Eating Well on a (Very) Tight Budget

By Mike Peterson
In June 29, 2011

Want to trim your family’s grocery bill?  A family of four can make it – really! – on $70 a week.

The grocery store can be a dangerous place:  There are shelves stocked high with chips and cookies (placed at eye level, of course); family-sized frozen meals and kid-friendly boxed lunches; and aisles full of tempting and (supposedly) thrifty offers like that buy-one-get-one-free sale on heat-and-eat chicken tenders.

If you’re trying to live frugally, these prepackaged convenience foods can wreak havoc on your budget.  Ask yourself: How often have you gone to the store for “just a few things” and ended up with a cartful of impulse purchases or so-called bargains?  That’s why I’m challenging my readers to try living on a grocery budget of $70 a week.  Sound impossible?  It’s not.  In fact, the average food stamp budget for a family of four is approximately $68.88 a week.

Planning is Key

So, you have $70 and an empty refrigerator.  But wait – before you dash off to the nearest grocery store, you should know what you’re going to buy, how much of it you’re going to buy, and – maybe most importantly – what you’re going to do with it when you get it home.

First, you’ll need to make a list of everything you’ll need to create a week’s worth of healthy meals.  Buy things you like, and buy things that can create multiple meals.  Plan on using leftovers – they make great lunches. I suggest splitting your budget 3 ways:

  • Protein ($20). Buy reasonably priced items that you can use in a variety of ways.   For example, if you buy a whole chicken, you can roast it for dinner one day and use the leftovers in pasta or a salad the next day.  You can even use the inedible and/or less appetizing parts (bones, innards, neck, etc.) to create homemade chicken stock.  Ground beef, eggs, and canned tuna are good choices, too.
  • Produce ($30). Buy fruits and vegetables that are in-season – they’re much cheaper.  And avoid buying expensive items packaged for convenience like sliced mushrooms or prepackaged salad kits.  Canned or frozen veggies are okay, too – but again, keep things basic.  Buy the can of peeled whole tomatoes, but avoid the can of peeled whole tomatoes with garlic, onions, and Italian seasonings.
  • Bread, cereals, rice, and pasta ($20). The great thing about this category is that many of the items can be used for more than one meal – for example, a bag of rice will probably last you a week or more; ditto for a large box of, say, elbow macaroni or spaghetti.  Buy a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of wheat bread, and you’ve got a go-to lunch option.  Beans and rice can make a great side dish or a main meal.

Of course, you can play around with these numbers a little; if you’d like to spend an extra $5 on meat or $10 on a bottle of good olive oil, that’s fine – but you should deduct that amount from your produce or carb budget.

Be a Savvy Shopper

If you’re going to make it out of the store without going over your $70 budget, you’ll need more than a grocery list.  You’ll need to plan your route, from the produce department to the meat counter.  You’ll need to scan your newspaper for the best prices.  You’ll need to prepare yourself for store displays overflowing with tempting deals on stuff you don’t need.

In short, you’ll need to be prepared. Here are a few ways you can plan a budget-friendly shopping experience:

  • Compare prices. Chances are, you get weekly grocery ads in the mail or the newspaper.  Read them.  Find out which store is running a sale on ground beef or a double- or triple-coupon event.  But also keep in mind that if you go to one store for, say, $5 T-bones, it may be a bad idea to buy your milk and eggs there, too.  Stores often run specials on a few items to get you into the store, knowing that you’ll end up buying your regular groceries there too.  So, they mark up the milk and eggs just enough to make your T-bone savings insubstantial.  Pick your sale(s), shop them, then go to another store that offers low prices on non-sale items.
  • Combine coupons with sales. When you clip coupons, don’t run out and use them right away.  Wait for a sale on the item, then combine the coupon with the sale for the deepest savings.   This can take some work to keep track of, so you can also consider subscribing to a service that matches up coupons with local sales, such as
  • Don’t take the kids. Your six-year-old wants a giant box of rainbow-colored cereal because there’s a cheap plastic toy inside.  Your 12-year-old wants a week’s worth of expensive (and unhealthy) make-your-own-taco lunch kits because that’s what all of his friends are eating.  Avoid  food-related showdowns, meltdowns, and power struggles: Leave the kids at home, if possible.
  • Shop the perimeter. Most savvy, health-conscious shoppers know that the outer rim of the grocery store is the place to find healthy, wallet-friendly fare. The inner aisles of grocery stores are lined with prepared, packaged, and expensive products.  Stick to the outside – that’s where they keep the fruits, veggies, and fresh meat.
  • Spice it up. Spices and herbs are a great way to add variety to your weekly menu without breaking the bank.  A dash of curry powder, a handful of fresh basil or cilantro, or a couple of bay leaves will add tons of flavor to your meals.

Frugal and Healthy

The best thing about trying this budget is that it puts an emphasis on fresh, seasonal food instead of super-processed premade stuff.  A lot of folks believe that if you want to eat on a budget, you have to eat junk or subsist on items from fast-food dollar menus.

But if you do a little planning – and if you’re willing to spend some time in the kitchen – you don’t have to choose between your health and your wallet.

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

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