INSIDE: Do you think it’s possible to eat for $1.00 per meal or less? It actually is! This article will give you some tips for how to eat on less so that you can cut down your grocery bill each month.
Welcome to part II of the Food Budget Battle!
If you missed our last post, a reader of this site – Braden – called malarkey on our blogger friend, Dan Miller, that there’s no way in God’s name you can eat meals for under a dollar (175+ comments so far!). Being the gentlemanly guy that I am, of course, I had to allow Mr. Miller himself a chance to rebuttal and show once and for all if it’s indeed possible ;) So feast your eyes on how he and his wife feeds their family of 8 for $700/mo with tips (and scanned in receipts) to prove it!
(Then be sure to check out his travel rewards blog and show him some love after – he’s spent a LOT of time over the past few weeks sharing his tips and tricks with us, and we truly appreciate that he has!)
After reading our post about the budget for our family of 8, reader Braden can’t understand how we can possibly eat for under $1 / day. He calculated that number off of our estimated monthly grocery budget of $700, divided by 720 (3 meals * 8 people * 30 days). He makes some good points about why he thinks that is an impossible feat and one that can not be replicated.
I can’t speak for him or his family, but I’d like to offer 7 points on how this works for us, and how we really DO eat on less than $1 / meal.
But first, some words on judging…
Before I start, let me talk a bit about judging. Any time you post a lot of information about yourself to a public forum, you’ll often get trolls and other commenters coming out of the woodwork with rather rude judgments about the limited information that they have. I try to let it roll off but it is a bit annoying.
**I firmly believe that the purpose of a budget is not to limit you, but instead to help you not spend money on things you don’t value, so that you have money left over to buy things that you DO value.**
So with that being said, let’s try to remain civil, shall we? :) Here’s how we eat so cheaply:
1. No Eating Out
It might go without saying, but we very, very, VERY rarely go out to eat at a restaurant. If and when we do, I probably would actually count that as “Entertainment” as opposed to “Grocery” but it happens so rarely I wouldn’t even count it. (<— J$: I like this idea!!!)
I go out to lunch with work folks maybe once or twice a month but I pay for that as the “Dan” envelope and if we were to go out to eat as a date, I’d also count that as “Entertainment”.
2. No Meat
My wife is a vegetarian, and although I am not, we rarely eat meat. Oh, we put pepperoni on one of our homemade pizzas (Pizza Thursday!!) and we’ll occasionally have bacon as part of a breakfast for dinner, and sometimes we’ll have hot dogs and hamburgers (and veggie burgers!) for dinner, but we almost never buy chicken or beef.
3. Regional Costs
Another thought I had as far as how we keep costs lower than many is varying regional costs. I live in Cincinnati, which has a below-average cost of living, food included. As an example, a gallon of milk here costs around $2 / gal.
Here’s a snippet of the actual weekly ad this week:
(Isn’t this weekly ad the most amazing website you’ve ever seen?!?!?)
I know that other places I’ve been to (Colorado, Washington DC), milk is MUCH more expensive. I’d imagine that those types of costs go across the gamut of all food costs.
4. Being Accustomed to a Certain “Lifestyle” of Food
Another factor that I think drives up some people’s grocery budgets is being accustomed to certain things as MUST HAVES. Take a careful look and re-examine things with a fresh eye. One of my favorite budgeting “hacks” is instead of starting with your current expenses and trying to cut things out – instead start at $0 and add things in one by one. You might be surprised at what you can do without.
One of my favorite stories about this goes back to the “No Meat” part. Many people (including probably several who are reading this post) either are or know someone who just can’t have a dinner without meat being involved. I am here to tell you that it IS possible to have dinner without meat as the main course and it still be very satisfying! (J$: I am very much one of these people :))
Anyways, several years ago, we were at a large week-long family reunion and as part of the reunion, each of the families took turns making dinner for the group in one week. The people making dinner all knew that my wife was a vegetarian, and wanted to make sure to make something that she could eat (which I appreciated!)
They were serving lasagna, and they just could not fathom the idea of a cheese (or vegetable) lasagna, so instead they took veggie burgers and mashed them up and put them in the lasagna as the “meat”. As you can imagine, it was kinda gross :)
The moral of the story is that you don’t HAVE to have meat (or certainly not with EVERY dinner), and if you’re looking for a way to cut food costs, that’s a great place to start.
5. Buying in Bulk
Now we don’t normally think of the fact that our family has 8 people as a money SAVER, but it’s definitely true that there exists a certain economy of scale. Making a meal for 8 people DOES cost more than making a meal for 4 people, but it usually doesn’t cost TWICE as much.
We buy giant 5 lb. bags of cheese from Sams Club, where it costs $10.73. Compare that to an 8 oz bag of cheese (1/10 as much!) which may run you $2.00 at a local grocery store, even on sale.
We’re able to make that work because we actually will eat all the cheese before it goes bad! Same goes for pasta sauce – we buy the 8.5 lb jar of Ragu for about $6, instead of a 28 oz jar (1/5 as much) for $1.89.
I actually think that Sams Club is generally speaking a ripoff for most things. We buy cheese, some snacks (cheese crackers / goldfish / etc), pasta sauce, syrup, and pancake mix but that’s it, and even that only works because our family is so large. I don’t think that doing the majority of your shopping at club stores like Sams or Costco is a wise financial move – you’re either buying more product than you need, in which case you eat more than you need, or your 128oz jar of pickles goes bad well before you can eat them all :)
We also like to stock up on non-perishable items when they go on sale. You buy a lot this week, when they’re on sale, so that next week, you don’t have to buy it when it’s back to regular price.
I used to be one of “those” extreme couponers, back before it was all cool and on TLC. 10 years ago I would regularly get all of our groceries essentially for free, using a combination of deals, coupons, rainchecks and a LOT. OF. TIME. It’s become a lot harder to do that than it used to be (though still not impossible) and we’ve decided to spend our time in other ways, so we very rarely use coupons.
6. Meal Planning
Meal planning is another good way that we keep costs down. This is another way that my stay-at-home wife, although she earns no income, makes a big positive contribution to our bottom line. There are lots of different ways to plan meals – how we do it is each month we plan a monthly calendar of meals. We have many of the same meals multiple times in a month (let’s give the shout out, once again to…. PIZZA THURSDAY! :-D), but we’ll usually have 1-3 new meals each month.
In addition to having an answer to the age-old question of “what’s for dinner” every night, a big money-saving advantage of meal planning is that you’re able to combine recipes that use some of the same ingredients, so that you don’t waste things that you have to buy just for one recipe (also, you can buy some things in bulk – see above)
You can take this even to the next level by doing your meal planning in conjunction with your store’s weekly ad so you are making meals (and stocking up!) on things that are on sale that week.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: A friend of mine recently launched a meal plan service that helps with planning cheap meals if anyone is interested! It’s called $5.00 Meal Plan and emails you a weekly meal plan that contains ten recipes to make each week. The plans are easy to prepare, don’t use exotic ingredients, and through careful spending and couponing will only cost you less than $5 a meal. You can check it out here: 5DollarMealPlan.com]
7. Cooking From Scratch Instead of Prepared Foods
Most people know that eating at home is cheaper than eating meals at restaurants, but it’s also true that cooking meals from scratch is cheaper than buying prepared foods at the grocery store (even if you are eating those at home).
Let’s go back to the original example that Braden shared, about the 50 cent per serving macaroni and cheese. While that may be true that a 50 cent serving of mac and cheese is the cheapest PREPARED meal you can buy, you can do meals a LOT cheaper than that if you’re making them from scratch.
One example I’ll use is spaghetti. A 16oz box of spaghetti noodles, 2 jars of pasta sauce (or the big bottle of Ragu pasta sauce that we buy), and a loaf of garlic bread might run you about $5, and would be enough for (at least) 2 meals for us. $5 / 16 meals is about 31 cents a meal, and there are other (similar) meals that can be made that cheap.
A Real Life Example
But what good is all this talk without a real life example to back it up? Here are our actual receipts from last week’s grocery shopping. You can see that we do shop (primarily) at 3 different grocery stores – Aldi, Sams Club and Kroger.
Yes, this does take additional time than it would if we just shopped at one place – my wife says that it takes her about an hour and a half to do the weekly shopping, including driving time to each store. Again, this is a non-income-producing benefit of having a stay-at-home spouse – families with both spouses working may value their free time a lot higher, since it’s more limited.
The gross total for the week is: $186.03
Now, different people do budgeting differently, and there are a few things on these receipts that some people might not count in their “grocery” budget.
Looking through the receipts, I see that we have:
- Household expenses – Garbage bags $4.99 + tax, Dryer sheets $1.19 + tax, Laundry Detergent $5.99 + tax, tape $1.19 + tax
- School expenses – rubber bands 49 cents + tax (these were for a catapult my son built for a Boy Scout merit badge)
- Snacks for our March Madness party that I would probably classify as “Entertainment” – $1.89 ranch dip, $1.05 Swiss rolls, $1.05 Swiss rolls, $0.99 Cheese curls, $1.99 Pita Chips, $0.79 Cheese Puffs, Potato Chips $1.49.
- Allergy medicine – $5.99 + tax
- You’ll also see that, contrary to what I said above, we did buy some chicken for $5.99 at Kroger :-D. Special meal for my parents coming to visit
I’m not trying to engage in “fuzzy” accounting tricks, but just trying to give an accurate portrayal of our actual grocery costs. If I were scoring at home, I would count the household and school expenses in, but not the medicine or the party snacks, for a weekly “Grocery” total of $170.39.
This amount is in line with our weekly totals for the past few weeks, which are:
Keep in mind that I did not make any “adjustments” to those weekly totals – they are the exact amounts as come off of our credit card / bank statements and as such are going to include some items that are probably not actually food / groceries. So I feel comfortable in saying that we are in the $700 range for our monthly grocery expenditures.
I hope that you have enjoyed this post and gotten some ideas on how our family of 8 does food spending. I’d love to hear (constructive!) feedback and tips on how you make it work in your family?
What do you think guys?? Does Braden or Dan win the battle here? Does it really matter? (No)
The takeaways of the last two posts here are just examples of two drastically different ways of living and eating. It doesn’t mean one way is “right” or “wrong,” but if you’re not happy with your current results it’s probably good to consider some of the alternatives.
I don’t know if I can give up meat personally (mmmmmm) but we already eat out way less and can surely do better about mean planning and making food from scratch too. As Dan points out though, there’s always a trade off: time.
So the real question is, how bad do you really want a lower food budget?
BIG thanks to both Braden and Dan Miller for putting themselves out there and keeping it real on both sides. Takes some large cajones to do that, and I very much appreciate it! Be sure to check out Dan’s travel blog as well to follow his journey and learn other hacks in life: PointsWithACrew.com