In the last couple months, my husband and I have become deal-savvy shoppers and I have gotten better and better at stretching a buck, especially when it comes to dinner. It takes a little time and dedication, but here are some easy things I/we have done to save ourselves some money when it comes to our weekly shopping endeavor. Things you can do, too!
Here’s what you can do:
- Pay in advance when you can. When we were better off financially – around last Christmas – I paid in advance for this summer’s veggie CSA. That means that for this summer’s growing season, we get a nice big – nope, huge – bag of produce every other week. Earlier this year, we were also able to split a nice beef package (the Bachelor) from the same farm with my parents, so we have the mental assurance that we will have beef at the ready for months and months.
- Grow your own veggies. I started early this spring with the seeds, grow light and grow rack. I planned the seed order from Johnny‘s (almost all of our order was organic seeds) with my mom so that I could grow plants for both gardens – ours and theirs. It definitely took some attention, but made a huge difference in the cost of setting up both of our gardens. I only spent money on herb plants this year. Combining our garden with our CSA share means that we barely have to spend money on veggies this summer.
- Read carefully. Pay attention to the offers that come your way. I make sure to read our CSA news very carefully – I’ve been able to take advantage of freebies, like a half flat of veggie seedlings, as well as an offer for extra greens in our share. The farm has a bumper crop of greens this year, so we were able to get double greens for no extra cost. Last pickup, that meant that we got 30 stalks of kale instead of 15 and 40 leaves of chard instead of 20.
- Put food by. That’s an old-school phrase for canning, drying or freezing your food. This is a really important step to take, especially when you have an abundance of produce. For example, our extra greens from our share added to the greens from our own garden meant that we had too many greens to eat last week. So, instead of letting them sit in the fridge and wilt or go bad and get thrown out, we processed them right when we got back from the farm. We set up an assembly line – I chopped and dropped the greens into a bath, then my husband bagged them up and labeled them. Then they went straight into the freezer. The result – we now have 7 or 8 quart bags of kale and chard that are ready to go right into the pan, whenever we need them. I also made refrigerator garlic dill pickles and beans – that recipe is to come.
- Know your grocery store. It took about an hour or so, but we took some time to carefully go through our preferred Hannaford and take mental notes on the least expensive options offered in each department. This helps us to know where the items are that cost less than $1 overall or less than $1 per serving. It’s important to realize that not all money-savers are “sale” items. Your store most likely has hundreds of items that are always low-cost. Also, walking around and getting to know how much things cost in general helps you to see how helpful a sale is on those items in the future.
- Buy dry instead of canned, if you can. I’m talking about beans here — it takes more planning, preparation and time to use dried beans, but it’s a big money-saver in the long run. Even on sale, most regular sized cans of beans cost over a dollar and only provide about 4 servings of beans. For about $2, you can buy at least triple the servings of beans if you buy dry. Of course, you have to plan carefully because dry beans are more suited for long-cooking meals and canned beans are better suited for cold salads. For this reason, I buy carefully and keep our pantry stocked with a variety of both canned and dried beans.
- Stretch one package of meat over multiple meals. If you feel like you need to have meat as part of your lunch or dinner, you can split one package of meat over multiple meals using a couple stretching techniques. For example, if you’re making a crockpot meal, you can stretch a buck by bulking up the amount of food with potatoes, lentils or beans. You can serve food over a starch, like rice, pasta, or couscous, like this one or this one. You can even serve a dish over mashed potatoes – see this yummy one. The easiest type of meat to stretch is something with bold flavors – sausage could be your best friend in stretching a buck. My husband loves linguiça, and it comes in packages of three links. Most recently, I’ve been using 1 link per meal, so that comes out to be 3 meals with linguiça! That’s splitting the $4.99 cost per package over 3 days – super thrifty! I’ve even used deli meat to add a little meatiness to a dish – like using a slice of deli ham in this soup, or using finely sliced pepperoni or salami to add a spicy boost to this pasta or the dinner idea at the bottom of this post.
- Know your proteins. Maximizing your protein intake can help you feel fuller for longer, and that is a big part of making the most of your limited budget. Take a little time to read the protein on your nutrition labels as you shop, or do some research to figure out what foods have the most protein content. Knowing more about protein can help you get by when you can’t afford to buy meat. This site gives you a helpful list of tips for eating high-protein foods that don’t include meat. Our most-eaten non-meat protein sources are chickpeas, lentils, and yogurt, but there are some on the list that might surprise you!
- Make substitutions. This is something that is probably easier said than done for most of you, but I am a very think-on-your-feet type of cook, so I am able to do this on the fly. If you can let go of the “following directions” piece that we all face when staring into a recipe, you will be better able to make changes that help you use what you have and save time and money going to the store for specific ingredients. For example, I haven’t bought garlic in some time because I bought a really generous bag of garlic scapes at one of our local farms for only a dollar or 2, and our CSA provided us with garlic scapes, also. This means that I can get the flavor of garlic without having to buy garlic – and I’ve been working off of these scapes for more than a month now. Making substitutions on a variety of food types (produce, spices, grains/starches, dairy) has been helpful to our budget on a constant basis. If I’m making something that I usually serve with rice, but I only have bulgur, I use bulgur. If I usually use sour cream, but I only have plain Greek yogurt, I use that. If I can let go of the “I always make this with ______” mantra, I can often come up with something almost-new and very tasty.
- Re-purpose some items. If you can spare a dollar here and there, you can often figure out that some items can be used in ways other than how they are advertised. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, I can chalk it up to a “cheap mistake” of only a $1 loss – we usually eat it anyway, so it doesn’t go to waste, but experimenting is a great way of taking mental note of how to mix it up successfully. Most recently, we’ve discovered that muffin mix can be made into pancakes or waffles by following the directions on the package and adding some milk to get the right consistency. We’ve made tasty chocolate chip pancakes that way, and plan to try it with other mixes. This works for individual ingredients, though, too. For example, I really love blue cheese dressing, but my husband doesn’t, and to be honest, I’m not too in love with the typical commercial blue cheese flavor since I’ve worked in the cheesemaking world, so I’ve developed my own little blue cheese dressing that is high-protein and super-tasty. I start with a small chunk of my favorite blue cheese – Boucher Blue – smush it into the bottom of my salad bowl with a fork, then add two generous spoonfuls of nonfat plain Greek yogurt (I go store-brand to save $$ – Greek style yogurt is more expensive than regular plain yogurt, but I splurge here), sprinkle on a little dry ranch seasoning, then use my spice mix grinder to add seasoning (in my grinder right now, I have sea salt, peppercorns, dried garlic, and dried bell pepper). I use the fork to mix it all together and then toss it with whatever salad ingredients I have. I can have a generous serving of dressing because it the yogurt is nonfat but packed with protein, and mixing the dressing in the bowl saves time on dishes.
- Cut coupons. Going through the Sunday paper’s coupons (and printing coupons off the internet) can save you dollars, but there are a couple important things to keep in mind. Only cut coupons for types of items that you would normally buy – this helps you keep your diet consistent, even while you are on a budget. For example, if you see a coupon for mayo, but you don’t normally eat mayo, don’t cut it just because it’s there. Make sure to keep your coupons organized – I use a Day Runner coupon organizer that I got from my mom – and I use it for coupons beyond groceries. And don’t be a “brand snob” – this is a tip I’ve seen on multiple websites. If you usually eat a certain brand, be open to trying the competition – if it’s a less expensive alternative, it might very well be worth a try. Do keep in mind, though, that having a coupon for a very expensive item doesn’t mean you should always buy that item — there might be a less expensive alternative, even after the coupon savings.
- Do research. I am a member of CouponMom.com and that has been an invaluable resource. You have to sign up for it, but it’s a free service and it helps me keep track of the deals going on at many of my local stores. It shows you the best ways to combine in-store specials with coupons, and even shows you how much you will save (both percentage-wise and dollar amount). Hannaford is on there, along with many stores that we don’t have in our area. I use the site primarily to keep track of deals at Rite Aid and CVS – I go to Rite Aid and Kinney (I use their weekly flyer) more often than any of the other stores in our area because they’ve shown themselves to be the places to get great deals. Kinney often has BOGO offers that are big money-savers, and Rite Aid has +UP rewards that take money off my next order. By using the CouponMom site, I am getting better at planning my shopping trips and getting the best deals by combining specials with coupons. With the +UP rewards, I have even gotten some things for free, like Zest soap and body wash.
- Stock up when you can. When your budget allows, and when the deals are good, you should stock up on essentials. There are a number of non-food items that we always use, so keeping track of deals on those has been really helpful. My list of essentials is: toilet paper, paper towels, hand soap, body soap, shampoo/conditioner, and dish soap. When there are super deals on those, I buy even if we are not out, because I know we will use it. And those items don’t “go bad” like food, so keeping a stock is a good thing in the long run. I don’t always buy these items when they are on sale, but having a little stock in the house of all of the items allows me to wait and buy when the deals are really good, instead of having to buy the items when we run out.
- Sign up for store rewards cards. In order to get the best deals from the stores in our area, it’s necessary to get the store rewards cards. For most stores (Kinney, etc.) you have to swipe your store card to get the special advertised prices, but for stores that have a rewards program (Rite Aid, CVS, Staples, etc.) you have to swipe your card to make sure you get your rewards. That’s why I always keep my store cards handy in my wallet.
- Use a list. Always. Don’t go in empty-handed. Make sure that you know exactly what you need, so that you don’t get too many extra items. In addition to writing the items, I also write the advertised special price next to each item if it is a featured sale item – that way I know I am looking at the right thing and I can better make buying choices. Also, if you bring a pen with you, you can keep track of your spending as you go, and make additions (for special “splurge” items) or subtractions to your order as necessary. However, even when you have a specific list, remember what you read in tip #6 and be willing to make substitutions as you go – that is, if it’s a money-saving one.
- Know your budget before you walk in, and keep track of your spending as you go. This goes along with the previous tip – if you know you can only afford to spend $50 in this trip, keep track of each item. We round up to make sure that we budget well. This is really important if you are using gift cards or rewards cards and you can’t afford to go over.
Of course, this list of things takes time, and it has been much easier for me to do all 16 of these since it is the summer and I’m not working (looooving the teacher schedule this year!), but now that I’ve got a handle on better budgeting and planning, it will be easier for me to carry it all on into my new schedule when school starts again.
Alright, now back to #7 for an easy (and low-cost) dinner idea.
For this dinner, we had no meat in the fridge and we hadn’t thawed any beef, so I had to think creatively to make a filling, protein-packed, healthy meal.
I started by sauteeing about 8 or 10 slices of pepperoni, which I had finely sliced into slivers. I added a little bit of olive oil to help it along as it rendered out the spicy oil.
Then I tossed in a can of drained chickpeas, and seasoned them with salt & pepper. I let the chickpeas get all roasty-toasty in the spicy oil and when they are a little bit browned, I added in a big bouquet of mixed greens (chard & Chinese braising greens).
The resulting dinner was quick and low cost ($.99 for the beans, pennies for the oil, free greens from the garden, maybe $.25 for the roni, and $1 for the rice – under $3 total for the whole thing), and packed with flavor and protein. We both had seconds and there was rice left over. Very cost-effective and super-tasty. =)