Type “eating on a budget” into any search engine and you’ll pull up a lot of articles with lots of helpful suggestions and tips like “use coupons” or “take a sack lunch to work instead of dining out” or “don’t shop hungry.” All tips worth considering when you’re not already on the survival mode diet of Ramen noodles and canned tuna. Living with a tight grocery budget requires some sacrifice and savvy shopping. With careful planning and creativity, you can ditch the Ramen and trade Chicken of the Sea for actual chicken.
Eat smarter. Eating healthy and eating cheap usually get mixed together in these types of articles and there’s good reason for it. Cheap eats come with their own set of hidden costs that we push aside in favor of convenience. Start thinking about what you’re ingesting. Look at ingredients on packaging. Think about whether you could prepare your go-to microwave meals from scratch. By preparing your own food instead of relying on single-serving frozen dinners, you could see benefits to your pocketbook and your health. Eating well when you’re poor is possible but it requires effort and behavior modification like cooking and learning to love leftovers.
Don’t buy groceries for your ideal self, buy for your real self. Consider your dietary needs and preferences, your budget, and your time. If you don’t cook, you won’t cook. If you hate beans and rice, those bags and cans will get shoved to the back of your pantry. Fresh food can be cheaper than processed foods but it’ll all go to waste if you haven’t planned use for it, are too busy to prepare it, or don’t normally eat produce. Don’t buy stuff you don’t like or never tried just because it’s on sale.
Plan your meals. Make a list of favorite dishes. Look up recipes for restaurant faves and find out how to make it at home. Easy recipes are even easier to find online. Recipes sites are plentiful and offer cheap options for vegans and carnivores, slow cookers, no cookers, and on-the-go cookers. You may discover new ways to use tuna fish or how to spice up those dull ramen noodles. Many domestic lifestyle and food magazines offer recipes on their websites. Collect your recipes and make a meal plan for the month. Go a step further and create a meal plan for multiple months to make it easier to search for deals and coupons based on your needs.
Clip those coupons. Do some research to find reputable online coupon sites, clip from the newspaper, and check out local deal blogs. Some people are already doing the legwork and you can reap the benefits. You can get a few freebie boxes of cereal just by clicking “like” on Facebook. Take time to flip through the sales papers of your local groceries. Be prepared to tackle multiple stores to get the best deals. Combine store deals with manufacturers coupons. We can’t all be extreme couponers but we can take advantage of some pretty sweet deals.
Buy what you need, not what you want. Those supermarket displays will try to seduce you with their siren songs. “What a deal!” They say, “Four boxes of cookies for $6! You won’t find a better bargain for this product. Buy me now!” That just-add-water cookie mix is a fraction of the cost, makes up a larger (or smaller) quantity and won’t disappoint like its stale, packaged counterpart.
Learn to love leftovers. Tonight’s dinner might make enough to cover tomorrow’s lunch. If you’re afforded the rare opportunity to dine out, consider a dish that will survive a night in the fridge. Restaurants often serve large portions that could realistically divide into two or three meals. Burgers and fries may not hold up, but many pasta or rice-based dishes can be stretched out for another lunch. Some large sandwiches can be split up between two same-day meals.
Changing your eating habits takes a lot of patience and practice. Yes, you will probably be taking a sack lunch to work for the unforeseeable future. You may be using coupons for years. You might even give up dining out for good. Eventually you won’t be doing it out of financial necessity but as a result of smarter eating habits.