Updated on 06.29.15

A Guide to Extreme Food Budgeting

Trent Hamm
church dinner

When you need to stretch a meager food budget, keep an eye out for community dinners at churches and other organizations.  Photo: Richard Masoner

Jeremy writes in:

In my current job, I bring in about $780 per biweekly paycheck. I get paid 26 times a year. I make a monthly budget based on two paychecks and use the remaining two per year for an emergency fund and for seasonal expenses like buying Christmas gifts.

This means I have $1,560 to budget each month. I spend $700 on rent and I can’t really find anything much cheaper in a reasonably safe neighborhood and I have $60 for a cell phone with a data plan and about $150 on other expenses (electricity, insurance, and so on).

The problem is that I also have about $400 a month in student loan expenses and another $200 a month in credit card bills. All of that adds up to $1,510 a month, leaving me $50 a month to eat.

The reason I have credit card debt is because I had been using it in recent months to make ends meet.

I have some opportunities to earn a little more money in the future but right now I need to figure out how to eat on $50 a month. Do you have any recommendations?

This isn’t just a problem that Jeremy faces. It’s a problem faced by a lot of the middle class, particularly when they’re first getting their footing in the world and are simultaneously facing student loans and a bevy of bills while working at their first job in their career path.

In addressing this question, I’m assuming that Jeremy has already cut all other elements of his budget as much as he can. He’s living in what is apparently a relatively inexpensive apartment. He has a cell phone, sure, but no land line, and it’s likely he needs a phone for employment reasons if nothing else.

Thus, my focus is solely on Jeremy’s food budget. The subject at hand is how to stretch $50 to cover a person’s food for a month, not how to find more money to spend on food or how to inspect other parts of a person’s budget.

In a situation where my food budget was extremely tight, here are the measures I would take.

Find Free Food Resources and Meals in Your Community

Many people who are struggling with their food budget often think that they simply have to squeeze their dollars at the grocery store, but a truly cheap food plan begins elsewhere.

Community Freewill Meals

The first step is to identify sources of free meals in your community. Free meals are sometimes completely free; at other times, they’re free in that an offering of some kind is expected for the meal.

I participate in the service of at least one community dinner per year. We take the freewill offering route, but we genuinely are not bothered by people who cannot afford to put any money in the can. Having discussed this with other organizations, we all hold more or less to the same philosophy.

In other words, don’t feel obligated to put money in the can at a freewill dinner if you can’t afford it. Instead, just go back sometime in the future when you can afford it and put a big donation in the can.

Where can you find free dinners like this?

Churches often serve these dinners. In every community I’ve lived in, local churches have hosted community dinners, often on a weekly basis. Churches would often coordinate this effort and host the dinners on different nights to allow people to attend multiple different dinners in the same week. You can find these dinners by visiting your community’s website and checking out the individual sites of churches in your area.

Clubs and organizations such as the Lion’s Club sometimes run free dinners on a regular basis. Some towns also have a town heritage group that does the same thing. Again, the best way to find out is to visit the community website and check out the clubs and organizations available in the town.

Community Gardens

Another strategy for finding free food in your community is to look for community gardens. Community gardens are gardens in public places that are open to almost anyone who lives nearby (though some do have some restrictions on who can participate). In general, such gardens allow people who are willing to put in a little work to plant and weed the garden to take away some of the produce for their own needs. The community garden near us is quite robust, with many people participating and with any leftovers being donated to the local food pantry.

The easiest way to find a community garden is to use the community garden locator tool at communitygarden.org.

Low-Income Services

There are a number of additional services that can work well if your income is suitably low.

SNAP provides low income people with a debit card that they can use for free groceries. You can find out more about SNAP at the USDA’s website.

WIC, although it’s probably not relevant to Jeremy, is a program that provides additional food to women and children. You can find out more about WIC through the USDA as well.

Food pantries provide low income people with food items directly. These food items are usually donated specifically for people in need. You can find one near you at foodpantries.org.

Prepare Everything You Can at Home

Free meals and food options can be useful, but they often only begin to help with the problem of getting enough to eat when a food budget is super tight. Eventually, you’re going to have to move to preparing food at home.

The number one most important thing to know is that eating out destroys your food budget. If your food budget is tight, stop eating out. Period. No restaurants, no takeout, no deliveries. All of that stuff is far more expensive than what you can make at home. Arguments about “time efficiency” are moot when you’re struggling to actually pay your bills. Cutting costs becomes paramount, and eating out is an expensive cost that can be cut.

Make Simple Meals, Especially at First

The first rule of preparing food at home is that the more basic the ingredients, the cheaper the meal will be. A breakfast burrito, for example, is far cheaper if you buy a dozen eggs, a package of cheap tortillas, a jar of salsa, and some cheese to make yourself a dozen burritos rather than buying them individually.

For many people who aren’t used to making their own meals, this can seem like a real challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. Cooking most meals really isn’t that complicated, but you have to actually practice to get good and efficient at it.

The best strategy is to start off making simple things. Make a grilled cheese sandwich. Make a grilled burrito. Make a simple soup. Those things take only a few ingredients and a few steps.

Move on to things like making your own bread. Not only is it cheaper, I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at making bread, store-purchased bread just isn’t as good.

Sure, this stuff takes a little time, but it doesn’t take that much time.

Brown Bag Your Lunches

When you’re making your own meals, it’s a wise idea to make enough so that you have some leftovers. At our house, we generally make twice as much as we’ll eat at any given meal.

Why make that much? We eat leftovers for lunch many days. I work from home, so this is pretty easy for me, but my wife takes leftovers in baggies or reusable sealed containers pretty much every workday.

Prepare Meals in Advance

One really effective strategy is to prepare some meals in advance. Meals prepared in advance can be frozen so that you can just reheat them or finish cooking them at a later time. Things like casseroles and lasagna work perfectly for this.

One great strategy here is to prepare a large quantity of something you might have for dinner, then set aside individual servings of those meals in small freezer containers. Then, at your convenience, you can pop those individual containers in the microwave and have a cheap meal.

Not only does this encourage you to eat more meals at home, it also allows you to buy ingredients in bulk, saving money on them.

This does require the purchase of a handful of cheap freezer-safe and microwave-safe containers, but the long-term savings are tremendous.

Use a Smart Grocery System

Perhaps the most important strategy of all is to have a smart grocery shopping system in place. This makes sure that you spend as little as possible at the grocery store while having plenty of food to cover your meals for the week.

It’s pretty simple. Start with the flyer from your grocery store that tells you what’s on sale, then use it to identify truly inexpensive things you can base your meals around. From there, think of simple meals that use those cheap ingredients plus other things that you already have on hand – try to minimize additional purchases. Plan out the next week with these meal ideas. Then make a grocery list of those cheap items you need plus any other necessary ingredients, and then head to the store.

Another good suggestion, in line with this strategy, is to buy your non-sale groceries at a discount grocer like Aldi so that you’re spending much less on the things that aren’t on sale.

If you do this well, you can often get supplies for weeks of meals for very little money.

Base Your Diet on Truly Cheap Staples

One key strategy is to make sure that many of the things you eat are simply inexpensive to acquire, whether you’re buying them on sale or not.

Here, I’ve identified nine foods that are usually very inexpensive, especially considering how filling they are. These foods will fill you up in a healthy way without breaking your wallet.

Rice

Dried rice is very inexpensive, with a small purchase often obtaining more than enough rice for a lot of meals. It’s not hard to prepare – it’s mostly just a matter of waiting – and can be very filling, too. Not only that, it’s a food you can make in significant quantities and keep in the fridge for a few days, using it as needed.

Want a cheap meal idea that uses rice? Cook a pound of rice, then add some diced tomatoes and garlic when it’s hot (you can also add some meat, too, such as ground turkey). This makes several pounds of food for just a dollar or two. Eat, say, six ounces per meal and store the rest for future meals.

Beans

Similar to dried rice, dried beans are really inexpensive, bulk up a lot when cooked, and work well in a lot of meals. They’re also easier to prepare – probably even easier than rice – and come in tons of varieties (I’m partial to black beans myself). I’ll often cook a pound of beans and just put them in a container in the fridge for a few days, using them for a variety of things.

What can you do with beans? Just put some in a tortilla with a pinch of cheese and salt for a quick lunch. They work incredibly well mixed with the rice and tomato mix mentioned above, too. Cook a pound of rice and a pound of beans, mix them together when cooked, add some diced tomatoes and a bit of garlic, and you quickly have something delicious that you can eat for many, many meals.

Eggs

Eggs provide a lot of protein for just a few cents. A hardboiled egg makes for a great breakfast on the go and scrambled eggs work well for almost any meal.

One great strategy I still often do is to simply hard boil several eggs on Sunday evening, peel them as soon as possible, and then keep the peeled eggs in a bowl in the fridge. I’d just grab one or two at the start of my day each morning for a quick filling meal.

Oatmeal

Oatmeal is almost the perfect breakfast. It’s incredibly cheap, incredibly filling, and can have a huge variety of flavors. I usually just add whatever fruit is on sale that week to the oatmeal to make it delicious.

The trick here is to avoid those pre-flavored instant oatmeal packets. Instead, buy a big tub of unsweetened and unflavored oatmeal, which is dirt cheap, and sweeten and flavor it yourself to taste. As I said above, I usually use fruits that are on sale from the grocery store for this purpose.

Whole Grain Pasta

Store brand whole grain pasta is pretty inexpensive per serving and can be incredibly filling. I can eat several meals myself out of a single box of whole grain spaghetti, for example.

You don’t need to spend much on toppings, either. A bit of olive oil, some garlic, and some diced tomatoes work great as a topping for whole grain pasta. I’ll happily eat that all week long.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes (and regular potatoes, for that matter) are really cheap for the amount of food you get and can be prepared in a huge variety of ways.

Myself, I like mashed sweet potatoes. They need literally nothing extra in order to be delicious, though some like just a bit of butter with them. Mashed sweet potatoes work well as a side dish for almost anything you might make.

Chicken

Although I’m a vegetarian, I won’t deny that chicken is a very inexpensive option for getting some protein in your diet. Chicken is cheap, easy to prepare, and works well in infinite ways.

The cheapest way to buy chicken is to buy whole chickens and learn how to cut them up yourself. A whole chicken provides two breasts, two legs, two thighs, and two wings, and if you compare that to the price of pre-cut chicken, the savings is tremendous.

Cottage Cheese

A tub of cottage cheese is another excellent way to get protein for cheap. Our refrigerator always has some cottage cheese in there as it works great for a quick snack and as a side for most meals.

The amazing thing about cottage cheese is that it works plain, it works as a savory food (put a little pepper and a dash of salt on it), and it works as a sweet food (put some fruit in with it). Not only that, it can work as a lasagna ingredient as a substitute for ricotta cheese, driving down the cost of a pan of lasagna.

Discounted Fruits and Vegetables

The best fruits and vegetables are the ones that are on sale, and there’s always something on sale. Every week gives you the opportunity to try something new and mix things up a little bit.

Don’t ever get into the mindset that you must have specific fruits and vegetables for a dish. The center of your meals should always be the fruits and vegetables (and meats) that are on sale, especially when the discount is deep. Most fruits and vegetables have a wide variety of uses, so take advantage of them.

Drink Water

This is a huge tip. If you’re drinking anything other than tap water, you’re wasting a lot of money. Your drinking water should come out of the tap, period.

The reasoning here is simple. The primary purpose of beverages is to hydrate you. Water does that more efficiently than anything else. Water is also incredibly inexpensive if you just get it from the tap.

Thus, when you’re in a serious food budgeting pinch, your source for beverages should be your sink. It’s pretty simple.

Not only that, water is filling and keeps you from overeating. A big glass of water before a meal, combined with slow eating, will reduce the amount of food you need to feel full.

Final Thoughts

These strategies, taken all together, can cut a single person’s food budget down to the bare minimum. Between free meals in the community, free food resources, smart grocery shopping strategies, good food choices, and proper hydration, you’ve got all the tools you need to make it through with very little cash.

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