Nine Strategies for Stretching Out a Tiny Food Budget

We've all faced it at some point in our life.

Your next paycheck isn't due to arrive for a week or so. You don't have much in your checking account and there's not too much in the cupboards, either. You need to put food on the table for the next week but you have only a tiny amount of money.

What do you do?

In this situation, many of the usual strategies don't work. Grow a garden? Useless; you don't have three months to wait for food to grow. Buy in bulk? How exactly are you going to do that with an extremely limited budget?

I've been in this situation a few times, particularly during my college years, but even a couple of times later on. It's hard, especially when you have family members relying on you, particularly children.

Thankfully, there are a number of short-term strategies you can use that will help you stretch a handful of dollars across a surprising number of days, keeping food on the table for your whole family. Not only are these strategies useful during these short-term pinches, they're also useful for day-to-day life in terms of keeping your food budget low.

Let's dig in.

Clean Out the Pantry/Cupboards

The first step you should take is to go through your pantry, cupboards, and refrigerator and take stock of everything you have. There are several reasons for doing this.

One, people often have more useful food on hand than they think. It's easy to forget about nonperishable items stuffed in the back of the cupboard or in a corner in the pantry. It's also easy to forget about sauces and other items in the back of the refrigerator, still good but forgotten.

Two, it gives you a chance to get rid of bad food. This is a great chance to toss highly stale, moldy, or otherwise damaged food items that you wouldn't otherwise eat.

Three, the process often inspires meals. Every time I dig through our pantry, I find myself plotting a number of meals from the things that I pull out of the cupboard. These are meals that aren't even remotely on my mind before I start pulling out items, but I'm simply inspired by what I find.

Four, the packages themselves sometimes inspire recipes. Many packages include simple four or five ingredient recipes that can directly inspire you to make something.

Finally, it gives you a chance to make an inventory. Often, you have more components for a meal on hand than you think you do, even if you don't have everything. Making a big master list of all of the stuff you have on hand makes it much, much easier to plan out some meals to get you through the rest of your lean period.

Another point of advice: the sell-by date doesn't mean the "throw it away" date. Most of those dates, particularly on non-refrigerated items, simply refer to the date by which the manufacturer will no longer vouch for the product. That does not mean it's no longer edible or usable. Look for obvious signs of spoilage, not a sell-by date.

This pile of food should help you along the path to at least a few meals (even if it means pancakes for supper!).

Scour the Grocery Flyers

Your local grocery stores each likely issue a weekly flyer outlining the items that are on sale for that week. Sometimes, the flyer includes coupons for additional discounts.

These flyers are incredibly useful. Flyers, along with all of the food you've pulled out of your cupboard, can provide all that you need to plan meals until you've got some money in your checking account again.

First, I look for foods that have a low "price per pound." Fresh produce and meats usually have "price per pound" listed in the flyer, like $1.79/lb. Look for the fruits, vegetables, and meats that can be acquired at a really low price and focus on those items. What can you do with them along with the items you already have?

Next, I look for obvious items that complete meals based on what I already have. For example, if I already have pasta sauce but no pasta, I'll look for cheap pasta. If I already have a pancake mix that just requires a bit of milk, I'll look for cheap milk. You get the idea.

Then, I look for items that work as standalone side dishes. Potatoes, for example, can be turned into a number of side dishes with little effort. Flash frozen vegetable bags from the freezer aisle can also add nutrition to your meal at a very low price.

Finally, I check online for coupons on the items I've already selected from the flyer. If I can find even a coupon or two, I'm taking advantage of "stacking" where I'm using both the sale and the coupon to really chop down the price of foods.

Ideally, I'm mostly relying on the stuff from my cupboard for meals, but the items here can really complement those items and help me to make a lot of meals.

Focus on High "Calorie Per Penny" Foods

There are some foods that not only work in a lot of different meals, but also provide a surprising amount of nutrition for just pennies. They're often on sale, dropping their price even more, and they're actually pretty healthy to boot.

In my experience, six foods really stand out from the pack.

Rice is incredibly cheap and filling. You can buy twenty pounds of dry long-grain rice for less than $9 and, upon cooking, it nearly doubles in size, meaning you're spending about a quarter per pound of cooked rice. Rice is like a blank canvas upon which you can cook almost anything, from adding sugar and cinnamon for something sweet to adding spices for a wide variety of ethnic styles.

Dry beans offer most of the same advantages of rice in that they're already cheap in their dry form, but more than double in mass when cooked thanks to water absorption, dropping the price right down into the fifty or sixty cents per pound range. There are many different varieties of beans that work well in so many different contexts - side dishes, soups, salads, tortilla fillings, and so on.

Oatmeal is an incredibly healthy breakfast, contributing fiber and many other nutrients to your diet, and it can be acquired well below a dollar a pound dry. Oatmeal can be supplemented with almost any fruit or sweetener to make a distinct meal and it's an incredible way to fill yourself up in the mornings.

Eggs can be found for as low as a dollar a dozen and is likely the best source of protein on this list. Eggs are also quite flexible as they work as food on their own in many different preparations as well as an ingredient in countless other things - egg drop soup, pad thai, and on and on and on.

Sweet potatoes are, like all of the other items on this list, cheap and flexible. They're very nutritious and can be prepared in countless different ways, easily working both as a savory and a sweet food. Sarah is a huge fan of these, so they're regularly consumed at our house.

Peanut butter rounds out this list. Peanut butter is almost constantly on sale and, again, can be used in a variety of ways such as sandwiches, pancake toppings, or even as an element in a stir fry.

There are other known "cheap" foods like ramen noodles, but they're unhealthy enough that you should use them sparingly. A diet of mostly ramen noodles will have health consequences.

If your grocery list is mostly full of these items and items that are on sale at the store, you'll be getting a lot of food for very little at the store.

Make Homemade Foods

There are many foods that you might be tempted to buy at the store but you can in fact make it at home with stuff you likely already have on hand.

For example, consider a loaf of bread. If you have flour and yeast in your cupboard, water from your tap, and an oven, you can make your own bread. There are countless variations on the recipe for a humble loaf of bread, but they're all straightforward and easy to make at home.

The ideas are endless. Turn that homemade bread into croutons by seasoning slices, cutting them into cubes, and baking them. Make corn tortillas at home out of masa flour (it's like $2 for five pounds) and water. Make tortilla chips by cutting up those corn tortillas and baking them. Make refried beans by cooking beans to death in a slow cooker (with some onions, green peppers, and oil). Make potato chips by thinly slicing potatoes, tossing on some seasoning, and baking them. I could literally go on all day, but you get the idea.

Quite often, you'll have the ingredients you need for a lot of these simple foods already in your pantry, likely purchased for other cooking experiments. Try making some things yourself and you'll likely be shocked by how easy it is.

Shop Alone with a Grocery List Based on a Meal Plan

That simple statement breaks down into three separate pieces, so let's look at those pieces.

Shop alone When you shop with others, you're asking to be distracted and not focused on the task at hand, which is maximizing the value you get from every dollar you spend at the grocery store. Your kids distract you. Your spouse will, too. Your friends certainly will. If it is at all possible, you need to shop without them so you can keep your mind solely on the matter at hand.

With a grocery list You should have a grocery list in your hand that lists just the foods you need to get through until you have your paycheck. Nothing should go into your cart that isn't on that list. In fact, you should have a pretty good idea of exactly how much you're going to spend as soon as you walk in the door - the grocery flyer should have told you that.

Based on a meal plan That grocery list should have been generated from a meal plan, which is simply a list of the meals you intend to have until your short-term financial situation improves. That meal plan, of course, is based on the food items you already have and those found in the flyers, so your grocery list should naturally contain mostly sale items.

It's a pretty straightforward system, one that I've been using for years to keep our food costs cheap. It works regardless of your situation.

Shop at the Cheapest Grocery Store

If you're buying anything that's not directly from the flyers, you're going to be paying the typical store price. The way to minimize the price on those items is to shop at the store with the lowest prices.

Around here, that's usually Aldi, though Fareway can give it a run for its money on many items. The other grocers almost always have higher prices on the whole.

How can you figure out which local grocer is the cheapest? In a pinch, you should ask your friends and coworkers that live in the area for advice. What do they think is the cheapest one? If you have a bit more time, you can price check them. Make a list of fifteen or twenty of the items you buy most often, then go to several stores and write down the price of those items. Total up the prices from each store and you'll quickly see which one is clearly your discount grocer.

I do most of my grocery shopping at Fareway, as it balances low prices and selection. Aldi is cheaper, but sometimes their selection is sorely limited, leaving me to shop elsewhere.

Shop at the End of a Farmer's Market

Another cheap food strategy is to shop at the end of a farmer's market and haggle.

When you see people getting ready to pack things up at the end of a farmer's market, go up to them and make a lowball offer on the items they still have out there. If they're selling cabbage for $3 per head, make an offer of $1 or even $0.50 for that head. If they're selling carrots for $2 a bundle, offer $0.50 for a bundle.

The problem with this strategy is that you'll get the items that have been picked over by the other shoppers and, quite often, the item you want is already going to be sold out. However, if you're willing to work with whatever you can get to make a tasty and nutritious meal on the cheap, you can get a good discount here.

I like to use these kinds of purchases in flexible meals. I'll often make a stir fry out of any vegetables I can get on the cheap - and some fruits, too. I can also make soup out of virtually any set of vegetables - just toss in lots of veggies with some salt and pepper and let it simmer for a long time.

Drink Water

The water coming from your tap should be your primary source for beverages. Not bottled water, not soda, not coffee, not alcohol - tap water.

Why? Tap water is practically free. It's just as safe as bottled water. It's not loaded down with sugar or other substances that you don't really need. Plus, it's a great way to fill yourself up before a meal so you don't overeat.

By eliminating beverages from your grocery purchases, you can save quite a bit of money and channel that savings directly into food purchases that can provide some real nutrition and calories.

Leave the soda and the tea and the coffee and the alcohol behind. Stick with water.

Check Out Community Dinners

If you're still struggling for short-term food options, look around your community for community dinners.

Many of the churches in our area as well as some of the civic groups have a "community dinner" on a very regular schedule where people give a "free will" donation in order to enjoy a meal. If you're strapped for cash, don't be afraid to go there and get a great meal for a dollar.

In my experience, these meals are usually surprisingly good. They're a great way to fill yourself - or your family - up for just a few dollars or even for free if you're really struggling.

It's important to remember, though, that such meals run largely on donations. It is vital that you pay back this type of giving later on when you have more money in your pocket. If you enjoy a few meals there for free or for just a dollar or two, go back later when you can drop a $10 or a $20 bill into the collection jar.

Within a twenty mile radius of our house, I was able to identify seven regularly scheduled community meals that are either entirely free or based on freewill donations. If you're looking for meals in your area, I suggest starting with the local churches. Check their websites or give them a call to see what they have on offer.

Final Thoughts

Almost everyone struggles with putting together enough cash for a meal at some point on their financial journey. It can be a heartbreaking struggle, too, especially if you have children at home.

All of the strategies in this article are short-term strategies to help get you over that financial hump. While they certainly can help over the long term if you keep doing them - and we certainly use most of them - they're mostly useful for just minimizing your spending this week.

A good long-term strategy for lower food costs includes other things.

Buying in bulk Buying nonperishable foods that you use all the time in a bulk purchase can save you a lot of money. If you eat rice or beans multiple times a week, buying a 20 lb. or 50 lb. bag of the stuff will save you a quarter or more per pound which adds up to a lot of savings over time.

Making meals in advance Whenever you make a meal, particularly something that's a casserole-style meal, you can make several copies of that meal at once without adding too much time to the equation. Then, you just pop those extra versions in the freezer. When you need a meal later, you pull one out and cook it. This allows you to buy the ingredients in bulk - even relatively perishable items.

Growing a garden If you have a little patch of ground that you can cultivate, gardening can be a very inexpensive way to get quite a lot of produce. Sure, you'll have to wait a few months to make it work, but the rewards can be tremendous. There are few things more heartwarming than having a kitchen counter completely covered in tomatoes or cucumbers (or whatever your favorite vegetable is).

At the same time, if you're struggling to buy food, it's likely a sign that you need to rethink your personal financial situation. You may want to consider finding additional work, even if it's not in your current field. You may want to start looking very carefully at your current spending habits. You might also want to look at major financial changes, like moving to lower-cost housing.

This might just be a moment in your life that you can survive, but it might also be the beginning of real change in your life.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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