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How to Feed Your Family on a Tight Budget – 20 Cheap Ways to Save

Are you worried about how you’re going to feed your family this month? If so, you’re not alone.

According to a May 2020 analysis by Feeding America, pre-pandemic, 37 million people, including 11 million children, lived in a food-insecure household. Due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, Feeding America expects food insecurity to increase in the United States in 2020 and beyond.

The U.S. is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, yet the World Economic Forum reports that we have one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty.

Many families go through tough financial stretches at some point. And having to organize a grocery list and put food on the table when you’re juggling bills is an incredibly stressful experience. But knowing where to shop, how to meal-plan, and what to buy can help you make the best of a difficult situation and save money on groceries until things improve.

How to Buy Food on a Tight Budget

When your grocery budget gets slashed, you need to do whatever you can to cut back and keep your family fed. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to stretch your food budget and maximize what you can buy.

1. Get Help With Food

If you qualify, several food assistance programs can help you feed your family when money gets tight. These include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC.

In addition to signing up for food assistance programs, you can also visit a local food pantry or soup kitchen. A food pantry can provide you with fresh and packaged foods, while a soup kitchen serves prepared hot meals to the community.

Few food pantries and soup kitchens require you to have a referral or income verification, but you might need to provide proof of address in some locations. You can also visit multiple food pantries in your area throughout the month to make sure your family has enough to eat.


2. Know Where to Shop

Food prices can vary dramatically depending on where you shop. Some stores, like Kroger, have notoriously high prices compared to others, such as Walmart.

According to the 2019 Dunnhumby retail preference index, the following grocery store chains have the most affordable prices in the U.S.:

  1. Aldi
  2. Market Basket
  3. WinCo
  4. Food4Less
  5. Costco
  6. Walmart
  7. Trader Joe’s
  8. Walmart Neighborhood Market
  9. Lidl
  10. Amazon
  11. H-E-B
  12. Sam’s Club

To see just how much money you can save by selectively shopping at some stores, look at this fourth-quarter 2020 pricing for ingredients for a basic taco night and compare the grocery bill between a Kroger and Walmart located in the Mid-Southern region of the United States (prices displayed at the links may vary by region, date, and sale price).

To buy these ingredients at Kroger, each one would cost:

Final cost: $15.64

To buy the same or similar ingredients at Walmart, each one would cost:

Final cost: $12.72

While most prices are lower at Walmart, Kroger does have some products for less than the retail giant. That’s especially true when it comes to weekly sales.

Walmart does rollbacks on some items, but smaller grocery chains often offer significant savings on certain products to get you in the door. So if you can shop in multiple locations each week and pay close attention to what’s on sale, you can save a significant amount of money. If not, choose the grocery store that has the best deals on what you need that week, and you’ll still save.

But you’re not just limited to traditional grocery stores.

Salvage grocery stores, which are also called “discount grocery stores” or “grocery outlets,” sell food at a deep discount, making them a convenient option for saving money on your grocery budget.

At these stores, you might find food that is:

  • At or near its expiration date
  • Scratched or dented or in torn packaging
  • Salvaged from truck wrecks
  • Seasonal in nature (for example, Christmas-decorated packaging after Christmas)
  • Sourced from stores that are closing
  • Overstock from the manufacturer

Unlike regular grocery stores, discount grocery stores always have something different on the shelves because their food stock comes from unpredictable sources. You might find unique foods like hummus or gluten-free options or pantry products like toilet paper and paper towels. You never know what will be in stock until you walk through the door.

Use the search term “discount grocery store near me” or “salvage grocery store near me” to find a retailer in your area. And call ahead before you go. Some discount grocery stores only accept cash or debit cards.

You can also find deals at international grocery stores, which focus on a particular region’s cuisine, sometimes referred to as “ethnic” grocery stores. They’re excellent sources for staple foods and spices used in that cuisine.

For example, there are often deals on rice and condiments like soy sauce at Asian grocery markets. Latin markets often sell rice, dry beans, and spices like cumin for a song compared to your local grocery store. Use the search term “international grocery store near me” or “ethnic grocery store near me” to find a retailer.


3. Shop in the Right Order

Once you’ve signed up for all the benefits you qualify for, it’s crucial to shop in the right order to maximize the food you can bring home.

Start your shopping at your local food pantry or a salvage store. Then use your WIC card, then your SNAP card, to purchase other food and household items. You can then use your own funds to buy whatever else you need.


4. Buy Generic

There is a clear advantage to buying generic versus brand-name foods. How much you save varies. But Consumer Reports notes that generic foods are 25% cheaper on average than the name brand. And according to their testing, generic foods are just as palatable as their more expensive counterparts.

To see just how much you can save buying generic, compare brand-name and generic prices for some of the ingredients you would need for a lasagna recipe at the same Mid-Southern U.S. Walmart.

You can buy the Great Value brand of the ingredients at these prices:

Final cost: $18.90

But if you were to buy the name brand of the same or similar-quantity ingredients, it would cost you:

Final cost: $26.39


5. Avoid Convenience Foods

How often do you buy convenience foods for your family? You can usually find convenience foods in the middle aisles of the grocery store. They include processed or premade foods, such as microwavable rice, casserole mixes, breakfast oatmeal mixes, granola, canned soups, cookies, chips, or frozen meals.

According to a 2010 study published in the journal Family Medicine, the cost per calorie of convenience foods was 24% higher than whole foods. And a 2017 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition examined the cost of home-cooked meals compared to takeout meals in New Zealand. In this study, researchers came to the same conclusion: Home-cooked meals are less expensive.

However, a 2018 study published in the journal Agricultural Economics found that these price differences can depend on where you live. If you live in a food desert, an urban or rural area with very few options to purchase healthy foods, healthy whole foods might cost 9.2% more than if you lived in a location with greater access to markets.

But most people will eat healthier and spend less money buying raw ingredients and cooking meals from scratch. In general, the more work someone else has put into prepping your food, the more it’s going to cost you per serving.

For example, a box of Quaker Instant Oatmeal cost $0.21 per ounce on Amazon in Q4 2020, while a container of Old Fashioned Quaker Oats cost $.0.15 per ounce. Although the price per ounce might differ at your local grocery store, you’re generally going to pay less per serving when you put in the time and work to cook food yourself.

To save money when shopping for fresh produce, opt for fruits and veggies closest to their raw, natural form. And keep in mind you can regrow many fruits and vegetables from scraps, which can help further stretch your food budget.

No matter what you need, focus on buying raw ingredients and cooking them from scratch rather than purchasing preseasoned or prepared convenience foods.


6. Buy Fresh Produce In-Season

Another way to save money on produce is to plan family meals around in-season produce.

For example, fall is apple season, which means they cost much less per pound than they do in spring. Strawberries are much less expensive in June than they are in January.

To see a full list of when each fruit and vegetable is in-season, check out the USDA’s Seasonal Produce Guide.


7. Opt for Canned or Frozen Produce When It Makes Sense

In a 2016 report on the cost of satisfying the government’s fruit and vegetable recommendations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated the cost of 156 fruits and vegetables to show that a family of four can get their recommended daily allowance of healthy foods on a tight budget. But you have to know what to buy. Some of the most affordable fruits and vegetables include:

  • Watermelon: $0.21 per cup
  • Bananas: $0.29 per cup
  • Apples: $0.41 per cup
  • Oranges: $0.58 per cup
  • Grapes: $0.72 per cup
  • Potatoes: $0.18 per cup
  • Dried Pinto Beans: $0.19 per cup
  • Dried Lentils: $0.20 per cup
  • Onions: $0.41 per cup
  • Canned Tomatoes: $0.50 per cup
  • Broccoli: $0.72 per cup

Frozen or canned vegetables can be cheaper than fresh produce in some cases. They can also make cooking at home more accessible because they speed up preparation and cook times, often without sacrificing flavor. But are they less nutritious?

According to Harvard Health, frozen vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh, especially when those “fresh” vegetables are several days or weeks old. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis found that the flash-freezing process used on frozen vegetables and fruits can actually lock in enough nutrients to make them just as healthy — if not healthier — than fresh produce that’s been losing nutrients in refrigerated storage.

But as Harvard Health notes, canned vegetables and fruits may have added sodium and sugar content due to the liquids they’re packaged with. The USDA notes you can reduce some of the negative effects of the sodium (and possibly the sugar) by rinsing and draining your canned goods, though they may lose some water-soluble vitamin content in the process.

That said, frozen and canned vegetables are definitely more nutritious than convenience foods and can be even more of a bargain because they often go on sale. Check your grocery store’s sale circular each week and only buy what’s discounted.

You can also save money by avoiding produce prepped for easy consumption. For example, it’s easy to see the price difference between raw produce and prepared produce at the Mid-Southern Walmart:

When you’re shopping, take the time to determine which foods are the best bargain: fresh, canned, or frozen. It can vary depending on how much food you’re purchasing, what’s on sale, and what’s in season.


8. Buy Overstock Bakery Products

Many grocery retailers put out a cart of day-old baked goods they need to get rid of quickly. These baked goods are sold at a significant discount, and shopping there first is a straightforward way to eat well and save money on groceries.

You can also search for a bakery outlet near you. Bakery outlets are most often owned and run by major baked goods brands like Wonder Hostess, Schwebel’s, Pepperidge Farms, and Bimbo. And these stores provide an outlet for brands to sell overstock or soon-to-expire goods.

If you find a great deal on bread or tortillas, buy extra and put it in the freezer. Bread products freeze well. To defrost it, simply let it sit out on the counter at room temperature at least six hours before you need it.

If you come home with bread that’s a little too stale for sandwiches, use it to make French toast, or cube it and lightly bake it in the oven for croutons. You can also use stale bread to make breadcrumbs.

If you have a crusty loaf or baguette rather than slices, you can also try this trick from Bon Appetit to revive it. Run the loaf under running water and bake it in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. The water turns to steam and revives the bread. Some sources say you have to go 30 minutes or longer for larger loaves.


9. Plan Meals Around Sale Items

Before you head to the grocery store, check the store’s sale flyer to see the week’s discounts. You can plan your menu around what’s on sale. Creating a menu plan helps you stick to your shopping list and avoid impulse buys (which can quickly eat up what you have left for food) and help you stay out of the store for last-minute purchases.

If the store runs out of a particular sale item, ask for a rain check. Rain checks allow you to purchase products at the sale price once they get them restocked.

It can be time-consuming to gather many different sales flyers, and that’s where the Flipp app (available on iOS and Android) comes in. Flipp allows you to browse through local circulars to find the best deals in your area. Circulars from your preferred stores come to your phone automatically. There are over 2,000 retailers to choose from, including supermarket, pharmacy, and dollar store chains.


10. Use Coupons & Loyalty Card Discounts

You also need to use coupons as much as possible. You can find coupons in the Sunday paper, but if you don’t already subscribe, that’s an unnecessary expense for most people. A better option is to use printable coupon websites like Coupons.com to download and print coupons at home. You can also download smartphone apps like Fetch Rewards and Ibotta.

Some coupon sites — and even some grocery store loyalty programs — let you download coupons to your phone or connect them to your loyalty card. Upon checkout, all you do is pull up the coupons on your device and show them to the cashier, no printing necessary. It can be even easier on loyalty cards, some of which automatically apply the coupons when you swipe your loyalty card.


11. Use a Slow Cooker

Another easy way to start cooking inexpensive meals at home is to use a slow cooker. Slow cookers help you save money because they use a minimal amount of electricity, and the low, slow cooking time can turn even the toughest cut of meat into a tender and delectable meal.

Slow cookers are also a great tool to use when you have a large family because it’s easy to put together meals to feed a crowd.

There are many easy slow cooker recipes to get you started using this timeless appliance. Just search for “easy slow cooker [name of dish]” to find your favorites.

If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can often find one for a few dollars at your local thrift store. You also might be able to find one for free on Freecycle or by asking around on your city’s Facebook or neighborhood Nextdoor group. There are also many under-$25 2- and 3-quart slow cookers available on Amazon.


12. Shop the Bulk Bins

If you’ve never purchased food from your local store’s bulk bins, now is the time to start. Buying food in bulk means you don’t pay for expensive packaging and brand names. You can also buy only the amount you need to ensure nothing goes to waste. Most stores carry bulk goods like:

  • Spices
  • Grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans
  • Rice
  • Sugar
  • Popcorn kernels
  • Dried fruit
  • Loose tea

If you’re not sure how to cook with things like whole grains and dried beans, check the video series created by Bon Appetit’s food director, Carla Lalli Music, called “Bin It to Win It,” in which she prepares quick and healthy dinners using bulk food ingredients.


13. Eliminate or Reduce Luxuries

When you have some wiggle room in your budget, you can splurge on some food luxuries like candy or soda. But these expensive items have to go when your budget is exceptionally tight. If you can’t omit them entirely, cut down significantly or try a substitute.

Some everyday luxuries to avoid include:

  • Alcohol. Eliminate alcohol purchases entirely or cut back to half of what you typically consume.
  • Fruit Juice. For adults, try these fruit-infused water recipes from Wellness Mama. For kids who just can’t live without it, water the juice down.
  • Soda. You can buy less and purchase generic brands to save. Store brands are often around $1 per 2-liter bottle.
  • Candy. You can typically buy the ingredients for candy much cheaper than buying candy bars, even in bulk. You can always snack on semisweet chocolate chips for a quick hit of chocolate. Or you can learn to make your own. Blogger Shugary Sweets has a list of over 100 candy recipes you can try.
  • Coffee. Purchase generic coffee to save, or check international grocery stores for less expensive options. And definitely avoid anyplace that employs a barista to whip up your caffeinated delights. Instead, save money by learning to make your own fancy coffee.
  • Cookies and Other Baked Sweets. Try making your own cookies and sweets. There are recipes all over the Web, including multitudes of blogs and crowdsourced recipes sites like Allrecipes, for cookies, cakes, and pies.

14. Buy Inexpensive Sources of Protein

According to the USDA, Americans eat 40% more meat than federal guidelines recommend. And this meat is costly compared to other protein sources.

For example, in the last quarter of 2020, prices for meat at the Mid-Southern U.S. Walmart were as follows:

To save money on beef, purchase inexpensive cuts, such as beef shank, flat iron, or sirloin steaks. You can transform these cuts into tender, delicious meals using a slow cooker or Instant Pot.

If you do purchase chicken, opt for bone-in cuts, such as bone-in chicken thighs or bone-in breasts. Once you’ve cooked the chicken, freeze the bones along with any vegetable scraps, such as celery tops and carrot skins. You can throw those into your slow cooker to make nutritious bone broth, which you can use as a base for homemade soups or a hot drink when you need a boost. You can find an easy bone broth recipe for the slow cooker or Instant Pot at Wholefully.

Ground turkey is often overlooked in the meat department. But you can use this mild meat in many different recipes. You can add ground turkey to traditional chili, whip up some ground turkey tacos, or make a ground turkey noodle bake. You can substitute ground turkey for beef in any recipe by adding a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce while you’re browning it.

Or instead of shopping for beef, chicken, or turkey, get your protein from less expensive sources (all prices from the same Mid-Southern Walmart):


15. Rethink What Dinner Means

Many Americans’ meat-and-potatoes mentality conjures a pan of succulent roast beef with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables when we think of dinner. But when you’re feeding your family on a small budget, it’s time to reexamine what dinner means.

Dinner is often the most expensive (and largest) meal of the day, so it helps to think outside your recipe box when planning. These options can save you loads of money — and sometimes time:

  • Soups and Stews. Soups and stews are some of the best dishes to make when your food budget is stretched thin. A little meat goes a long way, and if you don’t have meat or can’t afford it, you can still make a filling meal with beans, lentils, or vegetables. Additions like rice, pasta, or potatoes bulk up the dish to fill you up without costing a lot of money.
  • Casseroles. Casseroles aren’t just for Thanksgiving dinner. You can make breakfast casseroles, tuna or meat casseroles, or casseroles with plenty of fresh vegetables to take advantage of what’s currently in season. Allrecipes has a list of casserole recipes full of unique ideas, like Southern grits casserole and King Ranch chicken casserole.
  • Sandwiches. Many people think of sandwiches as a lunch dish. However, you can make many unique and filling sandwiches for dinner, like Reubens, chicken melts, or po’boys. You can also pair sandwiches with soup, such as grilled cheese and tomato soup or a leftover steak sandwich and French onion soup, for a heartier meal. Check out the Kitchn’s list of 25 hearty dinner sandwich recipes for more ideas.
  • Breakfast for Dinner. Pancakes are filling and cost only a few cents per serving. You can add protein with a layer of peanut butter or a side of Greek yogurt with honey. Other breakfast options, like eggs, biscuits and sausage, or French toast, are also filling and relatively inexpensive.

But those aren’t the only options for inexpensive meals. If you need some recipe ideas when meal planning, check out the following resources:

  • Great Depression Cooking. This charming and useful YouTube channel is full of budget-friendly Great Depression recipes cooked by nonagenarian Italian grandmother Clara Cannucciari.
  • 45 Cheap Recipes for Rent Week and Beyond. This fantastic list of recipes from Bon Appetit has some unique and inexpensive ideas for keeping dinner delicious on a shoestring budget.
  • 77 Cheap and Easy Dinner Recipes. This recipe compilation from Delish has some creative ideas for dinners when you’re pressed for time.
  • 60 Cheap Dinner Ideas for Under $10. Taste of Home compiled a fairly extensive list of recipes for meals that cost less than $10 for a family of four.
  • Budget Bytes. All the recipes on Budget Bytes come with a cost calculation to give you an idea of how much the meal will cost.
  • $5 Dinners. This budget-minded food blog has recipes for every food category organized by cooking method, recipe type, or ingredients. And they all cost $5 or less.

You can also cook more food for less using recipes from cultures that use inexpensive ingredients and plenty of vibrant spices to create an incredibly healthy and varied diet that won’t break the bank. And because the flavors are so complex, you can enjoy these cheaper ingredients without getting bored. Some examples include:

  • Ministry of Curry. Food blogger Archana Mundhe grew up outside Mumbai, and she shares flavorful and inexpensive Indian recipes. Indian cuisine relies heavily on unique spices, but once you make this modest investment, there’s an endless number of ways to cook cheap ingredients like chickpeas, rice, and lentils.
  • Isabel Eats. At Isabel Eats, first-generation Mexican American Isabel shares authentic and inexpensive Mexican recipes like chicken pozole, vegetable stir-fry for fajitas, and easy chicken enchiladas.
  • My Latina Table. At My Latina Table, food blogger Charbel shares many of the recipes her grandmother made for her growing up on a ranch in Mexico. Many of these recipes rely heavily on rice, beans, and cheese, which can help stretch your food budget.

16. Transform Leftovers

You don’t have to eat leftovers the same way you initially prepared them. For example, you can transform the chili you made two days ago into a delicious topping for a hot dog or baked potato. You can turn Monday’s meatloaf into meatloaf sandwiches or crumble it up for a boost of protein on your salad.

Look for versatile leftovers recipes that let you change ingredients based on what you have on hand or found on sale. For example, you can make vegetable soup using leftover fresh or frozen potatoes, kale, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, okra, squash, corn, Swiss chard, or onion. You can also use various beans to change the flavor and substitute spices to keep things interesting.

Or make a leftover casserole or potpie using leftover meat with assorted fresh, canned, or frozen vegetables. You can also follow this useful casserole template from The Tasty Cheapskate to make a casserole from what you have in the pantry or fridge.

Transforming your leftovers is one of the best ways to avoid food waste and ensure you don’t throw away money on uneaten food.


17. Use SuperCook

You probably have a hodge-podge of different foods and spices in your kitchen, and if you’re out of money and can’t go to the store, you’re going to have to use what you have on hand. But how do you make a meal out of a strange assortment of different ingredients?

That’s where SuperCook comes in. With SuperCook, you check off every ingredient you have in your kitchen, from spices to dairy to pantry items. The site then gives you a list of recipes you can make using only what you have in the kitchen.

You can download the free SuperCook app for iOS and Android.


18. Round Up at the Store

When money is tight, buying groceries can be a stressful experience. To make sure you don’t overspend, try this trick: Bring a notebook, pen, and a calculator with you to the store. Every time you put something in your cart, round the price up to the next half-dollar, and write it in the notebook. So, if an item costs $1.85, write it down as $2, and if an item costs $1.15, round up to $1.50.

Before you check out, add up everything on your list to ensure you haven’t gone over your budget. Rounding up the cost of each item makes this task much quicker. And when you check out, you’ll have some extra money left over for your next shopping trip.

You can also use an app like AnyList, which can help you keep track of what you’re spending while you’re shopping.


19. Learn to Forage

Scouring an urban or suburban neighborhood for wild edibles might not appeal to some people. However, you can often find real food to eat if you know how to forage.

For example, some of the most common wild edibles include:

  • Dandelion greens
  • Wood sorrel
  • Plantain
  • Burdock
  • Purslane
  • Evening primrose
  • Curly dock
  • Chickweed
  • Spiderwort

You can find many of these plants in dense urban areas, your backyard, or a nearby empty field. While they won’t keep your family wholly fed, they provide a free and healthy way to keep fresh vegetables on the table. Wild edibles can also provide an essential boost in nutrients.

Before you head out foraging, make sure you’re aware of what’s safe and what isn’t. Never harvest a wild plant from ground sprayed with pesticides or an area tainted with heavy metals or toxic chemicals.

It’s helpful to have a reference book with you when you go. Check your local library to see what they have available. You can also download the Falling Fruit app, which helps you find local edible plants and wild fruit based on your location. The website Edible Wild Foods also has excellent pictures and tutorials on the most common wild edibles to help you learn how to find safe and healthy foods for your family.


20. Grow Your Own Food

Another way to save money on a tight budget is to grow your own food. You can easily grow fresh herbs or vegetables like tomatoes or carrots in containers set out on a porch or balcony.

Starting a garden does require an upfront investment, but there are plenty of ways to start a garden on a budget.

For example, you might be able to get seeds from a local seed library or from the nearest cooperative extension office. Your local extension is an excellent resource for learning how to garden and getting free or low-cost plants. You can search for your local extension office at Gardening Know How.


Final Word

When money is tight, it’s time to look carefully at what you’re spending at the grocery store and find creative and economical ways to purchase and prepare healthy and inexpensive food. Having affordable foods like potatoes, rice, pasta, and fresh vegetables on hand gives you a foundation for creating budget-friendly meals during the week.

There are many ways to maximize your food budget, and you can use those savings to help your family even more. For example, you can start saving up to purchase a stand-alone freezer, which will enable you to preserve food from your garden or a bountiful sale at the grocery store. You can also learn how to reuse leftovers to ensure no food goes to waste.

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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