months now, since finances have been tighter than usual. This is half of what our regular grocery budget usually is and I thought it was tight before!

Now, I know everyone has different situations, incomes and lifestyles. I am sharing what is working for us. To some this may seem really high for groceries and for others, it may seem extra low.

All of our married life(well, all two and a half years of it!), I have worked on a $200 a month grocery budget. This includes all cleaning supplies, paper products, personal care items and of course, groceries. Prescription meds come out of their own budget category as do clothing and office supplies, such as stamps. I have found this to be rather tight at times, especially as a new bride who was not only figuring things out, but also working full-time. One of the first things that I discovered when I stopped working outside the home was that while I may not be able to lower my grocery budget much further, my $200 was stretching much further. I was able to do more with the ingredients I had on hand, cook even more from scratch and more creatively use leftovers, because I was at home to do it! My pantry and freezer shelves were much better stocked as I was able to include sale items and a few extra canned items each month.

Living well on a very small budget has become a real passion of mine. So when we were cutting our budget 2 months ago, I was almost excited about the challenge of grocery shopping and cooking good meals on $25 a week or $100 a month. I knew it would be difficult at times, but I was pretty sure I could pull it off-at least for a few months or until we were able to put a little more money into the grocery budget each month.

One advantage I have is that I was starting with a well-stocked pantry and freezer. So the first month, I hardly had to buy anything except fresh items. As the months go by, however, my pantry will not be as full, so I'm interested to see how it all plays out.

I already cook and bake almost exclusively from scratch. I am continually looking for new recipes to utilize ingredients that I have on hand and learning to make all kinds of different breads and baked goods for variety. This really saves money in the long run and can be fun and keeps me from getting bored with the same old-same old.

I am used to and actually prefer buying the bulk of my groceries at one time, usually toward the beginning of the month. But I am finding that working with a very small budget, it is helpful to shop each week for that week or the following week(whichever it turns out to be!). This way, I "shop" from my pantry first to plan my menus around what I have and only buy the items that I need to round it all out. I can also take into account any great sales and coupons and either use those for my menus or to stock up if I have a little extra money.

I use the Walgreens rebate system and always get my rebates on gift cards so that the money gets "recycled" over and over. I am able to get almost all of our personal care items this way. We are not brand-specific for the most part, so I've been able to stock up on the different items when they are free-bates or nearly free with great sales and coupons. This really helps when we are in a tight spot to be able to go to my extras shelf and get another bottle of shampoo instead of having to go to the store and buy another.

I have really cut back on my use of disposables. Toilet paper is a necessity in our house(and more than one square, Sheryl Crow); paper towels are not. I will probably buy another pack of paper towels soon on a good sale, since one pack will last me for months, but for now, I am getting along fine without them. I've been using newspapers to wash the windows and mirrors and it is working great! We already use cloth napkins and I limit the amount of ziploc bags that I use. I do wash out some to reuse, but I am careful with those that have held meat. I try to use more reusable plastic and glass containers instead of bags all the time. Of course, there is a time and a season for using disposable plates, napkins and so-on; each family is different in this regard. I use the plastic grocery bags to line my small trash cans and I buy regular garbage bags for my kitchen trash can. One large box lasts me at least half a year! I have found that even without trying to save money, it is much more responsible and a better use of my resources to limit the disposable items.

In the past year, I have learned to use many home made cleaners instead of buying so many. I have changed them many times as I am still learning what works best for me. Maybe one day I will have a great post about it! I buy a large bucket of laundry soap at Sam's Club. Cleaners for me include bleach, borax, ammonia, dish detergent, vinegar, baking soda, Windex(I've been using the same huge bottle from Sam's since we got married!) and furniture polish.

I think that pretty well covers most of the non-grocery part of the budget, so let's get on to the food!

We try to eat pretty healthy, so that has been my main concern with such a small budget. I am not apt to buy hot dogs, baloney, processed cheese, ramen noodles and lots of boxed mac and cheese dinners. Even though these foods are "cheap", I try to buy wisely, spending our money on foods that are the best quality and are as healthy as I can afford. While I would love to buy as much organic as possible, unless organic produce is on a really great sale, it is really not possible on my small budget(in my area, anyways). So I buy the best stuff that I know how on my budget.:-)

Some things that I don't scrimp on are whole grains(flour, rice, pasta), olive and canola oils and some fresh veggies and fruits. While these items are more expensive than their more-refined counterparts, the health benefits are much greater. Now if white rice, pasta or bread is all I have, then by all means we will eat it, but that is the exception, not the rule! I try to have a small selection of salad fixings and fresh fruit on hand at all times. Like I said before, I cannot afford all organics right now but I choose the best looking stuff for the best price, and try to buy in season produce, if at all possible. Bags of fresh spinach from Aldi's and loose bunches of dark green leaf lettuce are not expensive and provide awesome nutrition. Cabbage is also cost-effective and so good for you! I have found that celery, carrots, onions and potatoes are almost always good buys, so I keep those on hand and have many main dish recipes that call for these vegetables. Every time I shop, I choose 2 or 3 veggies to put in salads. Our local Aldi's has very nice produce so I usually get grape tomatoes, green peppers, mushrooms and cucumbers at very reasonable prices. Sometimes, I may only be able to afford 1 or 2 different veggies, and we just deal with it.:-)(We are planting a garden with friends this year, so I hope to harvest plenty of fresh veggies this way for a small price!) For fruit, I like to have bananas on hand. If they get over-ripe, I can freeze them for baking. I usually choose one other fruit,too, to have on hand. Often that is apples. Or something on sale or in season like grapes or strawberries.

Both my husband and I are extremely non-picky eaters. We have just never been picky and we'll try almost anything and actually like it! I am blessed to have a husband who will eat anything I fix. When money is tight, this is a trait that is very helpful! I have had to make a few changes as to what we eat to stay in budget and he has been willing to go along with it and appreciative of my efforts. I still take into consideration what his preferences are and try to accommodate them. He doesn't like black beans, ranch dressing or beets, so I don't force those things on him.:-)

During this time, I have been using a lot of whole chickens and ground turkey as these are inexpensive and very versatile as well as healthier options. I use other meats, too, as they are on sale, but the bulk of our meats have been the chicken and turkey. I have incorporated more bean-based meals into our diet. Dry beans are a better buy and healthier than canned beans. I cook a whole pot of one kind of beans at once and freeze them in meal-sized portions to make my own convenience food. I cook a pot or two of beans every couple of weeks to keep a good variety on hand. Frozen veggies are also a good buy and are convenient, too. I have not been buying milk, but rather using powdered. We are not milk drinkers and I had been finding that a gallon of milk would go bad before we could use it anyways! Milk is too expensive to waste at $3.59 or more per gallon and even though I would use the sour milk in cooking, I've found that powdered works just fine for cooking and baking and it had a long shelf life. I do buy some cheese in big bags at Walmart and then freeze in 1-cup portions. It lasts longer this way. I try to limit the extra-cheesy recipes as these can get quite expensive.

Our breakfasts consist of oatmeal, pancakes, eggs and toast or homemade granola. On weekends, I often have something fresh baked for breakfast. Boxed cereal is expensive and again, most are not that healthy. We love yogurt, but I haven't bought it since cutting the budget. It is pretty sugary, anyways. (I would like to try making my own healthier version sometime soon!)

We drink water all the time. We have a Brita pitcher which we love. I fill the empty water bottles with our own filtered water, so we have a cold drink to grab if we are going somewhere. We occasionally drink juice and sweet tea, but not often. Water is a good drinking habit to establish, not just for the great price, but also for health's sake!

I don't buy many snack items, except a bag of tortilla chips to use with a meal. Rather, we have popcorn or sliced fruit or perhaps a cookie for a snack. Since we eat three regular meals per day, we really don't snack much.

Lunches are usually leftovers or something quick like peanut butter and honey sandwiches or pasta with spaghetti sauce. (I do have plenty of sauce on hand!)

I find that it is cheaper and easier to buy various baking ingredients than to buy mixes or already baked items from the store. With a few basic ingredients such as flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda,etc. , I am able to whip up almost any kind of baked good that doesn't call for unusual ingredients.

We don't eat out much at this stage of our lives, and when we do eat out it is either some leftover money scraped together at the end of the month or from a gift card or a small money gift from family members with instructions to treat ourselves. I also keep on the lookout for free coupons to different fast food establishments. 'Buy 1, Get 1 Free' coupons are also a great way to feed 2 people when you only have a few dollars to spend and want to go out. Some months I order a box of food from Angel Food Ministries. This is a large box of food, mainly protein, for $25. Much of this food is prepared and more highly processed items, so I choose carefully as to which month I order, as the menus are always different. It can be a cheap way to stretch the budget, though, and the prepared meals can be good options for busy days or weeks when I would be tempted to just go out to eat! Another option to us going out is to keep a couple of homemade pizzas in the freezer ready to bake.

Knowing that God is interested in even the littlest things in my life-like a small grocery budget- brings comfort and confidence that I can make this work. Praying before, during and after I shop helps me to be aware of God's provision. In James 1:5, we are instructed to ask God for wisdom when we are lacking it ourselves(which is most of the time, here!:-), and He will give us wisdom generously. I believe with all my heart that even small details, such as triple coupon sales and free eggs are not mere coincidences but tangible ways that God is providing for us and helping me to be able to stretch my budget.

I hope that by sharing what I am doing within my grocery budget will hopefully inspire someone else who either is going through difficult times or just needs new ideas or encouragement for lowering their own food bills each month.

For more Frugal Friday posts, please visit Biblical Womanhood.


Lisa H. said...

Dear Mary Ann -
I could not have said this any better, myself. You are doing so many of the things that we do in our house. It has taken me a few years to figure it all out though. Great job on being a good steward with what the Lord has given you. Really love how your trying to keep it all balanced. Eating healthy in a limited budget. Being resourceful without going overboard. I would like to link this article over to my blog.

Carrie J said...

Great post. You have covered just about everything. Being frugal takes constant adjustments and vigilance. There is almost always something new to learn.

Mrs.B. said...

Wow! You are doing a great job! I will be rereading this post to glean the great ideas you shared.


Erin said...

Mary Ann, thanks for the great ideas! I'm going to have to read this over again a little later to pull out specific ones for us to use. I also think I'll be linking this from FLJ, if you don't mind!:o)

You mentioned how sugary yogurt is, so I wanted to share what we do: I buy plain yogurt and just mix in a little honey and vanilla to taste. It really is very good! I also think that plain yogurt is cheaper than most sweetened.

Dana said...

This was my first visit to your blog and I so enjoyed it! I really learned from your post--I am in the process of cutting our grocery budget significantly and am trying to read everything I can!

Stephanie said...

Wow I commend you for learning and doing this so early in your marriage. We do many of the same things, but how I wish I would have learned them 10 years ago! Wonderful post!

Lyn said...

Mary Ann,
I would love to be in contact with you if you are willing but I don't see an email addy anywhere on your site.

Thanks for your wonderful article!


Amy said...

You are doing such a great job with your grocery budget and you should be so proud of yourself! What a good steward of your finances! Thank you for sharing your secrets with the blogging world!!

MrsA said...

Great post. You are being a very food steward.

MrsA said...

whoops! I meant to say GOOD steward! lol

BethySue said...

Great post, thank you so much! God bless you!

Katie said...

I linked here from Biblical Womanhood and loved this post. I live at home with my parents at this time and one of the ways I help out at home is by doing all the grocery shopping. My parent's budget is very tight since they currently own two houses and Dad was out of work most of last year, so I've been learning a lot about frugal shopping. Living within the budget is a challenge I love to meet--I liked your detailed approach here and especially the main point: think through your buying choices and balance the health/price considerations within your budget allotment. So true! I will probably reread this point to make sure I caught everything. Thanks!

Mary Ann said...

Wow! Thanks to everyone for your kind words and comments! I'm glad this post has been helpful to you. Thanks also to all who have linked to this post!

Erin-Thanks for the suggestion on the plain yogurt. I have done this and liked it with fresh fruit added. My husband isn't too fond of the plain, but will probably like it better with vanilla added(I hadn't tried that yet.)

Lyn-I've added an email link to the blog. My husband helped me set up a separate account just for the blog. I would love it if you would email me!

Blessings to all!

Coram Deo said...

Great post, we do or have done many of the things you mention. I did want to say that, unless you are using raw milk, it doesn't sour. It spoils. Raw milk sours and is great for baking or feeding animals, some people even drink it as clabbered milk. But pasteurized milk does not sour and it shouldn't be used.

I am impressed by the joyful spirit you exhibit as you serve the Lord through your service to your family and your stewardship of your resources.

Lyn said...

Hi Maryann,
I hope you are having a nice day.

I was thinking and am wondering if you would be willing to share some of your "frugal" recipes and menus for the week since your grocery budget is smaller now. I think it would be inspiring. Thanks!

Sincerely, Lyn

Alexandra said...

You are doing good! We do the same, including the Walgreens rebates.

Chuck said...

A helpful post! I make my own yoghurt and my wife makes our granola. I use a modified Alton Brown recipe:

Bring 2 quarts of no-fat milk and 5 cups of no-fat powdered milk and 2 or 3 tablespoons of honey to 110 degrees (no higher your you will kill the live culture).

Wisk in 2 tubs of plain yoghurt. I use my own yoghurt. About every fourth time I make yoghurt, I use fresh store bought yoghurt to keep the culture fresh.)

Pour into a very clean container with a lid. Place the milk/yoghurt in an oven with the oven light on (do NOT turn on your oven). I also use one 100 watt bulb to keep the oven temperature at about 110 degrees.

Depending on how tart and thick you like your yoghurt, it will take 4 to 6 hours to work. (I leave it over night in the oven. It gets “thick”. If you strain some through a cheese cloth, it makes a good cream cheese substitute for bagels.)

Nichole said...

Thanks for this post Mary Ann!

When I saw that you spend $25/week on groceries, I was aghast! Although I still feel that that would mean a straight diet of ramen where I live, I did learn a few things: I am probably doing only 75% the stuff you are doing! I could probably change our meats a little and could you share a recipe for homemade granola? Sounds like a great way to have the kind of quick breakfast cereal provides; I just always assumed granola was expensive! I suppose I could also freeze pancakes -- Finally, when you find out about cleaning methods, please let me know! I do use a lot of rags, but I'm a pro at using specialized cleaners! It would be difficult to have ruined something with bleach or the like!

Ron Schiller said...

Great job!
I ask the bagger at the super-
market to DOUBLE bag my groceries
in plastic bags. This provides me
with enough bags for garbage that
I NEVER have to buy them.
Ron S. in No. Idaho

amber said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to help others. This helped me alot