Living on the Cheap
March 19, 2005 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Any suggestions on how to cut spending on food and other 'discretionary' items?

Going into austerity for 14-18 weeks until I find a new job. What's nutritious and cheap? Do any of you use Costco et al to buy food? If you do, how can you balance buying a pallette of frozen food against limited freezer space? Suggestions welcome.
posted by nj_subgenius to Work & Money (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that Costco is usually more expensive than places like FoodCo, as Costco carries primarily branded products, whereas FoodCo carries mostly generics.

that said, living on frozen meals sucks -- after one or two days of eating microwaved crap, you'll probably want to blow your budget by going out for a meal. I'd make the time to cook and buy produce from farmer's markets (super cheap!) and meat from a warehouse store or safeway or whatever. maybe invest in a good cookbook or some decent cooking implements.

i lived on unemployment in SF primarily on eggs and dollar loaves of bread, but it wasn't necessarily a pleasant diet.
posted by fishfucker at 4:01 PM on March 19, 2005

er. that'd be foodsco.
posted by fishfucker at 4:02 PM on March 19, 2005

CostCo and the like require such an investment up front that I think it only pays off in savings if you've got a big family and enough discretionary funds to drop a couple hundred bucks your first trip.

There's a membership fee, plus the cost of things (though cheap per unit) is pretty whopping when you're paying all at once.

Best ways to save money: Bike or walk instead of drive; cook at home; make coffee at home; buy snacks when you grocery shop and keep them with you; think cheap entertainment.

What's nutritious and cheap? Beans -- you can eat really well by stocking up on garbanzos, black beans, and cannelini to make things like white bean/rosemary dip, black bean dip, burritos, hummus, etc. Rice. Fresh veggies. Peanut butter.
posted by Miko at 4:18 PM on March 19, 2005

Anything purchased prepared will cost more than its homemade equivalent, but I don't know how much time or expertise you have. I would recommend that you buy frozen only those things you can't/won't make yourself and that you'll start to miss (maybe Chinese food, or pot pies, whatever you feel is beyond your skills). Try to make your own simple dishes like pastas, salads, meatloaf, soups. The quality, variety and cost will be better than anything frozen.
posted by cali at 4:20 PM on March 19, 2005

I would not recommend eating spaghetti for an entire month. A friend in college said that he would eat a bowl of white rice and pour salad dressing over it. I can't, in good conscience, recommend that either!

One of my recent austere months was something like:
breakfast: oatmeal, fruit, bagels, or bake-mix muffins with frozen blueberries.
lunch: powerbar, crackers, yogurt or cottage cheese, salads, leftovers.
dinner suggestions: chili, soup, couscous, vegetables snuck into anything, casseroles, noodles, stir-fry, canned food.
snacks: pretzels, rice pudding, applesauce/dried fruit, homemade brownies or cookies. (The Moosewood New Classics cookbook has an awesome, fast, yummy, deep-chocolate cake recipe -- or any recipe that utilizes 'staple' foods is a good bet.)
drinks: coffee and tea are less expensive than sodas.

If you buy food in bulk, you're probably better off buying a huge bag of mixed vegetables -- or some other 'multipurpose' food -- as opposed to a box of 128 taquitos. Also, non-food items are the most expensive, anyway. I think it's more effective to treat yourself to good food but cut back on the material goods.

(I know someone else who actually re-used coffee grounds for two or three or four pots of coffee. Do not EVER let yourself believe this is a good idea. Your quality of life is worth far more than the three cents you might possibly save with this method.)
posted by oldtimey at 4:42 PM on March 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have found it's very economical to cook big on the weekend and live off leftovers through the week. If you buy carrots, beans, potatoes, onions, cabbage, things like that in bulk, you can get pounds and pounds of food for under ten bucks. Almost all those are easy to toss in a crockpot with some broth and a cheap cut of meat to make cheap, delicious stew. My favorite is potatoes, carrots, onions, and smoked sausage, cooked until it's all soft, with the broth thickened a little with flour. There you've got enough food for 4-6 meals if you dress it up with salad, bread, and butter. Not that butter's cheap.

Dried beans, lentils, and peas are very cheap, good food value, and lend themselves to cooking in bulk. It's also pretty easy to get tired of bean soup, so make big batches, eat a few servings, and freeze the rest in batches.

Rice should be a given.

Drinking anything other than water is a pretty expensive habit. You can save a heap by getting yourself used to drinking water, mostly, and regarding other drinks as an occasional luxury.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:52 PM on March 19, 2005

Sapporo Ichiban ramen noodle soup, which you can buy for $12 for a case of 24, with an egg broken in raw at the end and stirred to cook, and some scallions and leftover chicken or pork sliced in. Not exactly health food but filling and delicious.
posted by nicwolff at 5:01 PM on March 19, 2005

Each week I withdraw the amount of cash I'm allowed to spend on food at the beginning of the week, and I don't let myself spend anymore. I've been able to do it for $30 a week most weeks, though occasionally I spend as much as $10 more to bulk up my inventory of more expensive herbs, olive oil and other staples.

For $30 most weeks, $40 about one week every two months, I am able to eat three meals every day and snack on fresh fruits and veggies between meals.

If you don't let yourself spend any more than you budget for, you'll force yourself to stretch your dollar much further when you shop. You may also surprise yourself with the creative food ideas you come up with when you've only got a few ingredients left and can't go shopping for two more days.

I save money by structuring most of my meals around a combination of veggies (frozen, fresh or canned depending on price and season), starch (rice, pasta, bread, potatoes) and flavoring (butter, salt, pepper, herbs, soy sauce, cheese).

Breakfast is bulk no-name cold cereal, generic brand oatmeal (not instant or prepackaged), toast or eggs.

Lunch is last night's leftovers.

Dinner is where I put my time and effort.

I've noticed that different people have different protein needs. I can get by pretty well with a protein heavy dinner three or four times a week, with carbohydrates at the center of my diet the rest of the time. You may need more. If you eat meat, frozen meats can probably save you a lot of money. Otherwise, dried beans and lentils are cheap, soy products aren't so cheap but they're a good treat now and then. Eggs can also be a good source of protein.

Most major grocery store chains post their sales online each week, if you're keeping internet access. Watch for the sales, and buy key when they're on sale. Safeway had store-brand pasta on sale for 33-cents per pound (a third the normal price), last week, for example, so I stocked up.

If the several stores are in the same direction or general area, you can probably save 5% - 10% of your grocery bill by going to multiple stores.

Don't be afraid of frozen veggies. The New York Times food section recently ran an article about the improved quality of frozen veggies these days. Make sure the veggies are packed in loose plastic bags and that you can feel they haven't solidified into a solid block, to get the best quality. Frozen veggies are often considerably cheaper than fresh -- though not always -- so it's good to comparison shop.

Other good sources of fruits and vegetables: farmers markets in the warmer months. Asian, Hispanic and other "ethnic" markets also sell produce for much cheaper than many chain stores.

Once you have the food, just combine different veggies, starches and flavorings. Toss in protein from time to time. And try to make a point of having fruit every day.

A few meal ideas: You can make a stirfry with frozen veggies and soy sauce, then ad rice. Total cost: about 99-cents for the veggies, a few pennies for the soy sauce and probably 20 or 30 cents worth of rice -- $1.50. And that should be enough for two meals.

Or have pasta with sauce (the canned stuff is a lot cheaper than spaghetti sauce in a glass jar). If the pasta is 33-cents per pound and the sauce is 99-cents per can, you can get a meal's worth for less than 50 cents.

Potatoes with broccoli, butter, salt and pepper might cost a little more, if you buy good quality butter and fresh broccoli -- probably $2 for a meal.

Add protein and the price goes up, of course.

A few other ways to save money:
* Make your own bread. The basic basic ingredients require a bit of an upfront investment (flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and sometimes butter or olive oil). But you can have much cheaper and better bread than the 99-cent grocery store loaves if you make it yourself. It's time consuming, of course, but you're unemployed so you have time on your hands.
* Look for discount grocery stores. Most cities have stores that sell dented boxes and discontinued items for significant discounts -- often 80% or more.
* If you're really desperate and a little bit shameless you can get free condiments by checking out fast food joints. In college, I got jam, jelly, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, salt, pepper and parmesan for free by taking the little condiment pouches. You could probably also get hot sauce, pickle relish and vinegar from these condiment bars.

Good luck!
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:06 PM on March 19, 2005 [3 favorites]

If you absolutely must snack, consider old-fashioned pop-it-yourself popcorn.
posted by mischief at 5:09 PM on March 19, 2005

Cooking for yourself is the easiest way to save money. Eating out adds up quickly.

Beyond the obvious health benefits of reducing meat consumption, meat is incredibly expensive for the number of meals you can buy per dollar!

You can adequately cover protein needs with leafy greens, tofu, and tempeh. Many tasty dishes can be made with tofu and tempeh. These are relatively inexpensive options.

For those times you want meat, consider buying frozen fish in bulk. E.g., Trader Joes' prices for frozen fish are quite reasonable; much less expensive than Whole Foods (but then, what isn't?). Pull it out of the freezer, thaw and make lots of tasty meals on the cheap.
posted by AlexReynolds at 5:17 PM on March 19, 2005

crouton, do you have a link to the NYT article about frozen vegetables?
posted by sugarfish at 5:30 PM on March 19, 2005

sugarfish, you now have to pay for the New York Times copy of the article, but the same story is free through the Star Tribune (and lots of other places). There are some good details about shopping for frozen veggies.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:45 PM on March 19, 2005

Actually, CroutonSupaFreak, you can get the article through the New York Times Link Generator. Here.
posted by WCityMike at 5:58 PM on March 19, 2005

I should add that I don't cook all of my meals.

I clip coupons and watch for good deals, and when I see lower calorie frozen meals (Lean Gourmet, Healthy Choice, Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine) available for less than $2 per meal, I buy as many as my budget will allow. If you don't mind eating 400 to 800 calories per meal, you can get lots of frozen meals for closer $1 per box or less.

on preview: Thanks, WCityMike
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:04 PM on March 19, 2005

Best answer: Frugal links :)

Frugal Living at

Frugal Fun

The Art of Tightwaddery from Table Talk

Recipes for the Frugal Kitchen

Making cheap but nutrious soups and stews will really stretch your dollar. If I begin with broth (either pre-made or homemade), I find I can add so many things and end up with a good meal. Especially if you own a crock pot! It makes less expensive cuts of meats nice and tender...

You can dig up good recipes at Epicurious as long as you stay away from recipes with expensive ingredients.
posted by jeanmari at 6:16 PM on March 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Saving money on food:
  • Don't buy name brands, buy generic / store brands
  • Don't buy prepared foods, buy staples (flour, dried beans, oil, sugar, etc.) and make your food from scratch
  • Don't eat meat, you can get more than enough protein from grains and beans, and they are way cheaper
  • Buy in season fruits and vegetables from a farmer's market, or grow them your self.
If you're really trying to save money, the "Selection 3- Ration Package with No Blended Foods" (Flour, beans, and vegetable oil), one of the emergency rations recommended by USAID, would cost about $0.35 to $0.40 / day. Add some cheap / free vegetables and you're only spending $15 to $20 / month on food.
posted by Sirius at 6:28 PM on March 19, 2005

Don't forget to do price comparisons at multiple stores, prices can vary widely. On a budget you may get the most for your money by shopping for ingredients at many different stores.

Often ethnic grocers have better deals on the types of products they specialize in (compare pine nuts at $6 for a measly container at a regular supermarket vs. pine nuts at $6 for a huge container at an asian grocer). I've also seen the range of olive oil prices for the same brand, same size can range from $11 to $25 at stores within several miles of each other.
posted by spaghetti at 7:30 PM on March 19, 2005

Question regarding rice: Generally in my life I've only gotten rice as a side dish, which is fine. Then one time as a money saving experiment I tried to cook some up as a meal, and I made this big bowl of rice that turned out to be just about the maximum amount of rice I was capable of eating at one sitting.

But I was hungry again in an hour and had to eat another meal. Does this not happen to you people?

Pasta with sauce from canned tomato puree is indeed very cheap.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:33 PM on March 19, 2005

Anything white (white rice, jasmine rice, white bread, white-flour pasta) is going to have that effect, TheOnlyCoolTim. That's because all the fiber has been stripped from it in its processing. Try again with brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, or whole-grain bread.

I am starting to believe that grain processing is responsible for much of the evil in the world. But seriously. The difference is astounding. The extra fiber is satisfying -- makes you feel fuller longer -- and it also contains protein, so it digests slower and your body is happier.

Demo: take a slice of white bread and smush it into a ball. Small as you can. It gets pretty small, right? Now try the same with a slice of whole wheat. Pile of crumbles, not much reduced in bulk. Keep smushing: still not much reduction. That is fiber in action, my friends.
posted by Miko at 8:46 PM on March 19, 2005

You should try canned spaghetti sauce, which is not the same as tomato puree. It's got chunks of tomato, italian seasoning and other stuff you'd expect from the $5-a-glass-jar guys. Only it's 99 cents.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:11 AM on March 20, 2005

I have to second the crock pot idea.

If you eat meat, take a cheap cut of meat. Slow cook it with some vegetables, water, beans and maybe some spices, and you'll have a hearty and tender meal in a few hours or so. Can be easily stretched by serving it over rice or noodles.

Crouton, I'm going to be unemployed soon; I'm definitely using some of your suggestions when that happens! Especially the budgeting idea.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:36 AM on March 20, 2005

I like to season it myself.

Sometime maybe I will try brown rice - but white pasta and white bread do satisfy my hunger, unlike the white rice.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:50 AM on March 20, 2005

Get videos out of the library instead of renting them. I save myself hundreds of dollars a year by doing this.
posted by orange swan at 5:44 AM on March 20, 2005

if you have a place like save-a-lot, or aldi's near you, they're very cheap ... you may not be entirely satisfied with the selection or quality of everything but you will save money on what you buy there
posted by pyramid termite at 6:50 AM on March 20, 2005

I second the rice. That stuff is fantastic. Before, in the States, I couldn't cook, and I just dealt by eating nothing but frozen dinners and things (and dude, as a vegan, that processed shit is twice as nasty and more expensive than anything else). Now I do it Chinese style - fry up some chopped veggies with garlic or peppers (this, depending on the chopping, takes 20 minutes), boil a giant pot of rice, mix, and gnaw. When the veggies get limp and the rice gets cold, fry it together - fried rice is my favorite thing in the world, and it costs me practically nothing. Rice and vegetable oil are the only things you'll use with any frequency because you can cook ANYTHING this way.

Some of my favorites - mashed potatoes and bell peppers, green peppers and mushrooms with garlic.

In terms of other ideas, bittorrent is your friend, public transit + library book is actually even better than cars and radio, if you ask me, and, you know, watch the lights and wear a sweater. If you need clothes... do you have a neighbor with a sewing machine and free time? Don't throw them away, fix them. I bet if you gave him/her $3 to patch a hole in a t-shirt or something and promised to tell your friends you could find someone to do it. You could handwash t-shirts and other small clothing items every night and chuck them over a chair to dry - laundry bills are significantly reduced. Jeans and heavy fabrics are tough to wash in a bathroom sink. I don't even try anymore. One thing that I find saves me the need to wash all the time - inside and outside clothes/shoes. With the inside/outside clothes and washing in the sink, I have a load of laundry every week and half. And if you shut the water off while you shower and limit flushing to twice a day (I keep the door shut, the fan on, and make exceptions when necessary), you've cut out half your water consumption.
posted by saysthis at 7:10 AM on March 20, 2005

Unlike many of the responses above, I think the place to start is with your attitude about living cheap. If you follow all of the great advice above you may still end up hating the food you are eating and wishing for steak.

(by the way, for cheap cuts of beef, stick with things with the word "chuck" in them)

Turn your change in habits into fun. Go to your library and look at ethnic cook books. Much ethnic cooking is based upon significantly lower standards of living, try all of the great bean recipies out there (use dried beans, canned beans are fine but dried beans simmered for several hours are so much better.)

Try the "Acquacotta" Italian bread soup with many variations, Learn something about Tuscany at the same time. Chinese cooking is built around using small amounts of fuel and meat (expensive) to create wonderful meals, go to a museum on its free day and enjoy Chinese porcelain.

Mexican, Thai, and Indian cooking will introduce you to mysterious spices, learn their histories, go to those districts if you live in a large city. We lived in Brooklyn on the cheap for a couple of years. We were just out of the Arab district. Many of the store stayed open late because the families lived in the building. One night, late I needed curry powder and walked the few blocks to a store that sold everything from music and clothes to spices. I asked for some curry powder and the owner said "how much?" Not having the slightest idea in what units he sold spices I said "fifty cents worth" and went home with about a pound of curry. We cooked off of that curry for a long time.

Read how the French braise vegetables, there is nothing better than braised winter vegetables and they are the cheapest (carrots, parsips, potatoes.) Watch for end of week sales, the carrots marked down because they are looking a little wrinkly will be great braised with just a bit of oil and a few black olives thrown on top at the end.

Homemade bread is food for the soul, and better than what you buy at the Groc. Take a trip to an artesanal bakery and see how they do it. Read about bread, why did Marie Antoinette say "let them eat cake?" Find out.

Speaking of the French, go check out (the library again) "Citizens" by Simon Schama and read about the salt tax and how it changed history. You will not look at salt the same way again.

If you change you outlook from feeling deprived of what you are used to you will come out of the process enriched you will enjoy the change.
posted by leafwoman at 9:25 AM on March 20, 2005 [2 favorites]

This is a great thread. I want to point out one thing though:

Potatoes, like white bread and white rice, are not that good for you. Neither is chuck beef cut.

... unrelated to food: There are a lot of free/unsecured wireless internet access devices around where I live -- this cuts out the $35/mo that would otherwise go to Time Warner.
posted by fourstar at 2:43 PM on March 20, 2005

Actually the "chuck" reference was concerning taste and not health. Chuck has more fat in it and when cooked for a long time over low temperatures tastes wonderful, most other low cost cuts don't. I would suggest doing chuck in this manner once every couple of months and sticking with better sources of protein like beans.

There is a great website I can recommend:

nutrition data

type any food into it, select its preparation and read all about it. Try lentils for example, or grapefruit. It is a fun site. Eat healthy most of the time and you can cheat occasionally.
posted by leafwoman at 4:11 PM on March 20, 2005

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