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How to Eat When You Have No Income

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Image of bananas in a store with the title "How to Eat When You Have No Income"

Losing your job is a terrible, terrible feeling. You’re now at home, with no income, wondering how you’re going to make it. Will you be able to pay your bills? Will you even be able to eat?

My husband John has lost his job 5 separate times, twice since having our daughter Allison. Each time we’ve had to make sacrifices and get creative, and while we never went without, it was still tough.

You can still eat even when you have no income coming in; here are some tips we’ve picked up each time that may help if you’re in our situation, as well as plenty of recipes to get you started.

Disclaimer: I’m not a nutrition expert, and while some of the recipes below may not be perfectly healthy, understand that you are doing the best you can with the money you have!

First decide how much you’re going to spend each week.

If you don’t know what your budget will be, you’ll still end up spending way more than you want to. Take a look at your receipts and see how much you’ve spent in the past, and then decide what you think you can live with for a short time.

For those that read my blog often, you know that I spend $75 a week on my family of 3. During these two most recent job losses, we ultimately decided that we were going to cut our budget down to $30 a week.

We’ve cut our budget like this before when Allison was a baby, so we’re definitely familiar with eating cheaply. Be sure to read my post on how we ate for $37 a week for a year to see what we did back then!

Know the good price points, and only buy what’s on sale.

I mean that. If apples are currently $5.00 a bag and they usually go on sale for $2.50, don’t even think about buying it this week, even if you really want them. Find a cheaper alternative; maybe buy bananas instead that are on sale for $.39 a pound!

I usually only buy the produce that’s in season and really cheap. If packs of zucchini are $.69 at Aldi, you can bet we’ll be eating zucchini every day with dinner. If pasta is $.50 a box at Kroger, hello spaghetti! Hello pasta bakes!

Image of clearance items at Aldi

I would even suggest doing some of your grocery shopping/meal planning around the clearance sections at your grocery stores. My favorite is Aldi’s clearance aisle; not everything they have in there is dinner-related, but I find a lot of marked down pasta/gnocchi, pasta sauce, beans, canned goods that I’ll decide to use for dinner instead, or even just purchase for next week’s dinners.

Practice portion control.

By this, I don’t mean starve yourselves. This is something I learned when I started my health journey last year.

Before, I would make a casserole that serves 6-8, and John and I would eat about half of it in one sitting. Not only were we eating too much food, we were spending more money on food each week.

Instead of having double helpings of the main dish, have a reasonable portion and then prepare one or two cheap sides, like frozen vegetables or bread. Side items are typically cheaper, and will fill you up while keeping your budget in check.

Image of dried rice in a cup

Go meatless multiple times a week.

Meat can be one of the more expensive parts of your meals, so make something else the star of the meal! Rice and beans sound boring, but together they form a complete protein and you can find a lot of ways to make them more interesting.

Would you consider having breakfast for dinner, too? Pancakes are incredibly cheap to make, whether you buy the boxed mix or make them yourself. You could also make waffles, eggs, biscuits, hash browns… breakfast can be meatless too but still be filling and delicious.

Now that we’re on a limited budget, I plan to do both rice and beans and breakfast for dinner every week to keep costs down. Here are some meatless recipes we’ve tried and enjoyed:

Supplement your income.

If you’re temporarily unemployed, you probably have a little extra free time on your hands (while you’re not on the hunt for a job). This could be a good time to supplement your income with something to help pay for groceries.

Doing side jobs is one idea, but if you’re unable to leave the house for whatever reason, there are things you can do online. I talk about Swagbucks all the time, but seriously, this website has saved my life when it comes to paying for groceries.

Swagbucks is a website where you can take surveys and do special offers to earn points, called Swagbucks, that you can then redeem for gift cards of all sorts. Amazon is nice, but consider redeeming for a Wal Mart or Sam’s Club gift card to help pay for your groceries.

You can redeem a $25.00 gift card for 2,200 Swagbucks, instead of 2,500, once a month, with the exception of PayPal. If you don’t have a Wal Mart or Sam’s Club around, you can always redeem your Swagbucks for a PayPal card and use the money anywhere.

I use all of mine at Sam’s Club, which pays for all my paper goods, dishwasher tabs, wipes, and bulk food items like string cheese, shredded cheese, and chicken breasts. This will truly help when we’re running out of those more expensive items!

I wrote a guide here that explains how I earn $50.00 a month or more by using Swagbucks.

Re-purpose leftovers.

This may not apply to you if you have a large family that doesn’t create leftovers, but re-purposing them is a great way to create a new dinner for “free”. Here are things that we do:

  • Cook a huge turkey or ham and use the leftover meat in everything. Turkey can be shredded and used in anything that uses shredded chicken, like tacos or soups. Ham can be used as sandwiches, put in omelettes for breakfast, or soups.
  • Make a big batch of chili, and use some leftovers for chili spaghetti or chili dogs.
  • Use taco meat for burritos, quesadillas, taco cups, or salad.
  • Add leftover rice to stir-fry veggies and add chicken for a new meal.

Make super simple lunches.

Lunches are really simple in our household, because we always eat dinner leftovers. Similar to above, this may not work for you if you have a larger family, but you can still do other really simple and cheap things for lunch. Try to add snack-like veggies like carrot sticks or broccoli, or fruit, if it’s in your budget that week.

  • Snack lunches- Crackers/cheese/salami
  • Sandwiches
  • Cheese quesadillas
  • Pizza quesadillas
  • Walking tacos
  • Smoothies
  • Bean and cheese burritos
  • Buttered noodles (With or without cheese)
  • Bagel/English muffin pizzas

Image of homemade dinner rolls on a baking tray

Make everything yourself.

One of the best things you can do to keep costs down is to make everything yourself. You can make any kind of bread item- loaves, dinner rolls, sub rolls, hamburger/hot dog buns, English muffins, tortillas, pizza dough… you don’t even need a bread machine for any of them, although it does make things easier. I’ll even make my own spaghetti/pizza sauce.

All of this does take some time and effort, but it makes a huge difference in your budget. Here’s a list of recipes I use frequently, and all the bread items pretty much require the same ingredients: Flour, sugar, yeast, salt, eggs, and butter. All really cheap!

Hopefully these tips will help if you’re in our situation, or are even just living on a really tight budget and need to pull things in even tighter. Do you have anything to add to this list? Please share with us in the comments!

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Lisa

Saturday 15th of May 2021

My husband, son and I went thru a tough period financially. I lost my job in a recession. My husband had switched jobs taking a1/2 pay cut to follow a different career path. Using the Tightwad Gazette I got our food, personal care goods and house goods including diapers down to $35 a week. Included in that I built a pantry. Over time, as I sharpened my skills, I got a 1 yr pantry, 6mo-1yr freezer (upright 19cu.ft.) and 1yr supply of personal and home goods. It took a year to reach a years worth of stock up. I shopped 3-4 grocery stores a week plus the marts. To not feel stressed, I turned it into a game. Our Money against anyone trying to get it. I had a Menu Plan, Meal Plan, Price Book, coupons, sales and rebates. I even included energy used to cook and buy food to save money. We ate fruits, veggies, meat and potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes and pasta. Mostly I shopped the pantry/freezer. The only meal with beans was chili, chili mac, and chili cheese hotdogs. And the lentils & rice casserole in The Tightwad Gazette. Oh and hummus was a lifesaver with an 11-18yr old. I guess we had more beans then I thought. Imagine if I had known about black beans and pinto beans, lol. Meat was 39-69cent lb turkey, 69-99cent lb ham, 69cent lb whole chicken, 99cent lb 80% hamburger, tuna fish 6oz can .35cents. My husband required meat at every meal. He required snacks and ice cream. That challenged the budget. Luckily coupons sales at different stores made it possible, though the item might not be exactly what he wanted. One thing that helped was my Menu Plan had meals at three levels: dirt cheap, moderate cheap and splurge. Splurge was a great cut of steak($7) or 1lb of shrimp($6), on sale of course. A splurge was once a month, twice after a while. Occasionally, I watched my niece and nephew as a substitute daycare provider or other side money. I bought clothes, toys and household items at yard sales. We went without cable until the cable company ran a special and installed it for free and then just got basic. I used the library for books, cds and movies. I wanted to go down to one car but my husband refused. We vacationed in a state park cabin one week and with family at the beach one week each year. He took 3-4 day catch and release fishing trips twice a year. It was a great life in a great house in a relaxed neighborhood with very very good schools. There were difficult challenges but we made. I remember offering to show others how I did it, but most would rather their husbands work overtime or get money from their family or....... for about 2-3 month Food Lion had a $1 coupon off $1 brand name pasta. That’s a stock up price. I stopped of for 5 mins after work and got 8 per day. I did this for 2 mons. The first 2 weeks I stocked my pantry, after that it went to the food pantry. One day another brand pasta was on sale and with a newspaper coupon it was 50 cents a lb. The shelf was clear of .50 cent pasta and full of the free pasta. I laughed so hard, I mean really?! This year, 2 months ago was an opportunity to get Mueller pasta free, up 44 boxes free. Or it was a moneymaker of $2.20 for just 10 boxes. Best wishes to you and yours as you navigate these challenging times.

Jaime

Monday 17th of May 2021

Lisa, you are AMAZING! Thank you so much for sharing your story!

Melissa

Sunday 2nd of May 2021

It's 2021 and I'm finding this very helpful. We are a no income family. I'm growing a huge garden this year to not spend much money. Thank you for all the cheap tips. I found a recipe that sounds cheap, filling and delicious. It's lentil and caramelized onion pockets. It's made with homemade pizza dough. I think it makes 5 or six pockets. I was glad to see your post as a reminder of eating cheaply can be good and healthy. 😁

Jaime

Sunday 2nd of May 2021

That sounds really good, Melissa! Thank you so much for sharing your story.

texas nana

Saturday 22nd of February 2020

Dont forget to make home made soup when your veggies get over ripe or past prime . Just add bean or another small amount of protein and broth, I clean out the frig weeekly and make soup or crock pot a meal. I also freeze grated zuchinni or yellow squash and carrot add to soups, spaghetti sauce, tacos, sloppy joe etc. for extra nutrition and noone ever complains about the extra veggie

Judy E.

Monday 17th of February 2020

I was cooking chili and having friends over when I learned one of then didn't like beans in the chili. So I took some of the tomato, blended it with beans and added it to the pot of chili, I got rave reviews and still saved money. I now use blended beans and a little meat in a lot of dishes, it adds protein without adding cost.

Kathy

Monday 18th of February 2019

What do you think about shopping at dollar tree stores

Jaime

Monday 18th of February 2019

I'm all for it! You can find a lot of the basics at Dollar Tree, and some stores even have a freezer section where you can buy frozen fruits and veggies! Now, you're not always getting the best deals. Like peanut butter may only be a dollar, but it's much smaller than what you'd find at a grocery store. But I know you can eat fairly well with just Dollar Tree items if you're on a temporarily low budget. =)

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