Twelve Strategies for Getting Food on the Table During a Money Crisis

One common question I hear from readers – and see on various personal finance message boards – goes something like this:

Over the past few weeks, some sort of financial calamity has occurred in my life. As a result, I only have $10 or $20 that needs to last me until the end of the month. I have nothing in my cupboards. How can I eat for a week or two on just these few dollars?

Lots of variations on this story pop up.

Some people fall into this situation because of a job loss. Others simply mismanage their money so poorly that they wind up unable to pay their bills. Still others wind up here because of a financial error of some kind – maybe they didn’t balance their checkbook right or something like that.

Some people might be stuck with only $5 or $10. Others might have $40 or $50.

Some people might be living single, while others have a family to feed. Honestly, it’s the stories with children that really get to me.

Some people just need to cover a few days, while others have to stretch the period out for a week or two (or sometimes even more).

All of these variations boil down to the same story: we have less money than we think we need to put food on the table for a while.

So, what does a person do in this situation?

First of all, this is far from an insolvable situation. This is not the end of the world. This is not a disaster from which you will never recover. This is not a reason to beat yourself up. This is a problem to be solved – and it can be solved. You can do this.

Second, you cannot let personal pride get in the way here. This is not a time to tell yourself that you’re “too good” to use certain services or to ask for help. That’s foolishness. There are many services and programs out there that are designed to help people through this very situation. People have set up these services to help with the exact situation you’re in right now. Don’t be too “proud” to use these services.

Finally, this is a wake up call to strengthen your finances. You should be viewing this situation as the end result of a long history of poor financial choices. While this specific incident is something you can deal with and recover from, it is a sign that you’re on a dangerous financial path. This is your wake up call. Something has to change.

Here are twelve specific strategies that people can use to make sure that there is food on the table for themselves and their families.

Strategy #1 – Visit Benefits.gov

We live in a society that provides a ton of services for people who are in financial crisis. Whether or not you agree with whether or not these services should be available, they do exist and they have their doors open for people who are in the exact situation you’re in – struggling to put food on the table for your family.

Benefits.gov is a clearinghouse for those state and federal programs. If you’re really struggling financially, Benefits.gov is probably the first place you should visit.

How can you get started? First, type your state into the search box at the top of the page, then start visiting each program to determine whether or not it’s a relevant fit for you. Some programs have a very rapid turnaround, so they can actually start helping you within a few days. Others are designed for more long-term help, which can be good for preventing you from getting into this situation again.

Strategy #2 – Visit Local Churches

Almost every church has some sort of program for helping people in need, whether it’s in the form of free meals, food distributions, or simply a pastor willing to lend an ear and give specific advice for resources within the community.

Stop in at a church in your area and see what they have available. Schedule an appointment to talk to the pastor there in the next day or two and simply open your heart and ask for help.

Such honesty can be hard for some people, but pastors are in the business of helping others. That’s what they’re called to do.

A final note: if a church does offer you help in getting through a rough patch, remember it. When things are better for you, pay them back by volunteering or donating to the community services that they provide. Even if you’re not a member, they will be glad to receive the help. You’re far from alone in needing help, after all.

Strategy #3 – Buy “Bang for the Buck” Groceries

If you want to stretch every dollar that you have, the best method is to buy “bang for the buck” groceries – foods that provide the most nutrition and healthy calories for the dollar. This is a principle that I actually use when buying foods all the time, so it’s not just an idea that works for people in a pinch.

In an earlier post, I made a list of nine foods that are healthy and cheap: rice, beans, oatmeal, frozen vegetables, on-sale fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain pasta, eggs, potatoes, and tuna. These foods are all healthy and all provide essential nutrients.

With those ingredients alone (along with some salt and pepper for flavoring), you can make lots of things – breakfasts, lunches, dinners, main courses, side dishes, and so on. You can basically take any two or three items there (aside from maybe the oatmeal), combine them, add some salt and pepepr, and have a reasonable meal. For example, scramble eggs, potatoes, and frozen vegetables together for breakfast or mix the rice, beans, and fresh vegetables for dinner. Use the tuna, whole grain pasta, and vegetables to make a healthy pasta meal. You get the idea.

Strategy #4 – Visit Food Pantries

Most food pantries/food banks are happy to welcome new people who need their services. Usually, if you stop by and talk to someone there while the food pantry is open, they’ll tell you all the details and walk you through a simple application process. Often, you’ll be able to take food home immediately. (Be sure to bring some form of identification.)

Food pantries allow you to simply take home a bunch of food. The quality tends to vary a lot as food pantries are based on donations, but there are always plenty of usable items. As a food pantry volunteer myself, I am sometimes surprised at the good stuff that goes out the door, particularly during the summer months when people donate fresh produce on the day of distribution.

If your need is great, you can visit multiple food pantries within a month. Most pantries restrict you to one visit per pantry per month, but many families utilize multiple pantries.

Food pantries are there to help people in your exact situation. They provide food to people who are struggling to get it on their table – and if that describes you, you should be using these services. Use them to get yourself back on your feet!

Strategy #5 – Visit Restaurants at Closing Time

Many restaurants, particularly those that sell bread products like Panera Bread, get rid of their bread supply overnight, usually donating it to some charity. As a result, you can often get most-of-a-day-old bread for a pittance if you show up right around closing time. Sometimes it will be highly discounted and sometimes they’ll even give it away – it really depends on the policy of the manager and the owner.

If a restaurant is open 24 hours, the best time to go is in the early morning hours, between midnight and 2 AM, when they’re usually rotating their stock.

This is never a guarantee, of course. Different businesses have different policies for getting rid of their older baked goods. However, I’ve witnessed plenty of businesses selling loaves for a quarter, bagels for a dime, and sometimes even giving them away in the late hours.

Strategy #6 – Apply for Emergency SNAP Benefits

While you might expect the wheels of government bureaucracy to roll quite slowly, the truth is that if you’re in a food pinch, you can actually get benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program quite rapidly, in as little as a few days in many states. The key is to apply for expedited SNAP benefits in your state.

Great, so how do you apply? For starters, each state has its own application process. You can find the application process for your state on the SNAP website. The process is usually straightforward – they mostly want to verify that you actually need these benefits. Expedited benefits can find their way to you in just a few days, after which you can use the benefits to buy staple foods at your local grocery store.

As with some of the other items on this list, some people may choose to skip this one out of pride. Don’t. The entire purpose of a program like this is to serve people who are struggling to come up with enough money to get food on the table until the end of the month. If that describes you, then you should be taking advantage of this program.

Strategy #7 – Drink Water

Milk. Fruit juice. Soda. Beer. Wine. People add so many beverages to their cart and while they might be tasty, they’re simply not necessary. Drink water instead.

In most areas, the water from your tap is perfectly potable. You can happily drink it to hydrate yourself. You don’t need milk or soda or beer or fruit juice to fulfill that need at all.

While I certainly don’t begrudge people purchasing beverages in any way, it is a category that you can easily cut from your food purchasing budget.

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re eating out – which is a bad idea when you’re trying to stretch a few bucks over a lot of days for food – you should strongly consider ordering free water as your beverage.

Strategy #8 – Make Soup or Stew

The nice thing about soups and stews is that you can turn almost anything into a passable meal. You can take almost any mix of frozen or fresh vegetables, lots of miscellaneous items from your pantry, and just toss them all together in a boiling pot of water for a while with adequate salt and pepper and make a reasonable meal.

In fact, we actually do this whenever we’re trying to pare down our pantry. We make a big pot of soup using all of the things we find in our pantry and eat that soup for two or three meals. Rice, beans, vegetables, tuna, spices, that package of smoked salmon Uncle Ralph gave you last year – all of it goes right into the stew. Just mix it up with some boiling water. (Remember, of course, that some things have to cook longer than others – dried beans need some extra work, for instance, and you can’t just mix them immediately with fresh vegetables.)

When you’re doing this, you’re just using up lots of things you already have on hand. We often make soups or stews just using the things in our pantry, which means that the immediate cost of the meal is practically nothing at all.

The nice thing is that it’s really hard to make something that’s inedible. Almost everything you make tastes reasonably good.

Strategy #9 – Check Ethnic Grocery Stores

Some of the best food bargains I’ve ever found come not from ordinary grocery stores or even discount grocers like Aldi (though that’s a great place to shop). The best food bargains often come from ethnic grocery stores.

Sure, you’re going to probably be on unfamiliar ground when you shop there. I’m not ashamed to admit that I often am uncertain as to what many of the items on sale there actually are. However, I almost always find stupendously low prices on foods that I’ll use in a lot of things – rice, noodles, seitan, sauces, and many other things are just insanely cheap at ethnic grocery stores.

Not only does this give you a chance to get a lot of nutrition on the cheap, it also provides a window for you to experiment with new kinds of food and new cuisines.

Strategy #10 – Share Resources and Be Social

It is far easier to prepare a meal for five people for $10 than it is to prepare a meal for one person for $2. The trick is being able to take advantage of that – and the way to do that is through your social network.

If you live near friends and family, don’t be afraid to rely on them for some meals. Do a dinner exchange with several of them – have them over and prepare a dinner for them (remembering that it’s easier to fix a meal for five for $10 than a meal for one for $2) and then accept a few invites to eat at their house in exchange. Do a direct meal swap with a close friend and consider even making it a permanent thing – maybe you can make dinner on Tuesdays, everyone goes to Cindy’s on Wednesdays, and perhaps Ralph handles dinner on Thursdays. That way, you only have to prep one slightly larger meal and you get three meals out of the deal (plus some leftovers).

If you’re trying to make something and are just short one or two key ingredients, don’t be afraid to ask a neighbor. The old-style image of knocking on a neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of sugar might seem anachronistic, but it still works. We’ve borrowed many food items in a pinch from our neighbors over the years (and given them things as well when they’ve needed them).

A food crisis is a great time for your social network to really help you out.

Strategy #11 – Go to Club Meetings, Community Events, and Professional Events

Many clubs, community organizations, and professional organizations provide free or very low cost food for people who show up to their meetings and events. This is particularly true in college towns for some reason.

Don’t be afraid to take advantage of it. Go to any and all community and professional events that offer free food and learn more about the program that’s sponsoring the meal. You may just find that there’s more value for you than just the free food.

When I was in college, this was a frequent routine of mine and there were often many adults much older than I doing the exact same thing. We would always have a crowd at any meeting that offered free pizza or free sandwiches.

Strategy #12 – Sell Items You No Longer Use

If you’re still struggling, now’s the perfect time to open up your closet door and see what things of value are tucked away in there that you just don’t use any more. Selling off items that you genuinely don’t use any more is a great way to kick together a little extra cash in a pinch.

There are many options for selling items. Craigslist is a great way to turn your stuff into cash pretty quickly in your local community. Many consignment shops will accept higher-priced items and help you to sell them. Many cities have secondhand media stores that will buy your collections as well. If you have more time, you can use eBay to get a good return on your items, too.

The goal is to focus on items that you’ll likely not use again in the future, and those kinds of items are most frequently found in places like the recesses of your closets. Dig in there to see what you might have. You might just find a valuable item that can nip this crisis in the bud.

Final Thoughts

The key thing to remember is that these strategies are meant mostly to get you through this very rough period. Once you’re through the immediate crisis, the fact that you’re in this situation should be a wake up call to re-evaluate your entire financial picture and figure out some new approaches to your finances.

After all, most of these strategies are short-term boosts. They do not provide the long-term changes you need to make sure that this type of food crisis does not happen again in your life.

Start making changes. Look for major expenses you can cut out. Do you drink? Smoke? Do drugs? Those things can easily be cut. Do you have any subscription services? Do you have cable? Do you have a data plan on your cell phone? Those can all be cut. Do you eat out a lot? Do you buy a lot of stuff at the convenience store? Cut and cut. Then, apply that huge wad of money you save to first building an emergency fund, then getting rid of your worst debts, and then moving forward with life, whether it’s getting more education, saving for a down payment, or whatever else your life needs for the long term.

There are many resources to help you along the way, but you have to make that choice. The best thing that could ever happen to you is that you never have to return to this article again and that you use all of this as a starting point to build a better life.

Good luck.