Monday, January 14, 2019

100 Tips for Stretching Your Food Dollars

Needless to say, I am pretty worried about the nearly one million people who aren't getting paid right now during the government shutdown.  I will be even more worried if food stamps don't go out next month--43 million hungry people isn't a sight I can even imagine!  If you or someone you know is in need of free or frugal food resources consider the following ideas (note that if you don't qualify for some programs--or some programs aren't available at the present time--try reapplying if your circumstances change or when programs, like food stamps, begin accepting applications again):
  1. Apply for food stamps (also called the SNAP program).
  2. Apply for WIC (this is different than food stamps).
  3. Go to a food bank/food pantry in your local area.
  4. Ask at a local church for food assistance.
  5. Sign your kids up for free or reduced meals at school (these are often served during summer vacation as well).
  6. Call 211 and see what sort of food resources are available in your community.
  7. Find out if there are prepared meal programs you can go to (like dinners at the Salvation Army, etc).
  8. Shop at the $1 store (grains are cheap, skip the cheap junk food there).
  9. Shop at ethnic stores (things like grains, spices, and staple foods are often cheaper than at regular grocery stores).
  10. See if there is a CASA program near where you live (this allows you to support a local farmer and receive baskets of locally grown food each week).
  11. Shop farmer's markets and swap meets that have food stands (you usually get the best deals late on Sunday when farmers are packing up to go home and will often discount food so they don't have to take it back home with them).
  12. Learn how to forage for local food (berries, nuts, green, tree fruit, mushrooms, etc).
  13. See if there is a gleaning organization in your area (these programs allow people to go to farmer's fields after harvest and take any produce that was left behind).
  14. Similarly, if you see a farmer's field that has recently been harvested, you can skip the gleaning organization and just ask the farmer if you can glean any leftovers.
  15. Shop loss leaders at your local grocery stores (these are really cheap items used to draw shoppers into the store).
  16. Grow a garden if you can (seeds can often be found cheap or even free in some cases).  If you don't have space at your home, see if there is a P-Patch/community gardening area in your community.
  17. Buy in bulk at Costco or Sams Club if possible (if you don't have a membership, maybe a friend will take you as a guest).
  18. Take the family to Costco on the weekends (it seems like the free samples are a major source of nutrition for some families judging by how many times they hit up the sample tables).
  19. If you need a job/part time job, consider working at a restaurant that will provide you a free meal during your shift.
  20. Attend events where there will be free food (parties, community meetings, grand openings, etc).
  21. Consider fishing, shell fishing, and/or hunting to stock your freezer (there is usually a cost for equipment to get started which you may be able to borrow or find cheap, as well as the cost for licenses).
  22. See if an organization you belong to has a food pantry/free meal program (senior centers, food pantries at schools and colleges, etc).
  23. If you are a veteran, see if your local military base/veteran's service center has free food resources.  Note that many restaurants also give vets free meals on Memorial Day and Veteran's Day.
  24. Always ask for discounts at grocery stores and restaurants (some grocery stores give seniors a 10% discount on certain days, many restaurants give military folks a discount, etc).
  25. Offer to work for food (farms, restaurants, even individual homeowners may have odd jobs you could do for a meal).
  26. Dumpster dive for food (Google this topic for lots of how-to information).
  27. Learn how to cook from scratch (you can stretch your food dollars quite far this way).
  28. Consider going vegetarian (or vegetarian-ish); beans, rice, and legumes are often cheaper than meat and dairy plus they are very filling.
  29. Use reddit to find food resources (this includes r/frugal, r/eatcheapandhealthy, r/randomactsofpizza).
  30. Stop by mom or grandma's house for a meal (and ask to take home leftovers).
  31. Ask for gift cards (like for Walmart or a local grocery store) for birthdays and Christmas.
  32. Buy discount gift cards for Walmart or local grocery stores online.
  33. Shop sales and discount racks (like discounted meat or bakery items) at your local grocery store.
  34. If you can't afford to buy in bulk--like buying a 50 pound bag of rice for $30--go in with friends to buy the item and split it; this is often cheaper than buying smaller bags at a regular grocery store.
  35. Shop seasonally (apples are cheaper in the fall, watermelon is cheapest in the summer, baking products are cheaper around the holidays, and a whole turkey can be found highly discounted around Thanksgiving and Christmas).
  36. Shop bulk bins at the grocery store (always compare prices to ensure you aren't paying more than buying the item in a package).
  37. Always check unit prices of grocery items to ensure you are paying the lowest prices.
  38. Sign up for birthday freebies (this will often give you a week or more of free food items).
  39. Use food coupons that you find in store ads and in your junk mail.
  40. Make snacks instead of paying full price in the office vending machines (a 99 cent cake mix will make enough desserts/snacks for a week, ditto popcorn).
  41. Skip the $5 fancy coffee shop coffee and make your own at home (a $5 can of coffee will make enough coffee for a month or more).
  42. Download apps for various food places (these usually provide free food just for downloading the app).
  43. Look for discount food offers in your local area (Ikea has a full breakfast for $1 and free coffee too, Little Caesars has very cheap pizza, Del Taco has 50 cent tacos).
  44. Download supermarket apps which often give you even bigger discounts on groceries than what you see in their sale ad (an example, last week my local grocery store had eggs for $1.99 regular price, 99 cents on sale, and 49 cents if you use the store app).
  45. Shop at food discounters--like Grocery Outlet--which often sell over run products and items that are getting close to their expiration date.
  46. Learn to make soups and stews, this stretches your groceries further.
  47. Always eat leftovers; don't let them decompose in the back of the fridge.
  48. Ditto keeping up with perishables that go bad quickly; if you can't eat them before they go bad, cook them up and freeze them to eat at a later date.
  49. Learn how to cook ethnic food (food from poor countries is often grain-based, is made with cheap ingredients, and is pretty filling).
  50. Let friends and family know you are always on the look out for free and cheap food (they may remember this when they come back with a catch from fishing or are cleaning stuff out of their pantry that they don't want).
  51. Consider cultivating unique foods (like making sprouts, growing mushrooms, keeping bees, etc).
  52. Ask local homeless folks where to find free food (many are "in the loop" so to speak and have lots of insider info on this topic).
  53. Google the name of your town/city/county/state and free food and see what resources pop up.
  54. Google eat for $1 a day food challenge.  Plenty of people have done this sort of challenge then written about it which can provide you even more ideas for cheap eating.
  55. Use social media to ask for food help (I've seen many people do this on Facebook and their local sub reddit and often complete strangers will come through with assistance).
  56. Google how to stretch your food dollars (new articles and posts are constantly being added on this topic).
  57. Eat basic food (oatmeal has fed generations, it isn't fancy but it is cheaper than a bacon/eggs/pancakes breakfast).
  58. Cut back on your serving sizes (what people consider a "normal portion" is actually pretty huge compared to only a decade or so ago).
  59. Try to avoid highly processed food (things like Lunchables are a huge waste of money when you can make the same thing yourself for a fraction of the price).
  60. Invest in tools that will make bulk cooking faster and easier (things like a bread machine, slow cooker, Insta Pot, etc can often be found at thrift stores for the fraction of the cost of the item new).
  61. Look at the price of a food item then determine if you can make it from scratch even cheaper (if milk is on sale, you can often make yogurt out of this much cheaper than buying actual yogurt, pizza is often cheaper to make from scratch than carry out, fried rice literally costs pennies to make over the cost of buying it at a Chinese restaurant, etc).
  62. Buy the cheapest version of a food item.  Dried beans are cheaper than canned beans; frozen peas are cheaper than canned peas and much much cheaper than fresh peas usually,
  63. Learn how to make stir frys.  This is a cheap way to use up small amounts of vegetables and, served over rice, make a cheap yet filling and tasty meal.
  64. Grow your own herbs.  You can grow many herbs on a window sill and growing your own can be cheaper than buying the dried kind at the grocery store.
  65. Buy containers (ziploc bags, insulated coffee cups, plastic sandwich containers) and always bring your meals and snacks with you instead of hitting up a restaurant.
  66. Buy your food and snacks at a supermarket instead of at a convenience store; convenience stores are almost always much more expensive than any other kind of store.
  67. Ask your oldest relative their old fashioned cooking tips.  My grandmother always saved bacon drippings to use for frying other things, lard was cheap and used much more than refined cooking oil, a loaf of bread was made into croutons, bread pudding, and even the crumbs were put to use for breading fish.
  68. Learn how to preserve food so that if you get an abundance of one type of item you will be able to use it at a later date.  Dehydrating, canning, freezing, jam making, pickling, smoking...there may be an initial cost but preserving the harvest/processing food when you can get it really cheap, is a great way to stretch your food dollars.
  69. Drink water.  Soda is over-priced sugar water.  Juice isn't as good as eating the actual fruit.  And many people get by just fine without milk.
  70. If you must have a special beverage, see if you can make it yourself.  A cappuccino machine may be spendy, but it's less expensive than going to a coffee shop every day.  Ditto the popular soda machines that allow you to make soda water and flavored soda at home.
  71. Check out cookbooks from your local library (or search for recipes online) to learn how to improve your cooking skills and increase you repertoire.
  72. Instead of hosting an entire party, consider putting together social events that feature a potluck where everyone brings food to share.
  73. Ask for samples.  Many stores offer all kinds of samples just for the asking--from the deli and bakery to the cheese shop and produce sections.
  74. Skip a meal.  Most people won't suffer damage from not eating three or more times a day.  If you get up late, eat a late breakfast, skip lunch, then eat dinner--you save the cost of an entire meal this way.
  75. If you do eat at a restaurant, go for lunch, it's cheaper than dinner.  Get water instead of a drink, skip dessert which is usually over priced, and, if the serving is huge, take half of it home to eat for another meal.
  76. Fall back on cheap processed foods but not for the long term.  Ramen is cheap and it's OK occasionally but it is full of sodium and empty calories.  Vienna Sausages are cheap and OK occasionally, but again, they aren't the healthiest thing to eat.
  77. Also keep a stockpile of cheap, nutritious foods like eggs, bananas, carrots, cabbage, etc.  These are better for you to eat long-term.
  78. Ideally you can drink your tap water (be sure to bring your water bottle, filled up at home, with you everywhere).  If your tap water isn't very good consider getting a Brita filter pitcher.  Bottled water should be a last resort but you can get 5 gallons of water from dispensers in front of grocery stores much cheaper than individual bottles.
  79. If you have a lot of people to feed, Google for cheap recipes that will feed a crowd.  Pasta meals are cheap and feed a lot of people, ditto taco bars, casseroles, and big salad dishes.
  80. Buy a whole cooked chicken from your local grocery store (or ideally from Costco where these chickens are cheap and big).  You can literally make a dozen meals from one of these chickens (roast chicken, chicken tacos, chicken soup, chicken salad sandwich, chicken pot pie, etc).
  81. Attend cooking classes if you have the opportunity.  A friend of mine, a retired dietitian, volunteers her time to teach cooking classes at our local food bank where she teaches people how to cook with lentils and barley, and other items that come in their food bags that they may not be familiar with.
  82. Ask friends to teach your their best recipes.  I've learned how to make tortillas and tamales from scratch from a family in Mexico, how to make the best bread from a Kurdish refugee woman, how to make inexpensive food look appealing in Japan, and how to use pieces of a pig that one would think would be thrown in the waste bin to make delicious stews in the Philippines.  
  83. Put aside a bit of extra money to use when you find a great deal on food.  You never know what kind of amazing, random deals you will find when you go shopping.  One day I walked out of the grocery store with two whole salmon for $1 each (no idea why they were so cheap), another time there was a 20 pound bag of carrots for $3.  If you run across a great deal--stock up!
  84. Make a grocery price book so you will know if you are getting good deals while shopping.  You can't remember the best price for every grocery item you buy but with a price book, you will.
  85. Also make a grocery shopping budget and preferably keep an envelope of cash to be used for groceries only.  Using a credit card makes it too easy to buy extra stuff (not to mention making it too easy to fall into credit card debt) but with cash you will be intimately aware of how much money you are spending on food.
  86. Consider intermittent fasting.  This is actually a "hot" eating trend right now which is supposed to lead to better health and increased longevity.
  87. Consider bartering for food.  Whether you are trading your homemade bread for eggs from a local farmer or trading your home-grown pumpkins for a bag of shellfish with a buddy, learning how to barter is a great way to increase your food supplies.
  88. Join a food co-op or start your own.  It's a bit of work but having a dozen people pitching in money to buy restaurant-sized quantities of food is a good way to stretch your food dollars.
  89. Cook in bulk and freeze the resulting meals for future eating.  When people are tired and overworked and stressed, it is too easy to splurge on a meal.  By taking a day each weekend or each month and cooking 20 servings of a meal instead of one serving of a meal, you can easily stretch your food dollars and your time.
  90. If you must have meat, consider the cheapest way to get it.  Buying meat on sale at the store is one way, buying a side of beef may be a cheap option too, buying meat at Mexican or Asian stores may be inexpensive (especially if you know how to break down an entire animal--buying whole pigs is a thing at Asian markets), grinding your own hamburger allows you to make a higher quality burger for cheaper, etc.
  91. Make food "fun" for the family.  Going on a picnic, cooking over a small barbecue grill, roasting hot dogs over a bonfire...the food may be cheap but the presentation can make eating a luxe event.
  92. Cut out vices--alcohol, junk food, fast food--if your vice is costing you money and not helping your health, consider cold-turkey quitting.
  93. When you do go out to eat, stock up on single-serve condiments (ketchup packets, mayo packets, hot sauce packets, etc).  This may be a fine ethical line, but a couple packets here and there shouldn't be a problem.
  94. Don't fall off the frugal food wagon when traveling.  People spend a ridiculous amount of money on food when they come to my city for vacation, they would be far better off to take an Uber to the local grocery store/Walmart/99 cent store to buy some inexpensive food and snacks for their hotel room so they aren't spending an arm and a leg for each meal of the day.  Be sure to Google cheap eats for your destination to find local tips and tricks for eating on a budget.
  95. If you absolutely can't spend much on food, mono eating can be a short-term solution.  A loaf of bread, a jar of jam, and a jar of peanut butter can make a week's worth of meals in a pinch.  The same with a bunch of bananas and a bag of potatoes.  This isn't a great option but at least you won't starve.
  96. If you need specialized food, consider making it yourself.  Instead of expensive baby food, look for recipes to make it yourself.  There are even recipes for making Ensure at home.
  97. Make boring food interesting.  Sliced zucchini is kind of blah but spiralized zucchini is much more interesting.  Cauliflower is kind of meh but there is a new trend of making cauliflower "steaks".  Hint, it's just sliced cauliflower.
  98. Clean out your pantry regularly and donate food to those in need.  Even frugal people end up with food they don't eat in the back of the pantry so be sure to pass on food that others could use.
  99. Consider living elsewhere.  Obviously this isn't possible for many but moving from an area with a high cost of living/high food prices to an area with a low cost of living/low food prices can make a significant impact on your food budget.  Friends in Canada and Japan are often shocked by the low cost of food in our area.
  100. If you live in a food desert, consider other options for getting inexpensive, quality food.  In many poor areas, there may be a dozen liquor stores and a similar number of bodegas or corner stores but not a single place to get good, cheap regular food.  Look at the cost to take a bus to a better shopping area, buy your food, then Uber home, look at ordering from Amazon, get a ride with a friend when they go shopping, etc.

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