Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

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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  • Comments

    1. Kelly |

      I just wanted to put this thought out there. Even though most grocery store accept returns most of the items CAN NOT be resold. I think can goods or sealed jar items are the only things that can be put back on the shelves. Everything else has to be trashed and the store takes a loss on it. If it is a good reason I think it is fine but I think just because you went over budget you should rethink returning it.

      • |

        I agree! I don’t return anything unless there is a problem.

        Our whole foods store won’t even put non-perishables back on the shelf. They say they donate to the food bank instead.

    2. ashley |

      I recently started canning and freezing produce. right now is peak season for a TON of veggies and some fruits. We are spending about 80 cents per jar of goods. This price will go down of course once we have a decent collection of glass jars and rims. This year we will budget more for these items, then next year it will just be fruit, veggies, and the sealing lids! Since we use so much fruit and veggies and most are not in season during the winter months…this will save us a TON of money! Were getting ready to make spaghetti sauce with all the in season tomatoes, and many different types of soups also. The biggest perk to doing sauce and soups other than being able to use fresh ingredients is its a fast meal! Open a jar and heat!

      • 100 Days of Real Food |

        I hope to do more preserving myself next year!

    3. MyPeaceOfFood |

      Which Dave Ramsey book is the one you recommend? I used to have one of his books, and I swapped it with someone for something else…maybe I shouldn’t have!

      • Jenn |

        I’ve read The Total Money Makeover, and we also did the Financial Peace class. If you can find a class in your area, I’d highly recommend it! You can search for classes in your area on

      • Amy |

        The Total Money Makeover is good if you don’t take the class. It has all the info. you’ll need.

      • 100 Days of Real Food |

        We read “The Total Money Makeover” …very eye opening!

    4. |

      If only I could get the hubby to eat more leftovers… Sigh. I’m the only one who ever finishes things at my house!

    5. |

      LOVE this. We always try to make a big old batch of soup and freeze the leftovers to eat for the next few weeks. Pea soup is one of my FAVORITES!

    6. Natalie |

      Quick question – why are potatoes on the dirty dozen but sweet potatoes are not?

      • R.C. |

        Regular potatoes are full of pesticides, because of potato bugs. Sweet potatoes don’t have so many chemicals sprayed on them.

    7. |

      You have to remember that the price of food has gone up this year a lot! I am regularly spending $25 to $30 more per week for the same items as last year. Your tips are even more welcome now!

    8. Shannon C |

      Natalie, I believe regular potatoes are on there because people typically eat the skin. People don’t usually eat the sweet potato skins so they can be peeled or you eat the insides only.

    9. |

      Another useful trick is to check your cubbords and fridge for what can be used in a recipe first… Especially the leftover produce you need to use up. Often you’ll only need 1 or 2 more ingredients for your dinner!

    10. |

      When I buy a whole chicken rather than chicken breasts, I save so much and get a few meals out of it, plus stock. I never used to because I didn’t know how to cut it up. It’s really not hard, of course!

      • |

        I admit that this is what scares me about it! I’m a visual learner, so I need someone to show me how or watch a video… there’s got to be a video somewhere, right?

        • Kaitlin |

          We buy a whole chicken and follow these directions to cook it in the crock pot and make stock with it (SUPER easy!). We have 2 adults and a toddler in our home. From a $4 chicken, we can eat 1 chicken dinner and use the leftovers for 3 more meals (like soup, chicken bbq sandwiches, and enchiladas). The best part? The chicken literally falls off the bone when you cook it, so the yicky part of picking all the random stuff off the meat is almost gone!

          • Kaitlin |

            I forgot to mention that we also get 4 cups of chicken stock out of it, so that adds to the savings.

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