How to Feed Yourself for $50 a Week or Less
For the average single person, housing and food are the biggest expenses. Once you've signed a lease, your housing costs are pretty much fixed. But each month you'll make hundreds of choices that affect your food costs — making it a budget category ripe with savings potential and overspending pitfalls. (See also: Create Your First Budget in 5 Easy Steps)
If you've been accustomed to eating on a dormitory meal plan or living on Cap'n Crunch, developing proficiency at making real meals on a budget will take planning and practice. Here are some strategies that veteran bargain shoppers use to save on groceries.
1. Set a Weekly Budget…and Stick to It
You may think you'll just go to the store and spend as little as possible, but having a hard number in mind will help you save much more. Many bargain shoppers — not just students but experienced shoppers with big families to feed — find it useful to go to the grocery store with only the amount of cash they intend to spend (no credit or debit cards) to make sure they stick to the budget without being tempted to go over.
How do you come up with your first budget? If you are already grocery shopping for all your meals, save two weeks worth of receipts. Calculate how much you spent per week, and then evaluate that. Did you have enough food with enough variety to make a week's worth of good meals? Can you afford to continue buying that much, or do you need to reduce your spending?
Based on this evaluation, set a budget goal. If you're OK with the groceries you've been buying but feel you want to cut your spending, start by setting your budget at 10% below what you were already spending. With a goal in place, you'll find ways of meeting it. You may even find after a few weeks that you're ready to reduce your budget by another 10%.
If you haven't already been shopping for yourself and don't know where to begin, try a weekly budget of $50. This is half of what many frugal families with children spend, so it should be high enough for a single person to eat nutritiously even if you don't make every single meal from scratch.
Since there are 21 meals in a week, $50 may seem awfully low — just $2.31 per meal! But keep in mind that some meals, especially breakfasts, can be made very cheaply. For example, a canister of oatmeal containing 30 servings may be purchased on sale for $3, providing an entire month's worth of breakfasts for just a dime apiece. Throw in a sliced banana or small diced apple for an extra quarter per day if you want it “deluxe.” If your breakfast only costs 35 cents, that frees up money so that your dinner can cost more than $2.31, and you'll still stay within budget.
Also keep in mind that $50 is just an example. You may find that in your area, or with your dietary needs, a week's worth of groceries costs more or less. The point is that you should figure out a budget goal and stick to it.
2. Pick Your Store
Prices vary surprisingly widely among different types of grocery stores. In fact, Consumers' Checkbook magazine found that in the Chicago area, the difference between the most expensive and least expensive stores was as much as 21% — when buying the same items!
Any investment that could guarantee a 21% return would be a no-brainer — and yet some people who spend hours poring over investment strategies think that grocery savings are not worth spending time on. The best thing about saving money, compared to earning it with investments? Savings are tax free.
If you have been shopping at a high-end store or a corner convenience store, you'll be able to save a large chunk of change by switching to a bargain store such as an Aldi or Save-a-Lot, a warehouse store, or a big-box store such as Target or Walmart, which are increasingly including grocery sections. If you want to shop at a warehouse store like Costco but you live alone, you may want to team up with a friend to split up large packages — if your food goes bad before you can eat it all, you haven't saved anything by buying in bulk!
Another great strategy (especially if you live in an urban area) is to look for ethnic grocery stores and produce markets. For example, in San Francisco produce shops in the Mexican Mission District and Chinatown sell very fresh produce at low prices.
While discount grocery stores are great for busy people who don't want to worry about sale prices and coupons, it's also possible to save money at a traditional grocery store such as a Safeway — if you pay attention to what is on sale.
3. Learn How Grocery Sales Work
Traditional grocery stores are also called “high-low” operators because they can sell the same item for a high price one week and a much lower price the next. At these stores, buying on sale can make a huge difference in your food prices. Each store typically advertises several “loss leaders” — items that they may lose money on — to get people into the store.
“Stores count on us going in for sale items and loss leaders, then doing the rest of our shopping at everyday high prices,” said Rachel Singer Gordon, author of the blog MashupMom.com. “Shop more strategically and stock up on sale items so you never have to pay full price.”
When a non-perishable item you use regularly goes on sale, definitely buy more than one. This will free up money in next week's budget to stock up on things that go on sale next week. But don't buy too much extra until you have been watching sale prices for a few months, because some discounts are much bigger than others. You don't want to buy six months worth of laundry detergent only to see it go on an even better sale next month. Buy one, get one free sales often feature the best prices you will see on an item.
Make sure to find out if the store requires you to have a loyalty card to get the sale prices — there's nothing worse than thinking you just saved a bunch of money only to get home and realize you paid full price.
The best way to save money with sales is to be flexible with your purchases. People often advise sticking to a shopping list, but if you make a list without looking at what's on sale, you could actually spend even more than you would buying on impulse. Check out your store's sale flyer — pick one up at the store or look online — and make your list based on what's on cheap that particular week. That may involve trying new foods or brands.
4. Look for Store Brands
House brands are often made in the same factories as the name brands, but they sell for less. If you have a name brand in your cart, even if it's on sale, take the time to check to see if the store brand is cheaper before you check out. And when store-brand items go on sale, their prices are tough to beat.
5. Give Coupons a Try
You may associate coupons with older people — or with those crazy shoppers on shows like TLC's “Extreme Couponing” who spend 40 hours a week clipping. But in reality, you can save money even if you only spend a few minutes a week on coupons.
You'll find a lot of coupons in Sunday newspapers, but that's not the only place to get them these days. You can print out coupons at home or download coupons directly to your phone, using tools such as Safeway’s JustforU app.
Try a coupon database such as the one at Hot Coupon World, where you can search for the product you want to buy and find out if there's a coupon available and where to find it.
6. Do a Little Prep Work
Sometimes you can save a lot of money with just a little work. Look at the difference in price between pre-chopped vegetables and whole fresh ones. Try buying the whole veggies and time yourself while chopping them. If it took you an extra five minutes to chop but cost $2 less, that's the equivalent of earning $24 per hour, tax free. Is that worthwhile for you? It all depends on how much you typically earn, how much spare time you have, and how much you like to cook.
7. Cut Waste
Forty percent of food produced in the United States is thrown away, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In fact, most of the garbage in municipal dumps is food. These are distressing facts, but they also point to a huge opportunity — if you stop throwing away food, you can actually get more and better food for the same amount of money.
The main reason food gets thrown away, of course, is because it goes bad, so don't let that happen. One way to avoid throwing away food is to sketch out a meal plan before you shop to make sure you'll use all the fresh produce or meat you're buying. Another way is to have a plan for using leftovers promptly. If you're not going to be able to use leftovers within a day or so, put them in your freezer, and you'll have a quick meal ready on a future busy day.
If you have odds and ends left over after cooking, save even small amounts of ingredients — you can always throw them into spaghetti sauce or a can of prepared soup to avoid letting them go to waste.
Another easy way to avoid wasting food is to keep the refrigerator uncluttered. If you lose sight of yesterday's leftovers behind a crowd of almost-empty ketchup bottles, you're likely to forget about it until it's too late.
Sticking to that weekly budget can really help you cut waste — if you know you can't buy more groceries until the end of the week, you're more motivated to make good use of every ingredient you buy.
8. Avoid Eating Out
Fifty dollars can buy several bags of groceries — or it can disappear in just one or two restaurant meals. Then again, it's no fun to say you'll never eat out, unless you're truly on a subsistence budget.
Budget for your restaurant meals just as you do for your grocery meals. You may be able to fit restaurants into a $50 weekly budget if you keep your grocery list down to $35 and allow $15 for your share of a weekly meal out with friends. Or if you can afford it, set an additional restaurant allowance — but just remember that using your new bargain shopping skills, you could probably feed a lot of friends at home and even buy a bottle of wine for the price of just your own entree and a drink out.