The Man is always amazed when I come out of the supermarket and tell him how little I paid for the food in the cart. I get a big kick out of cooking healthy and delicious meals on the cheap. The Man said I should share my money saving ways with my readers, so today I present 10 tips on stretching your food dollar, whether you live in a van, RV, apartment, or house.
#1 Don’t waste food. Don’t buy something if you’re not dedicated to eating it. If you buy food, eat it, even if you don’t particularly like it. Being adventurous is great, but throwing away food is a waste of money.
Often, not wasting food requires planning. You have to eat fresh food before it spoils, which can be tricky if an item is distressed or if you’re on the road and have only a cooler or no refrigeration at all. Before I plan a meal, I take stock of what fresh food I have and what’s likely to go bad in the next day or two. I cook what I’m most in danger of losing.
#2 Be creative with what you can buy cheaply. One time I encountered whole pinto beans marked down to less than 30 cents a can. I don’t particularly like pinto beans with rice or whole pinto beans on burritos, so I turned the beans into my version of refried beans. They were delicious!
If you find something on super sale, think of all the different ways you can consume the item, especially if you have to use it up fast. Maybe you don’t want to eat six cartons of plain yogurt, but maybe you can eat some with berries and crunchy cereal, use another portion in your pancake recipe, and throw the rest in the blender with other ingredients to make smoothies.
#3 Eat what’s cheap, not necessarily what you’re in the mood for. I finally had an oven, so I really wanted to bake a pizza at home. I picked out a jar of pizza sauce and thought about toppings. I knew I had a can of olives (bought for 50 cents at a scratch and dent store) in the cupboard, so I tossed a can of mushrooms into my cart, and figured I could round things out with half a chopped onion. Then I found the store’s cart of reduced canned goods. As I rooted through I found a can of pasta sauce marked 49 cents that I thought would work just as well as something labeled “pizza sauce” (I was right—it worked great) and a can of asparagus spears for 79 cents which became the delicious splurge that made the pizza extra special.
The lesson here is that if I’d had my heart set on artichoke hearts for the pizza, I would have either spent a lot more money, or I would have felt disappointed and lamented my life of poverty. Instead, I got a good deal on something delicious. Also? If I hadn’t found the asparagus spears, the pizza as I originally envisioned it would have still been mighty tasty.
#4 Watch for sales. Check out weekly sales online before you shop or read the sale flyer at the front of the store. You can also just pay attention to prices while you shop. If you see a bargain on something you would use anyway, stock up.
#5 Buy store brands. Store brands typically cost less than name brands and taste as good. (Some people may taste a difference between name brand items and store brand items. I typically do not, except for ‘Nilla Wafers. I don’t know what it is, but ‘Nilla Wafers taste markedly better than any generic vanilla wafer I’ve ever tried.)
#6 Remember that convenience foods typically cost more. As much as possible, cook from scratch. How much time are you really saving by using a cornbread mix or precooked rice? And what do you have more of, time or money? One of the reasons most of us live on the road is so we can have lots of free time. Often more free time means less money. When it comes to cooking, you can often use your free time to save money. If you’re living in a sticks-and-bricks, maybe saving money will mean you have to work less or you can get on the road sooner, if that’s what you’re hoping for.
#7 Don’t eat more than you need to. I frequently make the costly decision to eat when I’m not really hungry. I often overeat because food is delicious and comforting. However, eating reasonable portions means you’re getting more meals for the money you spent on food.
#8 If you’re in a town with a senior center, check into the lunch program for seniors. Even small towns out West offer these lunches. They usually cost $2 to $3 for a complete meal. Age requirements to qualify for the inexpensive meal vary, but I’ve heard of people as young as 50 being considered “seniors” and eligible for the lunches. Younger people are considered “guests,” and their cost per meal is usually around $7
I’m still too young to eat cheap senior lunches, so I’ve never participated. From what I’ve heard, they can often be a good place for socializing and meeting people. Musicians often perform at one senior lunch program I know of in a small southern New Mexico town. Another new program in a small southern Arizona town is promising Bingo.
#9 Investigate free meal options. Maybe the town you’re in has a Food Not Bombs chapter that serves free vegan food in the park. Maybe there’s a Catholic Worker group that serves free meals like in Las Vegas, NV. Call churches, Catholic Worker Houses, infoshops, radical bookstores, food banks, social service offices, and homeless shelters and outreach programs and ask how to get free meals where you are.
#10 Sign up for supermarket loyalty cards to get discounts, coupons, and sale prices. Supermarkets owned by the same parent company have different names in different parts of the country, but one discount card is good at all of them. I typically shop at stores owned by Kroger, and I save money by using the loyalty card.
If you don’t want a loyalty card, ask the cashier if s/he has a loyalty card s/he can scan for you so you get the sale prices. There was a time in my life when I did not have the ability to keep track of a supermarket loyalty card, so I often asked the cashier if s/he had a card to use for me. I was seldom told no.
I hope these tips have helped you think about ways to stretch your food dollar according to your own personal needs and desires. Want more money saving tips? See my follow-up post “10 More Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar (Whether You’re on the Road or Not).”