Keeping on your budget means you have to keep on your toes, and the tighter that budget is, the more important it is to you. It doesn’t really matter if you are watching your dimes and dollars to take a vacation in France or to get by during a financial crisis, you still have a budget to stick to. I do have to admit, telling myself that I’m doing it so that I can take that dream vacation is a lot more attractive though!
So you are on a budget, it’s tight, and you are wanting to make each penny scream for release before you give it up. It’s not impossible. It can be done. You are smart. You know how to do it, and it just means being persistent and careful. It means preparing yourself for battle, and this battle is the one of the grocery store. Think of it as guerrilla warfare.
Your enemies are impulse purchases and being short of time. Both of these can cost, and cost quickly. It may even be easier to deal with the impulse purchases than the time shortage–sticking to your list means that impulse purchases aren’t going to affect you, but that time shortage thing…that’s really tough, especially when balancing work, play, and family. Time isn’t always under our own direction, and that’s when planning ahead comes into play.
Each family, each menu, each week, and each budget have their own set of rules. There are no hard and fast answers that work each and every time. Your best options are always to adapt and learn to flex, adopt what works, and discard ideas that just don’t make the grade in your household.
Here’s some ideas that might help you and your budget to stay on track.
More meatless meals. Meat is very expensive per serving, and the more often you serve it, especially as the main course, the more you will spend. Meatless meals are typically also lower in cholesterol, another important consideration. Meat is also often high in calories, especially fat calories, and leaving it off your plate more often will make the battle of the bulge slide more in your favor.
- Serve more home made soups, stews, and gumbos. While canned soups are often very high in sodium, home made soups don’t have that same flaw of character. Soups and their cousins, stews and gumbos, are also rich in vegetables, which are far less expensive than meat as ingredients. Soups are very filling, and when they are broth based, they also minimize calories, making them a waist-wise choice too. Even serving a soup as a first course can help make a mediocre meal seem much more impressive, and smaller servings can be served, stretching more expensive ingredients when they are used as the entree.
- Use fruits and vegetables in season. They are usually more flavorful and less expensive. Watermelon in December might be expensive, but watermelon in July isn’t. The same goes for most fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets and roadside stands are often also excellent sources for local fruits and vegetables, with even better prices.
- Shop for items on sale, use coupons, and stock your pantry, but don’t go overboard. Most canned and dry goods need to be used in 6-12 months, so don’t buy more than you will use in that time period. Don’t buy large quantities of unfamiliar brands or products–you may end up with something your family does not like, or a product that is inferior. Buy one, try it, and only after it passes the taste test purchase additional for stocking your pantry. Don’t forget to keep your herbs and spices stocked up, and to rotate these as well. These items are not items that last indefinitely without a loss of quality either. Use old spices and herbs for potpourris and crafts, or try simmering a selection of herbs and spices in a small pan of water for a natural air freshener. Some herbs also make great additions to the barbecue pit when they are past their prime. Purchasing frequently used ones in bulk is often a great deal cheaper, even if half of them are used for non-food purposes, rather than paying grocery store prices for small bottles that are often already nearly past their prime.
- Prepare ahead. Preparation is a great way to save money. Cut your own vegetable sticks, put them in ice water & store them in small, reusable plastic containers. Perfect snacks, and much cheaper than buying prepared “baby” carrots, celery sticks, etc. Some fruits, once cut, need coated in lemon juice to prevent browning. Remember, cut fruit does not keep indefinitely, and use it within a day or two for best quality.
- Plan your leftovers. Leftovers don’t wear the “left over” stigma if they are re-created into something new too. Leftover meat, gravy, and potatoes can be stuffed into a “shepherd” pie or pot pie, coming out as something entirely new. Many recipes offer suggestions on how to re-serve it as a new creation the next day. Preparing your leftovers for their re-creation the next day immediately following the meal saves time the next evening too–cut up roasted chicken, beef, pork, etc. into appropriate sized pieces or slices, and package tightly before refrigeration.
- Reduce waste. Don’t buy more than you can use before it loses quality, especially of fresh foods. Split a soda with someone rather than being tempted to abandon half a can. Serve small portions, allowing everyone to have seconds if there is enough left after the first round. This helps eliminate the half-eaten plates of food that often are found after the meal is through. Use your leftovers, whether they become lunches, repeats, or re-creations.
- Cook ahead. If you know you have a busy week ahead, use your free time on weekends to prepare for the coming week. Many dishes can be assembled, refrigerated or even frozen, then popped into the microwave for cooking or heating. Lasagna is a great dish–just cut it into serving sized pieces before freezing to allow for individual servings. Make your soup stocks, prepare raw vegetables, and even cook your soups–most soups are much better after being chilled and reheated anyhow.
- Keep your pantry stocked. The last thing you need on a busy night after work and school is to be halfway into preparing the evening meal only to discover a key ingredient has all been used from the pantry. A well stocked pantry is a time and money saver that cannot be duplicated any other way. It reduces the trips to the store, which means less fuel, and fewer temptations to buy that impulse item. With inflation, the items on hand often mean they were much less expensive, as inflation causes prices to skyrocket.
- Learn to follow recipes and prepare meals and desserts. A small cake for a dessert can often be made from scratch for about $1.50, but a bakery version will cost more like $6-10. That’s a HUGE savings that means you’ve done a lot with your money and time.
- Cook more items from scratch. Many items are inexpensive–until you buy the mix, quick prep, or prepared versions. A pound of pinto beans costs just over$1, but a couple of large cans of beans for a pot of chili will set you back over $5!
- Learn to use a slow cooker. It’s inexpensive in terms of energy compared to your stove, works while you are working, and dinner is usually ready to eat or nearly so when you return home. There are a lot of recipes that will help you maximize your use of this inexpensive kitchen appliance too. It’s also ideal for soups, stews and gumbos, as well as cooking cheap (but tough) cuts of meat into tender deliciousness.
- Vary your menu. Get some new recipes, try new things. Nothing is as horrible as knowing exactly what will be served over the coming month, especially when it isn’t your favorite foods! Try searching for “Depression recipes” or “Low cost meals” and similar terms. Keep the cheap meals varied in tastes, textures, and ingredients as much as possible.
With a little effort, those tight food budgets can be stuck to while no one has to feel deprived. Hopefully, these hints will help you when the food budget has a slim wallet.