Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

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During this time last year our family of four was gearing up for our “100 Days of Real Food on a Budget” pledge. But once the pledge ended (in January 2011) I stopped sticking to our strict food budget of $125/week, and I often wonder how I even managed to do it. Just the other day I was reading some of my old budget blog posts, and on one shopping excursion I somehow left my favorite grocery store (Earth Fare) after only spending $67. If you want to know what I spent at Earth Fare earlier this week….well, just add about $100 – yikes! It is amazing how much more you spend when you don’t have a specific budget in place to help you keep it cheap. The scary thing is though, I sort of was “trying” not to spend a lot the other day. Now my effort didn’t go beyond a conscious thought in my head, but I should know by now that just thinking about being on a budget never really works. :)

As some of you know, my husband and I were fortunate enough to go on a very adventurous – and expensive! – trip to Asia earlier this month. So, for us, there is no better time than now to get back on the food budget bandwagon. I won’t be doing another official budget “pledge,” but since I’ve already proved this could be done I don’t really have any good excuses to convince my husband to let me off the hook (darn!). So for all of us – me included – here are some budget tips that I could never be reminded of enough. And if you have any advice I left out please share in the comments below…

  1. Set a specific budget. This tip may sound basic, but as I just said simply thinking about “not spending a lot of money” DOES NOT work! Here’s how to structure a budget…
    • Pick a realistic budget amount that you will adhere to each week or month. I personally think a weekly budget is easier to follow because you can’t go too far over budget before you realize you are in trouble.
    • Consider using cash in an envelope so going “over budget” isn’t even possible. (For those who’ve heard of Dave Ramsey, yes, we’ve both read his book!) Also, no matter what, make a commitment that if you do for some reason go over budget you will deduct that amount from the following week or month.
    • Define what will and will not be included in the budget. Will it just be for food or for household items too? What about alcohol, entertaining, and going out to eat?
    • Keep track of all your expenses on paper whether you use cash or not. It is important to see where your money goes.
    • Share and discuss the running budget total with the other adults in your household…accountability is what it’s all about!
  2. Be organized and plan out your meals for the week. Last minute purchases that you haven’t put a lot of thought into can add up fast.
  3. Minimize waste by saving all uneaten food instead of throwing anything away.
  4. Know and use what you have on hand especially if it’s perishable. Even consider keeping an inventory list of food on your fridge or freezer so different family members can check off items as they use them. I know my husband is more likely to eat something in the fridge if I leave a note telling him it is there (don’t ask me why)!
  5. Make substitutions in recipes to reduce how many things you have to buy…or even leave out a small ingredient all together.
  6. Maximize “cheap” foods like bananas, beans, and pasta. Here are some of our favorite super cheap recipes:
  7. When making inexpensive meals like soups and pasta dishes double the recipe and freeze the leftovers for when you have one of those days where you just don’t have time to plan out a good dinner.
  8. Make sacrifices like drinking water instead of milk and skipping juice and other flavored beverages all together. If you really have trouble kicking the juice habit at least water it down a little so the juice lasts longer.
  9. Reduce your consumption of meat and desserts. Meat can be a big-ticket item and while dessert is certainly a “nice to have” it is by no means a regular necessity (sorry)! Also experiment with “stretching” your meat dishes by mixing in veggies and/or beans.
  10. Buy produce that’s in-season and if you like to frequent your local farmers’ market try going just before closing time to get some great deals on items the vendors won’t want to haul back to the farm.
  11. If you can’t afford the organic version of everything consult the dirty dozen list.
  12. Check your receipt after you get home to make sure your money was spent wisely (most grocery stores accept returns and I’ve been known to take stuff back on occasion!).


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191 comments to Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

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  • Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful post.
    Thank you for providing this info.

  • It’s so important for all of us to realize that you can spend a ton of money on real food or not. I teach a meal planning class and people are amazed at how inexpensive your grocery trip can be if you plan ahead. I have a lot of really easy, yummy, real food recipes on my blog if anyone is interested.

    Love this site!

  • […] They even provide a shopping list of everything you will need! How easy!  To find the list go to   This blogger uses all organic products. I decided to stick to the dirty dozen for organic fruits […]

  • Dennis

    13. If it all fails.. go with ramen noodles and fried chicken, and eggs

  • Sharon

    As a farmer who sells her vegetables at our local Farmers Market I have to tell you that it is annoying and insulting as having people come at the end of the market and try to get cheap produce. I’ve put an incredible amount of time, work, and money into raising my produce. If you have limited funds, then buy less, use it intelligently, and become a regular customer. Once you build a relationship with your farmer you’ll be surprised at the deals you will find.

    • Sharon,

      I don’t quite understand why you feel insulted. I have run a market garden in the past so I do know and understand the amount of work that goes into putting one together. It not only fed my family but was the majority of our income for a long while.

      We did a small CSA and two farmer’s markets. At the end of the day honestly I didn’t want to cart any produce home and really most of it looks wilted and most people will not purchase produce that does not look its best.

      I can’t tell you how often we marked our produce down at the end of the day, traded with other vendors or simply gave some of it way. It was such a small amount left anyway, we usually sold out well before market was over.

      I didn’t find it the least bit insulting if someone asked if we had some older produce. I would rather see someone who is stretching their money make it go farther by maybe growing some of their own but I honestly couldn’t let someone not having something I probably wouldn’t use. It saved on waste and it made people happy.

      One of the first things I had to learn about being a vendor is that the vast majority of my customers are used to shopping in grocery stores. Everything looks perfect, if it doesn’t it gets market down. Until, as a nation we go back to shopping some where other than a large box store, farmer’s market customers are going to compare to and expect grocery store style items.

      Being insulted because someone is trying their best to feed their family healthy food, makes no sense.

  • Reduce your consumption of meat and desserts, this is how I find most reasonable. Before I practice family savings, we use meat in your diet, especially Grill and use electric smoker. It consumes a lot of costs and now, we have a significant reduction in meat and dessert meals.

  • Ok, I’m going to confess: My grocery bill averages $1000 per month. YIKES! We are a family of 5 and we love food. I’m already doing most of the things you suggest and these ideas definitely help cut back on the grocery bill. I also use a lot of electronic coupons. I used to clip and clip and clip but then I would forget to take the coupons with me. Now, I try to snatch up all the electronic coupons I can and they are stored on my shopper card. Thank you for these great grocery tips.

  • Laurie Price

    Hi! We are a family of 8, plus grown children and their families who eat with us on Sundays. It can get pretty difficult to provide cheap, good food! A few months ago my 3 year old was diagnosed with a true dye allergy, after being sick for most of the year before. Now it is REALLY difficult to find safe, whole foods that are in our budget! I can usually keep groceries to around 150 a week including toiletries, but about once a month I blow it in a big way, spending around 250. I haven’t written out a budget in a long time because I “had it down”, but I am going to start again after reading this, lol. I have to get only local produce or organic because so many fruits and veggies are sprayed with dye-yuck. But we are down to just a few reactions a month, from hidden dyes. My goal is reaction free!! Thank you for your site, it gave me a pep talk I desperately needed. Blessings, Laurie

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