One of the things I learned during my unemployment ordeal is how to live on a minimal grocery budget. My family had been reduced to one income, my husband’s, who makes about 3/5 of what I had made. It was devastating because we still had a car payment and a mortgage, plus utilities and insurance, etc… And every dollar counted. By the way, we never applied for government assistance of any kind.

I tried doing the coupon thing at first. But compared to just buying all store brand items, it turned out to be more expensive. So I stuck to generics as much as possible. There were two stores I went to every week because while the Walmart Super Center was cheaper on most grocery items, it was not on all of them.

When I started out budgeting, I went to one store only. I wrote down all of the items I bought and how much they were. The next week, I went to another store and bought only the items that were cheaper. By the third week I had a pretty good idea of which items to buy from which store.

A good tip for shopping is to stay away from pre-made food, things that you just have to add water to for instance, like dehydrated mashed potatoes and Stovetop stuffing. Instead of buying a pack of dehydrated potatoes for $1.20 that would be good for only one meal, I bought a bag of potatoes and made my own mashed potatoes. Even after adding butter and milk, I still got a lot more for the money. I also made my own bread and baked/refried beans.

Another way to approach grocery budgeting and gauge what kinds of meals you can afford to eat is to figure out how much money you can spend on food each week and divide that total by how many meals you plan to eat for that week. If you’re feeding three on $110 per week, each family member can consume $36.60 in food for the week or $5.22 each day. Supposing that your family eats together three meals per day, each meal can cost only $5.22 to make. It probably sounds like a starvation diet, but it is doable and satisfying.

The shopping mindset:

The more meals you can make out of a single entre the better off you are. We all like variety, but sometimes that is a luxury. An example might be, buying a huge pork roast that is on sale. You can make a nice dinner out of it complete with mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables and corn bread. Then, for lunch the next day, you can shred enough for sandwiches, mix in some BBQ sauce and serve it open-faced with apple sauce.

Become ultra-communal and buy only food that everyone in the household likes. If you are on very tight grocery budget, you can’t afford to have someone not eat what you have; and you can’t afford for things to spoil.

Use dry-goods and slow cook them in a crock pot instead of buying canned. Lima beans, pinto beans, black beans, lentils, mixed. They all make great side dishes and you can make soups with them too. The basic idea is that whatever is cheaper to make from scratch, like baked beans and soups, do so.

There are some basic things you need to have on hand to make a good go of it, however. If you don’t have them, I suggest going to a dollar store or visiting garage sales to pick them up. If every nickel and dime counts, garage sales are likely the better option.

  • Big non-metallic mixing bowl (other smaller ones makes things easier)
  • Rubber spatula
  • Regular cooking spatula
  • Set of knives
  • Two mixing spoons, one slotted one solid
  • Potato masher and a peeler
  • Set of measuring cups and measuring spoons
  • Functional oven, stove, microwave oven and refrigerator w/freezer
  • Loaf pans – at least two
  • 6qt Crock pot
  • Dutch oven
  • Two med. sauce pans
  • 11” or 12” skillet
  • Pasta cutter (optional)
  • Cookie sheet
  • Pizza pan (optional – the cookie sheet can double as a pizza pan)
  • Two round 8” cake pans or one sheet cake pan (what is life without desert?)
  • At least one 2qt and one 1qt microwavable casserole dishes (both w/ glass or stoneware lids is preferable – foil or saran wrap bites into your food budget)
  • Whisk
  • Food storage dishes for the leftovers (don’t try to economize by buying the cheap disposable ones, they are flimsy and you will end up spending more money replacing them. Even durable dollar-store ones are better – and don’t buy these from a garage sale for sanitary reasons)
  • Cook book(s) for ideas. The public library might be a good place to look for these (free). Keep in mind that you don’t have to follow the recipe to the letter to have a good meal. If something in it is a budget-buster, find a substitute or try it without that ingredient. And because you’re trying to stretch entres, don’t add specific seasonings, special sauces, things that wouldn’t go well with creative with leftovers. Onions and garlic are good basics to stick with for meat dishes.

My typical meal plan looked something like this (not an all inclusive list):

  • Hotdogs and tatertots
  • Spaghetti with homemade meat sauce (if you have a pasta cutter you can make you own pasta and won’t have to buy it)
  • Pork roast, mashed potatoes, corn bread and steamed veggies
  • Pizza with homemade crust
  • Peanut butter and jelly
  • Coldcuts for sandwiches (can also make hot sandwiches out of this by pouring gravy on it, turkey or roast beef)
  • Baked chicken breasts with mashed potatoes and gravy, veggies (I bought the family packs of chicken breasts which had a couple extra piece of meat in them that I would bake and make chicken sandwiches out of later)
  • Fried egg sandwiches (if you have good non-stick pans you don’t have to use butter, you can use a canola oil blend instead)
  • Scrambled eggs with shredded cheese and toast
  • Homemade bread (I made at least four loaves per week)
  • Something for desert, like a cake, brownies or cookies (homemade)
  • Salad made with iceberg lettuce with carrots and celery and balsamic dressing
  • Beef and bean burritos with rice

Cookies that are cheap to make are peanut butter, oatmeal sans the raisins, sugar, apple/oatmeal, banana/oatmeal, spice. You can also make them cost less to make by substituting half the butter called for in the recipe with cooking oil. This works well for oatmeal or peanut butter. I don’t recall trying it for the others.

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