A report on how this family of 3 ate frugally, for $37 a week, for a full year. If you’re looking for cheap meal ideas or cheap dinners, read these tips!
If you’re reading this, you may be in the same position I was back in 2013. A new mom, transitioning to stay home with her newborn, and suddenly realizing you can’t breastfeed and have to put your baby on formula, an expensive and unexpected expense.
On top of all the emotional aspects of having a new baby, you now have to figure out where the money for the formula will come from and how you’ll make it.
This was an unfortunate reality for me and John after we had Allison, and we decided to take the money out of our grocery budget of $60 a week. We were left with $37 to live on for food and household items, and I wondered how we’d do it.
It wasn’t perfect, but we survived, and I want to outline exactly what we did for that entire year in hopes that I can encourage someone who might be in the same situation.
A few things to note before you read on:
Did we buy organic food? No.
Did we eat “clean”? No.
Did we at least try to eat healthy? Depends on what you call healthy. Keep in mind we were dealing with our first baby and all the hormones and depression that can sometimes go with that, so I ask that you read with an open mind and know that we’re much better now and can see what we eat in my grocery hauls on Youtube.
Most of the meals we made can be found in my new “Emergency Meals” e-book, which you can find here at a special discount!
cheap foods we Bought and Ate
The two main stores we shopped at during this time were Meijer and Aldi. Aldi was our heavy-hitter, where we bought most of the essentials, and Meijer was for the great coupon deals.
Here were some of the items that made its way into our grocery list most weeks:
Pasta: I only bought pasta when it was less than $1.00 per box. My stock-up price was 50 cents, and I would buy 4-5 boxes at a time.
Salad dressing: Our main vegetable and side item was salad, with cheese, croutons, and bacon bits (See above question about whether we ate healthy). I could get Kraft salad dressing for less than $1.00 after coupons, so it made for a cheap option.
Lunch meat: I distinctly remember one week where John said, “You have $18 this week for food. Can you do it?” Meijer had a Buy 8 Items, Get $8 off sale so I bought a lot of deli ham and bologna for something like $.69 each, along with boxes of Velveeta shells and cheese for $.99. We had macaroni and cheese, sandwiches, and wraps all week, but I was under budget!
Salsa, sour cream, enchilada sauce, tortilla shells: We ate a LOT of simple Mexican food, which consisted of any/all of the previously mentioned items as well as rice and home-cooked dried black beans. We’d eat them as tacos, burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas, or just a regular burrito bowl.
Kraft macaroni and cheese: Yep, I said it. We ate Kraft macaroni and cheese. It’s still one of our favorite brands and we’d eat it as a complete meal, sometimes adding cut-up hot dogs.
DiGiorno pizza: If we could get these for under $5, I’d buy a few for the freezer. These were great cheap meal nights!
Fruits/veggies and baby food pouches: I made Allison’s baby food, using simple fruits and vegetables, and froze the puree in ice cube trays. When she refused purees on a spoon, I bought the pouches instead and gave her one a day. I found that Beech-Nut is the cheapest at $.88 each at Wal Mart.
Here were some of our staples at Sam’s Club:
Chicken breasts: We bought them at $1.88 per pound, in approximately 5-pound packages, and froze some for future use.
Chocolate chips: We’d buy a 4-pound bag and use them in pancakes and waffles.
Pancake mix: I know it’s cheaper to make your own, but for $5.00 we got a lot of mix and it lasted us quite awhile.
Ground turkey: I can’t remember when we started to buy this, but we started using this instead of ground beef. $2.59/lb as opposed to $2.99+/lb.
Shredded cheese: We’d buy the 5-pound bags of cheese and froze them into 1-pound bags.
We had to be careful when we bought things at Sam’s. Most things were $10+, so one item would wipe out half our grocery budget for the week. I used Swagbucks when I could, taking surveys here and there to get extra gift cards, but I only got around 2 $25.00 gift cards that entire year.
Cheap meals We Made
Dinner (Lunch was always leftovers)
Burrito bowls (rice, black beans, salsa, sour cream, cheese, jalapenos)
Nachos (Same as above but with tortilla chips)
Cereal (from Aldi, or large bags at Meijer)
Piece of sausage on toast
Pancakes/Waffles (Bought a bulk bag of mix at Sam’s, made big batches and froze the leftovers)
How We Finished Out Strong
Allison was born in October 2013, and in April 2014 we got enough money from our tax return to make a big GFS (Gordon Food Services, like Sam’s but mostly restaurant quality food/items) and Sam’s Club run.
We bought household essentials: paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, freezer bags, etc. We also bought food for a month’s worth of meals.
I used this $5 Dinner’s monthly menu for Sam’s Club. (Note: It looks like this menu is now only for purchase and no longer free.)
All the paper goods lasted us almost 6 months, which was when we were able to finally up our grocery budget!
Frequently Asked Questions
Didn’t you qualify for food stamps?
To be honest, we didn’t check. We were still navigating the basics of budgeting and probably COULD have kept our grocery budget the way it was and found the money for the formula.
I think a lot of this situation was just trying to see if we could actually do it. If we were in dire straights, we definitely would have taken advantage of food stamps and the local food bank.
By the way, there is no shame in accepting assistance. That’s why it’s there! If you need it, take full advantage.
How did you figure out the cheapest store?
Because I’d done most of my grocery shopping at Aldi already, I knew that was cheapest for a lot of my pantry staples.
There were a few items I knew I could buy cheaper elsewhere when on sale. I’d check the Meijer and Kroger ad for sale prices, and their apps to see if there was a free item to clip. Kroger had a freebie Friday during that time, and I took advantage!
I also found a couple discount stores in my area- mainly bread outlets. I could buy loaves of bread and other bread items for 50 cents each. It was a great way to stock up my freezer.
Are you eating healthier now?
Our weekly budget has increased significantly since then, which has allowed us to buy more whole foods.
We’re not perfect (Nobody is), but now I try to include fruits and vegetables in our everyday meals. I still search for the best deals to get the most out of our money!
How important is planning your meals?
SO important! Meal planning has saved my family so much money in the long haul. You need to know what you’re eating for the next few days/week, and that means making a shopping list and sticking to it.
Even when John lost his job and we lowered our budget to $30 a week, we still did weekly meal plans because it meant we saved money.
How we survived
I prayed constantly. I didn’t think we could continue this for a full year, but little things happened that I just knew was God at work.
If we needed to buy something we were almost out of, it would magically be on sale the next week, or it would be the off week that we didn’t need to buy formula, or I somehow had enough Swagbucks to get a gift card to use at Sam’s!
We were never in need, and we got through it, and we were still faithful.
If you’re in a similar situation, remember that you WILL get through this. Times will be tough. You’ll probably cry because you just want a little extra money for groceries.
I’ve been there, multiple times, and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Keep praying, keep doing your best with what you have, and you’ll make it through your situation with an inspiring story to share and a better understanding of how you can survive on a shoestring budget.
Jaime is a Nutrition Coach and professional writer. She enjoys cooking easy meals, running, and learning more about food.
Jaime specializes in helping women with ADHD learn to meal plan and cook healthier meals without getting overwhelmed.