Feeding My Family for $129.99: Little Lessons in Frugality

As someone who publicly admits to being cheap to sometimes ridiculous extremes, I wondered if I would learn any new tricks for saving money on grocery shopping during my month of cheap eating. It seems like every time you read an article about saving on food, you hear the same things over and over: use coupons, plan menus, buy in bulk . . . zzz. I’ve posted about some of my unconventional money-saving techniques here on the Green Baby Guide. Here’s my article on Saving Money on Organic Groceries that contains most of my tried and true tips.

During my month of super cheap eating, I got to put most of my old tips to the test. I also learned a few new things. Many of them might be obvious to you but new to me. And some are kind of specific to my situation and the way I eat. But here we go!

Cheap Eats Diary

In May I fed my family of three for $129.99. I kept this diary during the month to write my article “Real Life Hunger Games,” which was published on xoJane in June. Here’s a more day-to-day look at how I pulled it off.

May 1

Goal for this week is to not spend any money at all.

We went shopping three days ago and spent $35. Breakfast: banana with p.b. Lunch: leftovers. Dinner: I made spaghetti sauce with tomatoes I bought last Saturday. One pint left. Not cheaper than buying a jar. Three pounds of tomatoes, $3. Oh well. Delicious. Running out of milk.

Andy says (seriously) he wishes there had been kale or cabbage in the sauce. He says it really adds a lot of “body” to a meal. Vow to buy Andy a cabbage at next shopping trip.

Can we live on $33 a week?

For the month of May, I’m thinking—just thinking, mind you—about slashing my grocery budget. The last time I tracked my expenditures, I spent $280 on food in a month on three people. (We also entertained five house guests during that time.) So this May, I’m thinking of going much, much lower: $33 a week. That figure will include going out to eat, which just might put a cramp in our weekly brunching habit.

Time to dust off the homemade bagel recipe.

What do you think? Can we feed a family of three on $33 a week without starving or subjecting ourselves to a month of beans, rice, and ramen? Give me your advice for cheap eating!

How Much Should Groceries Cost?

I was talking to a neighbor about our grocery expenditures, and she was shocked when I told her we spent just $175 a month for my family of three. She has one more child than I do, but she spends almost $1000! Her astonishment made me wonder if this $175 figure was still accurate. After all, it had been a couple years since I tracked all my purchases. Back in May of 2009, I wrote about saving money on organic groceries. Then, in My Shopping Lists: Saving Money at the Grocery Store, I revealed exactly what that $175 got me.

So, last April (in 2011) I tracked my purchases again—and I shelled out $280! That’s a 60% increase in just two years! Now, according to the USDA food plans (updated in 2011), we’re still doing well. A family like ours (a man and woman in their thirties, plus a five-year-old child) would pay $450.80 a month on food on their “thrifty plan.”

My Shopping Lists: Saving Money at the Grocery Store

If you’ve been reading along, you know my tricks for spending just $175 a month on organic food and how I plan my meals.  I kept track of all my grocery expenses for six weeks and calculated that I spend an average of $175 a month on groceries.  What, exactly, do I get for that amount?

Here’s what I bought in one month:

$66.00  (Veggie delivery every other week at $33.00 each)

$ 3.94 (Fred Meyer: flour)

$ 9.97 (Fred Meyer: peppers, frozen spinach, tortillas)

$24.30 (Trader Joe’s: beans, olive oil, dried fruit, frozen beans, jam, shells and cheese, peanuts)

$17.59 (Fred Meyer: oil, spices, beans, popcorn, lime, lentils, cilantro)

Saving Money on Breakfasts, Lunches, and Snacks

In this post I discussed my dinner menus that save me money on groceries.  What do we eat the rest of the time?

Breakfast foods.  We don’t eat a wide variety of foods for breakfast.  My daughter and I eat toast with peanut butter or microwave oatmeal most mornings.   Sometimes I’ll make homemade waffles or wholegrain pancakes. My husband eats granola (or other organic convenience foods) at work.

Lunch foods.  Andy eats a black bean burrito (which we make in big batches and freeze) every day for lunch–and after about six years, he has still not grown tired of them!  Audrey eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, macaroni and cheese, a quesadilla, or something like that along with apple slices, carrot sticks, or other snack-like items.  I tend to eat leftovers from dinner for lunch.

The Saturday Question: What Are Your Favorite Meat-Free Meals?

Cutting back on meat even one day a week can have tremendous economic and environmental benefits.  For more details, check out Rebecca’s post on this very topic. Many American dishes are meat-free, but we’d love to hear your family’s favorites.  Do they love bean burritos, spaghetti and marinara or something as sophisticated as eggplant parmesan?   Help inspire us with your meat-free favorites—and feel free to list recipes as well! 

It’s Easy Eating Green on Meatless Mondays

What do beer, potato chips, and peanut butter and jelly all have in common?  They’re all perfectly ordinary–and all vegetarian.  Sure, they aren’t exactly health foods, but they’re comfortingly familiar.  It can be easy and painless to add some vegetarian meals to your usual rotation–and save a bundle while doing it.  One meat-free meal a week can also have a major impact on the environment.  Eating vegetarian just one day can save eighteen thousand gallons of water–that’s what it takes to produce one pound of raw beef!

Good news!  Potato chips are vegetarian.

The average American eats two-hundred pounds of meat each year.  A family of four spends about $2,300 annually on meat ($192 a month), and that number is climbing. [1]  Families can afford to eat more meat than previous generations, but that luxury takes a toll on the planet.  Many Americans are jumping into the green movement: recycling more, driving less.  Eating lower on the food chain is another simple thing you can do to help out Mother Earth.  If everyone cut down their animal protein intake by ten percent, we could feed the all the hungry people of the world with the grain saved. [2] 


Vegetarian Pregnancy, Vegetarian Baby

Is it possible to have a healthy pregnancy and baby on a vegetarian diet?  I have been a vegetarian for about twenty years and have lived to write about it on the Green Baby Guide.  Still, many people seem surprised that I’d continue living meat-free once I had a baby on the way.  Why do I do it?  Here are two reasons:

It’s cheap.  We are full-time vegetarians and rarely spend more than $150 a month on groceries for a couple and a toddler, allotting $60 to organic vegetables and the rest to whole grains, nuts, cheeses, and fruit.  A family our size would shell out $368 on the USDA’s “thrifty plan.”   Instead of relying on coupons and other cost-cutting tricks, we save by skipping the meat. 


Saving Money on Holiday Groceries

My life has become a bit easier this year with the addition of a freezer and makeshift pantry in our garage.  What a difference!  I’ve cut my grocery shopping trips down to one or two per month and been able to stock up on sale foods at peak times.  Our membership to a CSA fills in the fresh food gaps with local organic produce each week.

Since my state of mind has shifted toward stocking up, I realize that now is a great time to purchase sale priced products that will last for months.  After studying a few grocery store flyers, I’ve found myself stocking up on the following items: