The Lazy Man’s Guide to Groceries on a Budget
This is a guest post from Karl Katzke.
Eating well is one of the small pleasures that I decided not to forego when I dug myself out of credit card debt. I'm a busy bachelor with an active social life and an absorbing job; I like food with a lot of flavor to it; and I live in a rural area without a lot of shopping or coupon options. These three things don't usually go hand-in-hand with eating well or cheaply.
To meet my financial goals, I had to keep my food budget under $100 per month — that's $25 a week to feed one or two people (since I often cook for dates and friends). It's been a challenge. Luckily, in Texas and many other states, there is no sales tax on unprepared foods. Using a few simple strategies I managed to meet my goal and then some. I didn't eat rice and beans for the entire month (unlike Morgan Spurlock), I don't waste time digging through supermarket circulars, and I don't spend hours in the kitchen every night. This is definitely the lazy man's approach to groceries on a budget.
Here's a quick rundown of my method:
- I joined discount clubs at the supermarkets I frequented, and I gave them my real address. Kroger sends me coupons once a month.
- I shop for fresh vegetables at the Farmer's Market. Produce at our farmer's market is literally half the price as the grocery store.
- I have family members send me coupons. (This is also a great way to keep in touch with my grandparents, who don't have email and who I don't get to talk to all that often.)
- Where it makes sense, I buy store brands to save money.
- I make a large shopping run at the beginning of the month, and then only go to the farmer's market for fresh vegetables during the rest of the month. If I don't have an ingredient, I make something else. This forces me to get creative and use what I do have.
- I plan my meals to use the same or similar ingredients. That way I can buy in bulk and I rarely have to get creative.
- I buy staples in larger “family” quantities, and I also shop the short-dated bins for meats, which I usually grill immediately.
The most important thing by far has been getting creative with leftovers. I don't let anything go to waste, and that's saying something considering the quantities I buy.
For instance, I typically will buy a 12-pack of fresh thick-cut boneless pork chops at the grocery store near the beginning of the month. (I always compare prices between the butcher's counter and the meat aisle — you'd be surprised how often the butcher's counter is cheaper!) For the week after I grill, I have meals that feature pork chops: plain pork chops with various sides, pork chops on top of fresh salads, pork chop slices with barbecue sauce and cheese in a tortilla. You get the idea.
Another perennial favorite is taco meat. A frozen one-pound tube of ground turkey is $2. Taco seasoning from the bulk aisle is $5 per pound (though a pound will last longer than I'll live!). Besides tacos, taquitos, and nachos, taco meat goes great on fresh salads or mixed with another side dish like beans and rice. That's five or six meals right there without any repeats. The base ingredient is about $3 for those five meals.
Tacos use the same ingredients as a salad: olives, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese. Soups, stews, and Spaghetti sauce are in the same category. I make my own spaghetti sauce to an old family recipe using canned tomato sauce and a pound of ground turkey. It freezes well, costs less than $5 to make in a batch, and takes only a minute to reheat. I generally make it once a month.
Don't buy ingredients that work for only a single meal. A friend of mine loves an arugula salad that I make with lemon balsamic dressing, but I don't make it for her regularly because you can't really use the arugula before it goes bad.
On the other hand, one of the few products I buy from my grocery store's produce section is bagged whole romaine hearts. They come three to a plastic bag for $3. Romaine hearts will keep for at least two weeks fresh in the bag, and it only takes a minute to wash and chop them into salad. (Use the entire heart, of course. Don't peel the green leaves off. The paler parts are very sweet and juicy!) Don't buy bagged, pre-cut lettuce — it's soggy and unappetizing after less than a week.
Be careful with coupons. Make sure you carry a calculator (I use the one on my cell phone) to figure out if it's really a good deal versus the store brands. You'll usually find, like I do, that store brands are cheaper. On the other hand, you can find things are a better value — buying lunch meat in the re-useable containers has actually proven to be a good value because you can wash and keep the container. At my grocery store it's more expensive to buy the containers than it is to buy the half-pound of lunch meat that comes in them!
It seems my grandparents' lessons are always the best. “Waste not, want not.” I watch my neighbors' trashcans and shake my head every week. I hardly throw out anything, but some of them seem to fill their trashcans to the brim with kitchen waste every week. How can you get rich (slowly or not!) if you're throwing out that much food?
For more about eating well for less, check out these past articles at Get Rich Slowly:
- How to feed yourself for $15 a week
- The Thrifty Food Plan Challenge: Eating well for less
- 16 ways to eat healthy while keeping it cheap
- Healthy food on an unhealthy budget